According to celebrity gossip magazines and 24-hour news channels, fame is pretty darn fun. Who wouldn’t want fabulous vacations, designer clothes, and constant adoration? Fame used to be a byproduct of success, an unpleasant but tolerated side effect of being exceptional. Now, fame itself has become the entire goal and the manner in which the famous achieve their fame is irrelevant. According to a 2006 report by the Pew Research Center, becoming famous is the primary life goal for 51 percent of eighteen to twenty-five-year olds. We’re obsessed …. but why?
A Recipe for Misery
Some evidence suggests that fame-seeking behavior is unhealthy. In a study at the University of Rochester, researchers showed that subjects motivated by external goals like praise and recognition reported lower emotional well-being than subjects with internal goals such as personal growth or physical health. Psychologists have also established a link between fame seeking and feelings of rejection or abandonment. People who feel ignored or neglected when they’re young can have a tendency to chase recognition and approval once they’re adults. They think that becoming famous is the only way to get the attention and love they feel they deserve. For anyone picked on, teased, or humiliated as a child or teenager, becoming a celebrity is the ultimate in-your-face triumph.
Dreams of Stardom
Many people motivated solely by the pursuit of fame naturally gravitate toward the entertainment industry, hungry for the lavish lifestyle and constant attention that they see celebrities enjoying. For fame seekers, reality television has been a goldmine, a shortcut to gain exposure to launch their career. Robert Galinsky, the founder and principal of the New York Reality TV School, estimates that about 50 percent of his students are actors, models, singers, and other performers trying to get cast on reality competition shows like American Idol or America’s Next Top Model, hoping to find that elusive nugget of fame that will grab Hollywood’s attention and help them land gigs on TV or in film. “It’s a slightly desperate approach to getting air time,” says Galinsky, but it doesn’t stop people from trying.
Besides the actors looking to grab a few minutes of screen time, reality TV has also given a voice to the untalented “regular” folks who just want to be on TV—and some aren’t afraid to admit that they’ll do anything to get famous. “They have the delusional perception that this will bring them fame and fortune,” says Galinsky. Such people, if they’re successful, usually end up on shows like VH1’s Rock of Love or I Love New York. “Those shows allow you to go in without a skill,” says Galinsky. “You just have to have a personality that’s wild, and think ‘I can be as loud and as drunk as that person.’”
The Easiest Character to Play
Why bother learning to act if you can get paid to be yourself? Even if you’re famous for being disliked, many believe it’s better to be infamous than unknown, because any kind of notoriety can sustain an entire career. Paris Hilton showed the world that you can be famous just for being famous and many people have tried to imitate her success, which went from fabricated to legitimate. Now, it’s possible to have an entire career based on reality TV. “They see it as a meal ticket,” Galinsky says. One former Survivor contestant who was only on the show for three episodes has parlayed his fame into endorsement deals, personal appearances, autograph signings, and so many other business opportunities that he’s never had to return to a full-time job. People who are dying to get their fifteen minutes idolize notorious nobodies like Kendra Wilkinson from The Girls Next Door, Tiffany Pollard from I Love New York, and the girls from The Hills, who have no discernible talents, yet rake in millions of dollars.
America has become so obsessed with fame that people with regular jobs are getting in on the act too, because even in non-entertainment professions, it seems that nowadays you have to be famous before you can be successful. On competition shows like Top Chef, Project Runway, and Groomer Has It, formerly ordinary professionals compete not just for the top prize, but also to gain exposure, build their brand, and further their careers. Many of these people aren’t in professions where they ever thought they’d be celebrities, but these days, being famous is almost a prerequisite to success, since no one wants to risk investing in an unknown. Having a bit of fame makes you seem more legitimate and gives the illusion of success.
The Dark Side of Fame
Once you’ve committed to becoming a public figure, you lose a bit of yourself and nagging feelings of worthlessness don’t just disappear. The pressure of fame is enough to make anyone crack, and the dark side of celebrity has claimed stars such as Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, John Belushi, and Marilyn Monroe. Psychologists warn that fame is not an antidote to feelings of inadequacy. Although we like to imagine that Hollywood stars and other celebrities live happy lives free from the rejection and disappointment we all face every day, being famous doesn’t free people from feelings of self-doubt.
Luckily for fame seekers, the means to broadcast themselves to the world have multiplied exponentially in the past ten years. Reality TV shows and the Internet have made it possible for everyone to have an audience, and it seems like there are more famous faces today than ever before. Andy Warhol famously declared, “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,” and with today’s ever-increasing roster of celebrities, it looks like that prophecy is coming true.
Related Story: How Low Can You Go? Reality TV’s Most Shameful Moments