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Are celebs making you narcissistic?

In “The Mirror Effect,” addiction and behavioral specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky and his co-author Dr. S. Mark Young examine the ways in which society’s willingness to admire, accept and copy celebrities is doing damage to our relationships and families. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In “The Mirror Effect,” addiction and behavioral specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky and his co-author Dr. S. Mark Young examine the ways in which society’s willingness to admire, accept and copy celebrities is doing damage to our relationships and families. An excerpt.

She’s tried singing, acting, modeling, even writing a book but, in the end, she’s most famous for being famous. She seems to glide through a glamorous world of prestige and privilege, where the usual rules don’t apply. When she violated her probation after being arrested for drunk driving, neither her celebrity nor her parents’ wealth was enough to keep her out of jail, at least for four days.

She’s a fixture on the club scene and a favorite of the paparazzi. Increasingly erratic in her job performance, she’s now better known for her highly publicized hookups, drunk-driving arrests, consecutive stints in rehab, and apparent fondness for cocaine than she is for the acting skills that made her famous in the first place. Her dysfunctional parents are in the tabloids almost as much as she is. With her fame-seeking family encroaching on her limelight, everyone’s waiting to see what she’ll do next to get attention.

She’s a supermodel. She wears couture and dates rock stars and millionaires. Only a teenager when she became the darling of the high-fashion set, she’s credited with popularizing heroin chic — the pale, languid, druggy look increasingly prevalent among models so emaciated that they are barely a size 0. However, highly publicized photos of her snorting cocaine, and a succession of romances with drugged-out rock stars, fueled the buzz that she should be in rehab rather than on the runway. Her public apology and promise to work on “various personal issues” stopped short of admitting she had a drug problem, but likely helped to salvage her career. Her employers and admirers were quick to forgive and forget, as her jet-setting lifestyle and reign as a style icon retained their pride of place in both fashion magazines and the tabloids.

From cute preteen, to highly sexualized teen pop star, to crotch-flashing paparazzi magnet, she has often traded on her sexuality to capture attention.

At seventeen, her naughty schoolgirl look and provocative lyrics made her a platinum recording artist with the best-selling single of the year. By the time she was twenty-one, Forbes magazine named her the most powerful celebrity in the world. Her career was derailed by allegations of drug and alcohol abuse, unsuccessful visits to rehab, volatile relationships, and outright bizarre behavior. Five havoc-filled years later, a very public breakdown landed her in a psychiatric hospital and cost her custody of her children. Though a carefully engineered “comeback” seems to spell her return from the brink, it raises the question: Can she stay healthy if she stays in the limelight?

If you read People or US Weekly, regularly check gossip sites like, or watch entertainment news shows or even reality TV, you’re sure to have recognized each of the people described here. Without hearing their names, or their career highlights, you still know exactly who they are. Celebrities today are as likely to be recognized for their bodies, rap sheets, and rehab stints as they are for their talents or résumés.

That’s because the behavior of today’s celebrities is much more dramatically dysfunctional than it was a decade ago. The personal lives of these figures — many of them young, troubled, and troubling —  have become the defining story lines of our entertainment culture, played out in real time and held up for our amusement, scrutiny, and judgment. Celebrity gossip, branded as “entertainment news,” details stories of excessive partying, promiscuity, divalike tantrums, eating disorders, spectacular meltdowns, and drug and alcohol abuse, behaviors that have become more open, more dramatic, and more troubling than in previous generations.

The media still reports on all the traditional celebrity gossip staples: Who’s lost or gained weight; who’s getting married, divorced, or cheated on; who wore what designer to which event; who’s got a new hairstyle (or, these days, a new nose or smoother forehead). Tabloids specialize in the business of making the mundane appear glamorous. In recent years, however, a new breed of extreme, salacious, unflattering dirt, courtesy of the no-holds-barred reporting on cable TV and the Internet, has redefined celebrity reporting and audience expectations.

