When I was a child my Dad was famous. Everywhere I went people knew his name. A Sunday outing with my family would become a waiting game. We’d wait in the car, we’d wait in the street. We’d even wait at the table in the bakery, doing our best to be seen and not heard. But when a stranger noticed my Dad in the queue, we knew we’d be waiting for lunch as well.
My father played in a band, but that had nothing to do with his fame. He was born to be a celebrity, but he wasn’t famous, not really, not Brad Pitt famous. His fame was born of charm and charisma. He indulged people. He made them feel as if they were the centre of the universe for a brief moment and anyone who didn’t already know him, wanted to. And I learned that he wasn’t mine. I learned I had to share.
In February 2007 a woman struggled to cope with the breakdown of her marriage. There were children involved. Two boys – Sean Preston, aged three and two-year-old, Jayden James. She was alone. She’d felt isolated for many years and when she lost the battle for custody of the two children she returned to an empty house.
Reflecting on that time she says, ‘Sometimes I think I get kind of lonely because you don’t open the gate up that much, you know… You’re guarded,’ she continues. ‘You have to be that way, so I’m kind of stuck in this place and it’s like: How do you deal? And you just cope, and that’s what I do. I just cope with it, every day.’
Soon after the custody dispute, her situation worsened. She hit the club scene. She got two new tattoos, shaved her head and as the moments of madness stacked up like a freeway accident, she attacked an SUV with a green umbrella.
How do we know the umbrella was green? Because the woman is Britney Spears. All of her struggles were captured on camera, plastered on magazines and spread across front pages the world over. One woman’s life struggle entertained millions. That too, she had to deal with.
‘I’m kind of stuck in this place and it’s like: How do you deal? And you just cope, and that’s what I do. I just cope with it, every day.’
Did Britney go too far? Many of us have dealt with the breakdown of a marriage and custody disputes but most of us find a way to cope without attacking an SUV with a green umbrella.
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, but the unvarnished truth is this – Fame is bad for us.
So how can something so good, be so bad? A study from Donna Rockwell and David C. Giles, Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame, helps to illuminate the state of celebrity by showing us how it affects the human psyche in four main areas.
In relation to the self, being famous leads to the loss of privacy, feelings of entitlement, heightened expectations, and an increasing need for the ego to be gratified.
In relation to the world, being famous grants access to everything including wealth and temptation.
Areas of psychological concern for celebrity mental health include character-splitting, mistrust, isolation and fear, but also, strangely, an unwillingness to give up fame.
Ultimately, being a celebrity is a process involving four phases: love/hate, addiction (to the fame), acceptance, and adaptation.
Scottish actor, Alan Cumming knows the fear and mistrust of celebrity all too well. ‘It’s a two-way thing, you know. It’s kind of, you’re on and you’re up and the adrenaline’s pumping and at the same time its nerve-racking, and people are screaming at you and you don’t know, where the person you’re with is and is someone going to help me? I take people’s hands now. I did it the other night. I was in a crowd, in a public situation. I’m a 46-year-old man. But I have this thing, I can’t be lost in a crowd. I can’t be lost in the public thing. It’s too scary.’
Another part of fame Alan is familiar with is character-splitting. ‘I think of myself as me, and Alan Cumming,’ he says. ‘We obviously look alike. He’s this famous actor and he’s kind of outgoing and kind of crazy and I’m all of the things that Alan Cumming is, but the volume is much more turned up with him.’
Character splitting is one of the more dangerous elements of becoming famous.
‘We obviously look alike. He’s this famous actor and he’s kind of outgoing and kind of crazy and I’m all of the things that Alan Cumming is, but the volume is much more turned up with him.’
Imagine yourself at a job interview. You’re on. You’re wearing your best clothes. You’re sitting up straight. Every strand of your hair is perfectly in place. Your make-up is perfect, your breath is fresh and your brain is a machine – making sure that every word that leaves your lips is not only appropriate, but also impressive.
You leave the interview and breathe a sigh of relief. It was hard work, being ‘on’ like that, but you nailed it. Now you can relax. Or can you? What if the public loved that job interview version of you so much that now you have to be that person all the time. All the time! That’s what being a famous person is like. You have to always be that best version of yourself, and although it’s you, it’s not really you. So when millions of people love that ‘on’ version of you, the real you – the one wearing slippers at home, starts to resent your famous self.
