When I was a young girl, my brother, sister and I would visit my grandparents in their Miami Beach condominium. One of my fondest memories is the way my grandmother would greet us at the door. "My celebrities!" she would shout, her arms outstretched, receiving us like rock stars on tour. She made us feel as though we were very important people. When we showed up, she was excited, her energy exuberant. She was hanging out, after all, with her favorite celebrities.
Celebrity has been watered down considerably since those innocent days, when being called a celebrity really meant something: it meant Elizabeth Taylor and Johnny Carson; it meant Picasso, Princess Grace, Sidney Poitier, Frank Sinatra, and Andy Warhol seducing the spotlight with staggering precision. Warhol was prescient, in fact, when he revised his earlier adage that everyone will have 15 minutes of fame to the more cryptic, "In 15 minutes everybody will be famous."
The evolution of our celebrity-driven society finds us the unwitting consumers of celebrity "news," as we glare at Justin Bieber's televised breakdown or tsk-tsk over the star's potential downward spiral. The parables of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and their generation of celebrity peers have yet to be told, while the very sad tale of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, and so many others should, though it doesn't, send shivers down Hollywood's collective celebrity spine. Celebrity weight is a lot to carry.
At the same time, to be called a celebrity in this Reality TV/Internet age is no longer much of an accomplishment. So many people are famous that it often means not much more than we are familiar with the person's name. American Idol creator Simon Cowell said that there is a "fame epidemic" in America (from which he has made a whole lot of money), and celebrated filmmaker John Waters insisted that wanting to be famous is everyone's unspoken desire. "Most everybody secretly imagines themselves in show business," he said, "and every day on their way to work, they're a little bit depressed because they're not... People are sad they're not famous in America." Has celebrity become the new normal? Is fame the new black?
In The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History, author Leo Braudy stated, "the dream of fame in Western society has been inseparable from the idea of personal freedom. As the world grows more complex, fame promises a liberation from powerless anonymity." This craving for fame does not bode well for the rest of us who, by this dynamic, are made to feel as though we are relegated to live fame-less, mundane lives. Of course, the truth revealed in mindfulness and a bit of insight is that each of our lives is precious and unique, and we star in the movie of our own creation every moment of every day. The living of our ordinary and, at the same time, quite extraordinary lives is, once realized, the real reward of life.
Fame, on the other hand, comes with a significant degree of loss that is almost never foreseen by the unsuspecting celebrity-to-be. While celebrity status is considered currency in our corporate mileu, screen star Harrison Ford described to TV Guide fame's lesser known hidden cost. "The loss of anonymity is something that nobody can prepare you for," he said. "When it happened, I recognized that I'd lost one of the most valuable things in my life. To this day, I'm not all that happy about it..."
At one time, I was a Washington, D.C. journalist, working alongside powerful and famous people. Since then, I have been interested in the affect that fame has on individuals and how it impacts the way they relate to the world around them. So, when I had the chance to decide on a topic for my doctoral dissertation, I chose to research the experience of fame. Through interviews with several nationally known and local celebrities, I learned what it is really like to be famous. While maintaining confidentiality, I will expose some of fame's unlit corners.
After the obvious "rich and famous" advantages of wealth, public recognition, and unlimited access to pretty much whatever you want, the celebrity story darkens. Famous people report a severe loss of privacy that borders on territorial violation, a familiarity by strangers "that sometimes breeds inappropriate closeness." Being in public is experienced as drowning in a relentless "sea of eyes." They also describe a deep loss of trust in those closest to them, as well as the world at large, which they view with the knowledge that as celebrities, they are admired mostly for their fame, rather than the person that they are.
One TV newscaster confided that she gets to do "some pretty cool things. I'm like, 'Gosh, I should be taking advantage of this 'cause I know down the road, I won't be getting these kinds of invitations'...because I know people are star-stepping social climbers. They wouldn't invite me to a party unless I was on television. It's all about what you do, not who you are. I mean, people want a star..."
A famous author says that fame has profoundly changed his relationships. "That trust thing is important. I don't think you trust anybody the same way when you become well known because you don't trust being well known. It is an intrinsically untrustworthy dance partner," he told me. "It could leave you at any time...so it's like a very mysterious thing. Anyone who comes through that dance partner to you is also mysterious. Why? Why do they want me? Why are they interested in me? I find I put up a kind of a wall around me, and I just deal with people up to that wall, but not inside of it."
When out with friends, an A-list movie star explained that his celebrity lies on the table between them "like a bloated cod, just sitting there. Some friends can handle it," he said,"and I've lost friends because of it, just by all the adoration that comes whenever you're in public. They feel less."
Celebrities are also uncomfortably aware of the price paid by their family members who experience identity crises, trying to find where they fit against the backdrop of their famous parent or spouse. Being famous creates a form of celebrity guilt. A network TV personality reflected on the pressure of his fame on his teenage son. "I've often told him, 'Good things have come to us because of who I am, how I'm perceived: fame, celebrity, and people in this culture's reaction to that.' I've told him, 'You have to understand that people will hold you to a higher standard because of my notoriety, and that's unfair. It shouldn't be that way. But because you're my son, you're going to be in a bit of a fishbowl. It's the downside of being the child of someone who's in the public eye that people are waiting to jump on you. And if you mess up, you become the talk of the town.'"
The negatives of being famous are hardly ever discussed in the media in favor of coverage emphasizing the excessively lavish celebrity lifestyle, giving us a glimpse inside a world beyond our reach. Yet, witnessing the downside of fame could serve as a reminder to focus on our own lives instead, acknowledge and celebrate those people we most admire, and see that we, too, are celebrities in the eyes of others. While the grass may always seem greener on the rich and famous side of the fence, gratitude of what we already have is a more surefire approach to happiness than public acclaim, to no matter what height, could ever deliver.
O gifted men, vainglorious for first place,
how short a time the laurel crown stays green
... A Breath of wind is all there is to fame
here upon earth: it blows this way and that,
and when it changes quarter it changes name.
With these words, 14th century Italian poet Dante, in The Divine Comedy, warned of the dangers of lusting after fame, its fickleness and its transitory nature. The main findings of my research study - loss of privacy, lack of trust, personal isolation, addiction to fame, and the impact of fame on the family - also speak to the stressors and existential realities of being a celebrity. Yet my study culminated in a surprising conclusion. Not one celebrity I interviewed, downsides notwithstanding, said he or she would trade fame back.
It makes you wonder. But then again, I remember how my grandmother made me feel.
A version of this blog was originally published in Ambassador Magazine.