Fame Research

The Famous Self: What notable changes can occur in a person’s concept of self with the acquisition and retention of fame? A review of the literature.

For the average person, the thought of fame is a pleasant one. More money than we can spend –no bill we cannot pay. No tiresome nine to five job, just great mansions and fabulous friends and never-ending parties. Forget 3am feeds and nappy changes, there’s a nanny for that. Life will be one big holiday, and everyone will love us. We imagine a life with far more sparkle than the one we currently live. “Fame, we all know, is among the things people most desire,” (Kolakowski, 1999, p. 9). It is viewed as a magic pill that will fix lives, fill bank accounts and mend current states of unhappiness. But what if it’s not? What if, like all medications, fame also causes unwanted side effects? The focus of this study is to investigate these potential unwelcome side effects and to discover what notable changes can occur in a person’s concept of self with the acquisition and retention of fame. The aim of reviewing the literature relating to the lived experience of famous people and how their concepts of self are affected by fame is to inform a creative writing thesis project. The research project will be conducted under the practice-led research paradigm and include methods such as journaling, narrative and textual analysis, interviews and case studies. The result will consist of a 10,000-word short story artefact and an accompanying exegesis. Reviewing the literature will enable this researcher to become familiar with past research and any issues or debates on the subject, understand how this research was received as well as the subject’s previous historical and theoretical contexts. Understanding the lived experience of famous people will help the researcher understand the perspectives of those living with fame and evoke empathy for their situations. It is hoped this will allow the author to write from the point of view of a famous person in a work of fiction with a view to revealing “new understandings about practice,” (Candy, 2006, p.1) and of the social and mental health difficulties faced by the famous person.

Definition of Key Terms

Fame is not considered a new phenomenon. In The Frenzy of Renown (1997), Leo Braudy traces its origins to ancient Rome while in Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal: Essays on Everyday Life, Philosopher Leszek Kolakowski credits the Stoics and Epicureans of ancient Greece. The key to defining fame lies in its specialness. “Fame, by its very nature, is given to few: its rarity is part of its definition,” (Kolakowski, 1999, p. 10). To be famous is to be special. Special, or “glorified” for one’s deeds as judged by the society one resides in. In decades past, several key authors in this field (Braudy, 1997; Gamson, 1994; Marshall, 1997) have made a distinction between that of fame – a person acclaimed for their deeds, and that of celebrity as being a more modern phenomenon where “a person is well known for his well-knowness,” (Boorstin, 1961, p. 57). In Celebrity and Power: Fame in contemporary Culture, Marshall (1997) breaks these down further into a hierarchy based on the different culture industries the famous person has become known for, but to really separate and analyse the two terms, one would need to dedicate an entire study to it. However, Rockwell and Giles bring both these definitions together in their phenomenological study Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame, relating that “The two phenomena – fame as a condition “of being glorified” and celebrity as a process of media exposure – coincide in contemporary culture, so that a local television personality is accorded the same kind of fame bestowed on Shakespeare,” (2009, p. 180). To this end, the terms “fame” and “celebrity” will be used interchangeably in this review.

The use of the term self has a seemingly ever-widening range depending on a researcher’s theoretical perspectives, assumptions and empirical background. There are definitions which dissect the mental mind from the physical body, those who adhere to the thinking that one’s identity isn’t fully formed until maturity and those who believe it is born already formed. For the purposes of clarity for this review the self when referred to is as defined as follows by the American Psychology Association: Self: n. the totality of the individual, consisting of all characteristic attributes, conscious and unconscious, mental and physical. Deeper explanations as to changes to the concepts of self within the person are further defined where required.  

The transforming self – External implications of self for the newly famous.

“This above all; to thine own self be true.”

(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene III)

For the famous person who is often surrounded by a hum of other people, loneliness is one of fame’s more ironic side effects. Humans have an innate sense of belonging very early in life along with an inferred sense of society. According to psychologist and belonging researcher Kelly-Ann Allen the feeling of belonging is an experience which can be influenced by several internal and external contributing factors (2020). The acquisition of fame can be counted among Allen’s external contributing factors as people emerge from being unknown citizens into known celebrities. “An experiential turning point in the self,” (Rockwell & Giles, 2009 p, 202) occurs with a person’s transition in fame as their belonging and solidarity with others is disrupted when they are suddenly separated as famous. An anonymous participant of the Rockwell & Giles study related “there’s a loneliness that happens because you are separate,” (2009).

