Mindfulness is an excellent intervention to help those in the public eye retain the requisite self-awareness to inoculate them against the greater ravages of the fame experience. The on-going Michael Jackson wrongful death civil trial focuses on assessing who is responsible for the pop singer's demise. But, in the end, the jury's findings notwithstanding, the truth is that fame killed Michael Jackson. The drugs that ultimately took his life came much later. As a child star and international phenomenon by the time he could reach the bathroom sink, the boy in the mirror didn't have a chance. Fame's trajectory can be brutal, and for Michael Jackson, the visage of celebrity swept him up in his formative years and never put him down.
On June 25, 2009, the death of the King of Pop stole the attention of the world. Just days before he was to begin his comeback/retirement tour, Michael Jackson was gone. It seemed like the entire planet for a time was trapped in communal mourning. Twenty-four hour, wall-to-wall coverage of his final moments dwarfed other breaking news, including President Barack Obama's historic trip to Russia. Media outlets gave us all Michael, all the time. The public could not get enough of him. Ethereal voices rose up in an hours-long, televised funeral service, with stars from Usher and John Mayer to Jennifer Hudson and Mariah Carey offering Michael a final goodbye. Who will ever forget Jermaine Jackson's searing rendition of "Smile"? We sat riveted.
As a nation, we are captivated by the famous and have a deep craving for fame ourselves. Seemingly, the fantasy of many is to become a celebrity. Mega media mogul, Simon Cowell who has made a fortune on celebrity wannabees agrees, telling Conan O'Brien on his show that we have a "fame epidemic" in America. Film director John Waters claimed in an NPR interview with Terry Gross some years ago that, "Most everybody secretly imagines themselves in show business 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." Reaching a crescendo, celebrity-lust burst fully into the mainstream with the advent of reality television, which now saturates the viewing schedule, and American culture has not been the same since. Today, practically everyone has a chance at fame. How many hundreds of reality TV stars have found their way into the national arena? Unlike modern day fame, celebrity status used to be reached almost exclusively as a result of talent. Now, as historian Daniel Boorstin puts it, "The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-known-ness."
There is a dirty little secret about fame, though. And it is something you find out only after you become famous, and then, it is too late. Fame isn't all it's cracked up to be. Ironically, fame can be life altering in ways that forever rob the celebrity of the essential ingredients of satisfaction and a meaning-filled life. Far from being the answer to every prayer, a panacea, and a final affirmation of self-worth, celebrity instead often has greater potential to turn life into a tortuous existence. For many talented artists, fame, as the gateway to substance abuse, can prove fatal, as in the cases of: Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse, and others in a heartbreaking growing list, perhaps including most recently, actress Lisa Robin Kelly.
Michael Jackson suffered from the most dangerous aspect of fame: he stopped listening to many of the people who were honest with him, who cared about him, and replaced them with sycophantic yes-people who enabled his whims, giving rein to Michael's inner demons while silencing any sage advice offered to him. This inevitably led to Michael's submission to drugs and other addictions, like plastic surgery and reckless spending. He seemed to be beyond the reach of those who attempted to save him.
Fame at an early age also prevented Michael from living a normal - and necessary - childhood, leaving him ill equipped for adulthood. That is why he became fixated in pre-pubescence, forever Peter Pan, forever a lost boy. His love for being a father was evident in his apparent adoration of his children; and, consequently, while bringing them up he was able to relish in living out the childhood he never had. This could be why he never successfully partnered with another adult - he was too busy being a kid himself, perhaps emotionally incapable of such grown up feelings. In the infamous Martin Bashir documentary, Living with Michael Jackson, Bashir asked the pop star about his fascination with the character, Peter Pan:
BASHIR: "You identify with him?"
BASHIR: "You don't want to grow up?"
MICHAEL: "No. I am Peter Pan."
BASHIR: "No, you're not. You're Michael Jackson."
MICHAEL: "I'm Peter Pan in my heart."
It was not a mistake that Michael befriended other child stars like himself: Brook Shields, Macaulay Culkin, Emannuel Lewis, Liza Manelli, and Elizabeth Taylor. They each understood what a stunted childhood felt like, cheated by fame of ever being able to slip out of the glare of the spotlight once the beam was cast.
What Michael Jackson gave up at a young and sensitive age was the freedom of anonymity, the ability to be in the world without a swarming herd of fans and paparazzi paralyzing his every movement. Once fame strikes, especially in childhood, the famous person becomes used to all the adulation, perks, and rarified air and privilege that come with being a celebrity. A creeping doubt sets in, quietly at first, then becoming a rumble. What happens to me when I am not famous anymore? This thought sets off a cascade of anxieties and depression. Sadly, many celebrities get addicted, in fact, to being celebrities.
Surrounded mostly by hangers-on, the celebrity starts to realize that he or she can't really trust anyone anymore. Why are these people with me, the celebrity wonders? Are they here because of me or because of what I do? Without healthy bonds, with family members, friends, and significant others, celebrities may lose their sense of grounding, their sense of self. In these instances, famous people adapt in the only way they know how - they split themselves in two: the celebrity self and the real self. Oftentimes, the real self spends all its time promoting, managing, and selling the image of the celebrity, creating an emotional chasm in what was once an integrated, whole person. Fame can be like quicksand, appearing as an oasis in the desert, yet dragging the famous person down until he or she can't breathe.
Michael Jackson sang about gaining mindful insight in "Man in the Mirror" yet, in contrast, seemed obsessed with an insatiable need to keep changing himself. Self-loathing brought on by: a reportedly strict father, fame as early-life experience, arriving at iconic status while retreating to crippling isolation, being enveloped by a mushrooming mistrust hammered home again and again by headlines like, "Wacko Jacko,"suffering the pain and humiliation of third degree burns to his scalp during the filming of a commercial, his pajama-ed perp walk into Santa Barbara County Superior Court, and his SUV-roof dance for screaming fans as he left - all cumulated in a coroner's report. Ultimately, outside of his much-loved children, who seemed to provide him with solace, along with a passport to Neverland and everlasting childhood, Michael Jackson was left with no one, except for a faded view of that boy in the mirror.
Perhaps if celebrated and famous people could see the wisdom of living more mindfully, from a place of firmer ground, eschewing addiction to the intoxicating spotlight, they may find a reflection that more authentically mirrors the true richness of life. A celebrity once shared with me that fame is "...just so much the will-o'-the-wisp, and you just can't build a house on that kind of stuff."
Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame, based on Dr. Rockwell's doctoral research study, is published in the Journal of Phenomenological Psychology. Follow Donna Rockwell on Facebook, Twitter: @drdonnarockwell and on her website: DonnaRockwell.com
This blog is based on a column originally published in Ambassador Magazine.