The Danger of Chasing Fame

Todd Brison
Image purchased by the author via iStock

When you watch an actor on screen, you see at least 3 people.

  1. The character being played
  2. The public persona they wear “off-screen”
  3. The person they really are

That’s the sort of bizarre reality worth keeping in mind while watching something like the Academy Awards. Most of these people aren’t “people” per se. Even when they aren’t on set, they’re acting.

Is the “real” Glenn Close the one who did “Da Butt” on national television a few weeks, or is she Cruella DeVille? Does the “real” Frances McDormand howl in front of Hollywood’s elite?

It’s a puzzle. One that we’ve been staring at for some time.

John Wayne (whose actual name was Marion Morrison) worked on “the Wayne thing” for a decade before being cast in westerns. Also, the cowboy grew up in a ritzy L.A. suburb.

Contrary to what we might believe, most of us don’t actually remember Charlie Chaplin. We remember The Tramp — a character with big shoes, a cane, and a weird hat. There is also Charlie Chaplin the person who couldn’t literally conceive of his fame and Charlie Chaplin the four-time husband.

The skeptic might condemn a celebrity for putting on a false mask when the cameras stop. We claim to want the real version of our idols.

First, we don’t really want that.

Second, famous people don’t put up a ruse for fun.

It’s survival. As celebrity grows, it eats away at pieces of you. Stars cut up slivers of themselves and ration them out to the rabid industry.

An anonymous actor puts it this way in a study on celebrity:

“Fame builds and builds like a tornado… by the time it gets to you, it can put you in a world that has no reality whatsoever.”

Imagine you go to acting school with dreams of making it big. The second those dreams come true, your identity is now little more than a transaction. Admirers, publicists, agents, talk show hosts, red carpet attendees, cab drivers and advertisers all see you as “that person.”

You can’t trust fans, but you need them.

You can’t trust managers, but you need them.

You can’t trust the press, but you need them.

So what do you do? You fake and flirt and give people what they want in order to get what you need: enough freedom to keep working.

You can see how it would be difficult to find a sense of self in all this.

I’m now thinking of what Rita Hayworth once said after her 1946 film Gilda became a blockbuster. She couldn’t find love because “men go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me.”

This is why most celebrities engage in a phenomenon called character splitting. Different crowd = Different identity. You see yourself in fragments. It’d be as if every mirror in your home was shattered.

I don’t say any of this so you feel sorry for celebrities. I say it because of a scary word I recently read that affects all of us:


Celebritization has a few meanings. One the process by which a person becomes a celebrity. The second is the diffusion of fame to us normal people.

On the surface, that sounds good. So long aristocrats, it’s time for us peasants to shine!

The difficulty is, along with the fame comes everything else: the character splitting, the transactional relationships, the image-first mindset, the posturing and posing and priming and presenting — it all comes with celebrity.

Fifteen minutes of fickle fame warps how you think.

I feel like I’ve learned that we’re all holding a stick of dynamite that we don’t know could explode.

So, chase fame, sure.

Just be careful.

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