This column first appeared in Malta Today
Two documentaries which I watched recently have explored the thorny subject of fame and how it can change you forever, especially at a young age.
Beckham is an in-depth look at the highs and lows of the famous footballer, along with his wife Victoria a.k.a. Posh. Spice. Theirs was a love story played out in the headlines and, as she herself pointed, out “I was always portrayed as the villain”. David Beckham was the golden child of British football, while she was often blamed as the reason for his distraction. But in truth, a large part of Beckham’s struggles with being so famous came from the fickleness of diehard football fans, fuelled by a relentless media, which adores you when you are up and can just as quickly trample on you when you don’t deliver.
The ruthlessness of the media at the time played a large part in the formation of public opinion. After reaching dizzying heights with his talent, the tabloid press in the UK completely turned against him when during the 1998 World Cup, he got a red card for kicking an opposing player, which meant the team had to play with just 10 players and lost the quarter final. The UK wanted someone to blame for the defeat and they found the perfect target. There were vicious headlines such as “10 Heroic Lions, One Stupid Boy,” while a full page dartboard was published in the Daily Mirror with Beckham’s face on it. The media hate campaign just whipped up the hysteria among the fans even more, leading to an effigy of the footballer being hung from outside of a pub. At every football match he was booed, with chants such as ‘We hate Beckham’ and ‘You let your country down’.
Anyone else would have been broken. But it is to his credit that Beckham had the strength of character not to let this overwhelming wave of anger affect him mentally. In the documentary he attributes this to the fact that his Dad was quite strict with him as a child, praising him only grudgingly when he scored goals and always demanding more from him. It may not be everyone’s idea of a good parenting approach but in this case it certainly gave David the required mental toughness to withstand a situation where an entire nation seems to have turned against him. His resilience and grit helped him to pull through one of the worst moments in his life – he simply concentrated on the game and his response to the hatred was to just keep playing his best, which he did.
In contrast, the documentary about Robbie Williams reveals a different type of character completely. At the unbelievably young age of 16 he was catapulted into stardom with the boy band Take That. The early footage of those days reveals just how young and immature he was, hamming it up for the camera, trying to steal the attention and generally acting like a kid….because he was a kid. Whether it was because of all the attention or because he was predisposed to it, he began to drink too much in those days, culminating in a bottle of vodka every night.
When he embarked on a solo career he was similarly the target of a hostile press who mocked his decision and his music, which only accelerated his drug and alcohol addiction, causing Robbie to spiral out of control. He had fame beyond his wildest dreams but he could not handle it. Although he was worshipped throughout Europe, at home he was still the constant butt of jokes in the press. For a while he was hated in his own country (in an uncanny parallel with Beckham) but he did not have the psychological strength to shut it all out. As a result he suffered from panic attacks, he lost his confidence and even refused to go up on stage at one point.
The Williams documentary is a revealing portrait of a man now approaching 50, looking at videos of himself when he was at his worst and admitting “it is hard to watch.” As we watch him watching himself, it is impossible not to feel empathy, even though his public image can often be grating. It is clear that must of it is bravado and bluff, and that deep down he still struggles with his mental health. As he points out, he was diagnosed with depression at the age of 20, and yet it took another 13 years before his management stepped in and forced him to go to rehab.
He credits meeting his wife Ayda for turning his life around; she is his stabilising influence. Now that they have four children, it is clear that having a family suits him and keeps him grounded. These days he leaves to go on tour almost reluctantly because being on the road is tiring and the constant travelling is not all that it is cracked up to be.
As famous people often say in interviews, becoming famous is a very strange sensation. It is the age old question asked by many celebrities who are deeply unhappy despite the fame and fortune they have always wanted: “if good things are happening to you and you’re successful, what is there to be upset about?” The bottom line is that nothing prepares you for the attention, for the hysterical screaming and outstretched hands of those wanting to touch you or, these days, shoving a phone in your face for a selfie. It creates a surreal feeling of making you question who you are, really. Are you this persona whose name is on everyone’s lips…? Do those tens of thousands of people who are looking at you in adoration even know who you are, or have they conjured up an image of you in their heads, expecting you to be true to that image, always. The intrusiveness, the lack of privacy, the constant photos even during moments which are supposed to be intimate and private; fame can be as heady as it is off-putting. It can also be extremely lonely. It is especially ironic for those who have sought fame from an early age, and now that they have it, wonder why they wanted it in the first place.
The ultimate paradox is that even as celebrities try to live some semblance of a normal life, wearing sunglasses and baseball caps to avoid being hounded by photographers everywhere they go, with social media, the faces of ordinary people are plastered everywhere. Holidays, restaurants, concerts, the beach and even a walk in the park, many are documenting every minutiae of their life for posterity, online forever for whoever wants to find out all about their lives. Yet this desire for attention and validation can be a double-edged sword as many have found out to their dismay when they are thrust into the limelight against their will.
As explained in “The Psychology of Fame and Celebrity: Why Do People Want to Be Famous?”: “Fame can be toxic from within, too. Humans are all too tempted to believe their own hype or the hype created around them, and when they cannot live up to it, the mental ill health seeds that they have previously sown, sprout as poisoned ivy.”