To say that 2016 has been a bad year for celebrities is like saying it’s been a bad year for Liberals.
It’s been a fucking brutal year. We lost heroes, visionaries, artists, and incredible masters of movement, sound and spoken word. When we lose Bowie, Prince, and Cohen in the same year, it is easy to become fearful about the passing of White or Downey. I know you may have your favorites, those are mine.
Like many of you out there, I didn’t really buy the idea that 2016 was a celebrity serial killer. I am as big a fan of numerology as the next person, but can’t rationalize this whole hero-dying-trend as the result of a single 365 day stretch.
Some legends died when they were 27. This list included Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain and recently Winehouse in 2011. My morbid curiosity wonders why, but my rational side knows it’s all just coincidence.
This idea was further developed by Antwon Herron writing for ‘Wear Your Voice’. He referenced Judy Anne in a condescending way at times, mispelling her name, and calling her central premise half-baked. I hope that was meant as a clever pun.
Despite the tone, his article was well balanced and researched. I also agreed with his central premise, which pointed out the strong connection between substance abuse and mental illness.
At the risk of attracting his criticism, or perhaps even yours, I would like to take this topic one step further.
Celebrity Culture is a powerful illusion
The largest factor causing our disbelief that so many great entertainers died so recently is the psychological power of ‘celebrity’.
Those who ‘make it’ in Hollywood undergo a strange transformation on a psychological level. This change on the Homo sapiens status card has important implications not only for the celebrity themselves, but also for us.
Without much of an internal discussion, many people usher the winners of show business across a cognitive bridge reserved for special people. We give ourselves permission to think about stars in a different way, which alters how we treat them.
We are inundated with celebrity divorces, meltdowns, bankruptcies and affairs without experiencing the empathy. We justify it by pretending their lives are just another reality show, instead of a real human life going though a patch of Hell.
It is important to realize that celebrity culture is a force simultaneously elevating individuals to their privileged places while also reducing them to popularity ratings and superficial standards.
How we relate to celebrities
Many of us spend a great portion of our lives fascinated by celebrities. They are invited into our homes daily, in an age where we no longer answer the door and screen every phone call. They become our virtual friends, and the daily events of their personal lives become the topic of debate around the water coolers of the world.
Our affinity breeds its own sense of overfamiliarity as we strive to become experts on their message. We feel close to them, like we know them, because we love their look, the character they play, or the music they perform.
With all that data and ambiguity, we unknowingly create them into who we need them to be. We struggle to separate the person from the performance. We ignore their realities and vulnerabilities, or reframe them in ways that further the attraction. This flawed reasoning becomes particularly problematic when their personal problems or actual human traits spill onto the public consciousness.
You know you are caught in the twilight zone of celebrity culture if you find yourself asking the following questions:
Are Brad Pitt and George Clooney actually starting to look ‘older’?
How could Robin Williams’ incredible brain ever develop dementia?
Wasn’t Spock supposed to just beam out of here one day?
How could Superman become paralyzed at the clutches of gravity?
Did I really feel sympathy for Charlie Sheen, as he spiralled out of control before acknowledging his problems with mental health, drugs, and HIV?
Why do I enjoy hearing about Amanda Bynes or Lindsey Lohan doing something that likely represents mental health problems, and why am I so efficient at relabelling it as ‘stupid, crazy, or entitled behaviour’
Who celebrities really are
Even though it sounds completely obvious, it is important to start with the fact that celebrities are human beings. They are exactly like us. They want to use their talents and passions to make the world around them better. They want to find love and understanding in our world. They have strengths and vulnerabilities. They make brilliant and poor decisions.
Celebrities are also unlike many of us. There lives are under a constant fan-driven media microscope. They risk the scrutiny of a planetary audience. This type of courage is attractive and intoxicating to the rest of us. It is also an exhausting endeavor rife with the possibility of failure and shame.
Somewhere amidst the worship, we tend to ignore their humanity. We swarm them in public, use technology to stalk them, and rarely consider the invasions to their privacy. It can be argued that this is the price of show biz, but do we ever fully realize the cost? And should we expect each star to accept this additional role and cooperate accordingly?
Hollywood is a sick place
Life as a celebrity must be fucked. The competitiveness for attention, ratings and popularity, undoubtedly creates incredible stress for each person going through it.
Dave Chapelle recently spoke about this during an interview for Bravo. He described being an actor as a ‘lonely place’, and talked about the inherent problems when ‘art and corporate interests meet’. Once you make it ‘there is no going back- you can’t get unfamous, only infamous- and I got scared to death’.
His advice for those pursuing show business was to ‘prepare to have your heart broken because a weak person cannot make it’. When he decided not to take the infamous million-dollar Comedy Central deal he was called ‘crazy’ and felt mislabelled: ‘calling someone crazy is dismissive- maybe the Hollywood environment is a little sick’.
How we should treat celebrities
The facts are celebrities can have relationship and financial problems. They can struggle to control mental health problems, and substance abuse. They will make mistakes and disappoint us. They will be the most popular face on the planet and then fade into obscurity.
They face incredible social expectations just trying live a normal life once their work day is over. It makes me wonder whether being in show business causes an increased risk for mood and anxiety problems, drug and alcohol abuse, and perhaps even suicide.
We need to try our best to coax celebrities off the pedestals in our brains, and see them as actual people who have developed their incredible talents. We need to try our best to separate the character from the person, or risk dehumanizing them.
At the same time it is powerful to realize you are already a celebrity to the people that love you. Your close friends and family are genuinely interested in who you are and want to know who you are dating or what you are working on. Invest in those relationships as they are likely to pay you much bigger dividends than chasing famous people!
Keeping celebrities around for as long as possible
The idealizing cult of celebrity personality is so powerful it can seem counter intuitive for a celebrity to actually die. Like, ever.
I don’t really know any celebrities. I read the same interviews and memes about them that you do. I interpret their art through my own personal narrative and hope I get it.
I feel bad they are gone as much as you (and perhaps more than people in my life that I have actually met).
They remind me to pursue my passions and live my life to my fullest. They remind me that despite any perception of success, we all have challenges, opportunities, and enough time to make a difference.
We need to start giving celebrities the right to be human again. We need to worry about them when they are struggling, and accept that they too may suffer from the very ailments that affect all of us. They can be hurt. They can be sick. They can be overwhelmed with their lives and choices.
They need our support regardless of the imagined immortality fame and fortune affords them.
I challenge you to leave them alone when they trying to shop or eat at a restaurant. Don’t take pictures when they are dropping their kids off at school. Realize your life is not complete if they smile at you, call you on stage, or scribble their autograph on your napkin.
If you can’t, then understand this is the reason why they plan secret weddings, hide medical problems, and disguise themselves as much as possible. Like anyone, they are just looking for some space to breathe.
Let’s face it, when it comes to celebrities the pendulum has swung too far. We have caged them in the media zoo, to be gawked at, gossiped about, and gushed over. The responsibility lies with all of us, and solutions begin when we challenge our own unhealthy obsessions.
We can all be healthy supports for our celebrity heroes.
The danger of maintaining this current celebrity culture may mean what happened to Belushi and Farley may occur again with Bynes and Lohan.
They may not be your favorites, but they are people too.
Simon Trepel, MD
Check out my blog at Simon Says Psych Stuff