Celebrity and success have become synonymous in a culture that judges by how rich, seductive, and riveting the image; where the name recognition of teenage waif models rivals that of Nobel Peace Prize recipients.
"Celebrity [is] the reward of those who project a vivid or pleasing exterior or have otherwise attracted attention to themselves," Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism. "It is evanescent... In our time, when success is so largely a function of youth, glamour, and novelty, glory is more fleeting than ever, and those who win the attention of the public worry incessantly about losing it."
Stars, then, have their own problems, not the least of which is contemplating their own half-lives. Some worries intrude from outside: rabid fans, gold diggers, paparazzi, critics, competition. Others gnaw from within: self-doubt, addiction, wanderlust.
Entertainers—whether actors, artists, evangelists, writers, musicians, politicians, or athletes—survive by peddling themselves and their talents to the masses. They're put on display, consumed, evaluated and achieve either dismissal or acclaim. Feedback is received through Gallop polls, Nielsen ratings, and box-office draw.
Like the tree-in-the-forest conundrum, this presents a philosophical puzzle: If a celebrity doesn't rivet the public's attention, does he exist?
Fame has always had a bad reputation among thinkers. Poets sung of its seductiveness, and its tendency to breed vanity and superficiality. But the worst you could say of the old kind of fame, the kind based on accomplishment, was that it clouded your vision. The new, less durable fame, the kind refracted through images, proves especially corrosive to the self.
"To be a celebrity means to have more than the usual assaults on one's ego," says Charles Figley, Ph.D., director of the Psychosocial Stress Research Program at Florida State University. "You're very vulnerable to the personal evaluations of other people. The public is ultimately in control of whether your career continues."
Figley, who is writing a book on the stresses peculiar to celebrities, conducted a survey in which 200 questionnaires were mailed out to names randomly selected from a list of the public's top-ranked celebrities. From 51 replies, he compiled a list of the primary sources of stress for celebrities and their families, as well as their reactions and solutions. Most of the questionnaires were completed by the celebrities, the rest by a spouse, friend, or adult child of the celebrity. The top 10 stressors, in order, were:
- the celebrity press
- threatening letters/calls
- the lack of privacy
- the constant monitoring of their lives
- worry about career plunges
- lack of security
- curious fans
- worries about their children's lives being disrupted
The celebrities' reactions to this stress were: depression, loss of sleep, crying over nothing, bad moods, acting out and misbehavior on the part of their children, lack of concentration, stomach problems, paranoia, over-spending, lack of trust, and self-hatred.
"There's a certain amount of insecurity," Figley says. "One of the respondents said that, at any time, he expected someone to come up and tap him on the shoulder and say, 'Go back to being a waiter. What do you think you're doing here, anyway?' There's a constant need for reassurance that they deserve what they've received."
Stress-busting solutions celebrities mentioned included: talking to friends or therapists, beefing up security, having friends outside the business, protecting their kids, laughing as much as possible, finding faith and religion, getting out of L.A.
"A sense of humor was one thing that kept coming up when they were asked about coping," Figley says. "One family had fun with it, and made a game out of trying various disguises to not be recognized." But another respondent, a well-known celeb, said he vividly remembers a painful moment when his family was going out for pizza, and his youngest child asked his mother, "Does Dad have to come?"
"There tends to be a wide variation among the children," Figley says. "Some don't mind the attention, or even look forward to it. Others hate it." Gilda Radner spoke about dealing with fame in her autobiography, It's Always Something. "With fame, and the constant display of my image on television, came anorexia. I became almost afraid to eat," she said. But New York streets are filled with tempting kiosks. "During the second year of Saturday Night Live, I taught myself to throw up. I became bulimic before medical science had given it that name."
After her hair fell out from chemotherapy, Radner could go out in public and not be recognized. But with that freedom came the loss of her sense of self. "I started introducing myself by saying, 'I used to be Gilda Radner.' That was how I felt. I used to be her, but now I was someone else." Radner finally broke through the desolation and joined a cancer support group, where she established friendships and made people laugh. "Finding that part of myself again," she said, "was wonderful."