Never before has it been as possible to feel like an insider in the culture of celebrity as it is today. We all have 24/7 access to the intimate lives of the stars, courtesy of the celebrity media machine. We can gawk at so-called candid photos of celebrities by flipping through US Weekly, In Touch, Life & Style, Star, or People at the supermarket checkout, or follow breaking gossip as it’s streamed to our home or office computers, BlackBerries, or cell phones. (In big cities, it’s even available onscreen in taxis.) We’re privy to a constant parade of sometimes private, often unflattering moments from the lives of our favorite stars, captured by paparazzi with high-tech video cameras or fans with cell-phone cameras, all of it posted on TMZ or YouTube.

Emboldened by the de facto relaxing of libel standards online, bloggers and paparazzi feed us their stories live and up close, with no apparent regard for fact-checking, especially when the reporter witnessed the action firsthand (or even captured it on video). Instead of relying on official press releases or credible inside sources, even mainstream media outlets have become increasingly willing to tackle previously taboo topics in their struggle to keep pace with the new media.

From footage of a dazed-looking Britney Spears strapped to a gurney, to TMZ video of Heath Ledger’s body being removed from his apartment by paramedics, no secret is too private, no tragedy too personal, to be considered off-limits. Life-threatening eating disorders, addictions to drugs and alcohol, self-harming behaviors like cutting or overdoses, trips to rehab and public relapses, sex tapes, and outrageous diva behavior are irresistible celebrity fodder, for both the audience who consumes it and the media outlets that exploit it. And such behavior only seems to add to the celebrities’ fame, with little or no negative consequences for their public reputation.

If that weren’t enough, the cable TV networks have filled their schedules with literally hundreds of reality TV shows, in which past, current, and aspiring stars potentially trade their dignity for a chance to play by the new rules. And those who want to do more than passively observe the antics of the rich and famous can audition to compete for our own fifteen minutes of fame on any of the hundreds of reality television shows. Or we can add our voices to the cultural chatter by anonymously passing judgment on celebrity behavior on Web sites like PerezHilton, Gawker, PopSugar, or TheSuperficial. And those who find tracking celebrities not intimate enough can even use the same media to report on themselves — blogging about their love and sex lives, parenting woes, political views, or even the most minute details of their daily lives. Those who crave the video spotlight can accept the challenge to “Broadcast Yourself” (YouTube’s trademarked slogan) and channel their inner rock star, TV star, even amateur porn star.

As those online platforms have evolved, it’s clear that they’ve given real people a forum to mimic those outsized, troubling behaviors they learn from celebrity gossip media. The Internet serves as an all-access, unmonitored version of unrated TV, on which lines between fantasy and reality are increasingly blurred. Our children, teens, and young men and women now absorb dozens of hours of gossip from the media each week, much of it featuring this celebrity bad behavior. And more and more they are imitating what they see, if only to attract attention from an audience of their peers. Teens are posting sexy, even explicit, photos and videos of themselves online. They are inviting, and engaging in, provocative conversations with strangers through social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook and in online chat rooms. (Chris Hansen’s recent “To Catch a Predator” series for Dateline NBC, a runaway ratings hit, was based on the widespread risk of teenagers being contacted over the Internet for sexual liaisons with strangers.) The Web allows vulnerable young people to project any persona they can imagine in the hope that people might notice them, fall in love with them or, just possibly, make them as famous in real life as they already are in their private fantasies.

In the past, most celebrities worked hard to keep their more reckless or dangerous private behavior under wraps, concerned that excessive drinking, drug abuse, and other vices might tarnish their public profile and thus their careers. Today, things have changed. Tabloid coverage may seem to be the most immediate path to building one’s career, and the most publicity-hungry celebrities and wannabes are only too willing to expose their unhealthy behavior in order to keep the cameras, and the public’s attention, riveted on their lives. The troubles of real-life characters like Anna Nicole Smith are exploited by the celebrity news business, with no concern for the example they set or even the celebrities’ own personal safety. And the public, increasingly unsure where entertainment ends and exploitation begins, consumes such imagery without thinking twice. When Anna Nicole, who lived her outrageous life on camera, was found dead in her Florida hotel room, her death felt less like a tragic loss of a deeply troubled soul than the inevitable last installment of a shamelessly exploitative miniseries.

