It's not news that fame is double-edged, but lately, it seems it's all bad. Susan Boyle is on the cover of People magazine with news of a possible breakdown due to the stress that celebrity has put on her already-delicate psychological ecosystem. Desiree Rogers, with her admirable aspirations to make the White House into "The People's House," is stepping down from her post as the White House social secretary because a) she says it's time to move on but b) two fame-seeking moths named Tareq and Michaele Salahi crashed her beautiful first state dinner. And who doesn't know today that Marie Osmond's son committed suicide over the weekend? Why we have to know this isn't clear, but we do. And Tiger Woods' story just doesn't get any prettier.
The downside of celebrity is well documented (check perezhilton.com on any given day) but it's worth taking a moment to really consider what the spotlight of fame can reveal.
Charles Figley is a professor and writer at Tulane University where he is currently the Paul Henry Kurzwet, MD Distinguished Chair in Disaster Mental Health. Some years back he started work on the stresses peculiar to celebrity and came up with some singular negatives to being famous. "Celebrities are at the mercy of public opinion," he says, "and live a stress roller-coaster ride with peeks of adulation and valleys of criticism, or worse... being ignored." This echoes what Donny Osmond said about Susan Boyle in the People article: "You go from one extreme to another: sheer adulation to a lonely hotel room."
Figley surveyed over 200 top-ranked celebrities some years back and came up with the top ten stressors that include, in order of importance:
1. The celebrity press
3. Threatening letters/calls
4. Lack of Privacy
5. Constant monitoring of their lives
6. Worry about career plunges
8. Lack of security
9. Curious fans
10. Worries about their children's lives being disrupted.
The relationship between celebrity and the public and the press is a critical one that includes fear, dependency and anger as well as love and support. This is oddly similar to how many of us feel about our families, but the scary thing is that this is a relationship between strangers.
"Celebrity is a state of mind, a created image", he says, "By its very nature celebrity is a social construction that varies by the number and characteristics of the admirers. The degree to which a celebrity can manage the stress and their resilience varies greatly and is often the focus of celebrity media attention."
It's really all about the attention -- and what happens when there is too much of it. And while fame is often an honest and predictable reaction to someone doing something extraordinary -- Susan Boyle sings like an angel; Tiger Woods may be the best golfer ever ever; George Clooney makes great movies -- the other swing of the celebrity pendulum brings the Salahis, who think if they are included in enough photographs of well-known and celebrated people, they'll become extraordinary, too. I think when fame is a byproduct of what you do (i.e. all the amazing athletes at the Olympics) it's a lot easier to keep or lose than when fame, (instead of a medal) is your goal.
That's why Dr. Figley is right, celebrity is a state of mind -- and it's all about how others see you. A mirror image that is never going to keep you sane, safe or happy.