Drugs and Destruction
English actor Gary Oldman seems to take pride in finding the oddest roles imaginable; he's played Count Dracula, Beethoven, Sid Vicious, and Lee Harvey Oswald. "Acting comes too easy for Gary. He's a genius at the craft. It bores him," says Douglas Urbanski, Oldman's agent.
The nemesis Oldman is struggling to conquer is more challenging than a difficult screen persona. "He's 61 days sober as of today," Urbanski says. "Isabella (Rossellini), Gary, and I have been on the most incredible journey together. The work he has done on himself is awesome."
Oldman is the son of an alcoholic welder who abandoned his family when Gary was seven. While Oldman was gliding to the top of the film industry, his personal life was in shambles, with two broken marriages. "Sometimes acting gets in the way of living life," Oldman has said. "It's very consuming,"
After five weeks of rehab, Oldman now plays his Steinway to relieve stress, attends AA meetings, and stays grounded by establishing a routine in his life. "He's got children, dogs, nannies, housekeepers, a whole menagerie up there [at his home]," Urbanski said. "But this is the first time he's experienced it all from a point of sobriety."
"People are naive about chemical dependence," Oldman now tells reporters, "about how destructive, powerful, and overwhelming it is."
David Wellisch, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at UCLA's medical school, says Oldman may well have two of the factors associated with alcohol abuse—a genetic predisposition and an environmental influence from childhood, with at least one parent modeling addictive behaviors.
But because of his talent, Oldman, like many celebs, had a third risk factor—one that Wellisch calls a "crisis of mobility," in which his fame transported him from one world to another. "He knew how to act when he was the son of a welder, but then he became a stranger in a strange land. His life had, at some level, lost its bearings. Drugs can be a stabilizer, at least temporarily, providing anxiety reduction, feelings of omnipotence and power, or a soothing, deep peace otherwise unattainable," Wellisch says.
For celebrities, especially in the entertainment field, the pressure is always on to turn in a perfect performance, to be better than before, to constantly hit the mark. At the same time, artists tend to be sensitive souls, in touch with naked emotions they mine for our perusal.
"Artists are the lenses through which life is transmitted. They show us what we think and feel in a way that is profound, intense, and highly emotional," Wellisch says. "They experience life more dearly than the rest of us." Drugs are a way to mute these feelings, which threaten to overwhelm.
And with the riches that accompany their fame, drugs are an escape route celebrities can afford at least for a while. The list of celebrity deaths from drugs is long, and continually updated—Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Scott Newman, David Kennedy, John Belushi, River Phoenix.
"I think it has to be remembered that he was 23 and he made the choice," said Judy Davis, who was set to star opposite Phoenix in his next movie. "There's something about stardom and the way it empowers people—he thought he was immune." Fame, therapists agree, can draw stars into a kind of magical thinking, wherein the laws of humankind are suspended.
Or, perhaps, River Phoenix felt he was unworthy. "There's embarrassment and guilt among those who become superstars quickly," Figley says. "They may have a self-destructive streak."
Jib Fowles, professor of media studies at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and author of Star Stuck: Celebrity Performers and the American Public (Smithsonian Institute Press), found in a study of 100 stars from all fields—Hollywood entertainers, sports stars, musicians—that celebrities are almost four times more likely to kill themselves than the average American.
"It's an enormously stressful profession," Fowles says. "There is unrelenting pressure coupled with diminishing private lives. They have to be on every time they step out their front door."
In fact, Fowles found that the average age of death for celebrities, overall, was 58, compared to an average of 72 years old for other Americans.
Celebrities, he believes, are the sacrificial victims of our adoration.
"Never in a society has the individual been anywhere near as important as in contemporary America:' Fowles says. And, as old heroic figures—military, political, and religious leaders—have fallen by the wayside, entertainers have taken their place. "They are delivered to us as perfect human beings. We look to them as ideals, and that gives us orientation. But the burden falls heavily on them. There's an argument to be made that stars aren't paid nearly enough for the cultural service they provide."