It’s easy for any of us to fall into a pattern of following the love life of an actress we like, or the missteps of a rock star we find cool, as if they were the leads in a soap opera we can’t bear to miss. But it’s also easy to forget that these figures are real people, and that behavior that may seem merely wild or outrageous to us may actually be dangerous and troubling, a sign that those real people are going through a desperate time. And, as our exposure to the stars’ unrestrained behavior increases in its graphic intensity and intimacy, a disturbing phenomenon occurs. As we study the photos in magazines, absorb hours of “entertainment” and reality programming on TV, and stare at our computer screens, we absorb the images, and our perception of what is normal begins to change.

When stars are recorded indulging in high-risk behavior — drinking heavily, taking drugs, refusing rehab, losing huge amounts of weight in short amounts of time, making and releasing “private” sex videos — they are doing what psychological professionals consider “modeling” that behavior: that is, broadcasting an image that serves as a model for viewers of the broadcast. And when impressionable fans soak up those images in the absence of responsible mitigating commentary, it becomes easy for such viewers to impose their own desire for vicarious thrills, rebellion, or vindication onto such acts, and to mirror them in their own behavior.

We call this the Mirror Effect: the process by which provocative, shocking, or otherwise troubling behavior, which has become normalized, expected, and tolerated in our media culture, is increasingly reflected in our own behavior. In this book, we’ll examine the inherent danger when the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred; when the public becomes accustomed to seeing celebrity dysfunction or acting out portrayed as sexy, compelling, and dramatic; and when these corrosive behaviors are increasingly mirrored in our lives and those of our children.

After years of interacting daily with famous people, I cannot dismiss these behaviors as harmless or tolerable. I’m alarmed to see how widely such dysfunctional behavior has come to be accepted as glamorous, even desirable. While some may view the outrageous conduct of our entertainers as the inevitable byproduct of talent, creativity, and celebrity itself or a sign of today’s relaxed social mores, I want to identify it for what it is: a danger sign of the insidious group of traits that are clinically defined as narcissism.

Many celebrities display unmistakable symptoms of classically narcissistic behavior, from high levels of specific personality traits to dangerous and self-destructive behavior. As we’ll discuss at greater length in chapter 4, the word narcissism can be misleading: It’s often taken to mean self-love but, in fact, narcissism has more to do with self-loathing than self-love. Celebrity narcissists aren’t egomaniacs with high self-esteem. Rather, they are traumatized individuals who are unable to connect in any real way with other people. They are driven to attain fame, with its constant stream of attention, flattery, and empowerment, because they need the steady trickle of adoring recognition to take the place of any kind of real self-love or self-respect. As one of the most famous celebrities in the world has said privately (and darkly), he considers himself “a piece of sh-- around whom the whole world revolves.”

As I’ve studied celebrity behavior in the course of my work, one thing that has become clear to me is that celebrities don’t become narcissists. Rather, narcissists are driven to become celebrities. Viewed through this lens, the dramatically compelling celebrity soap opera we follow daily no longer seems quite so amusing; rather, it seems like cause for dismay. When you understand the danger of narcissistic behavior, which happens to be rampant among celebrities, but which is rooted in family and early childhood experiences, you will understand why the current preoccupation with celebrity has troubling implications for modern society.

And why it’s important to recognize, and positively channel, the narcissistic traits we all share.

It was an act of nature that brought me together with my co-author, social scientist Mark Young, and set us on the path to writing this book. One morning, during my morning run, I came across a large tree that had fallen across the road just a few houses away from mine. As I tried to drag it out of the way, Mark came out of his house to investigate. We introduced ourselves, first as neighbors and then as professionals, and thus began a fruitful friendship and collaboration.

