Ted Williams: Too Famous Too Fast?

Rocketing to stardom from anonymity takes its toll on the psyche.

January 14, 2011, 1:45 PM

Jan. 17, 2010— -- The homeless man with the golden voice, Ted Williams, launched into national fame in a record-setting 48 hours, but the complications of stardom soon followed his fortune; an altercation with police, public airing of his familial issues and now a stint in rehab.

Insta-celebs like Williams and U.K. singer Susan Boyle, who checked into a facility for "exhaustion" just two months into her rise to fame, seem to be playing out the familiar rise and fall of celebrity in fast forward, begging the question: is it dangerous to become too famous too fast?

Rising to fame that quickly "feels like whiplash," says Donna Rockwell, clinical psychologist specializing in celebrity mental health, and associate faculty member at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology.

"It's very detrimental to anyone's psyche to have to go from anonymity to fame so rapidly. It's really like an impact; you become famous, fame impacts you like a brick wall and it's another whole reality that you have no experience with whatsoever. How do you navigate such rough terrain? For some it's impossible, "she says.

And even though fame for Williams meant the end of homelessness and a promise of a second chance at life, that dramatic kind of change has the potential to jar anyone's composure.

"Positive events can be as stressful as negative ones," says Simon Rego, director of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy program at Montefiore Medical Center. "If you're prone to anxiety, depression, or substance abuse, the stress [of fame] can amplify all of those pre-existing vulnerabilities."

On "Good Morning America" last week, Williams looked ecstatic as he talked about all the job opportunities pouring in, but by Wednesday, he admitted during his interview with Dr. Phil that his fame has been marked by his own return to alcoholism. Now those exciting job offers are on hold while he enrolls in a drug rehabilitation program, a rep for the "Dr Phil" television program confirmed.

Instant Celebrity, Just Add Internet

p>In the world of viral video and YouTube sensations, fame doesn't necessarily connote greatness anymore, Rockwell says. Sometimes it's more of "well-known-ness", especially when dealing with reality TV stars.

For these unlikely celebrities, fame is often something that they are unprepared for, because unlike most famous musicians, actors, models, or athletes, they haven't been building up to the "big break".

"For a model or an athlete, say, there may be one sudden bolt up into fame, but actually this is the end result of a long chain of mini steps over the years. They've had time to mentally prepare," says Rego. Even for people like Boyle and Williams, who clearly have talent, they were not working to become famous, it was thrust upon them. Without the mental preparation for all the changes it will reap in their lives, instantaneous stardom can be rife with emotional and psychological difficulties.

In a study of fifteen well-known American celebrities, Rockwell charted the arc of fame and its effect on the famous, from a love/hate relationship with the newfound attention, to an addiction to the high of the positive regard, all the way into acceptance of, and adaptation to, the loss of privacy and anonymity.

"Fame often leads to isolation, mistrust, and a sense of character splitting. The famous person sees themselves as an authentic being but feels the need to create this celebrity entity that they put out to the world so they don't have to feel vulnerable and exposed," she says.

They also gain an inflated sense of importance and invincibility that may contribute to risky behavior, such as drug and alcohol abuse, adds Rego. And for those in the 5-minute fame category, the likelihood that fame will be fleeting puts them at increased risk to be left worse off than when they started, once the attention wanes and they are left with the stressful aftermath.

So how are the newly famous to navigate such drastic life changes, whether for the better or the worse?

Rockwell suggests that they have someone to "hold their hand" through the process, especially someone trained in celebrity mental health. A social support system that the person can rely on to be truthful is also key, adds Rego. Often this will be someone who knows the celeb before they were big, as these people can provide the necessary "reality checks" that will keep the newly-famous grounded within their new glitz and glamour reality.