"You have to wonder if anyone set limits for these people, if anyone said, 'You're nuts, you're going to the hospital," Wellisch says. "Take if from me, I've seen celebrities who are household names, and it's tough to tell them things. Everyone else is telling them what magnificent, otherworldly creatures they are, and you have to tell them they have all these problems they need to deal with... "
Show business, like police work and medicine, is a high-risk profession, says Wellisch. "You experience too much, you see too much."
Some of the celebrities who have kicked drugs and come through to the other side attribute the change to settling down and having children. Actor Dennis Quaid battled drugs and alcohol for years, finally checking into rehab to kick a cocaine addiction before marrying Meg Ryan and having their son, Jack.
Children can pull their parents, famous or not, outside themselves. There is no longer the luxury of complete self-indulgence, if one takes parenting seriously. And, perhaps for the first time, there is someone more important, someone more deserving. For celebrities, who are at the center of so many orbits, it's especially important to have a little Copernicus around.
"As soon as Sam was born," said proud papa Michael J. Fox, "I knew that I would throw myself in front of a truck for him."
Sharon Stone, who's had a reputation for being outspoken and forthright in interviews, recently switched tacks. "My new policy is this: I have a life of my own. Just a little, tiny one, but it's mine," she told the Entertainment Tonight crew when they asked about her latest love interest.
Celebrities understandably become more protective when they achieve the level of fame where fans begin to swarm, track, or target them obsessively, says therapist Coe, whose office is across from the entrance to Warner Bros. Studios. "They'll buy burglar alarms, cars with tinted windows, guard dogs, body guards. Some of them even border on paranoia, like the stars who have four bodyguards with them at all times, even on a movie set, and change clothes five times a day. It's a fine line.
"You've got the upside, where celebrities have the freedom and opportunities to go places and do things that bring them wonderment and joy. But their boundaries are constantly being pushed back, physically and mentally. Also, their trust level is down. They don't trust a lot of people."
Through their prominence and visibility, celebrities become living Rorschach tests, valued by their adoring public not for who they are, but for who their fans want them to be. With the casual fan, this could mean confusing actors with the roles they play, or feeling a sense of false intimacy with someone they've never actually met. For the lunatic, it could mean that the celebrity becomes the fantasy half of a dangerous delusion. Take the woman who, after breaking into David Letterman's home, took to driving his cars and referring to herself as "Mrs. Letterman."
Michelle Pfeiffer has said that she acts for free—but charges for the inconvenience of being a celebrity. She tells about one day on the set of The Age of Innocence, when people were gathered around her trailer. "I kept trying to find a place where they couldn't see in. So I find myself in the back of the trailer and they can't see me, but I can hear them. Now, these are people who are usually like, 'Michelle, Michelle, we love you.' And I hear somebody say, 'Hey, man, I saw her and she looks old,'" Pfeiffer recounted, laughing. "I'm not worried about age. But I'm very aware that this is my window of time."
Moving away from fans to "get away from it all" might work too effectively, however. Garrison Keillor, radio host from the banks of Lake Wobegon, left St. Paul for Denmark, homeland of his Scandinavian wife. He claimed he wanted anonymity, the freedom to "live the life of a shy person." Eventually, he moved back to Minneapolis and resumed broadcasting live. Nothing's worse than adulation, till it's gone.
Celebrity parents may produce celebrity progeny: Janet Leigh begat Jamie Lee Curtis, Debbie Reynolds begat Carrie Fisher, Kirk Douglas begat Michael, Lloyd Bridges begat Beau and Jeff, Martin Sheen begat Charlie and Emilio, Henry Fonda begat Jane and Peter, who begat Bridget.
But for the most part, celebrities have ordinary moms, dads, dogs, and siblings back in the great American heartland who serve as touchstones in their lives. Families and old friends, say the stars, counteract the dizzying seduction of a world in which you can endlessly reinvent yourself, losing track of who you are and where you came from.