Dr Pamela Stephenson-Connolly calls it, The Objectified self. After many years on the fame train herself, as well as being married to comedian Billy Connolly, Dr Stephenson-Connolly is now a Clinical Psychologist. In her doctoral dissertation, The Intrapsychic Experience of Fame, she explored the effects of fame on the human psyche. ‘The objectified self is more entertaining, more glamorous, more confident, witty, and attractive. And the true self, begins to feel as if it can’t match up. Even worse than that, a relationship begins to develop between the true and the objectified selves. One of envy. The famous self is prioritised – that’s who everyone wants you to be.’ Your everyday self isn’t important anymore. They’re not the one bringing in the big bucks that keep the dream alive, the famous one is.
As I grew older, I realised my Dad had more than one personality. There was the dedicated Dad who took me to Pony Club, and the one who did it because I had a talent he could use to get more followers. There was the Dad I observed closing savvy deals. The one who was fun, the one who wasn’t. The one who was charming, and the one who wasn’t. Even Dad’s gift of making a person feel like the centre of the universe was a magic trick. He knew instinctively that making people feel special made him memorable. It made people want to recommend him, love him and call him ‘a great guy.’ His character had split long before I ever knew him, but that’s the way he seemed to like it. People who come to fame before this happens have a struggle ahead.
In New York City, Saturday, February 1, 2014. A father of three attended a business dinner at Atomic Slims, a regular haunt of his. After dinner, he withdrew $1,200 from a supermarket in the West Village on his way home to his rented apartment. Recently estranged from his wife, when he failed to collect his children as previously arranged at 9:00am Sunday, two friends stopped by to check on him. They found him lying on the bathroom floor wearing shorts and a T-shirt – his spectacles still on his face, a syringe embedded in his left arm. Investigators found close to fifty small plastic bags in the apartment which were later confirmed to be heroin.
Thousands of people die from heroin overdose every day without making the news, but this particular man’s death drew a crowd on the sidewalk. The sullen murmur on the street turned into a rabble. Necks stretched and cameras clicked as the stretcher carrying the dead man’s body crossed the narrow gap between the building and the coroner’s van. The photos taken that day created an international media frenzy. The news ‘went viral’ because the dead man was not just a man, he was famous. He was an acclaimed and highly respected actor, an Academy Award winner. He was Philip Seymour Hoffman – the twenty-fourth celebrity to die from an overdose of drugs since 2004.
After working on a film in 2013 about the reclusive J.D Salinger (the celebrity who turned his back on celebrity before it we), Philip offered these thoughts on fame. ‘You’re born with the right of anonymity and it’s something you know involuntarily like you have two arms. You’re just anonymous in the world you walk. You can have private thoughts and private experiences while you’re amongst other people. People who have never had that fact change in their life, don’t think about it. They don’t even question it. It just is. But when it changes for you, it’s a change. It’s a huge one. Just as a person, or a human, you’re fighting against that. So you can still exist in the world and feel safe. How can I keep my name, mine? How can I keep who I am, mine? It’s fighting against the idea that your privacy, or who you are, is not your own anymore and I understand wanting to fight against that. I understand why anyone who’s becoming famous would want to stop it.’
The second phase of fame laid out in the Rockman/Giles study is addiction, but it’s not what it might seem. Although being famous can be intimidating or even terrifying there’s an addiction that develops in a person to the fame itself. A fear that it might one day stop. A fear that Philip was also familiar with. Capote director, Bennett Miller said of Hoffman, ‘He works himself into states of crisis and distress, worrying that people are going to know he is a fraud and that his career is over.’
‘Well you do think your career is going to be over,’ Hoffman said. ‘Actors kind of feel that way all the time.’
Philip left a family behind who had lost him more than once. First to the fame, then to addiction and finally, death. For me, my Dad was already in the fame. Probably even before my mother met him. For a normal family, the adjustment to a family member becoming a celebrity must be hard, and even though I only ever knew what it was like to have to share him there was always something that didn’t feel right. My friends had Dads who were lawn mowing, cricket watching, beer drinking Dads. Mine always had to be more. He had to be noticed while doing it.
Access and temptation. Money and isolation. Addiction. Phillip Seymour Hoffman didn’t suffer these side effects of fame alone.
After the release of her first album in 2003, an English singer/songwriter said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it. I’d probably go mad.’ When her second album was released in 2007, she said, ‘If I thought I was famous I’d fucking go top myself or something because it’s frightening. It’s a scary thing.’
Acceptance, or lack of it, is also a dangerous thing for a celebrity.
She was ‘her usual bubbly self,’ on the night of July 23, 2011. She watched television, drank Vodka and listened to music in her room.’