For more than twenty-five years, I have co-hosted the syndicated radio show Loveline (a version of which also ran on MTV for four years). Today, I also host a daytime radio show, Dr. Drew Live. On television, I treat celebrity addicts on the VH1 series Celebrity Rehab, and work with adolescents and their families on MTV’s Sex ... with Mom & Dad. As an addiction medicine specialist, I treat patients at a rehab facility in Los Angeles.

Mark holds the George Bozanic and Holman G. Hurt Chair in Sports and Entertainment Business at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California and is trained to conduct research in social and organizational psychology. At the time we met, he was studying the entertainment industry, while developing an MBA curriculum aimed at grooming the next generation of entertainment business professionals.

My time on Loveline has given me a unique view of both celebrity and adolescent behavior. Thousands of celebrity guests have appeared on the show and many of them have shared their personal and psychological struggles with me and asked for guidance. On the air, I’ve taken hundreds of thousands of calls from adolescents seeking practical answers to the problems they deal with every day. At the hospital, I’ve treated thousands of addicts, both celebrities and everyday people.

Over the years, as I treated more and more celebrities, I noticed an increase in the frequency and intensity of acts of unregulated behavior. And, increasingly in recent years, I have also seen signs that my nonfamous patients were mirroring such behavior. I gradually became convinced that narcissistic personality traits were at the root of many challenging personality characteristics, and that they played a key part in the psychiatric issues that drove this behavior.

Because of the nature of our work, Mark and I often talked about celebrities: how to deal with their issues, how to interpret their shared psychological traits, and how to understand the allure they held, particularly for Mark’s students, most of whom hoped someday to work with celebrities in the sports or entertainment industries. One day, I suggested that Mark might enhance his understanding of how to manage and work with celebrities if he had access to celebrity culture from an insider’s perspective. So, I invited him to join me at the Loveline studio each night. For many months he sat and talked with the celebrities appearing on the show and with their entourages: the friends, family, agents, and publicists who accompanied them. He also spent time with celebrities on television and movie sets and at innumerable entertainment industry events.

When I asked Mark what he thought of these experiences, he admitted that he found most of the celebrities to be friendly, accomplished people, and that he’d become quite fond of many of them. As a group, however, they often behaved in ways that unnerved and puzzled him. I knew what he meant. I have a lot of friends who would be considered celebrities, and sometimes their behavior makes my heart ache for them. Practicing medicine in a psychiatric environment taught me long ago that otherwise lovely people may behave in obnoxious ways when driven by forces they have not acknowledged and therefore cannot manage.

When I told Mark my theory that extreme narcissistic issues were the root cause of most celebrity meltdowns and misbehavior, he responded immediately. His students were highly motivated professionals, but many of them admitted to admiring celebrities and, increasingly, his students were showing high levels of certain traits associated with narcissism, most notably a heightened sense of entitlement. Mark had also seen psychological studies of young people that backed up his own anecdotal impressions. Some of the students at USC, he said, were so sure they were about to become famous that they retained agents just in case. He described the rise of “USCene,” a gossipy blog (now defunct) that reported on and photographed USC students, effectively creating campus celebrities. Like most gossip blogs, it featured candid photos, the more provocative the better, and message boards that invited unfiltered commentary from viewers. The undergraduate population at USC, at least among participants in this blog, was modeling itself on the celebrity lifestyle.

