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The Four Stages of Fame: How Celebrities Learn to Accept—and Regret—Their Popularity

Christopher Polk/Getty

The media doesn’t take kindly to celebrities who complain about fame. Kristen Stewart—notorious for delivering anti-paparazzi tirades—has been voted one of the least popular actresses in Hollywood. The premise of the Twitter @CelebsComplain_, which has 25,000 followers, is that it’s unseemly to have negative thoughts if you’re famous.

So it’s no surprise that it can be hard to get celebrities to open up about fame. But in 2009, for a paper in the Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, Donna Rockwell of the Michigan School of Professional Psychology and David C. Giles of the University of Winchester interviewed well-known—but unnamed—American celebrities to gain insight into how they experienced fame and dealt with its ups and downs.

Their sample consisted of 15 adults between the ages of 35 and 86 who had at some point in their lives achieved “celebrity status” in the U.S., and included “a TV star, a TV news personality, a state governor, a Hollywood actor, a local TV sportscaster, NHL hockey and NBA basketball athletes, a famous CEO, a celebrity lawyer, a former Rhythm & Blues superstar, and a former child star.”

Based on the interviews, Rockwell and Giles identified four phases the newly famous pass through as they come to terms with their celebrity status.


"At first, the experience of becoming famous provides much ego stroking. Newly famous people find themselves warmly embraced. There is a guilty pleasure associated with the thrill of being admired in that participants both love the attention and adoration while they question the gratification they experience from fame. 'I enjoy parts of it, but I hate parts of it, too,' was a generally reported theme."


"The lure of adoration is attractive, and it becomes difficult for the person to imagine living without fame. One participant said, 'It is somewhat of a high,' and another, 'I kind of get off on it.' One said, 'I’ve been addicted to almost every substance known to man at one point or another, and the most addicting of them all is fame.'”


"As the attention becomes overwhelming and expectations, temptations, mistrust, and familial concerns come to the fore, the celebrity resolves to accept fame, including its threatening phenomenal aspects. 'You learn to accept it,' one celebrity said. After a while, celebrities report that they come to see that fame is 'just so much the will-o’-the-wisp, and you just can’t build a house on that kind of stuff.'”


"Only after accepting that 'it comes with the territory' can the celebrity adaptively navigate fame’s choppy waters. 'Once you’re famous,' a participant said, 'you don’t make eye contact or you keep walking . . . and you just don’t hear [people calling your name].' Adaptive patterns can include reclusiveness, which gives rise in turn to mistrust and isolation."

Even once they've adapted to their new status, they have to accept:

Loss of self

"From an initial desire to become successful, the celebrity experiences personal confusion and a loss of ownership of life in a depersonalizing 'entitization' process, in which participants reported feeling like a thing rather than a person of unique character… All the while hearing one’s name screamed out, the famous person feels as if he or she is not even there….The celebrity suffers a loss of personal freedom in relation to the world and develops a heightened capacity to scan his or her environment in a state of alerted attention in order to assess the possibilities of advance or the need to retreat."


"Eventually, the very others who adore the celebrity evoke mistrust. 'There is always a part of you that wonders why they are becoming friendly with you.' In an everyday environment, the celebrity wonders, 'Do people like me because of who I am or because of what I do? You find out there are millions of people who like you for what you do. They couldn’t care less who you are.'”

Demanding expectations

"The celebrity copes with intense public scrutiny through character splitting. He or she divides into two identities by contriving a celebrity entity, a new self-presentation in the 'public sphere.' 'The only way I think you can really handle it is to say, 'That’s not really me ... it’s this working part of me, or the celebrity part of me.'

"Living up to others’ expectations becomes a vicious cycle, in which the celebrity, like a hamster on a wheel, works to satisfy a hungry and demanding public. The famous person feels the need to always 'be on.'… There is an obligation to be 'nice to everyone, and that becomes exhausting.'"