Our Town: Michael Jordan and the fame monster

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Our Town: Michael Jordan and the fame monster
"Like a moth to a flame, Michael Jordan found it hard to walk away from the spotlight"

Few will deny the attraction of fame and it’s nearly impossible to walk away from it after it’s tasted your blood. NBA super star Michael Jordan is a good example of how difficult it is to turn away from the spotlight. After his magnificent run with the Chicago Bulls with six NBA titles to his name, he briefly retired but then, at the age of 39, returned to play another two seasons with the Washington Wizards. Money could not have been a motive since he was worth $1.6 billion at the time.

Sports Illustrated is preparing a piece on the 25th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s return to the Wizards and one of their writers called to explore with me what compelled MJ to go back to the grind. I talked about the idea of his hyper competitiveness and killer instinct, but the motivation to stay in the limelight goes far deeper than that.

Let us take a few minutes to explore the power and the dangers of fame. Lady Gaga’s first album was originally titled “Fame,” but at the re-release, she gave it the title “The Fame Monster,” which tells us all we need to know. At that point in her remarkable career, Lady Gaga had a life-sized taste of fame and recognized it as the monster it is.

The acquisition of fame has two phases. In PHASE ONE, the young prodigy has a special, other worldly gift. Singers are good examples. Lady Gaga’s true gift is not her theatricality but her voice, which is pure as gold. And when the fame machine gets wise to the gifted youngster, then things change rapidly. When you start to add the flashing camera, the siren sound of applause and all those adoring fans, you enter PHASE TWO, which Lady Gaga aptly called “The Fame Monster.”

Analysts call this Acquired Situational Narcissism, which produces all those monstrous character traits like entitlement, grandiosity, exploitation, arrogance and the inability to hear the word no. (Acquired Situational Narcissism may explain the sexual entitlement trends that we witnessed in so many television and political personalities, including Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Andrew Cuomo.)

The long running Broadway play “Little Shop of Horrors” personifies the danger of fame in the form of a giant man-eating Venus flytrap. The plot consists of how Seymour, a meek and hapless flower shop worker, finds a plant that grows only if it is fed human blood. The plant seduces him into feeding it humans and in return Seymour is promised fame, fortune, and the love of Audrey. It is about the idea that fame devours anyone who gets close.

Any popular film, whether it’s a comedy, drama or horror flick, obtains its huge box office tally because it taps into an emerging cultural problem or crisis that needs redress.
We now live in an age of celebrity, which took off in earnest in the early Sixties, just as “Little Shop of Horrors” was being made.

This is the age of narcissism where its citizens crave fame. Psychoanalysts report an ever-increasing number of patients who display grandiosity, entitlement, haughtiness, selfishness, manipulativeness and excessive interest in bodily appearance. Forces within our culture such as endless images of celebrity, social media and the steady disintegration of family, church and community are producing this trend in Acquired Situational Narcissism.

I think the winners in this game of fame are no one. On the top of the heap are the rich and famous with household names like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, Madonna, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Lady Gaga and Andy Warhol. Fame killed half of them, and the others are exhausted, burnt out, frightened to go outside, irreparably injured and hiding in hotel rooms.

The most chilling description of fame came from Michael Jordan himself as he was lounging on a couch in his hotel room. He remarked to the interviewer: “I don’t think you would like to be Michael Jordan” to which the interviewer inquired “Why not?” Jordan then said: “Take a look around this room. This is my world. The moment I leave this room I am accosted by endless numbers of adoring fans who want my autograph or a quick photo. I cannot walk down the street. So, in a way, this hotel room is what remains of my life. This is my prison. So do you think you would like to be me?”

The fame monster is real. And you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you are not famous, you are damned to be a nothing, a nobody and filled with shame. But if by stint of talent and hard work, you somehow manage to climb the ladder, you are sure to meet Audrey II, that man-eating Venus flytrap that will be happy to suck you dry and turn you into an entitled Fame Monster yourself. Indeed, we live in the best of times and the worst of times. And Tiger Woods has a very large yacht named “Privacy.”

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