What Fame Does to the Famous
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“There is a fame epidemic,” Simon Cowell, the boorish judge of television talent show competitions such as Britain’s Got Talent and American Idol, once declared. You may be one of the celebrities featured in the Forbes India Celebrity 100 list and know firsthand how it feels to be famous. Perhaps a few of you would even caution us from coming down with fame, a recalcitrant bug that like zoster can embed itself deep within the cells and painfully reactivate in later years. Michelle Pfeiffer once said that she acts for free but charges for the inconvenience of being a celebrity.
Psychologists Donna Rockwell and David Giles collaborated on a descriptive study of 15 famous Americans in fields such as sports, law, government, movies, and music. You may have had a friend become famous and more flighty, or noticed your favourite celebrity morph with increased fame. The researchers validate how people change with fame, and outline four stages they go through.
It starts with a love/hate relationship with the new onset of fame. Next comes an addiction to fame that drives all energies towards maintaining it (think Twitter). Then there is an acceptance that life will not be normal (eg, who pays the bill when you go out with a friend?). Finally, people adapt to this new life, and change. Well, ask the celebrities and they say that it is we who change (I did once follow Pandit Ravi Shankar into a bathroom in Carnegie Hall; and left Sonny Mehta at the door). “The ﬁrst thing that happens is that everything and everybody around you changes… and you can feel it ﬁlter down to whatever your inner circle of friends is,” says one of the interviewed celebrities.
I have a theory called the boss-baccha theory, and I think it captures what happens to many celebrities. While they are ostensibly the sought, the accomplished, the powerful, we wrap them in our pit of public adoration and become their bosses. “A lot now I am focused on other peoples’ reaction, rather than my reaction to the world,” reports a celebrity. Celebrities may become accustomed to the attention, and quickly dependent on it, enough that they can lose themselves and their ability to relate to the simple, memorable acts of life—such as keeping your promise to go to the passport office with someone you love.
Sophia is an R&B star who was bigger than life at her prime, and unable to find intimacy in relationships. Many people exploited her to benefit from her fame. We assume that fame brings wealth and security; not always! “It was just about being famous but not being compensated, and it continues… I never thought it would be like this. I always thought that there would be an abundance,” she says.
Before you pull out a hanky to weep for the famed, let me assure you that there is yet hope for Tinsletown. As one of the interviewed celebrities shares, “Fame while you’re alive will probably get you good seats at restaurants. But the only possible way to make your life signiﬁcantly meaningful is—there are two ways: To positively aﬀect the people around you with love and caring, and to eﬀectuate some change that lives on after you, which is very difficult. Very few people do that.”
And I close with examples from two people who have done this, and a plea to the galley. Elton John’s AIDS foundation has raised over $125 million to work across the world, including in India, to fight HIV infections, deaths from AIDS, and the social discrimination that keeps the virus thriving. Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate has raised over Rs 22 crore, and more importantly used his celebrity to start a long process of social change. And here is my plea—if you are one of our celebrated 100 Indians, sure I may have suggested that we are your bosses, but we recognise your exceptional talents and celebrate them through investments of our time, money and passion. What are you doing to make sure that when we dim our lights, you have left enough of an impact to keep the flame of your fame burning?
Dr Kumar, and our health team, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org