So You Think You Can Be Famous?

What it takes to get your 15 minutes of fame.

Posted Jun 20, 2016

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Source: CC0 Public Domain

I have this fantasy in which I’m famous. I mean, really famous. I can’t walk down the street without being mobbed by a crowd of crying fans, all screaming to get my attention.

I’ve had this fantasy since I was in second grade. My mom enrolled me in a neighborhood acting class, thinking that it would help me overcome my shyness. I remember my acting teacher, a young woman who played Kirk Cameron’s love interest in an episode of the 90s sitcom, Growing Pains. Though I had seen every episode, I had no idea who she was, how many lines she had or if she had any lines at all. It didn’t matter though—I was still in awe of her. And after four sessions of pantomiming drinking a glass of water and wandering around the room as my favorite animal (a killer whale), I knew I had found my calling.

Once I graduated college, where I had been involved in a theater company for four years, I took the necessary measures to procure head shots, an agent and finally begin my professional acting career. While my friends were climbing up the corporate ladder or going to law school, I was running to commercial auditions and picking up a lot of odd jobs to make ends meet. Despite the frustrations, and there were plenty, what kept me going was my well-preserved childhood fantasy of fame and fortune.

After about three years of pursuing the Hollywood dream, hundreds (thousands, maybe millions?) of rejections, a few commercials and crushed ego, I had had it. I had to acquiesce to reality. The fantasy, it turns out, would have to remain a fantasy.

Though these events occurred nearly a decade ago, I am still plagued by the many ‘what if’s and ‘if onlys’ of that period of my life. My second grade self still yearns for a chance at her 15 minutes of fame. However, my adult self knows better. To her, those few years of struggle was enough.

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Source: CC0 Public Domain

For some celebrities, however, waiting a couple years to make it big is a walk on the red carpet. At age 21, Oscar-winner Halle Berry was living in homeless shelters in New York. She would eventually get her breakout role in Jungle Fever two years later.  

Kelly Clarkson, America’s first Idol, ended up living in her car when her home in Los Angeles caught fire. She eventually returned home to Texas where she would later audition for and become the first American Idol.

Though he wasn’t homeless, Ken Jeong had to keep his day job as a physician before he was able to fully commit to his dream job as a Hollywood comedic actor.

Then there’s J.K. Rowling, one of the most popular authors on the planet, who describes herself as “the biggest failure,” suffering through numerous setbacks, including: coming out of a failed marriage, raising a child as a single parent, having no job, struggling with depression and a mailbox full of rejections for her Harry Potter manuscript. Eventually, one publisher said yes, and the rest, as you know, is literary history.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE FAMOUS?

What these celebrities (and nearly all famous people) have in common is resilience, says Dr. Ganz Ferrance, a psychologist and media personality. “You have to be able to deal with a lot of rejection, judgements and negative comments along the way to ‘making it’ and even after you make it.”

He adds, a “giant ego” may act as a protective shield from criticism,  but “healthy resilience can be developed by the practice of ‘getting back up’ when you get knocked down.”

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Source: CC0 Public Domain

Marlene Morris Towns, a marketing professor at Georgetown University agrees. “Celebrities have to build twice as thick skin in today’s entertainment marketplace.” In addition to the rejections, she says, it’s you and your personal brand that gets criticized or scrutinized by anyone with an internet connection—which might explain why some famous people refuse to participate in social media.

For example, Twilight actress Kristen Stewart regularly gripes about her disdain for social media:

“Twitter f--ks me over every day of my life...I get so mad. It’s like you’re trampling on someone’s life without any regard. And it’s rampant. Everyone can do it now. Buy a camera and you’re a paparazzi; get a Twitter account and you’re an informant. It’s so annoying.”

Stewart’s complaints have been largely mocked or dismissed as part of the intrinsic cost of celebrity, where else, but on social media. Despite the ridicule, Stewart still has several high-profile films coming out this year, which suggests her career and her resiliency are still in tact.

