Fame is a grotesque affair. It can maim you or it can kill you. When you achieve fame, you must choose which it will be. Tiger Woods had to make that choice this week as he was rolling over in his Hyundai and he chose maiming rather than death. Now he sits in a hospital bed somewhere in Los Angeles with a variety of lower body breaks and tears to his leg muscles following his most recent car crash.
Tiger Woods is by no means the only superstar who has been partially or totally destroyed by the poisoned chalice of fame and fortune. In recent memory there was Marilyn Monroe, John Kennedy, Judy Garland, Sharon Tate, Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, Virginia Wolfe, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimmie Hendrix, Bob Dylan, David Foster Wallace, Robin Williams, etc.
The reason that fame is dangerous is beautifully demonstrated in the 2010 film “Somewhere” written and directed by Sophia Coppola and starring Stephen Dorff, who plays a famous actor who has lost himself and any semblance of a life.
The acquisition of fame requires that you give single-handed devotion to a single craft to the neglect of all other things in life. And when you finally achieve fame, you have a life filled with endless work, airports, hotel rooms, agents who tell you what to do and where to go, and occasional sex intermingled with very exciting stage performances in front of strangers. And while in public you also get interactions with many people who seem to know you so you resort to calling everyone “bud.”
The saddest story I have ever heard of the burden of fame comes from Bob Dylan, who achieved worldwide recognition at a relatively early age. On one of his many world tours in Europe he was walking down a street in London looking for a restaurant. He looked in a window of one and saw a lively and animated room filled with laughing diners all enjoying themselves. He decided to enter and as he walked into the room all became silent and watched him as he was seated at a table. He later remarked that it was like he was death itself that came into the room and killed all its joy and fun.
Over the years when I have had dinner with superstar athletes or actors, I have witnessed the same eerie thing each time. All eyes are on the star throughout dinner and the moment we would get up to leave, it’s as if a signal were given and several people would quickly come up and ask the star for a quick photo. This may sound like fun, but it grows wearisome rather quickly. Many of them have remarked to me “Why can’t people realize that I’m basically just a normal person who happens to have one special skill?”
This is what fame comes down to and as in the film “Somewhere” they eventually wind up locked away, hiding, seeking privacy and end up alone, overly isolated, skittish, fairly paranoid and distrustful. You forget who you are and where you are. You’re doing well if you wake up and remember what city you’re in.
Despite these stories, most people would trade their average life for the glamor of fame. Over the years of working with stars, I have learned that there is a certain type of person who seeks to acquire fame. It’s true they have special talent, but they also need a special fire in the belly to endure all the stress. This fire in the belly will often have its source in a deeply troubled past. The pain of childhood can serve as a jet fuel which energizes the athlete or actor to keep on working in order to escape from the grasp of childhood shame.
Tiger Woods was a black child in an all-white neighborhood. Marilyn Monroe had a mom who was an ambulatory schizophrenic. Michael Jackson had an abusive dad. Early childhood deprivation or abuse set them on a course to escape the shame by undoing it with fame.
So, the next time you hear of an accident or tragedy that has befallen a superstar it is probable that they have drunk too deeply from the poisoned chalice of fame and have tried to remain oblivious to their own past. But as the saying goes, “you may be through with the past , but the past ain’t through with you.” The demons of your past are like those nightmares where you can’t seem to get away from the monster that keeps on coming at you.
Freud was the true genius of the 20th century whose theory is quite simple. What he discovered and what most people do not want to hear is that what happened to you as a child is of far greater consequence to your life right now than you realize. And until you face these demons, all sorts of surprising and unpleasant accidents will befall you.