This reported loneliness escalates quickly as Roderick and Allen-Collinson’s interpretation of data in their 2020 study showed. In ‘I just want to be left alone’: novel sociological insights into dramaturgical demands on professional athlete’s findings indicated that as the celebrity becomes more famous, their desire to self-isolate and search for “off-regions” (as opposed to being on or performing all the time) increases. This self-isolation increases the famous person’s social isolation and loneliness and poses a real threat to their mental health, (2020, p. 28). Adulation placed on the celebrity can lead to “depersonalisation” (Rockwell & Giles, p.203) as the famous person attempts to protect themselves by placing barriers between themselves and the world. It is an act of self-preservation, a form of protection by the celebrity, but it is one that can inflame rather than relieve the situation.

Like the loss of community or human solidarity, late actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman once described the loss of privacy suffered by famous people as the loss of another basic human level of knowing. “You’re born with the right of anonymity and it’s something you know involuntarily like you have two arms… People who have never had that fact change in their lives, don’t think about it. They don’t even question it. It just is, but when it changes for you, it’s a huge one.” (Hollywood Reporter, 2005). With its acquisition and growth, fame eats away at a person’s life as they knew it. As “The celebrity’s private world is sacrificed” (Rockwell and Giles, 2009, p 202) the star places further barriers between themselves and the public by fiercely protecting as many details about themselves as they can. In interviews, a list of topics is presented as off limits which might range from favourite foods to the names of pets and children, but according to Chris Rojek’s Fame Attack this is a David and Goliath battle the celebrity is not likely to win. Rojek’s discussion of celebrity culture reveals that another inferred consequence of fame is that once attained, a person’s right to privacy is nullified. As if in presenting themselves to the public as someone of note, a person is giving notice that every minute detail of their life is now fair game (2012).

As discussed in this section of how the external social and public aspects of fame can affect a person, it is apparent that at the onset of fame, a person experiences loss. The process of becoming famous robs the celebrity of a sense of ownership over themselves and confusion sets in as they, as a person, are entitized, commodified, packaged and branded. “Immediately upon entering the sphere of fame, relationships with “self” and “other” are profoundly affected,” (Rockwell & Giles, 2009, p. 185). A person’s sense of belonging is lost as they are separated from their taken for granted communities and the loneliness of being famous becomes not only the new reality, but the new goal as the star attempts to protect themselves. The right to anonymity also disappears as every detail about the new celebrity becomes fair game in the media. In the next section we will survey the inner world of the celebrity, concentrating on how fame stresses the celebrity’s inner view of themselves as they continue to adapt and exist in the world of fame.

The Famous self- Internal implications of self for the continuing celebrity.

“Thus play I in one person many people, and none contented.”

(William Shakespeare. Richard II. Act V Scene V).

In an attempt to take back some of the power, or loss of self, suffered by the onset of fame, Kyllonen (2012) discusses the use of the celebrity autobiography in the study Representations of Success, Failure and Death in Celebrity Culture, noting that in the decade previous to her study, the genre had become a best-selling one. Autobiography “is one of the central confessional vehicles that grants a celebrity at least some control over their own story with the claim to expose the ‘truth’ about the celebrity,” (2012, p. 181).

However, as the celebrity progresses through famous life, further complications arise which risk their mental health. A coping mechanism commonly reported is that an unconscious split occurs in the personality to the already existing internal, or true, self and the naturally developed social self; the one who is expected to follow social ques. Together these two parts make the sum of a person’s self. Pamela Stephenson’s dissertation The Intrapsychic Experience of Fame is unfortunately unpublished; however, a former actor, she is now a qualified clinical psychologist and having an insiders view of fame, she has spent a good portion of her new career analysing her old one. Stephenson’s interviews of famous people aim to get to the heart of the lived experience of fame in The Fame Report and the program Shrink Wrap. Stephenson defines this second entity of self, the famous self as the “objectified” self, (2012). Interviewed by Stephenson for The Fame Report in 2012, Actor Alan Cumming describes his concept of himself as “I think of myself as me, and Alan Cumming,” (2012). This process of creation of a separate self, also known as character splitting (Rockwell & Giles, 2009; Stephenson, 2012), is a coping mechanism described by several authors in the field. Roderick and Allen-Collinson refer to it as the “working” self (2020), Rockwell & Giles (2009), the “Celebrity” self, while Adler & Adler call it the “glorified” or “gloried” self (1989) and Goldsmith describes it as “public posture,” (1983, P. 80). Terms such as the pseudo self, the idealised self, and the fake self, have also been used by some, though these are thought to emerge from Winnicott’s definition of the false self which is defined as being created in response to emotional and social pressure. The point of difference between Winnicott’s definition and those of researchers of fame is that the “objectified” selves emerge as a coping mechanism from the experience of fame and not as a result of family dynamics, (1960).

