Most of us imagine feeling happy and content should we ever achieve the wealth, fame and notoriety associated with being a celebrity. However, the experience of being a person who is highly visible in the media can take a tremendous toll on one’s psychological functioning. Even the most grounded actors, musicians, professional athletes, and high-ranking officials are vulnerable to the deleterious effects of being in the media spotlight. In his research, Jib Fowles, author of Star Struck: Celebrity Performers and the American Public (Smithsonian Institute Press), found that the average age of death for celebrities overall, was 58, compared to an average of 72 years for other Americans. His findings also revealed that celebrities are almost four times more likely to kill themselves than the average American. This article serves to explore the negative psychological impact of being in the media spotlight, which leads many celebrities to struggle emotionally.
As you read the following points, consider which celebrities have exhibited these traits to their own detriment.
No privacy. Everything celebrities do is publicized for the world to see, discuss, and mock. We love reading about the gaffes and gossip of the rich and famous, the more embarrassing, the better. A celebrity’s natural response to this level of intense scrutiny is increased self-consciousness and paranoia. Many celebrities, particularly those in the political arena, grow weary of the unrealistic standards they are held to, and begin to feel resentful of the limitations of being in the public spotlight. They may “act out” in response to feeling suffocated by their carefully constructed public image. Self-destructive, acting out behaviors often include unsavory sexual appetites, scandalous liaisons, volatile outbursts, or other destructive patterns such as uncontrolled substance use. Exposure of their behaviors by the media can lead to overwhelming feelings of shame when their public image is destroyed.
Lost sense of self. Many celebrities feel unable to assert their individuality in a media world fraught with stereotypes. As the media and fans develop a false perception of a celebrity (which is often one-dimensional) a celebrity begins to lose track of the multi-faceted aspects of their own personality. This causes them to make choices that no longer reflect their true self, which further compromises their sense of identity. Over time, they feel increasingly isolated and alone and have difficulty trusting others.
Loss of challenges. The experience of reaching the pinnacle of your goals and realizing it’s not as fulfilling as you think can be disconcerting. You’ve landed your dream job and begin settling in after your first big break…at first it’s exhilarating, but then you eventually wonder, “Is this all there is?” When a celebrity begins to feel they have nothing left to strive for – i.e. they’ve “made it”, suddenly they are left struggling to fill that empty emotional space with something even more thrilling or risqué. Often celebrities turn to taking increasingly bigger and more dangerous risks, as a way to regain a sense of challenge.
Imposter syndrome. Some celebrities are bewildered by their fame, knowing that they are far from perfect. The feeling of being an imposter occurs when people don’t feel they deserve their success. Celebrities may also fear being discovered, i.e. that the public will find out that they’re not as talented, intelligent, or attractive as they are portrayed in the media. They become keenly aware that their fans have idealized them in a way that is impossible to match in real life. Consequently, celebrities can begin to feel their gifts are no longer enough, leaving them with a sense of inadequacy.
Quest for media spotlight immortality. Many celebrities fear their fame is fleeting, which leads them to constantly obsess about losing the attention of their fans and the media. After a celebrity’s fame peaks, it is often a brutal ride downward as they garner less attention from others. The loss of the spotlight can leave people feeling bereft of purpose and importance. As a result celebrities often become desperate to regain notoriety and in doing so, become prone to buffoonery. In the wake of this loss, they often turn to self-destructive behaviors as a means to cope with overwhelming feelings of failure.
This article was composed by Christina Villarrreal, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist in Oakland, CA