The Stresses of Stardom


Aug. 3, 2001 — -- Stardom can be great. You get to go to all the best parties. You can pick and choose your work. And you can fly off to Paris on a whim without a financial care in the world.

But it can eat at you, too. There are expectations to meet, death threats, isolation, fear of failure on a public stage and perhaps too-easy access to drugs and alcohol.

"Show business is no place for sissies," says Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University in Los Angeles. "It's a known stress business. It looks magical from the outside.

"To be a performer is not just to be on stage or in a recording booth, but to be performing 24 hours a day," Fischoff adds. "It's like being in wartime, where your adrenaline is pumping 24 hours a day. It's not surprising that someone like that will break down. It's surprising it doesn't happen to more of them."

By some accounts, the dark side of stardom may have contributed to the falls of stars from Marilyn Monroe to Kurt Cobain to Freddie Prinze. And as Mariah Carey's "emotional and physical breakdown" suggests, the focus on the stars can still be intense.

"You know what, they're human," says Lilli Friedland, a Los Angeles psychologist. "In fact, sometimes because they live in such a goldfish bowl, it's more difficult for them. … It's not like they can always take a timeout without everybody talking about them and looking at them."

While few details have emerged about Carey's "breakdown" — as acknowledged Wednesday by her publicist, Cindi Berger — observers suggest pressures on the pop star have been intensifying.

Carey, 31, was admitted to an undisclosed New York-area hospital on July 25, as she was poised to headline MTV's 20th anniversary show, and as release dates approached for a new album on a new record label, and two movies featuring her as an actress. For the time being, Carey has canceled all public appearances.

"Mariah Carey's known as a workaholic and a perfectionist," said Sarah Saffian, a contributor to Us Weekly magazine's cover story on Carey. "This seems to be the peak of that. She's never worked quite so hard before.

"She really drove herself so hard — between promoting her movie Glitter, which comes out the end of August, her soundtrack album that's connected to it [and] also filming the independent film Wise Girls and breaking up with her boyfriend," Saffian told ABC Radio. "So personally and professional[ly], the pressure was really on."

Before word of her breakdown, Carey left a message on her Web site to tell fans that "everything's cool" despite the pressure on her.

But such points of transition in a star's career can be stressful, Fischoff says, because for some celebrities, once they taste success, they fear losing it. And just as workaday people fear losing their job and can suffer blows to their self-esteem when they do, stars can fear and be stung by public indifference.

"It's a virtual annihilation of your identity, because your identity is your celebrity," he says.

"Each movement up ratchets up the stress and expectations, and also the sense of how wonderful you are," he adds. "Celebrity is a double-edged sword. It can elevate you and it can slash you down."

He speculated that stress over such loss of identity could have been behind the public breakdowns of stars who've dropped out of the limelight, such as numerous former child stars or Margot Kidder, found disheveled and babbling in Los Angeles in 1996.

At least one psychologist believes the focus on the breakdowns of individual stars such as Carey may be misplaced. In Carey's case, the true failure may be by, essentially, Carey Inc., for allowing the situation to deteriorate to the point where the singer apparently became overwhelmed, and then allowing her to be embarrassed, says Charles R. Figley, a psychologist and professor at Florida State University who has written about celebrity stress.

"Just like The Wizard of Oz, there's this big curtain between us and the celebrities," Figley says. "It's a business. It's an enterprise. It's not just one individual person."

As stars become bigger, often so do their entourages, he says. And as they become more distanced from the real world, they rely on those people to advise them, direct their careers, create their images and control bad news such as word of Carey's difficulties. The stars are less likely to fail if they choose the right people.

"My hypothesis is that the management company did not do her very right," Figley says.

But he thinks good management, or self-awareness and a strong hand on the reins by Carey, can still set things right.

"Even this, if you have a good management team that comes in at the eleventh hour, they'll turn this sucker around and she'll be bigger than ever," he says.

Although stardom can breed stress, not everyone agrees stars have more stress than ordinary people.

"Usually the people who have more troubles are the people who are disadvantaged," says Marc Graff, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles. "There's a good study that shows they have more stress than people who have discretion" to choose professional projects and control aspects of their lives, as many stars do.

"Having said that, even very, very successful people … can get just as stressed as the next people," Graff adds.