Those who want it generally can’t get it. And those who have it are often unable to deal with it. Some people get so caught up in the glamorous lives of others that they lose sight of themselves.
It’s hard to shake a condition when you are constantly fed a steady stream of juicy, yet meaningless tidbits about the rich and famous. It’s hard to imagine what life might be like without a daily dose of Paris, Nicole, Lindsay and Britney. We love them better when they’re bad — and they’ve all been plenty bad lately — but even when they’re doing nothing, we still have to have our fix.
Noted Beverly Hills psychologist Dr. Bethany Marshall finds the attraction to Hilton somewhat amusing, but not at all surprising.
“She is seemingly loved for doing nothing,” says Marshall, author of “Deal Breakers” and a frequent guest on morning chat shows. “And a lot of our youth, their parents don’t love them unconditionally for who they are. The fantasy of being loved just for who you are without having to do anything. In reality, I think that’s what they see in her and why they admire her so much.”
Like any other addictionAccording to several psychologists, the inherent need in some of us to emulate those who influence and inform our desires and needs is not so unusual. Fame, like alcohol, drugs, ESPN and shopping can be addictive.
Dr. Brinell Anderson Slocumb, a Pasadena psychologist specializing in addictions and substance abuse, explains it this way: “By seeing celebrities who look as though they have everything and have no needs — in some ways that gives people an opportunity to escape from the reality of facing their own limitedness, frailties or inability to have their needs met.”
So, essentially, that means we kind of want to be like Paris before she went on lockdown. But in some ways she became even more appealing after she was sent to jail for violating the terms of her probation following successive DUI convictions.
“There’s something compelling about watching a train wreck,” says Dr. Robi Ludwig, author of “Till Death Do Us Part: Love, Marriage and the Mind of the Killer Spouse,” and host of GSN’s “Without Prejudice.” “Celebrity has been our version of royalty because of what it symbolizes. It’s used to symbolize achieving the American dream — of having it all. I think that’s what fascinates us. These people who seem to have it all really don’t.
“Fame is so fleeting. People who achieve it, there’s no guarantee that they’ll maintain it. So, therein lies sort of the addictive loop.”
Dr. David Sloan Wilson, author of “Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives” and a professor of biology and anthropology at SUNY-Binghamton, concurs in part.
“Our minds are adapted for a small-scale society and what’s happening today is an out of control version of that,” says Wilson. “The lust for fame has taken on this pathological form that is much like our eating habits making us obese.”
The fame game: It cuts both waysBut can celebrities be addicted to fame, too? Ludwig seems to think so.
“Absolutely,” Marshall says. “One of the concerns with celebrities who have made it is that they will lose it. There is this need for more and more. And just like with any addiction, it has less to do with actually the item that you’re seeing, so the fame is actually used as a mood enhancer. Fame helps a person to feel important, invaluable — that they matter.”
That’s perhaps one of the reasons why singer Patti LaBelle always makes herself accessible to her fans. Not only does LaBelle enjoy interacting with her fans out in public, she always invites them to reach out and touch her on stage when she’s performing.
“I learned a long time ago that it’s important to keep the love flowing,” LaBelle says. “Because baby, one day that love might go away and you’ll be a hot mess!”
At 65, LaBelle is wise enough to know how fleeting fame can be. But some of those celebrities who were weaned on “Full House” and Michael Jackson, just don’t get it — yet. They don’t realize that although they might be living on the corner of Happy Street and Blissful Boulevard right now, Busted Drive and Has-Been Road are only a few missteps away.
“Oftentimes, I think celebrities may get caught into believing that they are more than what they are and that may lead to some of their addictions,” Slocumb says. “I hate to give a clear-cut, black-and-white analogy, because I think each person gets into a position of celebrity for different reasons. It could be pure talent and what happens after that or you might have someone whose parents are famous and they also want to be famous. But I think once they’re in it, it’s a lure to think that life can really be a certain way. You don’t have to face life on life’s terms even though you have the means. But emotionally, you still have to face growing like every other normal person.
“Fame can cause anyone to distort reality.”
Good girls gone bad?This has certainly been the season of the bad girl. While no one can adequately explain the phenomenon that is Paris Hilton, there’s hardly a day that goes by when we don’t see her image beamed across our TV sets, see her image on the net or in a magazine, or overhear someone trashing her at the watercooler.
“I think it’s very tough growing up in the limelight,” says Ludwig. “They’re very young kids who were not allowed to be children during the appropriate time because they were working. Mentally, they are going through an adolescent rebellion in the public eye, that’s No. 1. They have a lot of money, and they have a lot of entitlement that can allow them to get stuff easier because there aren’t people around them who could put on the brakes or say no to them as easily.
“When you are famous, you are a product and people can use you. Unless you have the emotional wherewithal to choose the right people in your life, it’s very tough for these young kids.”