Sarah Jessica Parker says she takes "self-appointed sabbaticals" from the demands of filming to "see my family, go to the market, and cook every day." Heather Locklear told Barbara Walters that her parents live nearby, visit often, and keep her sane.
When your parents are the ones who are famous, though, it can be a tough act to follow. It is the children who often pay the price of parental celebrity. The insecurity in the household, the tension, the career and mood ups and downs, the errant, hectic schedules, and the long absences all coalesce to shift a great deal of the emotional burden to the kids.
"I feel so for the kids," says Coe. "You're always dealing with having that name, or that face." No surprise, then, that the children of celebrities, like the prodigal minister's daughter, often act out in effective and embarrassing ways.
Alison Eastwood, now a model, grew up in Carmel as not only the daughter of actor Clint, but also as the rebellious child of the town's mayor. "I was feeling my oats," she says. "I dyed my hair orange and drove around fast with my stereo blaring. I was one of the big noise-makers in town. I bet people were happy to see me go to college."
The trappings of fame-frequent travel, drug use, affairs—can estrange celebrity parents from their children, preventing a normal relationship during their formative years. Actress Liv Tyler is the daughter of model Bebe Buell and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. Raised in Maine, Liv was nine before she learned that Tyler was her father. Her mother blocked Tyler from his daughter's life due to his drug and alcohol abuse. "He was a screwed-up mess, and I chose not to have him in her life until he chose sobriety," Buell says.
Tyler's daughters now accept and acknowledge their rock-legend dad, although his daughter Mia says he does embarrass her sometimes while on stage. "I mean, he stands there and he's groping himself ... and he should not be doing that," she told A Current Affair in an interview. "It disgusts me."
Celebrities' children, like the children of the very wealthy, also run the risk of wasted lives due to dysgradia, a syndrome where there is a complete lack of connection between doing and getting. "This is extremely amotivational," says Wellisch. "You know that no matter what you do, everything's still going to be there."
In addition to blood relations, celebs often have extended "families" nearby, made up of friends, employees, and other stars. Celebrities often work out of their homes, scheduling appointments, reading scripts, conducting meetings, and having networking parties. "The household is filled with people always coming and going. There's quite a bit of entertainment. It's rather chaotic. Managers and agents who have been with them for a long time become close friends, and like aunts and uncles to their children," Figley says.
With a support staff comes a payroll, employees and associates who depend on the celebrity for their own livelihood. "That puts a celebrity under constant pressure to be famous," Figley says. "So if an actor is in a movie that gets bad reviews or does poorly, he is inclined to self-blame, which leads to depression."
And, as always when there's a lot of money involved, there's the potential for corruption, for a trust violated. Indeed, celebrities are usually inundated by people who want to work for them. It can be difficult to scrutinize who to hire, never knowing what anyone really wants of you.
The Home Front
Hardest of all, perhaps, is the stress that fame can place on a celebrity's marriage.
Temptations are abundant. Legends of the Fall star Aidan Quinn, who has a wife, Elizabeth Bracco, and a young daughter, has women slipping notes to him even while he's getting his teeth cleaned at the dentist. "One time," he recounts, "I was out with my wife at dinner, and this woman walks up to the table and puts down a card with her name and number. She just laid it down and she walked away. I had to almost physically restrain my wife. Pretty fucking ballsy."
Without a separate, strong commitment to a career or other interests, it is particularly difficult for a celebrity's partner to maintain a clear sense of identity in a relationship. The attainment of celebrity almost automatically shifts the power balance. The spouse of a celebrity may live in constant fear of abandonment. What's more, the frequent absences of the celebrity mean the partner winds up with the extra burden of domestic responsibility. And the unpredictability of employment puts constant tension on the relationship.
But the biggest stress on relationships may come from the celebrity's own psyche. Does a star give up the role at home? The shift is almost always difficult for celebrities, therapists say. After a day in front of the camera, being catered to by teams of workers, not to mention sought out by hordes of fans, a request to take out the garbage can feel extremely claustrophobic.
