Does Fame Kill?
Wish you were famous? Think again. Some reflections on fame & life expectancy.
By Tyler Cowen

From Gadfly April 1998


Some years ago in a restaurant in Bali, it pleased me greatly to spot David Bowie and his wife Iman. Most of us react similarly when we have contact with celebrities, whether it be orchestrated or inadvertent. We are thrilled to see or experience the famous.

Why exactly did seeing David Bowie and Iman please me? In no way were the prospects of my life improved. I received no autograph, no acknowledgement, had no contact with them and received little pleasure from whatever level of intrinsic attractiveness they radiated. Instead, I sought to draw self‑esteem from Bowie and Iman. By seeing them, I felt my choice of restaurant and vacation spot was an inspired one. I treated "contact with David Bowie" as a signal, however weak, of my own life prospects. I sought to consume Bowie's fame as a measure of my own self‑aggrandizement.

After the trip was over, I even looked for subtle, or not so subtle, ways of telling my friends whom I had seen. That I like Bowie's music was incidental to the event. And I still smile when I hear of him, knowing I have experienced a small part of his fame.

Fans pursue stars, in part, to demonstrate their own power, both to others and to themselves. Seeing David Bowie represented only a small blip of excitement. On a more ambitious scale, most of us would feel successful if we breakfasted with the President, gave a luncheon speech to the Trilateral Commission, played a pick‑up game with Michael Jordan in the afternoon and jammed with the Rolling Stones at night. Fans are vampires who feast upon the fame of others for their own selfish reasons; they seek to draw power from those who are more acclaimed.

Fandom serves our selfish interests even when the star remains at a great distance. I focus my attentions around particular stars to signal what kind of person I am, to summon up an emotional involvement in external events such as sports, and to have somebody to talk about with my friends.

Fandom is not about admiration alone and sometimes even turns into hostility. Classical pianist Glenn Gould, who gave up public concertizing, described the audience as a hostile force whose "primal instinct was for gladiatorial combat." Barbra Streisand described her most ardent fans in the following terms: "It makes me feel that they're the monster and I'm their victim."

Many of my economist friends enjoy complaining about the superstars of our profession and slighting the importance of their work. The number of criticisms received almost directly measures an individual's success, whether it be in economics, music or any other field. Joey West published the I Hate Madonna Joke Book, rather than directing his barbs at lesser known artists. When I saw Bowie, I took pleasure in remarking: "I don't think he has done anything good since the late 1970s," a damning criticism for someone I was so happy to see.

Fans use the famous to recreate a modern version of the tribal sacrifice. Primitive societies use ritual sacrifice to purge or contain their bloodlusts, to unify themselves against internal dissension and to build a common frame of reference. Modern Western democracies have eliminated explicit violent sacrifices (for the most part, capital punishment is one exception), but the tendency towards ritual sacrifice remains strong. The famous provide a prominent target for these negative urges. We crown the famous with a pretense of glory but in fact we subject them to an ongoing verbal crucifixion.

It is no wonder celebrities regard fans as one of the lowest forms of life and avoid them like the plague. Andy Warhol claimed he was repelled by the admiration he received. Sooner or later, almost every famous person considers the attention of fans a burden. The best thing I could do for Bowie and Iman was to avoid looking over at their table and simply leave them alone.

The intense attention brought by fame is a mixed blessing rather than an unalloyed benefit. Stars seem more prone to destructive behavior, including alcoholism, accidents, ulcers and suicide. "If you wish to live long, don't become famous," states an old Jewish proverb.

Kim Fowles, author of Starstruck, conducted a statistical study showing that top celebrities die young. Circa 1974 the average American male died at age 68 but the average male celebrity died at 59. The gap for women is even larger. Seventy-five was the average life expectancy for American women but it was only 54 for female celebrities.

Many of the problems of stars spring from the heavy psychological burdens of fame. Stars seek the love of the crowd out of personal insecurity, but the receipt of approval typically feeds their insecurities. Fame‑seekers are trying to fill a personal void by looking to others for affirmation. This quest nourishes and magnifies their fears by addressing symptoms rather than causes. The more a person looks to others for approval, the more that approval becomes needed. The approbation becomes a benchmark for happiness, making the fame‑seeker an unhappy slave to the wills and passions of others.

