Why do people want to become famous? It’s easy enough to mock celebrities, but where in the psyche does the will to fame spring from? Few of us ever become famous by accident or at little cost, so what is it that inspires the deep sacrifices that fame demands?
At the heart of the desire for fame lies a touching, vulnerable and simple aspiration: a longing to be treated nicely. Whatever secondary impetus may be supplied by appetites for money, luxury, sex or power, it is really the wish for respect that drives the will to fame.
If this hardly seems like a fuel powerful enough to propel a lifetime’s worth of the efforts that becoming and remaining famous require, we should never underestimate the negative stimulus provided by fame’s opposite, humiliation. We may come to want fame desperately because of just how searing is the pain of being overlooked, patronized, left alone in the corner, ordered to go to the end of the line, thought of as nobody or told to call back in a few weeks. The wish to be famous is a bid to have our dignity fully respected in a world where it almost certainly won’t be unless we are prepared to take extreme measures. We may be equal before the law and at the ballot box, but there is no guarantee of dignity in the treatment we receive at the office, in our social life or between the wheels of governmental or commercial bureaucracies. Especially in big cities, those centers of unkindness toward the ordinary, where life is unmediated by the beneficial influence of vast skies and huge horizons, respect is a scarce and tightly rationed commodity, and indifference is the norm. One would be well advised not to set foot in Manhattan or Los Angeles without having the ready a fairly snappy and impressive answer to the inevitable inquiry about what one does for a living.
Fame allows celebrities to leverage kindness and respect others. A famous name alone can accomplish in an instant what its bearer might otherwise have had to beg for over the years with his or her whole personality. This saves a lot of time.
Other people have to be nice to be famous because they appear as emanations of the whole world, of the judgment of millions of their followers. Fame is power backed up by an unseen army of admirers. To refuse to laugh at a celebrity’s joke, or to express skepticism as to their talent, is to take on not just an individual but also the whole system that anointed them: the clever judges who gave them the prize, the legions of people who bought their album, the venerable magazines which put them on their covers, all of these are part of an invisible but highly effective force which the famous person can command whenever he or she meets someone at a party or has to deal with an official at a check-in desk. Fame staves off tendencies towards opportunistic meanness; it saves the famous person from being left at the mercy of strangers.
But not everyone needs fame equally badly. The appetite for fame tends to depend on both what sort of childhood one had and what sort of society one lives inn.
In the early years of the archetypal famous person, there is – almost inevitably – rejection; there can’t be any kind of sustained longing for fame without it. One parent or the other had to have been uninterested, emotionally absent, more concerned with a sibling – or dead. In the most desperate cases, where there is no question but that fame will become an obsession, the parent omitted to notice there child because they were themselves engaged in trying to become, or in consorting with those who already were, famous.
When attention and kindness most mattered, when they were defenseless and weak between the ages of zero and ten, when they had no sophisticated tools for attracting the love of others beyond their mere existence, the embryonically famous could not spontaneously convince a much-needed parent of their own importance, a slight catastrophic enough to shape the trajectory of an entire life. How invisible one was once made to feel determines how special and omnipresent one will later need to be.
Unfortunately, of course, achieving fame rarely corrects the early slight, for the real wish is not to impress through achievement (singing, sculpting, deal-making and so on), but to be loved simply for being. The moment of achieving fame is hence likely to be accompanied by feelings of hollowness, for it can’t in itself correct the humiliation that ignited the original wish for fame. The self-destructive behavior often seen in the famous is the confused articulation of anger at a pyrrhic victory, a desire to destroy an adulation of the many which has been unable to compensate for the neglect of a primary crucial few.
By contrast, the happily anonymous adult, who needs no acclaim and can be satisfied with a modest job, is the true person of privilege in this scenario, for he or she has luxuriated in one of the greatest gifts available to man: the sense of being central in the affections and care of a parental figure. A decade of parental love can give a person strength enough to cope with fifty years of insignificance. The only childhood properly deserving the epithet ‘privileged’ is the one in which the child’s emotional needs were adequately met.
This analysis has a side benefit of providing us with a litmus test for how good a job we may be doing parenting our own children: we have only to ask whether they have any wish whatsoever to become famous.
The intensity of the desire for fame depends also the nature of one’s society. The more dignity and kindness are only given to a few, the stronger will be the urge to avoid being simply normal. Those who pin the blame for ‘celebrity culture’; at the door of the immoral young are hence missing the point. The real cause of celebrity culture isn’t narcissistic shallowness, it is a deficit of kindness. A society where everyone wants to be famous is also one where, for a variety of essentially political (in the broad sense) reasons, being ordinary has failed to deliver the degree of respect necessary to satisfy people’s natural appetite for dignity.
In so far as the modern world is celebrity-obsessed, we are living not so much in superficial times as in unkind ones. Fame has become a means to an end, the most direct route to a kind of respect that could otherwise have been won in different, less renown dependent ways – through kindness rather than magazine covers.
If we want to decrease the urge for fame, we should not begin by frowning upon or seeking to censor news about celebrities; we should start to think of ways of making kindness, patience and attention more widely available, especially to the young.