Adler & Adler found that at the onset of fame, celebrities often embrace the “objectified” self, choosing to “diminish the salience of other self-dimensions in order to seek fulfillment from the new, intoxicating identity,” (1989, p 309). With the retention of fame however this “intoxicating identity” starts to become suffocating, causing further and deeper mental anguish for the famous person. The celebrity’s relationship with their inner self is compromised further by their prioritisation of the “objectified” self and their “true” selves begin to feel envious of all the attention their “objectified” selves receive. It’s also pointed out that because of “the conception of their selves held by others” and the reflection of their image as a “glorified self,” celebrities begin “objectifying their selves to themselves” (Rockwell & Giles, 2009, p. 203; Adler & Adler, 1989, p.300) creating a self-conscious, push/pull relationship within the one person.

The celebrity’s relationship to others is also affected by this “objectified” self in that the celebrity realises others, a sibling or spouse for example, now relate to them as both their true self and the “objectified” self and that the sibling or spouse also prioritises the celebrity’s “objectified” self. The celebrity’s inner self, therefore, envies the “objectified” self at an even deeper level as they see it taking their place in existing relationships making all relationships feel tarnished by this self-created entity. (Stephenson, 2012).

In Turning Points, Psychologist and one of the leading experts on humanistic and clinical psychology, Clark Moustakas helps to further break down the process of a major life change like becoming famous, highlighting that once the damage is done, it can be hard to reverse.

“Each person experiences a number of critical turning points that move the person increasingly toward a unique and incomparable selfhood. Turning points are often times of crisis and challenge, times of upheaval that significantly alter the world in which the person lives.”

 (Moustakas, 1977, p. 3)

The literature reveals that by this point in their careers the famous person has suffered multiple emotional traumas. Rockwell & Giles relate that “after fame, life is never the same,” (p202) and that seems to hold true for not only the famous person’s self-image and relationship to self, but also their relation to the world and to others.

Gaps in the literature present in the form of a lack of long-term studies. The very fact that famous people make sometimes outrageous amounts of money creates a steadfast belief in the nonfamous that whatever their emotional troubles may be, famous people are well compensated for the trauma they suffer. Kyllonen relates about now deceased reality star Jade Goody that “her celebrity status appeared to grant her comfort, safety and financial rewards, but it also brought with it chaos, trauma, scrutiny and criticism,” (2012, p. 166). It is known from history that people often don’t cope with fame, and that lack of coping sometimes becomes fatal, but that is known from patterns in history, not from empirical research. There is a lack of research into the long-term implications for those who seek “aloneness” as noted by Roderick & Allen-Collinson “even though this may over time accentuate feelings of isolation, which may underpin low mood and depression,” (2020). It is also noted that studies from both qualitative and quantitative paradigms, social, para social, cultural and psychological perspectives well as phenomenological research approaches have been conducted, but this researcher was unable to locate any from a humanities perspective or even from a practice led approach.


The bright lights and lure of fame seem to distract from the reality of the series of personal traumas experienced by the celebrity. At its onset, a person’s long held social sense of belonging is quickly eroded which is followed by the onset of loneliness. Human connections are lost, along with any right to anonymity as privacy is a concept best forgotten. The process of becoming famous robs a person of a sense of ownership over themselves and confusion sets in as they as a person are entitized, commodified, packaged and branded. Internally, being famous leads to major issues in concept of self as well as mental health conditions which left unchecked can lead to celebrity downfall and even death. Kolakowski states “fame is a goal obsessively pursued,” but quickly adds that “some ancient philosophers (famous ones, naturally), especially the Stoics and the Epicureans, taught that fame was something to be avoided, and advised us to live in hiding and count the blessings of being unknown,” (1999, p. 9). After closely considering these aspects of fame one might come to regard their anonymity with more importance than ever before.

The focus of this study was to investigate what notable changes can occur in a person’s concept of self with the acquisition and retention of fame. The aim of reviewing the literature relating to the lived experience of famous people and how their concepts of self are affected by fame has been to inform a practice-led creative writing research project. The research project is to be conducted under the practice-led research paradigm and include methods such as journaling, narrative and textual analysis, interviews and case studies. The result will consist of a 10,000-word short story artefact and an accompanying exegesis. Reviewing the literature has enabled the author familiarity with past research on the subject and has highlighted definite issues and debates around the definitions of fame and celebrity. A better understanding of how research on the subject was received as well as its previous historical and theoretical contexts has been achieved. Understanding the lived experience of famous people will help this researcher understand the perspectives of those living with fame and this review of the literature has highlighted the ways in which a person’s concept of self is compromised externally through the loss of taken for granted social functions and internally by the creation of the “objectified” self. This information will allow the author a deeper perspective on what it is like to be famous with the aim of writing a character from the point of view of a famous person in a work of fiction. The aim of this research is to help others understand the social and mental health difficulties faced by the famous person and to offer a closer perspective of the experience of fame while also creating new understandings about the practice of artist research and creative writing.


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