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Celebrity and Its Discontents


Not content to leave the study of celebrities to tabloid body-language experts, the psychological community is coming to terms with celebrity psychopathology. The modern medical term—the famous term, the celebrity term, the superstar of psychological monikers—is acquired situational narcissism (coined by a doctor who may know whereof he speaks, since he refused an interview because he didn’t appear in the “Best Doctors” issue of this magazine).

Are the crazy drawn to Fame, or does Fame make them crazy? ASN claims the latter. To a celebrity, narcissism is a rational response to a world that functions as a mirror, amplifying one’s positive self-image, the sense that one is in the absolute center. It arrives later than classical narcissism—which sets in between the ages of 3 and 5, once a realistic view of the world begins to develop—but the disorders are indistinguishable, with patients exhibiting the same grandiose fantasies, excessive need for approval, lack of empathy, anger, and depression (how fabulous). Fearful of exposing the real them, narcissists project a glorified self that becomes so ingrained it becomes impossible to tell what’s real and what’s made up. This is the self they start talking about in the third person. Everyone must love this self or it risks dissolution. There must be Omnipresent Love. Speech becomes impressionistic and lacking in detail—a symptom celebrity profilers well recognize.

“The media and the movie industry don’t always agree with each other, but they’re both out to entertain,” says Steven Spielberg. “People should not be fooled.”

Celebrity, as John Updike wrote, is the mask that eats into the face. A study has shown that pop stars use personal pronouns in their songwriting three times more once they become famous; another study claims that the more famous one gets, the more one checks oneself in the mirror, and the more one’s self-concept becomes self-conscious. It’s a problem, to be both self-involved and self-conscious.

A Tinseltown version of post-traumatic stress disorder develops. Danger is around every corner. “The same thing happens to celebrities that happens because of war, because you’re in the middle of disaster, terrorism,” says psychologist Robert Butterworth. Last month, Catherine Zeta-Jones’s stalker was sent to prison after claiming she was going to blow Zeta-Jones’s brains out like JFK or slice her up like Manson did to Sharon Tate unless she stopped having an affair with George Clooney, which she wasn’t.

Trapped in their bubble, celebrities experience arrested development. The celebrity becomes an adolescent, a developmental stage that is non-age-specific. The time is the time before the blows to self-esteem that lead to a mature, realistic view of one’s weaknesses and strengths and a capacity for love that transcends self-love (Paris Hilton time).

But once again, the world impedes. Someone, a fired masseuse or peevish younger sister, tells the celebrity that he is full of it, or he loses out on the new Steven Soderbergh movie. Impostor syndrome sets in, with its attendant sense of fraudulence. The star begins to notice he has a limited skill set based upon a fortunate genetic hand dealt him. Emotionally intuitive creatures, they realize they’re surrounded by people smarter than they are—even their agents!—and that makes them insecure.

Wary of the gap between the false and true self, the star overcompensates by developing a God complex. Important people request the star’s largesse, as the many supplicating letters in Marlon Brando’s recent estate auction demonstrate, even one from Martin Luther King Jr. (“I have been subject to great personal strife and am obliged to go to Court Thursday,” Brando telegrams back. “I feel honored that you asked for what assistance I could give. I cannot at this time be of assistance.”) The star may be told, like Madonna has been by the rabbis of Kabbalah, that she is the reincarnation of Queen Esther. The star may be the tool by which the message of a body like Scientology is meant to be disseminated across all lands.

The overall multiaxial assessment: Completely Out of Their Mind Personality Disorder With Multiple Insane Features, or, more succinctly, Beyond Diagnosis.

So who would want to be a star under these conditions? Listen to a star in the making: Ariel Gade, 8, at the premiere of mainstream horror flick Dark Water, when asked if she likes fame. “I love it,” she says, her voice quavering with excitement. “I’m just having such a good time tonight!” Does she want to be famous? “I’d like to be a director. I think directors are the coolest people around.” When I ask her if things were still the same with her friends, first she says yes, but then reconsiders: “Well,” she says, scrunching up her exquisite face, “actually, I’m home-schooled, so I don’t have any friends. But I do have cousins.” She starts to walk away but stops short. “Oh, and by the way, this is a Bill Blass design,” she says, holding out her pink tulle dress. “Bill Blass brought it over a few days ago, I don’t remember exactly when. Bill Blass gave it to me as a little gift.” (Which would have been nice, except Bill Blass is dead.)

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