by Vanessa Grigoriadis
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.”
Are the crazy drawn to Fame, or does Fame make them crazy? 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.
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. It 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.
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. 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.)
Paradise is hanging out at the most private—but not too private—places around, like the exquisite ChGteau Marmont garden, which mortals are discouraged from entering after nightfall, or Bungalow 8, the subway-car-size Chelsea bar with no VIP room that makes stars feel “normal” because each banquette features stars like a Mary-Kate Olsen or a Jay-Z, so that everywhere you look there is a reminder that you are in the right place, you have not made a mistake, you are as special as they say.
Homage will be paid from celebrity to celebrity: “I went up to Angelina Jolie at an awards thing, and I just, I couldn’t help it, I started bawling,” says Anne Hathaway, star of The Princess Diaries, at lunch at the Central Park Boathouse on a recent Wednesday. “She’s been my favorite actress since I was 16. We watched each other in the eyes, and I could tell she had a beautiful soul. I guess she thought the same thing about me, because she asked me to go to Cambodia in association with her project. She said the sweetest thing: ‘Whenever I’m in a hotel room, I love watching your films, because even if it’s three in the morning, it makes me so happy.’ ”
No one has ever been safe in the House of Fame.
When one makes about $80 million a picture, like Tom Cruise does, one can pay for whatever handlers one wishes, and these handlers will become your friends, family, and confidants.
L.A.’s population is exploding, and I’m not sure that it’s not because people today are compelled to relocate to places where they could possibly work for, with, or near a celebrity. These days, a life as Julia Roberts’s assistant is not a lost life, but a life blessed, transmogrified, made shiny by her presence. To be in the entourage of such a star, either as landscaper, organic-food preparer, or second assistant, is to be made whole.
Nowadays in the celebrity nuthouse, the inmates are running the asylum. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones sold their wedding pictures for £1 million to OK!, the smarmy British tabloid. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin staged a paparazzi shot leaving her gynecologist after getting the news that she was pregnant, her brother’s girlfriend behind the camera.
Of course, for a narcissist, privacy is a relative concept. Often, it’s just part of the performance. Private, when a celebrity uses the word, means many things, perhaps “I’m classy” or “I don’t go to nightclubs” or “I’m shy,” but what it rarely means is “I’m private” and certainly not when a semi-naked photo shoot is involved.
Good-girl actress Hilary Duff, 17, explained to me in an interview that she couldn’t possibly divulge that she was dating rock singer Joel Madden—she was a private person, she said, and she had to save something for herself, otherwise what does one have? This made sense. Except a couple months later at the premiere of The Perfect Man, Duff’s new movie, there was Madden, covered in tattoos, his hair arrayed in a black-dyed faux-hawk—Hilary’s “Perfect Man,” as the entertainment-news programs put it. He mumbled something about Hilary being a great girl.
No one is being fooled, and no one is in control. The circus has no ringmaster. Yet everyone is getting some of what he wants.
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