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The Celebrity Phenomenon

Bill Murray once said that no one should ever want to be famous. There are rewards in having wealth, but fame is not rewarding. Follow that thought with the movie Sunset Blvd, in which the desire for fame has driven Norma Desmond mad, much like Gollum chasing fruitlessly after something he’ll kill himself to get back.

Sunset_Boulevard_Ready_For_My_Close-upBy Paramount Studios (hd-trailers.net) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps it is not the loss of fame that is Norma Desmond’s problem, but the fame itself. Perhaps fame is something people love and hate. Having it is a punishment. Losing it is death. You’re never the same after you hold it in your hands, and there is no Grey Havens in which to find peace.

Perhaps this is why so many celebrities, who have everything most of us could ever want, are so utterly miserable, miserable enough to drown themselves in things that will lead them to an early grave.

It’s easy to believe they’ve been spoiled by all the attention and money, so much so that they can’t find happiness in anything but all that is forbidden. There’s some truth to that, a lot of truth, in fact, but it doesn’t paint the whole picture.

I don’t particularly like celebrities, and please (please) believe me when I say I don’t spend every waking minute overly concerned about the everyday goings on of celebrities. But people like to pile-on, and I’ve already complained in depth about the mob mentality. And nearly all celebrity gossip, speculation, and adoration is a form of mob mentality. We usually like someone–or hate them–because everyone else likes them or hates them.

The story of Tom Cruise’s claim that filming a movie away from home was like being a soldier stationed in Afghanistan created a firestorm. What 99% of the people outraged by the story didn’t realize was that he never actually said (or meant) that. But the mob’s attention is very, very short, so what it hears first is what it believes. And you can never change its mind.

Most, if not all, hatred of public figures is created in an environment where the first one to speak, to make an accusation or expose a misquote or cleverly edited interview, is given ultimate credence. The rumor spreads. The outrage grows bigger and bigger until said celebrity (politician, writer, journalist) is shunned by everyone. Their name becomes a curse, a name we spit rather than say. We like to think of ourselves as civilized, but we certainly haven’t evolved much beyond the villagers in The Scarlet Letter or the people who lined up to watch public executions.

These are human beings, for heaven’s sake, actual human beings with the same feelings, flaws, and insecurities we all have.

Yet this is what fame gets you. Like nearly every element of this broken, despicable culture, we’ve got it all wrong. We stupidly desire fame and envy those who have it. But fame is a Monster. It’s the mixed bag of having everyone know who you are but never knowing you. You become a reputation, an inflated, exaggerated characterization of yourself, but not a human being. And as much as you tell yourself and others–and post it to your Facebook status–that you don’t care what people think of you, that’s simply not true. We all do. And having a world of people thinking bad things about you would take thicker skin than most humans have. And celebrities, who are usually artistic and creative and therefore sensitive, aren’t all that gifted with having thick skin.

So maybe instead of calling Phillip Seymour Hoffman an idiot for throwing his life away, or even calling for the deportation of Justin Bieber, we should stop and consider that these are humans we’re talking about, flawed and vulnerable (spoiled, yes) humans – that how they experience life, how they live it and feel it, is different from how we imagine it, no matter how wealthy, attractive, and important they seem to us.