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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.