David Packman shines a light on the illusory nature of fame.
I’m the most famous person in the world.
According to my nearly two-year-old son, anyway. That’s his truth, and when it comes to acknowledging fame, that’s really all there is to it, because the difference between being famous or not resides purely in the mind of others. So with my fame now validated, I can rest comfortably in the knowledge that I have the key to everything of social value. Money, sex, influence and life everlasting.
Clearly not – and my idea of happiness is vastly different anyway – but what my son’s mindset shows us is that the concept of fame is based entirely on belief. It is most commonly a large group’s collective belief, but it can also be individual, the principal still applies.
No-one can legitimately put themselves in the position of being famous, they are placed there due to the opinion of others and even then, it is not ubiquitously recognised. A person’s fame only exists if we allow it to.
However, society has led us to largely accept that fame (and fortune) is the ultimate measure of success. It affirms we are “someone” – that we matter and people are aware of our existence. On the surface, that’s an intoxicating notion and if you allow your ego to take the reins one can fully appreciate the allure. But it’s a far from tangible pursuit.
“Fame is a vapour,” Horace Greeley, influential 1800s author, editor of the New York Tribune and US presidential candidate, has been quoted as saying. “Only one thing endures and that is character.”
The illusory nature of fame relates to more than just it’s core essence. The expectation that fame will solve all our problems and bring us everything we ever wanted is also fundamentally flawed. Aside from the fact that something so ethereal won’t help us with any existential issues we may have (in the same way material possessions will not), fame simply ties us to another set of boundaries that some might say are even more onerous.
Fame can no doubt be suffocating. As actor Johnny Depp (famously) stated, “I hate fame. I’ve done everything I can to avoid it.” Fame is a way of life just like any other – there are exhaustive protocols and inconveniences that must to be adhered to and managed. The famous are constantly under the spotlight, required to live up to extremely high and often contradictory public expectations and many will attest to it being both a blessing and a curse.
However, in today’s society, we cling to the notion that excelling in a particular field will inevitably lead to fame. It may well be a side effect, but it’s now very often seen as the desired outcome or primary goal. People want to gain attention for what they do, as opposed to simply being the best they can be and not concerning themselves with external distractions.
This has become most apparent with the advent of reality television. Average folk are now being plucked from obscurity and thrust into a highly premeditated limelight. Viewers are essentially being coerced into believing in their fame, creating the bizarre situation of “being famous for being famous” – which only serves to further reinforce the idea of fame as an abstraction.
Purity of purpose is quickly being lost to misguided hero-worship and a quest for nothing more than fame itself.
Perhaps fame is seen as a way of cheating death, in the understanding that the memory of your life will continue on in the public’s collective consciousness? After all, Irene Cara even sang to us in the 1980 Oscar-winning movie, “Fame. I’m gonna live forever…”
But this too is poorly conceived. Free range social critic and editor of Screw Magazine, Al Goldstein, once put it, “Since fame is an illusion and death is in our future, all we have is the next moment before we are swallowed into oblivion.”
That straight from a pornographer; but perhaps fame is really just all about sex. As Jean-Paul Sartre so bluntly said, “If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”
Sex and mindfulness aside, many who brush with the famous believe that it will somehow rub off on them, bringing them the bliss that has apparently been acquired by their idols. During the giddy encounter and for some time after it probably does bring some joy, but only in the hope it will last forever. Perhaps this is why some go to the irrational lengths of not washing after shaking the hand of their hero – or similar. The thinking becomes almost magical in nature.
“Be cool” we repeatedly tell ourselves when in the presence of those we believe to be famous, as though being cool is our natural state. Almost all of us do this to some degree. But again, this response – reserved for individuals of our own choosing – is entirely based on our internal beliefs.
For example, in February this year, Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo became the first athlete to surpass 200 million social media followers. While I’m not an overly committed soccer fan, I still objectively understand his immense fame. However, it’s not quite as meaningful within my own personal sphere of influencers – those I believe are famous. Meeting Ronaldo would not impact me in quite the same way it would others. I clearly have a different set of beliefs about Ronaldo from at least 200 million other individuals, but that’s all it takes. The distinction in my mind is absolute.
Conversely, as a product of suburban Melbourne, I grew up steeped in a culture of Australian Rules football. As a result, some of my childhood heroes played a game that is little known outside Australia; the professionals within it almost unheard of. However, inside the AFL bubble, their fame can reach enormous proportions. The small community (in relative terms) that are invested in the sport have ensured that to be the case due to their collective belief.
As a result, I am more likely to go weak at the knees in the presence of a 70-year-old former Australian Rules footballer than Ronaldo, to whom my approach might be considered bewilderingly mundane.
So let’s face facts, if it’s happiness and well-being we are ultimately after, fame simply doesn’t cut it.
It has been proven that we are far better off simply being kind to each other. Research such as a 2013 study* senior authored by Steven W Cole, a professor of medicine at UCLA, found that our genes can actually “tell the difference between a purpose-driven life and a shallower one, even when our conscious minds cannot,” leading to better outlooks, improved relationships and stronger immune systems. It even makes you more attractive. Not to mention that such personality traits will almost undoubtedly leave a more admirable legacy than fame.
It’s just as Greeley said over 150 years ago, fame is a vapour, its very existence wholly at the whim of another’s consciousness.
*“A functional genomic perspective on human well-being” – Cole et al, 2013