The Bright Side Of Fame

I just listened to a podcast on the dark side of fame and I started thinking about some of the positive sides of fame that I have experienced:

* Free travel;
* Easy money;
* I got more opportunities to do what I was good at;
* I sensed the world opening up to me, I got access to where I wanted access (such as interview subjects);
* I expanded my social circle (making up for the losses of people who turned their back on me because they despised my blogging);
* Successful people in my space treated me like a peer;
* I filled up with energy and I passed that energy on to others;
* My opportunities to do good expanded;
* I had new experiences which prompted me to have new thoughts and feelings that would not have been available otherwise;
* Preferential treatment.

The first time I realized I could do extraordinary things was a day in second grade when the class sat on a bridge over Dora Creek and we were told to look at the ghostly trees under the water and to write about them. I jotted down a few words, became convinced I was doing it all wrong but had to turn in my paper anyway, and then I was surprised when the teacher said I had written something great and she read it aloud to the class and I noticed my words affected people, including adults. I realized I had a way with words that even adults would appreciate. I was eight years old and I never doubted my writing ability after that even when I got Cs in English class.

I don’t feel like listing off the dark sides of fame for me. I prefer to focus on the good things in my life. I try to use the bad things that have happened to me and through me as prompts to do good things in the future (including cleaning up my side of the street and living in the reality of my own flawed humanity).

According to this podcast, the dark side of fame includes:

* Difficulty trusting people.
* Has been syndrome (the flame of celebrity always dims)
* Acquired situational narcissism
* The brain gets addicted to a high level of neurological stimulation and hungers for recognition
* People aren’t looking at you, they’re looking through you
* Temptation

Psychologist Donna Rockwell participated in the launch of CNN. She later published this paper, Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame: “The experience of being famous was investigated through interviews with 15 well-known American celebrities. The interviews detail the existential parameters of being famous in contemporary culture. Research participants were celebrities in various societal categories: government, law, business, publishing, sports, music, film, television news and entertainment. Phenomenological analysis was used to examine textural and structural relationship-to-world themes of fame and celebrity. The study found that in relation to self, being famous leads to loss of privacy, entitization, demanding expectations, gratification of ego needs, and symbolic immortality. In relation to other, or world, being famous leads to wealth, access, temptations, and concerns about family impact. Areas of psychological concern for celebrity mental health include character-splitting, mistrust, isolation, and an unwillingness to give up fame. Being-in-the-world of celebrity is a process involving four temporal phases: love/hate, addiction, acceptance, and adaptation.”

Becoming famous is a dopamine rush. Some people can handle it and some people can’t. Eating chocolate is a dopamine rush. Some people can handle it and some people can’t. My father, for example, would never eat chocolate because he found it easier to abstain than to be moderate.

Abstention is sometimes a good coping mechanism but you’re not dealing with why you can’t be moderate. Abstention is a tactic to deal with symptoms, but the cause of the symptoms lies unaddressed.

My therapist once said that when she heard me talk, she imagined an infant sucking on his mother’s breast for all he was worth because he feared he would never get another feed.

From an evolutionary perspective, we’re all wired to be ravenous, to never be satisfied with one sex partner, one slaughtered animal, one berry bush, one flush of attention.

My father believed he was going to become much more famous than he did. When we would watch the Phil Donahue show circa 1983, he would often remark that he was going to be on the show one day. It never happened. Dad achieved a level of fame beyond that of 99.9% of ministers, but he wanted more.

According to this podcast, if you use fame to do something useful in the world, you’ll handle it better.

Here are some excerpts from Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame:

* “Most everybody secretly imagines themselves in show business and everyday on their way to work, they’re a little bit depressed because they’re not . . . People are sad they’re not famous in America.” (John Waters, 2004)

* Love/Hate. Relationship-to-world themes are revealed as participants seek effective ways of acclimating to being a famous person. At first, the experience of becoming famous provides much ego stroking. Newly famous people find themselves warmly embraced. There is a guilty pleasure associated with the thrill of being admired in that participants both love the attention and adoration while they question the gratification they experience from fame. “I enjoy parts of it, but I hate parts of it, too,” was a generally reported theme.

Addiction. The lure of adoration is attractive, and it becomes difficult for the person to imagine living without fame. One participant said, “It is somewhat of a high,” and another, “I kind of get off on it.” One said, “I’ve been addicted to almost every substance known to man at one point or another, and the most addicting of them all is fame.” Where does the celebrity go when fame passes; having become dependent on fame, how does one adjust to being less famous over time? “As the sun sets on my fame,” one celebrity said, “I’m going to have to learn how to put it in its proper place.” The adjustment can be a difficult one.

Acceptance. As the attention becomes overwhelming and expectations, temptations, mistrust, and familial concerns come to the fore, the celebrity resolves to accept fame, including its threatening phenomenal aspects. “You learn to accept it,” one celebrity said. After a while, celebrities report that they come to see that fame is “just so much the will-o’-the-wisp, and you just can’t build a house on that kind of stuff .”