But now that Hilton has basically been on the DL since getting sprung from jail, her sorority sisters have picked up the slack. Lindsay Lohan, the baby of the bunch at 21, was picked up for DUI again a week after she left rehab. A repentant Nicole Richie, who fessed up to being high when she was busted for DUI — again — will serve four days in the same jail where Hilton did her time. And although Britney Spears — whose divorce from Kevin Federline was recently finalized — has managed to avoid any convictions, she’s perhaps the most perplexing of them all.
“I think she is a severe addict,” Marshall says. “I think when she cut off her hair — again you can think bipolar because of all the judgment problems — she has systematically cut everybody out of her life. And Lindsay Lohan is doing the same thing. Anyone who confronts them and holds them responsible for their addictions, they just get rid of them.”
Marshall suggests, however, that fame might not be at the root of their respective dysfunctions. “I think you have to look at genetic factors, because Lindsay Lohan has a history of addiction in her family,” she said. “You have to look at personality factors and possible bipolar illness because generally the ages of onset are between the ages of 18 and 21.”
Esther Jeles, the Chicago-based CEO of Aylet Inc., a company that seeks to transform dysfunctional workplaces into positive and productive environments, thinks that there are other issues to consider as well.
“I actually clump all kinds of people who are spiraling down into the category of not having a personal value system,” says Jeles, whose clients include Harpo Inc. “What do you value? If you were to ask people who are spiraling down what they value, they can’t answer with any substantiveness. They talk about material things as a value. But if you talk about those who have core value systems, they are the ones who say they can receive love, they can show appreciation, they have gratitude. They understand the wisdom of values.”
Crashing and burning: Why is it fun to watch?
Celebrity screw-ups are nothing new. Back in the ’20s, popular comic actor Fatty Arbuckle was arrested, but eventually acquitted for the rape and murder of a young starlet named Virginia Rappe. In the ’40s, action hero Errol Flynn was arrested for statutory rape, but he, too, was acquitted. And then there was the scandal that ensued after Elizabeth Taylor purportedly broke up the happy union of Eddie Fisher and America’s sweetheart Debbie Reynolds in the ’60s.
“What really fascinates us — among many things — is not just adoring famous people, but discovering their indiscretions,” says USC professor and author Leo Braudy, who has penned books on fame and celebrity. “Nobody cares if Phil the janitor has an indiscretion, but we really care if Bill Clinton has an indiscretion.”
He’s right. This is perhaps why some people found it so gratifying to poke fun of Hilton when she was on lockdown.
“I think you have to think about basic envy,” Marshall says. “Envy is when someone has something that you want and you don’t think you can get it. We usually attack the objects of our envy.”
“We have always had a double relationship with celebrity,” Braudy says. “On one hand we might admire them and revere them, but on the other hand we think they’re a pain in the ass. I kind of see it as a continuum between adulation and revenge.”
Is there a pill you can take?
Since fame addiction is not considered a serious psychological disorder — yet — there have apparently been no studies on how to treat it. “It’s habituating. It’s like if you drink every night you could be like an unwilling junkie,” Marshall says.
Slocumb, however, does believe that it’s treatable.
“There’s nothing in the DSM4 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Edition 4), the diagnostic and statistical manual that we use to diagnose people with mental illness — that talks about fame addiction or celebrity addiction,” she says. “If I were to have someone come into my office and this was their primary complaint, I would want to treat them because they’re coming in because they’re feeling uncomfortable with it somehow. So, it certainly can be treated and I would use them in models of addiction, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’ve read any research that has called this a clinical condition.”
Jeles, agrees in part.
“I do know and I do understand addiction,” Jeles said. “I’ve studied it from here to eternity. It’s not as complicated as it appears. Again, addiction is our medication to not have to have self-acceptance or self-assessment. Any time you are addicted to something or need something outside of yourself in order to function, that can be problematic.”
Is the media to blame?Fame addicts and those on the periphery are quick to blame the media for overexposing celebrities in the mainstream press, the tabloids, entertainment magazine shows and now, TMZ.com.
“I think it’s a pretty heavy role,” says Braudy. “Whenever I’m asked by someone in the media why we’re obsessed with celebrity, I always say, I’m not sure we are, but we are. Celebrities and media go together. There’s always been this symbiotic relationship. Whenever a celebrity is doing something erratic, it fills time and space, especially in the summers. They’ll say we’re just giving the public what it wants, but it’s not like the public really has a choice.”
“I think the media is totally responsible for stirring it up for commercial purposes,” Wilson says. “Consumerism is something that’s pathological in its own right. So you find all the buttons — all the psychological buttons — and then you push those buttons with great skill to sell stuff.”
But Jeles is not so quick to blame the media.
“I see media as a service of alerting us about our current situation,” Jeles says. “In their way they’re warning us about this eminent danger of our culture’s victim status. We do not have to be this way, though.”
Miki Turner can be reached at