Faded Glory: What Can We Learn From the Formerly Famous?

When you believe your best days are gone, you can discover your authentic self.

Posted Feb 10, 2016

Krystine I. Batcho
Robin Williams in "The Night Listener" 
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

What can we learn from the experience of has-been celebrities?  In film, stars whose fame has faded have been portrayed as psychologically unwell, deranged or even criminal.   In an early episode of the television series Columbo, an aging delusional former actress murders her husband who refused to finance her fantasized comeback.   In the 1962 movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, an elderly former vaudeville child star desperately wants to recapture her childhood glory.  She perceives her paralyzed sister as an obstacle to her comeback and subjects her to severe neglect and abuse.  Non-criminal portrayals have also presented the desire to reclaim past glory as pathological.  In an early episode of Twilight Zone, “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” a reclusive former film star relives her fame by watching her old movies at the expense of living in the present.  Efforts to help her fail, and in the surreal world of the Twilight Zone, she has wished herself back into her past forever .

In reality, is nostalgia for former fame psychologically unhealthy?  Research is sparse on celebrity, but we can learn from integrating available research, biographical data, and documented psychological dynamics of nostalgia.  Becoming famous in itself is a significant, unique experience that brings with it special privilege and associated costs.  Perhaps the most compelling paradox of fame is the conflict between social acceptance, affirmation, adulation and the isolation by virtue of one’s singular extraordinariness.  Ironically, the craving for public attention that drives the climb to fame is ultimately battled by the desire for privacy once public scruitiny becomes pervasive and intrusive.  A celebrity can come to feel more like an “entity” than the real person they once were.  Public visibility replaces not only anonymity and privacy, but also threatens the relationships with family and friends that once thrived in the personal space swallowed by fame.

The desire for fame is often a search for validation of personal worth.  Under constant public scrutiny, the star can become overfocused on public evaluation and lose sight of what is most important—family, friends, meaning and purpose.  Arguably, the greatest risk of fame is becoming addicted to the narcissistic gratification or becoming dependent on satisfying the need for approval.  When the emotional rush of public admiration and privilege ends, the negative emotions characteristic of withdrawal follow—depression, anxiety, and a longing for the return of the rush of adulation.  Is yearning for former glory a self-defeating preoccupation with the irretrievable past or an adaptive coping with the transition to life after celebrity?

Examples of former stars who succumbed to substance abuse or other maladaptive responses to waning fame receive media attention.  Child star Bobby Driscoll found it difficult to cope with his failure to succeed as an actor as an adult and began abusing drugs.  Dead by age 31, his body was found in an abandoned tenement.  Child stars Jonathan Brandis, Justin Pierce, and Lee Thompson Young died as a result of suicide in their twenties.

But other young celebrities moved on and reinvented themselves by extending their talents beyond childhood acting.  Ron Howard, child and teenage television star, made a natural transition into becoming a highly successful director and producer.  One of the most successful child stars, Shirley Temple, earned a special Academy Award at age 6 and had acted in 43 films by the time she turned 12.  Unable to maintain her acting success as an adult, Temple turned to public service and served as diplomat, delegate, and ambassador.  Never repudiating her past, Temple was able to acknowledge it and let it go.  At age 39, in an interview for Time magazine, she reflected on her early stardom:  “I always think of her as ‘the little girl.’  She’s not me.”  Another child star with diminished fame as an adult actress, Melissa Gilbert, expanded her interests, becoming President of the Screen Actors Guild and later running for Congress to “make life a little easier for all the families who feel they have fallen through the cracks in today’s economy.” Peter Ostrum, child actor in the original Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, found a purposeful life as a veterinarian in a small rural community in New York.  Avoiding publicity, Ostrum makes annual visits to schools to help children know they have options by telling them,  “there’s a bigger world out there.”

What can we learn from celebrities who have survived and even thrived in their lives after stardom has faded?  Until more definitive research is done, we can glean insights from what is available, along with biographical trajectories.  While differing in intensity and scope, diminished achievement is experienced by most people in all career and personal paths.  It is unrealistic to expect exceptional achievement and public accolades to continue unabated over a lifetime.  In many fields, individuals are remembered for their few, in some cases solitary, extraordinary contributions. 

Coping with the transition to life following one’s peak accomplishments is facilitated by refocusing perspective, sense of self, appreciation of meaningfulness, and impact of behaviors.  While receiving preferential treatment under the spotlight, the celebrity’s focus is on the self.  As public acclaim moves on to other rising stars, continued focus on self needs to accommodate an honest reevaluation of identity and self-worth.  Rather than relying on the critique by others, the celebrity benefits by re-discovering the person they were before fame claimed their identity along with their lifestyle.  Nostalgic reflection can remind a person of their authentic self, the person possessing the talents and traits that earned success in the first place.  Nostalgia is triggered by change that prompts a person to reexamine identity.  The nostalgic reverie that accompanies identity exploration is a healthy way to reconnect with what is most important to us.  One of the risks of fame is losing sight of what is most important—family, friends, those in need.

Nostalgia has been shown also to enhance connectedness to others.  Most nostalgic memories preserve experiences memorable because of the people with whom we shared them.  Nostalgia is a social emotion; it prompts us to reach out to others to celebrate during good times and to seek support and advice during difficult times.  Nostalgic reliving of lost glory days should not be a one-way street to our past.  It’s a way of refortifying our true self for moving ahead into a renewed way of being who we really are.  By reminding us of the transiency of all things, our indulgence in reverie can encourage us to consider what legacy we’ll leave behind.

By shifting focus from self to others, stars who weathered fading glory found meaning in hope of making a lasting impact not dependent on the whims of popularity.  So, we can learn from “has-been” celebrities.  Don’t lose yourself to what you do.  What you do can change as you adapt to new demands and new insights into what you mean to others.  You are more than what others like about you.  Don’t sacrifice what you love and believe in to gain the passing praise from others.  Remember that the value of your achievements rests in their intrinsic quality, not in the public acclaim you received for them.  Enjoy the positive acceptance when you receive recognition, but don’t fear the privacy and silence when the applause ends and you return to who you are.  A meaningful life consists of what you mean to others, to those who will follow in your footsteps, and to those who will benefit from you, even without ever having known you.

Further reading

Batcho, K. I.  (2015).  Looking to our past:  Escapism or exploration?  Psychology Todayhttps://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201511/looking-our-past-escapism-or-exploration

Batcho, K. I.  (2014).  Nostalgia:  A mental time machine.  Psychology Today.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201405/nostalgia-mental-time-machine

Batcho, K. I.  (2013).  Nostalgia:  Retreat or support in difficult times?  The American Journal of Psychology, 126, 355-367.

Maltby, J., Day, L., Giles, D., Gillett, R., Quick, M., Langcaster-James, H., & Linley, P. A.  (2008).  Implicit theories of a desire for fame.  British Journal of Psychology, 99, 279-292.

Noser, A., & Zeigler-Hill, V.  (2014).  Self-esteem instability and the desire for fame.  Self and Identity, 13, 701-713.

Rockwell, D., & Giles, D. C.  (2009).  Being a celebrity:  A phenomenology of fame.  Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 40, 178-210.