Adaptation. Only after accepting that “it comes with the territory” can the celebrity adaptively navigate fame’s choppy waters. “Once you’re famous,” a participant said, “you don’t make eye contact or you keep walking . . . and you just don’t hear [people calling your name].” Adaptive patterns can include reclusiveness, which gives rise in turn to mistrust and isolation. “I don’t want to go out if I don’t feel good about looking forward to meeting anybody or just being nice to people,” another celebrity reported.

* Mistrust. Eventually, the very others who adore the celebrity evoke mistrust. “Th ere is always a part of you that wonders why they are becoming friendly with you.” In an everyday environment, the celebrity wonders, “Do people like me because of who I am or because of what I do? You find out there are millions of people who like you for what you do. They couldn’t care less who you are.” With the development of this operating belief system, the conditions are set for grave mistrust and problems in interpersonal relating. “In the process of losing trust, I’ve lost some of the innocence I’ve had about life, about the world and about people . . .” The famous person seeks to discern the true intentions of others. “I just think with time and a trained eye, for the most part, I’ve learned about certain parasites who want to take advantage of me for whatever reason, whether it’s money or simply the association of hanging out with somebody who’s . . . famous.” T h e difficulties of such discernment may leave the celebrity feeling confused and alienated. He or she may then seek refuge in physical and/or emotional isolation by becoming more detached.

* Demanding expectations. The celebrity must renegotiate his or her relationship-to-world in order to carve out a new operative awareness and set of strategies for living in the spotlight’s penetrating glare. The celebrity copes with intense public scrutiny through character-splitting. He or she divides into two identities by contriving a celebrity entity, a new selfpresentation in the “public sphere.” This “individuating construction of the public personality” (Marshall, 1997, pp. 70–71) allows the famous person to hold his or her more personal “true self” in abeyance, sequestered from all but a trusted inner circle of confidants. “The only way I think you can really handle it is to say, ‘That’s not really me . . . it’s this working part of me, or the celebrity part of me.’. . . So, I am a toy in a shop window.”

Participants report that being a famous person “is a full time job.” Living up to others’ expectations becomes a vicious cycle, in which the celebrity, like a hamster on a wheel, works to satisfy a hungry and demanding public. Th e famous person feels the need to always “be on.” “There’s no going out in sweats and sunglasses and a baseball cap and expecting I’ll get out and not have to see anybody or say anything, ’cause that usually doesn’t happen anymore.” Th ere is an obligation to be “nice to everyone, and that becomes exhausting.” Famous people worry, while playing the celebrity role, “I’m probably going to disappoint them,” so celebrities have “two different dialogues—the one that I’m thinking and the one I’m saying,” so one is “not necessarily as authentic as I’d like to be.” There is not enough time to “show my true self.” T h e celebrity experiences being put on a pedestal, “and there are people who love to knock us off the pedestal.” Paradoxically, along with all the adulation—gratuitous and genuine, no matter what the celebrity does, someone, somewhere, will be disappointed. In order to create a balanced life, famous persons struggle to maintain their own perspective.

* In a world where the celebrity is hardly ever told “no,” a predominantly selfcentered orientation can occur. Th is kind of self-absorbed posture is underwritten by positive feedback from the world. Th e new relational patterns of fame have the potential to unsteady even the most grounded individuals. Isolation and false entitlement make it easier for the celebrity to start rationalizing choices he or she makes. After all, fame changes the way the world responds to the celebrity, who is no longer hearing intimately related others’ honest appraisals “because whether you want to be or not—and there are those who very much want to be, you are larger than life.” Flying high on the rush of celebrity, some participants reported that, blinded by fame’s sudden flash, they lost sight of “the truly important things.”

* Symbolic immortality. Those participants who fare best in the world of celebrity assume their position as an opportunity to “give back,” “inspire,” “role model,” or “make a difference” in the lives of others. “You’ve got to realize that you’re just wearing the suit, that someone else wore it before you, that someone will wear it behind you, and that it’s only a suit.”

* Access. Although famous people try to keep the public out of their personal domain, they are invited freely and openly into an exclusive social world of celebrity. “Th e fabulous people,” as a New York doorman recently referred to celebrities, are ushered into rarefied air where Dustin Hoff man is on the phone, George Steinbrenner is taking the call, or Warren Beatty is free for dinner. Fame is a private club, and famous people are automatic members. “Th e access is unbelievable.” “Suddenly, you’re worth something. You’re important.” In the world of ordinary people, it becomes commonplace for famous people to receive preferential treatment from almost everyone with whom they interact.

* The experience of being famous comes with wealth, unlimited access, and gratifying opportunities to contribute something lasting to the world. Learning to contend with being “entitized,” a loss of privacy, unrealistic expectations, temptations, mistrust toward others, a falsely inflated self, and impact on the celebrity’s family delineates the great challenges in the experience of being famous. The celebrity encounters a world forever changed and must navigate a new course through the unforeseen realities of a famous life.

* The experience of living life as “the star,” separates one from the norm, and begins to weigh on these relationship bonds. This difference from others insinuates emotional distance and contributes to isolation. Fame becomes “baggage.” When he is socializing with friends, Richard’s celebrity lies between them, “like a bloated cod, just sitting there.” Fame chases old friends away at the same time that strangers are flocking toward him.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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