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Work • Status & Success
On the Desire for Fame
We don’t always feel comfortable admitting it to our friends; it is embarrassing. But, secretly, the idea of being famous has great appeal.
Fame is deeply attractive because it seems to offer very significant benefits. The fantasies go like this: when you are famous, wherever you go, your good reputation will precede you. People will think well of you, because your merits have been impressively explained in advance. You will get warm smiles from admiring strangers. You won’t need to make your own case laboriously on each occasion. When you are famous, you will be safe from rejection. You won’t have to win over every new person. Fame will mean other people will be flattered and delighted even if you are only slightly interested in them. They will be amazed to see you in the flesh. They’ll ask to take a photo with you. They’ll sometimes laugh nervously with excitement. Furthermore, no one will be able to afford to upset you. When you’re not pleased with something, it will become a big problem for others. If you say your hotel room isn’t up to scratch, the management will panic. Your complaints will be taken very seriously. Your happiness will become the focus of everyone’s efforts. You will make or break other people’s reputations. You’ll be boss.
The desire for fame has its roots in the experience of neglect, in injury. No one would want to be famous who hadn’t also, somewhere in the past, been made to feel extremely insignificant. We sense the need for a great deal of admiring attention when we have been painfully exposed to earlier deprivation. Perhaps one’s parents were hard to impress. They never noticed one much, they were so busy on other things, focusing on other famous people, unable to have or express kind feelings, or just working too hard. There were no bedtime stories and one’s school reports weren’t the subject of praise and admiration. That’s why one dreams that one day the world will pay attention. When we’re famous, our parents will have to admire us too (which throws up an insight into one of the great signs of good parenting: that your child has no desire to be famous).
But even if our parents were warm and full of praise, there might still be a problem. It might be that it was the buffeting and indifference of the wider world (starting with the schoolyard) that was intolerable after all the early years of adulation at home. One might have emerged from familial warmth and been mortally hurt that strangers were not as kind and understanding as one had come to expect. The crushing experience of humiliation might even have been vicarious: one’s mother being rudely dismissed by a waiter; one’s father standing awkwardly alone.
What is common to all dreams of fame is that being known to strangers emerges as a solution to a hurt. It presents itself as the answer to a deep need to be appreciated, and treated decently by other people.
And yet fame cannot accomplish what is asked of it. It does have advantages, which are evident. But it also introduces a new set of very serious disadvantages, which the modern world refuses to view as structural rather than incidental. Every new famous person who disintegrates, breaks down in public or loses their mind is judged in isolation, rather than being interpreted as a victim of an inevitable pattern within the pathology of fame.
One wants to be famous out of a desire for kindness. But the world isn’t generally kind to the famous for very long. The reason is basic: the success of any one person involves humiliation for lots of others. The celebrity of a few people will always contrast painfully with the obscurity of the many. Being famous upsets people. For a time, the resentment can be kept under control, but it is never somnolent for very long. When we imagine fame, we forget that it is inextricably connected to being too visible in the eyes of some, to bugging them unduly, to coming to be seen as the plausible cause of their humiliation: a symbol of how the world has treated them unfairly.
So soon enough, the world will start to go through the rubbish bags of the famous, it will comment negatively on their appearance, it will pour over their setbacks, it will judge their relationships, it will mock their new movies.
Fame makes people more, not less, vulnerable, because it throws them open to unlimited judgement. Everyone is wounded by a cruel assessment of their character or merit. But the famous have an added challenge in store. The assessments will come in from legions of people who would never dare to say to their faces what they can now express from the safety of the newspaper office or screen. We know from our own lives that a nasty remark can take a day or two to process.
Social media hasn’t helped. It’s made it far easier than before to be famous. And therefore, by necessity, far easier to be hated. A minor celebrity can now regularly face all the vitriol previously accorded only to Hollywood stars.
Psychologically, the famous are of course the very last people on earth to be well equipped to deal with what they’re going through. After all, they only became famous because they were wounded, because they had thin-skin; because they were in some respects a bit ill. And now far from compensating them adequately for their disease, fame aggravates it exponentially. Strangers will voice their negative opinions in detail, unable or simply unwilling to imagine that famous people bleed far more quickly than anyone else. They might even think the famous aren’t listening (though one wouldn’t become famous if one didn’t suffer from a compulsion to listen too much).
Every worst fear about oneself (that one is stupid, ugly, not worthy of existence) will daily be actively confirmed by strangers. One will be exposed to the fact that people one has never met, about whom one would have only goodwill, actively loathe one. One will learn that detestation of one’s personality is – in some quarters – a badge of honour. Sometimes the attacks will be horribly insightful. At other times, they’ll make no sense to anyone who really knows one. But the criticisms will lodge in people’s minds nevertheless – and no lawyer, court case or magician can ever delete them.
Needless to say, as a hurt celebrity, one won’t be eligible for sympathy. The very concept of a hurt celebrity is a joke, about as moving for the average person as the sadness of a tyrant.
To sum up: fame really just means you get noticed a great deal – not that you get understood, appreciated or loved.
At an individual level, the only mature strategy is to give up on fame. The aim that lay behind the desire for fame remains important. One does still want to be appreciated and understood. But the wise person accepts that celebrity does not actually provide these things. Appreciation and understanding are only available through individuals one knows and cares about, not via groups of a thousand or a million strangers. There is no shortcut to friendship – which is what the famous person is in effect seeking.
For those who are already famous, the only way to stay sane is to stop listening to what the wider world is saying. This applies to the good things as much as to the bad. It is best not to know. The wise person knows that their products need attention. But they make a clear distinction between the purely practical needs of marketing and advocacy and the intimate desire to be liked and treated with justice and kindness by people they don’t know.
At a collective, political level we should pay great attention to the fact that, today, so many people (particularly young ones) want to be famous – and even see fame as a necessary condition for a successful life. Rather than dismiss this wish, we should grasp its underlying worrying meaning: they want to be famous because they are not being respected, because citizens have forgotten how to accord one another the degree of civility, appreciation and decency that everyone craves and deserves. The desire for fame is a sign that an ordinary life has ceased to be good enough.
The solution is not to encourage ever more people to become famous, but to put massive efforts into encouraging a greater level of politeness and consideration for everyone, in families and communities, in workplaces, in politics, in the media, at all income levels, especially modest ones. A healthy society will give up on the understandable but erroneous belief that fame might guarantee the kindness of strangers.