Home Society & Culture The Psychology of Fame and Celebrity: Why Do People Want to Be Famous?

The Psychology of Fame and Celebrity: Why Do People Want to Be Famous?

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Huge numbers of young people want to be famous. What drives such a near-universal desire? What effect does that desire have on people? What are the realities of fame and celebrity?

Aspirations for fame are motivated mainly by the need for validation and attention.

Fame also, generally speaking, brings wealth. Fame gives access to earning opportunities to which anonymity is denied. How many product-endorsement contracts have been formed between multi-national organisations and Mr or Ms Unknown? Publicity pays.

Publicity pays so much that people and organisations the world over are prepared to pay in all sorts of ways for attention, for fame, for celebrity.

The desire for fame can warp people’s thinking. A brief viewing of what people are prepared to do to appear on ‘reality’ TV shows reveals the depth of motivation.

Any motivation that powerful can easily be misdirected, misfocused or abused. Several mass murderers have expressed that they were, or were thought to have been, motivated by notoriety. I won’t mention their names, but almost everyone can list several and cite the names of several of the most evil people in history, indicating their desire for notoriety was realised.

Vast industries make huge amounts of money claiming to make people and products famous. Marketing, advertising, public relations (spin doctors), copywriters, photo editors, and many other roles exist to make people, organisations, products, and services famous. Why?

People buy only after their attention is on what they buy. The fame industry (sales and marketing in all its forms) makes the rest of the economy work. Over 9% of the workforce is in the fame industry, trying to get your attention on whatever they are selling.

Attention pays. The hugely successful and internationally famous 19th century showman, P.T. Barnum, is still celebrated today in the fame industry: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” he said.

It seems that any kind of attention pays. Barnum again: “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”

Another master of fame, Oscar Wilde, pinpointed the need for people to have their existence recognised: “There’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Almost every media outlet obtains most of its content and revenue from people seeking publicity. Public relations agencies place stories with the media every hour of every day worldwide in the hope of free publicity. Advertisers are given greater editorial coverage of their stories if they spend more on advertising. All to make something or someone more famous, to generate more revenue.

When young people see the wealth, status, and privilege given to famous people, it is little wonder that so many want those benefits.

Fame, in many cases, has nothing to do with talent or success. Joni Mitchell is reported to have said: “I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent; they want people with a certain look and a willingness to cooperate.” That is, music companies know what it takes to sell music, and most of it has nothing to do with music.

Young people seem more drawn towards fame than middle-aged and older people, and it seems to have been that way for some time, if the observation of Lord Byron was accurate in its day: “Fame is the thirst of youth.”

Hundreds of millions of people are on social media trying to become famous. Social media may not have increased the desire for fame, and it may simply have better enabled the expression of that desire.

There seems to be something deep and enduring in the core of human nature that needs recognition, significance, appreciation, and validation.

Perhaps we ought to update the ideas of the 17th century philosopher René Descartes, from,

  • “I think, therefore, I am,” to
  • “You think of me, therefore I am.”

Maybe for those who are most driven to be famous, for anything, or nothing, the phrase can go further:

  • “No one thinks of me; therefore, I am not.”
  • That takes us into the dark side of fame and celebrity. Celebrity comes with a heavy price. As I once expressed to one of my CEO clients: “Hello fame, goodbye privacy.”
  • Brad Pitt famously said: “Fame makes you feel permanently like a girl walking past construction workers.”

When people look at the prizes fame can bring, it seems they give little consideration to its cost. For many, the cost is not just “a lot;” it is everything.

If we were to list the number of famous people who have killed themselves in just the 21st century alone, it runs into hundreds. Yes, you read correctly: hundreds.

Fame can be toxic from within, too. Humans are all too tempted to believe their own hype or the hype created around them, and when they cannot live up to it, the mental ill health seeds that they have previously sown, sprout as poisoned ivy.

Please, don’t blame the media; it behaves the way it does because of public demand. It is in us all to look for heroes and role models, and once found, when they inevitably turn out not to be perfect, to seek to bring them down. How many heads of state have been elected after telling the public what they wanted to hear, only to fail to deliver on those same undeliverable promises?

Joni Mitchell described the gulf between the hype of fame and its reality concisely: “Fame is a series of misunderstandings surrounding a name.”

In the decades I have been coaching I have worked with some amazing CEOs, any one of whom would have made a brilliant head of state. None wanted it. Why? They wanted to serve, deliver, and do what was right, with integrity, without any fuss, and certainly did not want fame and all that goes with it. In fact, to many, fame would have made doing their job harder, and accordingly, they turned down almost all media requests for interviews.

That is the modern application of ancient leadership wisdom. 2500 years ago, Sun Tzu noted: “A good commander is benevolent and unconcerned with fame.” In my experience, the most skilled people in many fields are hugely more effective than those who are in the public eye. Indeed, they may be so much more capable because instead of seeking fame, they spent that time becoming more effective.

People react to fame in very different ways

  • “Fame doesn’t fulfil you. It warms you a bit, but that warmth is temporary.” Marilyn Monroe
  • Woody Harrelson: “It’s an odd beast, fame. It’s got multiple personalities.”
  • “Fame is like a VIP pass wherever you want to go,” said Leonardo DiCaprio.

What explains fame?

No one can be famous unless others are talking about them. Fame seems to come less from the famous person than the people whose interest causes the fame. Fame, therefore, is best understood by looking at the talkers.

When someone loves what they do, it is much more likely that they will succeed. Why? They keep going, buoyed by their passion, getting better and better long after others have quit. It is also more likely that people around them will sense both their love of the field and their performance level, and start talking. Those are some of the precursors of talent-based fame.

However, it is not the full picture. Some people are the best in the world at what they do, and no one pays any attention. For example, somewhere in the world, there is someone who is the best at keeping the sewage system in their area working as well as possible. They are not famous. Talkers don’t talk about them; they remain underground (excuse the pun).

Fame also needs a supply and demand element. Top surgeons take decades to train. Few make it that far. The level of dedication and study to become so skilled is very unusual, increasing the value of the skills. The supply of top surgeons is small, and the demand for their services is high. Even so, few top surgeons are famous. Something more is required. Let’s turn to a more visible example.

Top soccer players are so well paid because of their rarity value and what people are prepared to pay to watch them play.

That is, the most famous people are those in fields that, by necessity have high exposure to the public.

The railway maintenance engineer with the best safety record in the world is not seen by the public and is not famous, yet saved countless lives over the span of their career.

The link between talent and fame is mediated by public exposure, hence the reason so many people and organisations spend so much time and money trying to get public exposure.

Some fame is luck based, for instance, lottery winners and people who were in the right place at the right time. Some people are famous because they received publicity after their press release on a slack news day. Others who achieved world firsts remain obscure because their news broke on the same day as a war or the latest corruption scandal.

Fame is a fickle monster. It can make and break a person on the same day. Some people rise on its wave, and others are swamped under it.

If fame is what you want, and you find yourself being validated and recognised by large number of people, resolve to use it wisely and for the common good. One of the most famous people in history, Muhammad Ali, said: “I wanted to use my fame and this face that everyone knows so well to help uplift and inspire people around the world.” He did exactly that.

If you become famous, for whatever reason, what good will you do for others? How would you use your fame to make the world a better place?

  • “No-one thinks of me; therefore, I am not.”

You may have seen people taking and posting photographs of the most mundane activities. “If there is no picture, it didn’t happen,” is not just an element of social media culture; it comes from the legal system. Courts all over the world will discount any claims where there is no evidence: “If there is no evidence, it didn’t happen.”

That takes us into the dark side of fame and celebrity.

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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