And so we bid farewell to another icon of our times, Whitney Houston. Her battles with drink and drugs are well documented, as is her shambolic and difficult relationship with her ex-husband. She joins the ranks of celebrities who lost their lives prematurely in tragic but all too familiar circumstances – Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Paula Yatesand her partner Michael Hutchence – and they are just the relatively recent deaths that instantly spring to mind, flanked by many more.
Is fame the cause of these untimely deaths, or would they have died young anyway? It’s difficult to tell in the 21st century when drink and drugs are readily available to anyone who has the money and the wherewithal to find them. And whilst the cause of a coroner’s verdict of accidental overdose or suicide is very obviously down to a habit gone wrong or a mental illness played out to it’s bitter end, the bigger question might be how that person ended up there in the first place.
A celebrity’s journey to rock bottom is a very different one to the prostitute found dead in her flat from a heroin overdose, even though the result is the same. The ego, the drive, the need for attention, the never ending ambition to be the best – you would have thought the average famous person had more in common with an olympic champion than a penniless hooker. And some do. The superstars that make it through the endless media scrutiny and a million temptations and survive intact, sometimes despite themselves – Madonna, George Clooney, The Beatles.
But for every Madonna there is a Britney, for every Clooney a Charlie Sheen, and for every Macca there is a Cobain. And then you realise how fragile the world of the celebrity can be and how easy it is to succumb to the downward spiral. Broken hearts, tumultuous relationships, eating disorders, nervous breakdowns – they are laid bare in all their un-glory for us to see as the modern day media plays judge and jury. Some stumble back from the brink and recover. It is a small miracle that The Rolling Stones survive intact after so many decades of self abuse, but somehow they realised they had to enjoy the party without destroying themselves in the process. Not an easy task and their aged faces bear the scars. Britney Spears is another survivor. So many feared the worst for her back in 2007 after the famous head shaving incident, but look at her now – a picture of health and happiness and possibly the most successful come-back career in modern times (if, in many people’s opinion, a little undeserved) .
Lindsay Lohan, on the other hand, may not be so lucky. Once hailed as a potentially great actress, she lurches from one real-life drama to another like a car crash happening in slow motion. Her gradual slide towards self-destruction has been seen many times throughout Hollywood history. We often think of it as a contemporary issue but the problems go back a lot further. Judy Garland, screen and stage star of the 1940s and 50s battled with alcohol and drug use during most of her career and was married five times before her death at the age of 47. Marilyn Monroe died aged 36 from an overdose after a life plagued with personal and professional problems. Clearly for many, finding a way out is impossible after a certain point in time – either because their mental anguish is beyond the reach of therapy or because their physical health has deteriorated so far that it becomes impossible to get it back.
So are celebrities more susceptible to addictions, bad relationships and emotional self destruction because they are famous, or do they seek fame and succeed at finding it because they have a more ‘addictive’ personality? Is it nature or nurture? I suspect that like all of us, it is a mix of the two. Having met the odd actor in my time, it’s fair to say that for the most part, famous people – or people that want to be famous enough to eventually achieve it – have enormous egos, they thrive on attention, and they are also incredibly emotionally fragile. All three of these characteristics in proportions we mere mortals can only imagine. They live in a cocoon filled with money, power, other beautiful people and adoring fans. They have a warped concept of right and wrong because the people that surround them do too, usually for different and more selfish reasons. They only have their own inner moral compass to rely on and if that’s not set right then there are a thousand different things that could go wrong.
Musicians, singers, actors – they all start out wanting recognition of their talent, born out of incredible self-belief that they are somehow more amazing than anyone who has gone before and must be applauded. Without them feeling this way we wouldn’t have the Whitney Houstons of this world. Even in today’s reality TV world gone mad, there are, I am sure, still many people out there who will forever remain ‘undiscovered’, not because they aren’t extremely talented, but because they choose not to shout about it. Reality TV has, in fact, bred an even more bizarre celebrity type – one with no talent but the self belief that they deserve ‘fame’ in any case. Being famous for being famous. Or not very famous, in fact. If this little subset fall into the jaws of self destruction it is because they thrive on the publicity that comes from being self destructive. Reality TV ‘stars’, in my opinion, have very little to do with actual ‘stars’ and they certainly share very few traits.
It’s not that I feel sorry for the average superstar. But I think about the person inside the ‘personality’ and wonder what it must be like to be so sure of yourself and yet doubt yourself at the same time, both to such extremes. Even in modern-day times, many women who can command huge fees to appear in a movie become irrelevant to the industry the second they hit 40 or put on some weight. Rock stars who are too easily flattered by all the attention it can garner often don’t have the ability to cope with it and end up in a mess of drink, drugs and unwise sexual exploits. And as well as the inner demons to fight there are the ones with cameras. With the media industry plaguing personal as well as professional lives of the rich and famous 24/7, looking for anything to pounce upon that will sell a paper or a magazine, it’s no wonder celebrities have a conflict of interest when it comes to the press. Of course everyone likes to be the subject of a good story and many would say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But no-one I know would like their cellulite magnified and splattered across the front cover of a gossip mag, or to be chased down the road by dozens of paparazzi during a traumatic marriage break up, or for their loved ones to know they took too many drugs and died alone in a hotel room. Who starts down the road to fame and fortune wanting that as their epitaph?
So back to my question: would they have died young anyway? I believe the answer is yes. People bandy about the word ‘tragic’ and it is so, that someone with so much potential for greatness dies prematurely. Tragic for us as their audience, tragic for their loved ones, and undeniably tragic for themselves, that they couldn’t fight the demons hard enough to keep them away and enjoy the limelight. But true stars could never have been anything else. Talent cannot be learnt, it can only be discovered, nurtured and celebrated. And these people that we mourn were each in in their own way, undeniably talented. Truly tragic, then, that they cannot be protected from their own bright burning star.