We’re a nation sold on celebrity. It’s also one of our leading exports to the rest of the world. Like many of you, I was raised to venerate the famous. And like many of you, I gradually learned that celebrity is a state of being and not a human being. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that difference and slip into assumptions about what we think we know about the humans behind the media mask.
This difference was one of the reasons I always loved the work of Robin Williams. The comedian and actor’s career in the public eye began when I was just old enough to have an interest in television programming beyond cartoons.
Williams was one of the first stars where I saw the glimpse of the human being and I realized that being famous was not something to envy. It’s something that I want to emphasize in this post, because it applies to sport. As I mentioned in a Footballguys column last week, sports parallels entertainment because both professions are performance based. When your job requires performance and some level of fame to make a living, celebrity becomes a real thing.
And contrary to popular belief, fame is not easy. Yes, there are great benefits. However, there are even greater challenges that come with celebrity. This is why many college stars that become pro athletes have difficulty coping with the things that accompany fame and ultimately burn out.
Athletes that mismanage money, spend too much time partying and not enough effort working, or can’t avoid legal trouble draw the ire of fans. The public sees all the money and privilege “handed” to the athlete and they either blame the person for not knowing better or the environment (poverty, poor parenting, an exploitative university athletic environment, predatory agents and managers) that enabled the person to make ignorant, immature decisions .
Depending on the individuals involved, both reasons have some truth. However, there is a third factor and it’s the dynamics of fame and celebrity that few — if any — human beings can prepare for before they experience it.
Williams experienced that instant celebrity and it was difficult for him. He battled drug and alcohol addiction for years. As is the case, there were many assumptions made about him, including what kind of mental illness a brilliant man like Williams must have to do what he did on stage and screen.
Only those close to Williams truly know, but that first glimpse of him beyond his zany, manic onstage behavior was a five-minute segment of him on Oprah. I was waiting for her to get dressed and flipped on the television. It was a one-on-one interview when Williams wasn’t engaged in his onstage persona.
He talked about growing up an only child of wealthy parents who spent a lot of time alone. He was quiet, introverted, and shy. When the segment ended and the show went to break, I remember how withdrawn Williams’ body language was as the camera shot faded to commercial. It struck me how different he really was from the character types that made him famous.
I could relate to his introversion and I found it comforting to see someone with a gift of improvisational comedy so amazing that he could make an audience of millions contemplate for a split second whether they should buy a pack of Depends or an oxygen tank before watching him perform. He had flaws and pockets of low self-esteem and in my eyes it made what he did even more admirable.
Rather than sharing Williams’ great comedy sketches, I found a show called Shrink Rap that’s a talk show format mixed with a therapist as a host. Try to ignore the tabloid music scoring, because it belies the quality of the conversation that is intimate and revealing. YouTube has the show split into four parts and Williams discusses his childhood, how he got into entertainment, the impact of fame and celebrity, and through it all you get a glimpse of Williams beyond the man who made us laugh.
Parts III and IV cover the theme of celebrity in a way that made me think about athletes and how people make ignorant assumptions about the ease of their world and the state of fame.
Again, there’s reason to envy some of the trappings that come with fame. However, to claim that anyone is prepared to handle what it’s like to go from anonymous, or regionally well-known, to a state of being where everyone knows who you are, and reveres who they think you are in mind-blowing ways, is foolhardy. Celebrity is as destructive as it is intoxicating.