‘Remember my name. Fame.
I’m going to live forever. I’m going to learn how to fly, high.
I feel it coming together. People will see me and cry, fame’
Fame is a weird thing. Fame is a thing many people chase. To be famous is in some way, shorthand for being successful – you are known about, you are different, you are special, significant, important. You are more than just another person.
I have been thinking about fame after the tragic death of Caroline Flack. As I write this I am very conscious that I in no way, knew her – I didn’t even watch the programmes she presented. Just as I didn’t know her it’s not my place to generalise about her.
What is clear is that things ended up in the worst way possible. Someone who had sought the limelight was then consumed by it as many have been before – when the story turned dark, the amoral tabloids pursued her and people chose to buy their papers and read all about it.
The problem with fame is that it isn’t real. Fame provides the illusion that we can know the famous but we can’t. What we see is a created, edited version of someone and of course people want to be liked so a likeable version of them is created. All of which is fine until famous people want some privacy or a less likeable version of them emerges (doesn’t it with all of us at various points?)
Fame is a product and it should come with a health warning.
Recently, the BBC website had a story about a girl brought up in England who was half Korean (1). She followed her dream of being a K pop star and got a place in a South Korean training academy. She tells a story of control and exploitation, of trainees being referred to by numbers and passing out from over training and undereating. The dream for those in the academy was a part in a band, with a manufactured persona. She started to get cold feet, sensing that she couldn’t manage the charade and after being advised to have plastic surgery to alter her looks she chose to walk away.
This is a shockingly vivid case study of what is behind fame. Getting young people to be famous is a way of other people making money. We are presented by the media that thrive on all this with the opportunity to see into the lives of the famous but it’s not real, it’s a product. Little wonder there are so many stories of the damage it does to the people concerned – their lives have been turned into a commodity.
There is clearly a broad span with all of this. There are people known for doing things at one end of the spectrum to those who are famous for being famous at the other (the ones on TV shows about famous people who need a sub-title so you know who they actually are). Then there are those who actively court the limelight and others who choose to steer clear.
The disturbing question about fame as an industry is who benefits? The beautiful, charismatic, talented young people may get money and glamour but the real winners are those that make the programmes, sell the music (and associated stuff) and make a living writing the headlines without any of the unwanted attention.
Should we really be putting young people into these situations? We certainly shouldn’t be encouraging people to get their sense of value from the opinions of the press and social media.
Lena Dunham recently wrote an insightful piece for the Guardian based on her own first-hand experience of life in the spotlight (2):
What I can say, with the authority of someone who has been on a decade-long journey through the funhouse of public life, is that none of us benefit from a culture in which young women are told that being revered by people who do not really know them, in any forum from secondary school to the X Factor stage, is the answer to ancient feelings of low self-worth, or a salve for the pain and powerlessness that accompany so many forms of female identity.
Ultimately fame is escapism. For the viewers and readers its distraction from real life. For those taking part the offer is for a life beyond the ordinary. So often we then hear from them that it’s a false promise leading to pressure, anxiety and ultimately emptiness because the affirmation of strangers can never bring more than fleeting fulfilment.
What famous people need is the love of people that really know them. Sadly fame appears to make that harder to hold on to.
The rest of us need to resist the temptation to objectify and judge people we have never met and specifically to read the sort of publications and websites that think their lives are fair game.