At 2:30am she was seen watching YouTube videos of herself. ‘Boy I can sing.’ She’d said. At 10:00am she was face down on her bed, the laptop still open. Amy Winehouse was pronounced dead that afternoon at her Camden home.
Amy’s death granted her membership into the prestigious 27 Club. The joining fees are steep, you must die at 27 to become a member. Jim Morrison from heart failure, Janis Joplin from a drug overdose, Kurt Cobain from suicide by gunshot and now, Amy Winehouse – Alcohol Poisoning are just a few of its members.
The Giles/Rockman study uncovered how being famous builds the threshold for the gratification of ego needs. Part of the addiction to the state of celebrity is that your ego is stroked so often that it becomes hard to not have that feeling of being known or loved anymore and as Philip Seymour Hoffman expressed, the thought of that feeling going away creates a sort of panic in the famous person.
Amy wasn’t working at the time of her death. The struggle to get her health and addiction under control had meant that she hadn’t released a full studio album since Back to Black five years before. That album had catapulted her star to rise along with the height of her hair and the length of her eyeliner wings, but in the months leading up to her death, her head was bowed. She looked only at the ground. She moved in jagged shapes like a robot through camera flashes. Without an album, without the music, the attention she received was all negative. She had nothing recent to gratify her ego so she stayed up all night drinking bottles of Vodka and watching herself on YouTube.
Hip Hop artist, Yasiin Bey, recalled that Amy’s struggle was obvious, ‘She really didn’t know how to be that thing that she had been pushed to become by her own success. This was someone who was trying to disappear.’
Amy managed to move through the first two stages of celebrity – love/hate and addiction (to the fame as well other things), but she failed to accept it, and without that, she could never manage the final stage – adaptation.
‘She really didn’t know how to be that thing that she had been pushed to become by her own success. This was someone who was trying to disappear.’
Four years after Amy’s death, fellow British singer, Adele spoke to Rolling Stone magazine. ‘Watching Amy deteriorate is one of the reasons I’m frightened. I think it’s really toxic, and I think it’s really easy to be dragged into it. We were all very entertained by her being a mess. I was fucking sad about it, but if someone showed me a picture of Amy looking bad, I’d look at it. If we hadn’t looked, then they’d have stopped taking her picture.’
Adele’s comments highlight what so many people know, but try not to admit. It’s a kind of conundrum we face as humans. We try to forget that famous people are people so that we can shirk off the guilt of what it must be like to be hunted like a rabid dog for every minute of your life, waking or not. Instead, we can imagine what it’s like to be famous – as long as we only imagine the good stuff. Parties and glamour. Riches and mansions. Limousines and adulation. No one wants to hear that being famous isn’t a million swimming pools full of fabulous.
A reminder of the price of a celebrity hunt hit us all on August 31, 1997, when Princess Diana was chased down by Paparazzi. They chased her at all hours because her image sold. Her chauffeur tried to outrun the snapping shutters and crashed in a tunnel in Paris. Princess Diana died from her injuries, and for a moment, we would feel the guilt we so often ignore. Our love of celebrity killed a princess and it left her two young sons without a mother.
From the moment she stepped onto our screens as a shy kindergarten teacher in 1980, Lady Diana Spencer’s life was not to be her own. She would be pursued from dawn to dusk and all the hours in between and she suffered for it as any other celebrity did, some would say more. The amount of attention she received would not only eclipse everyone who came before her but, though we would not realise it at the time, it would afford us the privilege of watching her contend with the four stages of celebrity, love/hate, addiction, acceptance, and adaptation.
She was shy in front of the cameras at first, but we watched her confidence grow as she began to enjoy, perhaps even became addicted to the attention. She accepted her fame and adapted to it by using it to highlight her charity causes.
‘Our love of celebrity killed a princess and it left her two young sons without a mother.’
Clive James said of the Princess in his New York Times piece, Requiem, ‘the sick, she would often say, were more real to her than the well: their guard was down, they were themselves.’
In a world where being herself was not an option for Diana, she appreciated, perhaps even envied, those who could.
I don’t know what age my Dad moved through the love/hate stage of celebrity. ‘I’m a legend in my own lunchbox,’ he always assured me, but he’s still addicted to it at the age of seventy-four. There’s no doubt he accepted it, but as for adapting? Somehow he made the world adapt to him. He was meant to be famous, so he created a world where he was. The problem for other celebrities is that they’re not always born to be famous. They sign up for it before they really know the name of the beast and they’re surprised when it turns out to be a two-headed monster that gives with one hand but takes more with the other. But they must move through the stages. If they don’t possess my Dad’s skill of making the world bend to them, they must adapt. The alternative is way too final.