“Fame hit me like a ton of bricks,” the rapper Eminem once said—and he is far from alone in that sentiment. From Marilyn Monroe, who died 50 years ago this month, to Macaulay Culkin, who has experienced a recent flood of criticism from media and family members alike due to his ostensible heroin addiction, celebrities are no strangers to the perils of their own fame.
Monroe, like Michael Jackson and so many others, was essentially used to death by her fans and critics. She was so loved, and yet so judged, that the difficulties of being a public figure and dealing with her own failings eventually got the best of her. She was given so much adulation at such a young age that she would have had to be extremely grounded and supported in order not to get swept away.
And here we are, watching that time-tested celebrity cycle repeat with Macaulay Culkin. Grown-up child stars like Culkin are particularly ill-equipped for failure because they never had enough time out of the spotlight in which to build their own strength and network of supporters. So when the Enquirer painstakingly chronicles that an allegedly drug-addled Culkin “was clutching his stomach, made a face, and then spit up, not once, but twice”—how can this type of excessive media exposure possibly help Culkin deal with his problems?
It’s a hypocritical world out there, and yet we can’t just blame the tabloids. We at Phoenix House often explain that it’s the American drug demand that fuels international drug supply. The same analogy is true of the American demand for sleazy stories. The terrible tales of Culkin aren’t the Enquirer’s fault—because the people who buy that magazine buy it for exactly this kind of story. The public has a hypocritical fascination with celebrity scandals involving relapse and death and infidelities and the like. People feel a need to celebrate the stars’ successes and then sit in judgment of their failures—to build them up only to tear them down. We can’t simply criticize the media for giving readers and viewers what they want.
In some ways, people who choose a public life (from politicians to actors to models to sports stars to Mark Zuckerberg) need to understand from the get-go that in this society and age, with ubiquitous social media and digital news, their every move will be in the limelight and broadcast by the press. From singers to CEOs, public figures need to make sure they’re equipped to deal with that level of scrutiny and pressure. Unfortunately, the biggest stars have the furthest to fall.
For a celebrity experiencing a crisis, it’s crucial to find people who are supportive of you—not just your fame. For Britney Spears, those people were her family members. For Robert Downey Jr., they were his friends. Similarly, if Macaulay Culkin does indeed have an addiction problem (which is largely tabloid speculation at this point) he will need exactly what anybody – celebrity or not – needs in this situation: help from loved ones. He should surround himself with friends and family members who genuinely care about his recovery—people who aren’t fans or enablers or voyeurs or critics. Fame may be “a ton of bricks,” but not every shining star is doomed to go the way of Marilyn Monroe. Help is out there, and treatment organizations are here for people (celebrities and “civilians” alike) who need their help.
Howard P. Meitiner
President and CEO