Many of today’s celebrity story lines are powerful enough to trigger behavioral pathology among their audience, especially among its most vulnerable members. The media is full of accounts of celebrities wrestling with dysfunctional behavior, usually in four specific areas: body image, hypersexuality, substance abuse and addiction, and harmful acting out. Anyone who follows celebrity gossip even casually can name half a dozen widely admired celebrities who have had cosmetic surgery or eating disorders; who have released a sex tape; who have been arrested for DUI or possession of controlled substances; or who have played out an ugly breakup on the world stage. More explicitly than ever, the tabloids and gossip sites reveal which stars abuse drugs and alcohol, engage in divalike behavior or explosive aggression, or undergo dramatic swings in their body weight and physical condition. Especially when it comes to young celebrities, this kind of behavior is portrayed as tragically glamorous, dramatically alluring, and, most alarmingly, normal and expected.

Adolescents in particular are at high risk for mirroring such dangerous behavior. Among teens and college students, eating disorders are commonplace: As many as 3.7 percent of all female adolescents suffer from anorexia, up to an additional 4.2 percent suffer from bulimia. Nearly half (46 percent) of teens aged fifteen to nineteen have had sex at least once, and one in four teens has a sexually transmitted disease. Approximately 10.8 million teens (more than 28 percent of the total population for that age group) admit to consuming alcohol. Around 10 percent of twelfth graders use the prescription drug Vicodin for nonmedical reasons. Nearly as many eighth graders have used marijuana. Bullying and more serious forms of aggression and acting out are causing increasing concern among educators and parents from grammar school through college. And the bar for teen entitlement has been reset to a mind-boggling level.

In short, the levels of narcissistic behavior in our culture appear to be at all-time highs.

As an educator and a doctor respectively, and as parents ourselves, Mark and I were concerned about how the current entertainment landscape might affect our children. The more we talked about it, the more we felt we needed to analyze these troubling aspects of celebrity culture and consider what society could do to guard against their harmful influence.

My training leads me to evaluate a patient’s symptoms in detail before I arrive at a diagnosis. As a social scientist, Mark studies research data in much the same way, identifying and interpreting patterns that point to new conclusions. When I told Mark that I saw the growth of celebrity narcissistic behavior as an increasingly troubling cultural virus, he suggested that we study it at the point of transmission. If I were right, if celebrities as a group do tend to suffer from unhealthy levels of narcissism that drive their worst behavior, a scientific study of celebrity personality would give us a way to confirm and quantify that theory. In reviewing research on celebrity, neither of us could find a single systematic scientific analysis of celebrity personality. As far as we could tell, no one had undertaken to collect data from celebrities, and no empirical studies of their personality traits or behavior had ever been published.

The barrier wall of fame, of course, would have blocked most curious researchers from attempting such a study. However, my work in radio and television, and Mark’s network of connections in the entertainment industry, give us access to stars of all kinds. It may seem surprising, but when we began approaching celebrities about participating in a study of narcissism and celebrity, most of them were eager to participate. Over the course of approximately two years, we administered a well-known psychological survey tool called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) to two hundred celebrities from all fields of entertainment. The NPI assesses the scale of narcissism for a respondent, based on their answers to forty questions tailored to measure levels of specific narcissistic traits.

Most of the celebrities we surveyed had been guests on Loveline: comedians, actors, musicians, reality TV participants. Some of them are considered A list, some B list, or C list, but they were all famous enough to feature regularly in the tabloids, on entertainment news shows, and on Internet gossip sites. We also surveyed a group of MBA students. Since previous studies had found links between MBA students’ aspirations to corporate leadership and the traits of narcissism, we expected that our study would allow us to place the general population, MBA students, and celebrities all on the sliding scale of narcissism.

The results of our study, published in the October 2006 edition of the Journal of Research in Personality, confirmed our instinct. They showed that narcissism is not a byproduct of celebrity, but a primary motivating force that drives people to become celebrities. This study, along with additional, previously unpublished research, original interviews, and a detailed review of the entertainment press, gave us a springboard to continue our analysis of celebrity narcissism, and of its effects on the vulnerable and increasingly wide audience it influences. This book is the result.

Excerpted from “The Mirror Effect” by Dr. Drew Pinsky and Dr. S. Mark Young. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from HarperCollins. To read more, .