I feel these same effects myself, even when experiencing very small victories, such as seeing David Bowie. I start to invest psychological capital in seeking the approval of my friends who are impressed by this fact, and I thereby lose some of my autonomy. I lose some control over how I actually want to direct my life and I become separated from my true preferences. The famous experience the same problems but at much more potent levels.

The addiction of fame is an unhappy one, especially at the highest levels of renown. The famous seek an ongoing string of triumphs, but eventually they run out of victories. They reach the point where further achievements are either impossible or do not bring new rewards. Bowie probably will never make another album as good as Ziggy Stardust, and Iman will never regain her modeling fame. They have already processed the excitement from those accolades and now face the question of where to go and what to do next.

When failure comes, as it must sooner or later, the psyche of the famous person is left hanging in the wind. Stars who are motivated by an initial need to be loved live in a world where eventual rejection is inevitable. The famous who have been feasting on praise and sycophancy deal poorly with failure.

Fame rarely provides stability or approval. Stars go from obscurity to fame and then back to obscurity virtually overnight. Robert O'Donnell, who was feted for rescuing Baby Jessica from a Texas well, enjoyed his fame at first. He was interviewed on the news and regarded as a national hero. Once the attention disappeared, however, O'Donnell had a hard time adjusting. He lost his job, developed severe headaches and ended up killing himself.

The public is fickle with its adoration of celebrities. Lucille Ball once said: "Actors and actresses all strive for affection. We get up on a stage because we want to be loved. The stage fulfills this need better than anything else... The irony is that in our terrible need to be loved, we pick an arena where we can also be rejected by the greatest possible number of people... rejection can't be anything but highly personal."

The unhappiness of the famous is magnified by media attention, which scrutinizes and magnifies every error they make and every shortcoming they have. Most people are sensitive enough to criticism of their failings; they can hardly imagine the pain of having one's character a topic of national discussion. Once the thrill of fame wears off, stars often face the misery of an irreparably compromised personal life, with no privacy to put things in order.

American presidents face the burdens of fame most intensely, since they have virtually no private life. David Bowie and Iman can obtain a modicum of privacy and security by fleeing to Bali, but Bill Clinton is literally a prisoner of his office. Warren Harding referred to the presidency as a "man‑killing job." Lyndon Johnson suffered deep depression when reading his press, and he was often reluctant to get out of bed in the morning. Woodrow Wilson was literally destroyed by the job; he said, "Men of ordinary physique and discretion cannot be Presidents and live." Herbert Hoover called the White House "a compound hell," and Harry Truman referred to it as his prison. Nearly all presidents are aged immensely by the job; they do not radiate happy or healthy looks when they leave office. On the whole, American presidents have suffered under their fame, rather than living long and healthy lives.

Fame can destroy through numerous means. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, the musical hero of so‑called Generation X, achieved stardom and riches while in his 20s. He appeared to have everything. More than a product of media hype, Cobain was one of the most talented singer‑songwriters in American popular music. However short his career, he brought to bear on his music a personality and force of vision comparable to John Lennon, Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger. Cobain is the first musical figure of the 1990s to have entered the canon of rock 'n' roll greats. Yet in 1994 Cobain bought a shotgun and blew his brains out. Before that time he had become deeply addicted to heroin.

Cobain's story shows how self‑destruction and fame‑seeking often possess a common root. Both come from a desire to transgress boundaries and step over the edge. Fame‑seekers are risk‑takers by nature, but risk‑takers do not usually lead content lives or die peacefully in their sleep.

Cobain's current of self‑destruction fueled the energy and genius behind his music. The group name Nirvana, chosen by Cobain, refers to ultimate attainment, but nirvana also means annihilation and nothing, rather than bliss, as it is commonly misunderstood. Cobain's quest for negation reflected his severe anxiety, which he mixed with a deeply personal sense of yearning. This combination resonated with his listeners and helped make him famous in the first place while simultaneously bringing about his self‑destructive tendencies and therefore his downfall. Cobain avoided the tendency of many rock stars to soften and tone down their emotions in their later years, but only by doing himself in.

John Lennon, who died through different means in 1980, encountered a different problem with fame—the violent fan. Cobain destroyed himself, but Lennon was brought down by one of his own followers. Lennon proved better at dealing with fame than Cobain did, but to little avail.

