Tonight George Clooney will harness his global superpowers to host an MTV telethon to raise money for disaster relief in Haiti.
Because he can. He's George Clooney.
But my point is that he must. For the survival of his own id, ego and superego, and most important, his soul. I'm sure he would tell you it's simply for the survival of Haiti, but I think it's both.
I've been writing, researching and just plain thinking about fame for over a year now for a book I'm putting together on the subject, and way before tonight's telethon, I'd zeroed in on George Clooney as the rare and happy example of someone who has not only survived fame, but learned to live with it, and more importantly, to use it, to save himself.
Imagine being the most important person in the room every time you enter it. Everyone leaning in to listen to what you have to say and no matter how smart or stupid it is; they laugh, fawn, tweet and take your picture with their phone while you say it. What does this do to anyone's psychological self -- this excessive, sometimes planetary attention that brings paparazzi, perks, handlers, hangers on, and fans -- good and stalkish -- to your every move. Nothing good, we all think, yet many of us fantasize about this very existence.
It's complicated. You think you'd want to be famous but many people who live with this kind of attention on a daily basis would definitely point to the drawbacks on the psyche. In fact, there is a specific diagnosis for people dealing with excessive and overwhelming attention -- situational narcissism. (Hint: it happens a lot on Top Chef and American Idol.)
In the preface to Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley there is a quote from James Baldwin addressing the difficulty of being a legend and how fame made him "unrecognizable to himself" and almost drove him mad.
Fame. I'm gonna live forever. Baby, remember my name.
The tabloids are well, not littered with, but let's say heavily populated with the fates and foibles of many hapless souls who react to their own celebrity with an accelerated downfall that now can news-cycle in a matter of weeks. Or in the case of Tiger Woods, it took years, but now we can see that it absolutely did have to happen.
Jon and Kate plus 8 minus Jon equals Kate on the cover of People Magazine x4.
I see this all-consuming American story in terms of relationships -- between the public and the celebrity -- with the all-important media/pr industry literally as agent between the two, as well as the conflicting relationship between the public and private person. Ego and identity issues abound, as do more psychologically critical ones like narcissism, addiction and perceptions of reality.
The problem with the concept behind this real sea change in how celebrities are perceived -- "Stars - They're Just Like Us" -- is that they aren't. Their normal is not our normal and one goal of my work is to present this reality.
But back to George Clooney. What about people who have not only survived great fame, but thrived? Or at least continue to function. Those who have harnessed all that excessive attention and turned it into something good. This list includes Oprah Winfrey (her Angel Network, her school in South Africa), Katie Couric (the "Couric Effect" accounting for exponential increases in colonoscopies), Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (sell baby pictures for charity, adopt from countries in crisis), and many others. What can we learn from those celebrities who seem to have kept their souls intact? I think they have figured out the only way to survive it. Use it.
An 85 year old psychologist answered this question for me just the other day. He told me the difference between having a strong ego and being a crazy narcissist is that someone who is insecure and damaged cannot possibly accept kudos and attention without feeling both false and empty, yet always craves more. Whereas someone with a healthy self-image who happens to enjoy good fortune and celebrity believes the good things about his or herself but then moves forward.
So George Clooney must have the strongest, healthiest ego in the world. Because he's trying to save it. Good for him. Good luck tonight!