I, on the other hand, have very little resilience. My aversion to rejection should be obvious from my earlier attempts at stardom, but even now, I have difficulty scrolling through the comments section in my blog, apprehensive about being gifted the Internet’s version of flaming bags of poop from generous trolls.

AND THE SUPPORTING ROLE GOES TO… TALENT

To achieve fame, a thick skin is a prerequisite. But talent? It’s a nice to have. “Just look at the Kardashians,” says Carole Lieberman, M.D., a Beverly Hills psychiatrist. “These days you can become famous for being famous” thanks to the rapid rise of celebrity culture, which results from “the increasing number of magazines and TV” devoted to celebrity.

Ever wonder why every doctor’s office, beauty salon or woman’s bathroom (mine included) carries copies of Us Weekly or People? It’s our “increasing lack of self-esteem,” explains Lieberman. People have “lost hope in their own ability to do something noteworthy, so they live vicariously through celebs.”

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Source: CC0 Public Domain

We flip through those glossy pages filled with intimate knowledge of the stars— the contents of their closets, the details of their latest affair, their favorite vacation spot in the Caribbean—to to be immersed into their world. Can you blame us?  It’s so much more glamorous and exciting than our own lives.

And let’s be clear, it’s not their talent that puts them on these covers. Most tabloids are overrun with oversaturated reality stars and social media stars whose resumes are glaringly unimpressive. What makes them marketable, however, is their “‘hook’ or angle, a great PR machine and an intense desire for fame,” says Towns. The hook must be interesting, “or better yet salacious enough to make you ‘clickable.’”

And it works. Just look at all those “wildly successful and famous singers who have very little singing talent, movie stars who can headline a film with great box office success who are not terribly good actors and broadcasters who aren’t very good at reporting the news,” she says.

Or go straight to (reality) patient zero: Kim Kardashian, whose meteoric rise to stardom can be attributed to a ‘leaked’ sex tape. These days celebrity sex tapes are about as common as the flu, but back in 2003, they were the rare PR windfall. The sex tape that launched a thousand reality shows was the magic angle that would launch Kardashian’s empire and eventually help her become the highest-paid reality television star in history.

It’s no surprise that many have tried to copy Kardashian’s moves in the bedroom. Everyone loves a shortcut, after all. Why waste years in school practicing your craft, when you can easily film yourself one evening and become famous by morning?

YOU LIKE ME. YOU REALLY LIKE ME?

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Source: CC0 Public Domain

You may think making a sex tape is as easy as it sounds. Would you ever do it, though?

It takes confidence and guts to put yourself out there, especially into a mainstream that can turn on you at any moment. It may be a daunting proposition for some, but not for celebrities, many of whom have experienced difficult childhoods, says Lieberman.

Lacking love and attention during youth, they “grow up desperately seeking applause from their fans.” For some, these hardships build resiliency, while for others, it creates a handicap—which is why celebrities will often surround themselves with an “entourage of agents, managers, personal assistants, publicists, makeup people and hairdressers to protect them.” Watch an episode of HBO’s Entourage to see this defense mechanism in action.

According to Ganz, the defining characteristic of celebrities is their “strong sense of self and willingness to be seen.” These qualities are evident in all celebrities, whether they are focused or devoted to craft (e.g., music, sports, academics, art) or just want to be famous for its own sake (e.g., reality stars).

SORRY, YOU'VE REACHED THE AGE LIMIT

Age, too, plays a leading role in the pursuit of fame.

Most people become famous before they're 30, according to Harvard University researchers. By data-mining 740,000 entries of famous people on Wikipedia, they were able to calculate 29 as the median age at which people become famous today, a drop from 34 (during the mid-20th century) and 43 (during the 1800s).

If this theory is accurate, then I’ve definitely missed my window for fame. Though that’s hardly the only thing stopping me. The more I read about celebrity, the less I think it’s what I actually want. Of course, there is a certain allure to having tons of money or access to ultra exclusive people and events, but what I really want (and I imagine what most people want) is to feel significant and unique.

Perhaps, being mobbed by a crowd of screaming fans isn’t the only way to experience it.

Follow me at @thisjenkim

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