Like Cobain, Lennon's creativity drew upon his bitter, dark side. Almost all of the early Beatles love songs penned by Lennon (he wrote more of the early material than McCartney) were hymns to misogyny. On Rubber Soul he told the "little girl" to "Run For Your Life." Even the radiant "If I Fell," with its rich harmonies, warns his next woman that she should not disappoint him like the last. Lennon's sharp edge, combined with McCartney's musicality, assured the Beatles of a place in history. Yet Lennon was never happy during the days of his greatest fame. His personality was acerbic, he behaved obnoxiously, he abused drugs and drink, and he could not maintain stable relationships with women.

Although Lennon was troubled and hostile, he eventually learned to deal with his problems. As he matured, his misogyny gave way to repentance and public revelations of his personal suffering. His late Beatles work and early solo albums showed an obsession with the early death of his mother and drew upon his experience with Arthur Janov's primal scream therapy. Lennon eventually triumphed over his personal demons and achieved a hard‑won inner peace. By the late 1970s he had settled happily with Yoko Ono and was enjoying his children. The 1979 album Double Fantasy showed a sense of domestic tranquility that had not appeared in his music before.

Lennon's dream of a new life ended in 1980 when he was shot by Mark David Chapman. Chapman later told Barbara Walters, "I thought by killing him I would acquire his fame."

The violent, fame‑seeking fan now surfaces with regularity. John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan to gain Jodie Foster's attention. Arthur Bremer shot George Wallace in a quest for recognition. Bremer even worried that his target was not famous enough to enshrine him in the historical record. The motives of Presidential assassins are not always evident, but clearly they have chosen the most famous targets available. They are usually driven by a need for attention, rather than partisan politics.

Fandom brings out hostility and vicarious power‑seeking in many individuals. Monica Seles was stabbed by a crazed fan of Steffi Graf, for the ostensible reason of helping Steffi regain her number one position in the world rankings. David Letterman was stalked by a crazy woman who suffered from erotomania (a medical term for imagined "love," in actuality a form of psychopathic hostility and self‑hatred). Michael J. Fox received over 5,000 threatening letters from a single person. For five years a crazy admirer pitched a tent outside Joni Mitchell's house. Andy Warhol was shot by a crazed fan. And Selena, the Hispanic singer, was shot by the former president of her fan club.

Violence is a neglected part of fandom. Fred and Judy Vermoral, in their study of fan‑star relations, noted: "We were astonished by the degree of hostility and aggression, spoken and unspoken, shown by fans towards stars. Later we realized this was one necessary consequence of such unconsummated, unconsumable passion." The line between extreme respect and extreme detestation is a fine one; both "fan" and "fanatic" are derived from the same linguistic root.

Even when the famous do not meet up with violence, loss of privacy often ruins their lives. No celebrity illustrates this point better than Diana, one of the most famous women in the history of the world. Her image was known worldwide, and before her death she had been on the cover of People magazine 43 times.

Diana's fame destroyed her privacy and personal life. When she lived in the Royal Palace, roughly fifty freelance paparazzi followed her and recorded her every move. These paparazzi used rape metaphors to describe their stalking. To take pictures of Di was to "bang," "blitz," "hose," "rip," "smudge" or "whack." Photographers disguised themselves as window washers, strawberry pickers and fellow vacationers. Even when Diana worked out in her health club, it turned out that the club manager had allowed a hidden camera to be placed to photograph her. Top‑notch photos brought in as much as several million dollars.

Like many famous people, Diana had originally welcomed this attention. The media was the only card she held in her battle to establish space for herself in the British royal family. She courted the press, played to the public eye, gave reporters leaks and crafted a memorable image, all to receive adoration and influence.

But like most celebrities Diana eventually soured on fame. Even before she left the royal family she wanted out of the publicity game. In part she had underestimated how intense the scrutiny would be. In part she no longer needed a high public profile to hold her own with the family. Yet it was too late to reclaim her life as her own. As long as the public desired photos and stories of Diana, the paparazzi would meet that demand and pursue her relentlessly.

The final events leading up to Diana's death may never be known. Nor were the paparazzi directly responsible for the tragedy. The chauffeur was, after all, drunk and driving 60 to 90 miles an hour in downtown Paris. Nonetheless it was the desperate desire to escape publicity that led Diana and her entourage to take so much risk in the first place. The burdens of fame often induce the famous to lose control and take foolish chances.

Very famous women have even shorter lifespans than very famous men, although women as a whole live longer than men. Our culture disposes with famous women more quickly and brutally than it does famous men.

