This February, I had the honor to perform as Jean Valjean in my school's production of Les Miserables. By far, this musical production was the most technically challenging and intensive production I have ever participated in. The character I played had enormous stage time, costume changes were intense, and learning the music was overwhelming. Oh yeah, and every word in Les Miserables is sung. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I would go so far as to say that this performance has been the most fun and enriching experience I have had when compared to any previous theatre endeavor. And, I’m happy to say that because of the immense effort put into the show, it turned out to be one of the best high school productions of Les Miserable ever performed. Because of its unique excellence, the show attracted more attention than usual. Every performer is used to the typical “congratulations” granted by friends and family, but through this production, the broader community reaction was much greater than expected. Never before have total strangers come up to me in public places to mention how much they liked the show. Sometimes their kids even wanted to take photos with me! I very much enjoyed this new fame (although I knew it would be short-lived…it’s just a high school production after all).
This whole experience of unexpected fame left me wondering: What are some of the side effects of unanticipated fame? My case of fame was in no way extreme and surely not more important than a sports player hearing cheers from the bleachers, but I’m still curious what could happen in a more extreme scenario. As it turns out, others are curious as well. The psychology of sudden fame or success altering self-perception is well-documented. Donna Rockwell, a famous psychologist who studied the “phenomenon of fame” calls sudden fame “an irreversible existential alteration, much like death.” Rockwell’s study about being a celebrity unequivocally concluded that most celebrities found themselves “ill-equipped for and struggling with the deluge of attention” that comes with fame. The problems arise when one starts to walk the tightrope of a need to experience one’s authentic self and not disappoint others since that could risk losing their celebrity status. Child stars are good examples of the negative impacts of unexpected fame because of how desensitized they become to the level of fame they receive. Since child stars are raised in an environment where they are treated like a celebrity, they set this feeling as the norm, and therefore struggle the rest of their lives to keep up with this expectation of fame. The effects of this can be detrimental, often resulting in excessive stress, leading to alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, and in the most extreme cases, even suicide. In addition to stress, child actors who are famous from a young age often have lowered sensibility of everyday tasks. They are repeatedly overprotected and pampered, not having to do normal skills most people have routinely developed at a young age like planning events, doing laundry, or cooking meals. Further, they can also feel awkward around normal people, since they didn’t have the experience of trying to make new friends or meet new people at a young age.
So how do all of these things circle back to me? Well, I’m not a child star for one, even if I’d like to think I am. I do not believe I have developed many social issues as a result of my short-lived fame. However, studying the research on the negative effects of unexpected fame led me to an important observation: Remember that for every ‘up’ you receive in life, there is always room to fall, so never get used to the top. Always stay grounded. Then, after you recognize this, enjoy yourself. It’s always a good thing to be recognized for your efforts once in a while.