One of the recurring questions I am often asked to comment on by the media is whether celebrities are more prone to addiction than other groups of people. One of the problems in trying to answer what looks like an easy question is that the definition of "celebrity" is different to different people. Most people would argue that celebrities are famous people, but are all famous people celebrities? Are well-known sportspeople and politicians celebrities? Are high profile criminals celebrities? While all of us would say that Hollywood A-Listers such as Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts are celebrities, many of the people that end up on celebrity reality shows are far from what I would call a celebrity. Being the girlfriend or relative of someone famous does not necessarily famous. Another problem in trying to answer this question is what kinds of addiction are the media actually referring to? Implicitly, the question might be referring to alcohol and/or illicit drug addictions but why should other addictions such as nicotine addiction or addiction to prescription drugs not be included? In addition to this, I have often been asked to comment on celebrities that are addicted to sex or gambling. However, if we include behavioural addictions in this definition of addiction, then why not include addictions to shopping, eating or exercise? If we take this to an extreme, how many celebrities are addicted to work?
Now that I’ve aired these problematic definitional issues (without necessarily trying to answer them), I will return to the question of whether celebrities are more prone to addiction. To me, when I think about what a celebrity is, I think of someone who is widely known by most people, is usually in the world of entertainment (actor, singer, musician, television presenter), and may have more financial income than most other people I know. When I think about these types of people, I’ve always said to the media that it doesn’t surprise me when such people develop addictions. Given these situations, I would argue that high profile celebrities may have greater access to some kinds of addictive substances.
Given that there is a general relationship between accessibility and addiction, it shouldn’t be a surprise if a higher proportion of celebrities succumbs to addictive behaviours compared with a member of the general public. The availability hypothesis may also hold true for various behavioural addictions that celebrities have admitted having–most notably addictions to gambling and/or sex. It could perhaps be argued that high profile celebrities are richer than most of us (and could therefore afford to gamble more than you or I) or they have greater access to sexual partners because they are seen as more desirable (because of their perceived wealth and/or notoriety).
Firstly, when I think about celebrities that have "gone off the rails" and admitted to having addiction problems (Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey Jr, Alec Baldwin) and those that have died from their addiction (Whitney Houston, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse) I would argue that these types of high profile celebrity have the financial means to afford a drug habit like cocaine or heroin. For many in the entertainment business such as being the lead singer in a famous rock band, taking drugs may also be viewed as one of the defining behaviours of the stereotypical rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. In short, it’s almost expected.
In an interview with an online magazine The Fix, Dr. Scott Teitelbaum, an American psychiatrist based in the University of Florida explains:
Some people who become famous and get put on a pedestal begin to think of themselves differently and lose their sense of humility. And this is something you can see with addicts, too. Famous or not, people in the midst of their addiction will behave in a narcissistic, selfish way: They’ll be anti-social and have a disregard for rules and regulations. But that is part of who they as an addict–not necessarily who they would be as a sober person. Then there are some people who are narcissists outside of their disease, who don’t need a drug or alcohol addiction to make them feel like the rules don’t apply to them–and yes, I have seen in this in many athletes and actors. Of course, you also have non-famous people who struggle with both…People with addiction and people with narcissism share a similar emptiness inside. Those who are famous might fill it with achievement or with drugs and alcohol. That’s certainly not the case for everyone. But when you see people who are both famous and narcisstic–people who struggle with staying right-sized or they don’t have a real sense of who they are without the fame–you know that they’re in trouble…People with addiction and people with narcissism both seek outside sources for inside happiness. And ultimately neither the fame nor the drugs nor the drinking will work.
The same article also points out that there is an increase in the number of people who (usually through reality television) are becoming (in)famous but have no discernable talent whatsoever. In my own writings on the psychology of fame, I have made the point that (historically) fame was a by-product of a particular role (e.g., country president, news anchorman) or talent (e.g., captain of the national sports team, a great actor). While the Andy Warhol maxim that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes will never be truly fulfilled, the large increase in the number of media outlets and number of reality television shows suggests that more people than ever are getting their 15 minutes of fame. In short, the intersection between fame and addiction is on the increase.
US psychiatrist Dr. Dale Archer was also interviewed for The Fix article and was quoted as saying:
Fame and addiction are definitely related. Those who are prone to addiction get a much higher high from things–whether it’s food, shopping, gambling or fame–which means it [the behavior or situation] will trigger cravings. When we get an addictive rush, we are getting a dopamine spike. If you talk to anyone who performs at all, they will talk about the "high" of performing. And many people who experience that high report that when they’re not performing, they don’t feel as well. All of which is a good setup for addiction. People also get high from all the trappings that come with fame. The special treatment, the publicity, the ego. Fame has the potential to be incredibly addicting.
I argued some of these same points in a previous blog on whether fame can be addictive in and of itself. Another related factor I am asked about is the effect of having fame from an early age and whether this can be a pre-cursor or risk factor for later addiction. Dr. Archer was also asked about this and claimed:
The younger you are when you get famous, the greater the likelihood that you’re going to suffer consequences down the road. If you grow up as a child star, you realize that you can get away with things other people can’t. There is a loss of self and a loss of emotional growth and a loss of thinking that you need to work in relationship with other people.
I’m broadly in agreement with this although my guess is that this only applies to a minority of child stars rather than being a general truism. However, trying to carry out scientific research examining early childhood experiences of fame amongst people that are now adult is difficult (to say the least). There also seems to be a lot of children and teenagers who’s only desire when young is “to be famous” when they are older. As most who have this aim will ultimately fail, there is always the concern that to cope with this failure, they will turn to addictive substances and/or behaviours.
References and further reading
Griffiths, M.D. & Joinson, A. (1998). Max-imum impact: The psychology of fame. Psychology Post, 6, 8-9.
Halpern, J. (2007). Fame Junkies. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
McGuinness, K. (2012). Are Celebrities More Prone to Addiction? The Fix, January, 18. Located at: http://www.thefix.com/content/fame-and-drug-addiction-celebrity-addicts1...
Rockwell, D. & Giles, D.C. (2009). Being a celebrity: A phenomenology of fame. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 40, 178-210.