Jennifer Sils, a Santa Monica therapist wed to comedy magician Mac King, says being in a relationship with an entertainer provides as many benefits as drawbacks to the spouse. Sils interviewed in depth eight women married to or living with men in the performing arts. Erratic schedules, long hours, unpredictable income, and periods of unemployment can make living with performers difficult, they admitted.
The financial ups and downs add a profound level of unpredictability in scheduling important life events, such as when to have children. There are difficulties in establishing a personal identity when married to a performer, who is often a strong personality. Parties and other social events supply more stress, because they tend to make the spouse feel unimportant. The frequent long absences of their mates require adjustments on leaving and reentry.
But, Sils found, most of the women said their relationships gave them opportunities they might not have otherwise experienced, like travel and rubbing shoulders with other stars. For the most part, said the women, their lives were exciting, filled with creativity, and seldom boring.
For celebrity spouses anchored by children, homes, and careers, however, home can be a long way from the latest movie set.
And then there are those celebrities who feel destined to stay single due to their star status. Joan Lunden, co-host of Good Morning America, bemoaned her lack of romantic companionship three years after her divorce. "Since then, I've only had a few dates—and believe me, that hasn't been my choice. I can't understand why men are so intimidated. There must be someone wonderful out there. But I'm certainly finding him hard to find."
Ah, the press. The Fourth Estate, defender of the First Amendment, the No. 1 source of celebrity stress.
The tabloids, both print and TV, lead the pack, certainly. But even the mainstream press has incredible leeway when it comes to reporting on public figures. Where a private person must prove only negligence to claim libel, public figures (such as celebrities, politicians, and others who have sought the spotlight) must claim actual malice or knowledge that the statement is false.
The creative-expression defense goes a long way with courts intent on upholding the freedom of the press. When Hustler magazine discussed Jerry Falwell having sex with his mother in an outhouse, the Supreme Court ruled it satire.
But those on the receiving end say the press can be relentless in trying to capture, then condemn, their celebrity prey.
"I was walking down the street to go and get a newspaper and I was followed by this van, and this man with a video camera was filming me," Julia Roberts said in an interview. "This popped up on TV a few days later. I mean, I'm going to get the paper, and it's early in the morning and I have my hair pulled back and I have on some little dress or whatever. This woman on the television had the nerve to be completely obsessed by how I looked.
"Now, I don't have a clue what she looks like when she's going to get the paper." Roberts continued, "but I doubt it is the same as she does on television. She was saying, 'Julia, I have the name of a great hairdresser.' I thought, well, why should I do my hair to go and get a paper on the off-chance that somebody is going to videotape it and put it on TV?"
Being constantly judged and evaluated by their appearance, whether attending the Academy Awards or stepping out to get a newspaper, denies celebrities any part of their life that is truly and exclusively their own. Therein lies madness... or, at least, resentment. Does buying a movie ticket, owning a television, or subscribing to a magazine give us automatic rights to 24-hour surveillance?
We build 'em up, just to knock 'em down.
The late Tony Perkins, said his wife, Berry, never gloried in his cinematic successes. "He was very strong, and very intelligent, but I don't think he thought he really contributed a hell of a lot to this world, which is really sad."
"I've always felt ... that it was a very exposable myth that I was somebody," Perkins told the Saturday Evening Post in 1960. "I've felt this was an absurd dishonesty and that if I were close to people, it would be instantly evident and that they would say, 'Well, gee, he's nothing at all. What do we want to see him for?"'
Many celebrities suffer from this "impostor phenomenon," says Harway, and attribute their successes to good luck rather than hard work.
Just as we have created celebrities, we have created the hall of mirrors in which they so precariously exist. For the famous today, said Lasch, self-approval depends on public recognition and acclaim.
"The good opinion of friends and neighbors, which formerly informed a man that he had lived a useful life, rested on appreciation of his accomplishments.
"Today, men seek the kind of approval that applauds not their actions, but their personal attributes," Lasch continued. "They wish to be not so much esteemed as admired. They crave not fame, but the glamour and excitement of celebrity. They want to be envied rather than respected. Pride and acquisitiveness... have given way to vanity."