Female models typically find their careers over by age 30 or sooner, with few exceptions. On the screen, actresses face a quicker and more brutal rejection than most actors do. Fans value youth in women more than in men. Clint Eastwood remains a sex symbol and a big box office draw despite his age. Sean Connery has grown sexier and more popular for many years. In contrast, most actresses find their careers are over by 40, if not sooner. Shirley MacLaine and Jeanne Moreau provide exceptions to this rule, but women on screen are typically much younger than their male counterparts.

Sunset Boulevard starring Gloria Swanson, rang true in the Hollywood community immediately upon its release in 1950. The movie portrays a once‑famous actress who has been left behind by Hollywood. She vicariously relives old triumphs, tells old tales and then drowns her sorrows in alcohol.

Mary Pickford, the once‑famous Hollywood actress, provided the model for this tale. From 1920 to 1935 Mary was the most popular idol in Hollywood. By the age of 23 she was the best paid and best known movie star in history. Only Babe Ruth and the President equaled or surpassed her fame. Mary's screen career lasted longer than most but it dried up as she aged. She started drinking heavily in the mid-1930s and continued for the rest of her life. By lunchtime she was unable to conduct business or deal with other people. She spent the rest of her life as a self‑pitying alcoholic until her death in 1979. "I rarely saw her cold sober," remarked one friend.

Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in the 1980s Superman movies, fell further. After her movie career slowed down, Kidder filed for bankruptcy, fell ill and spent several years in a wheelchair. Three of her marriages had failed. In 1996 she was found by the police, wandering disoriented and aimlessly through a California suburb, spouting paranoid fears about being followed. She was taken to a psychiatric hospital. When she appeared on the evening news, her old fans hardly recognized her, even though her last Lois Lane role came as recently as 1987.

Most people, especially the non‑famous, think of fame as a benefit. After all, the famous are rich, charismatic and in great demand as romantic partners. Who would not want to be famous?

I see the reality as more complex. Most rising stars do not think carefully about the costs of fame before seeking the public's attention. Jason Priestley remarked, "You never think about the price of fame when you start out. You're far too busy trying to work. All of a sudden you find yourself a working actor and six months later you've got Hard Copy camped out on your doorstep." And Michael Maloney opined, "Anyone who craves fame is not aware of the consequences."

The famous, rather than ruling society, are instead its sacrificial lambs. Fame is a trap and often serves as a detour from more rewarding paths of internal personal growth and self‑fulfillment.

Approval, if not fame, matters for everyone, not just for a few top celebrities. We all seek praise from others and must decide how much weight to place on external recognition. Even if that approbation is small on a national or global scale, it is no less vitally important to the person seeking it. That is one reason why fans, including myself, take such great interest in fame—it mirrors our own dilemmas and lives. Stars face the same personal conflicts we all do, albeit in exaggerated and more public form. Samuel Johnson once remarked, "Every man, however hopeless his pretensions may appear, has some project by which he hopes to rise to reputation; some art by which he imagines that the attention of the world will be attracted; some quality, good or bad, which discriminates him from the common herd of mortals, and by which others may be persuaded to love, or compelled to fear him."

Throughout the ages, many thinkers and philosophers have viewed approval‑seeking as an uncontrollable addiction. St. Augustine remarked that even the relatively virtuous are keen for external recognition and cannot resist the temptations of earthly praise. Tacitus noted, "The lust of fame is the last that a wise man shakes off." Montaigne claimed that we cannot remove the desire for recognition from ourselves, no matter how hard we try.

Homer and the Greeks also recognized the double‑edged nature of fame. In the Iliad Achilles is told that a short life is the price of his glory and he is filled with bitterness at this exchange. In The Odyssey Achilles sits remorseful in the underworld, despite the fame he had achieved. He states he would rather live on earth as a poor farm hand than "lord it over all the exhausted dead." Greek heroes produce the glory of the song, but they reap early death from challenging the gods and pursue a gloomy and lifeless existence in the underworld.

Shakespeare's Falstaff remarked that honor cannot set a leg or save a life but represents only empty air. The same can be said of fame in modern times, or of fandom, for that matter. I shortly realized that my pleasure at seeing Bowie and Iman was largely false and illusory.

The next time we award stars with our money and attention we should also thank them for their sacrifices, ponder our own motives for our interest, and wonder how much we are destroying part of their lives.