With the nationwide release of Amy, the bio-doc of Amy Winehouse, I am reminded of the all too often fatal cost of fame. After seeing the movie, there is something I want to shout from the highest peak so that people can it hear this loud and clear: “Fame can kill you!”
In the first scene of the movie showing Winehouse at 14 years old singing Happy Birthday along with her girlfriends, who go silent (and who wouldn’t), letting the remarkably talented Winehouse finish the song solo, you can see the seeds of the comet she was to be. Streaking across our group consciousness, Winehouse was a glowing reminder of what talent really is: a transcendent combination of the divine mystery manifesting in a mere earthbound creature. When we are in the presence of talent, we know it, and it takes our breath away; we are forced to stop and observe the miracle of it. This is true of all of art, which speaks to art’s therapeutic and curative powers dating back through millennia. Art enhances mindfulness by forcing our awareness into the present moment. Winehouse was an artist with extraordinary gifts whose sheer talent made us stop and listen.
“Fame came like a huge tidal wave,” former Winehouse friend and manger Nick Shymansky said this past week on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, emphasizing what he thought was his friend’s undoing. Winehouse was woefully unprepared for fame, as are most who find themselves in the celebrity glare, not because of a craving for fame, but due to the inevitable rise of undeniable talent. “The fame came very, very quick and very strong…” Shymansky said. “She got depressed, she got lost, she got into a bad crowd, started trying heavy drugs…” Director Asif Kapadia elaborated, “As she became mega famous and a worldwide star… It got out of control. She couldn’t control it. People around her maybe weren’t experienced enough to control it.”
No one can control fame. That is the problem. Fame is not so much a thing, or a place, or a station one arrives at and can settle into as much as it is a dynamic that has its own particular trajectory. It is hard to put a bit and reins and a saddle on fame; like a wild horse, it has a mind of its own. “I don’t think I could handle it,” Winehouse says presciently of fame early in the film, “I think I would go mad. It’s a scary thing. Very scary.” Almost none of us would be prepared for the onslaught, the impact that fame has on the psyche, emotions, relationships, sense of self and capacity to freely love and be loved. The reason is that the famous are never ever alone, because fame, the silent stalker, follows them everywhere. And in the age of phone cameras, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat (and all the social media platforms yet to come), any chance at privacy for famous people is all but nil. Through a developmental psychology lens, this can prove devastating to a 20-something, just discovering deeper understandings of life and existence and one’s place in the larger world, in other words, coming to know what is truly meaningful.
Participants in a research study I conducted on the psychology of fame and celebrity shared what being famous is like for them. Interviewing well-known people from various walks of life, I got an insider’s tour of what fame might actually feel like. The study quotes one participant’s forewarning:
They need to have like, Fame 101, to teach people what’s coming: the swell of people, the requests, the letters, the e-mails, the greetings on the street, the people in cars, the honking of the horns, the screaming of your name. There’s a whole world that comes to you that you have no idea is there. It just comes from nowhere. And it starts to build and build, and it’s like a small tornado, and it’s coming at you, and coming at you, and by the time it gets to you, it’s huge and it can sweep you off your feet and take you away and put you in a world that has no reality whatsoever because all the people are judging you on what you do for a living, not for who you are or what kind of person you are.
Another participant said that fame “entitized” him.
I think celebrity does that; I think that it entitizes you, if there is such a word. Now you’re not a person, you are an entity. As an entity, you can be anything… So, I mean, you feel sort of turned into a ‘thing’ and not a person.
Fame objectifies the famous. While the spotlight grows brighter, a famous person’s sense of self may actually fade. In short order, the overwhelming reality of the unrelenting glare of celebrity can leave the newly enthroned at a loss. “I find I put up a kind of a wall around me,” an internationally known celebrity shared, “and I just deal with people up to that wall, but not inside of it.” He continued:
I don’t think you trust anybody the same way when you become well-known, because you don’t trust being well-known. It is an intrinsically untrustworthy dance partner; it could leave you at any time, it could lift you up to someplace you didn’t know before… It takes you to strange places, it gets you accepted in places you’ve never been. So, it’s like a very mysterious thing. Anyone who comes through that dance partner to you is also mysterious. ‘Why? Why do they want me? Why are they interested in me?’
Such a profound lack of trust in the world around them can leave celebrities isolated, misunderstood and disconnected, often finding themselves surrounded by sycophants reveling in fame’s reflected glory.
Other famous participants reported feeling like:
“An animal in a cage; a toy in a shop window; a Barbie doll; a public façade; a clay figure; or, that guy on TV.”
With some amount of sadness, there is a creeping realization that there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to be free, nowhere to rest in precious anonymity. Participants described this loss of privacy as:
An invasion; my life is for public consumption; familiarity breeds inappropriate closeness; fear of being alone in public; seeing recognition in strangers’ eyes; you cannot be anonymous; you are living in a fish bowl; and, continual fear of tabloid paparazzi.
And, not surprisingly, the effects of fame are also felt physically, in the body. Participants reported that being out in public was difficult:
I felt a little more nervous, a little stomach tightening; my heart rate probably triples. I start to stutter. My hands get real wet… my eyes…come close to tearing; you start swirling inside; I walk in and I get swarmed; hundreds of eyes are on you; and, there is a sense of anxiety with me that kicks in immediately… I get prepared for that on-rush of being famous.
The public is clamoring, wants to touch the celebrity, get an autograph, have a picture taken with the star, is screaming out the celebrity’s name, yet, all the while, in a truly perverse way, reacting to the famous person as if they are not even there. This form of objectification can separate the famous person from his or her essential nature, and diminish any chances at developing a healthily grounded ego — so hard to come by at any age never mind in early adulthood — and then the psychological, emotional, mental and spiritual downward spiral is primed for ignition.
There may be some hope, however, in this sorry scenario. Potentially famous, almost famous and newly famous people need to understand the celebrity dynamic thoroughly at the outset, before the full-blown side effects of fame kick in, before the downward spiral. I strongly recommend regularly scheduled psychotherapy, awareness training and mindfulness as the basis of a prerequisite “celebrity boot camp” for anyone entering the public eye. Otherwise, the prospects for a fulfilling, enriching and truly successful life may be dim. No Rehab is enough to save many of our most talented people from the dastardly and deadly throes of fame.
“If I could give it all back just to walk down the street with no hassles,” Winehouse is quoted as saying in the the documentary, “I would do it.”