The Paradox of Loneliness

The more that people know of you, the less that people can know you.

Katelyn Beaty / 3.27.23

So thrilled that Katelyn Beaty will be speaking at this year’s NYC Conference. The following is an excerpt from her book, Celebrities for Jesus:

The first time I felt heartsick over a celebrity’s death was in 2014. The headline read, “Philip Seymour Hoffman, Actor of Depth, Dies at 46.” Little about Hoffman’s final days was known, but it seemed bleak, stemming from his struggles with addiction, something he spoke openly about. Hoffman was a feature in many films of my young adulthood: Boogie Nights, Magnolia, The Big Lebowski, and The Talented Mr. Ripley among them. Frumpy and lacking washboard abs, Hoffman was not a traditional leading man, but he was acclaimed for the pathos he brought to every role.

There were hidden reasons he did this so well. After his death, a friend of his observed, “[Hoffman] carried an unearned burden of shame. He was private, but he played those characters so well because he knew something about guilt and shame and suffering.” In 2005, Hoffman said, “No one knows me. No one understands me. That’s the other thing that changes as you get older. It’s like everybody understands you. But no one understands me.” He was survived by his longtime partner and their three children.

The second time I felt heartsick over a celebrity’s death was in 2016. Prince Rogers Nelson was found dead at age fifty-seven at his Paisley Park compound, after overdosing on a potent painkiller. Prince was almost otherworldly as a genre-bending (and gender-bending) singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist. He was both a Grammy-winning genius and an enigma whose playful, provocative music reshaped pop music. He was loud and swaggering on stage, and painfully private off stage. “Prince was odd and inscrutable to the end; he remains our unbelievable thing,” wrote Vinson Cunningham. “Prince was a genius, but he was also, somehow, a person, just like us, and now he is gone.”

In his final days, Prince’s few close friends knew he was struggling with dependence on painkillers due to pain in his hands. He said he was depressed and bored. He died alone.

It’s always a curious event when a celebrity dies. “Event” is the operative word here, because that’s how media treat the death and how we consume the news. Celebrity deaths perform consistently well in the news cycle, all the more so if the death is tragic or involves someone young. Fixation on celebrity deaths has real-world consequences: long before the internet, celebrity suicides were shown to have a copycat effect. Media push the ethical limits when they include lurid details of a person’s death or milk the story long after the initial news.

But journalists are also simply responding to consumer appetites; they tell us what we want to hear. We are fascinated by celebrities as much when they are dead as when they’re alive. Their final days or hours are offered as fodder to be consumed. Indeed, that’s the only way we can engage their deaths, because we don’t know an actual person to mourn. We know only what they presented to us on screen or on stage — that is, a sliver of the sum of their lives. When I mourned Hoffman’s and Prince’s deaths, I was mourning the way their art enriched my life and imagination. Those are valuable things to mourn; I and so many others remain grateful for their immense gifts. But it’s not the same as mourning the full contours of a person.

We know our fascination with celebrity borders on idolatry because of the human toll it takes. It’s almost axiomatic to note the costs of life in the spotlight, especially if you are very famous and very young. Daniel Radcliffe, best known for his titular role in the Harry Potter films, recalls being booed and shouted at as a child traveling with his parents overseas. As a teenager, he turned to alcohol to cope with the decidedly unmagical parts of too-young stardom. Britney Spears, Macaulay Culkin, Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse, Corey Haim, and River Phoenix have all paid the price of young fame. Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga) has spoken of feeling trapped in her home, since going out usually brings out the hordes and paparazzi. “I don’t think I could think of a single thing that’s more isolating than being famous,” she said. What’s isolating is that most people interact with her as a goddess rather than a human being. Several years ago, Justin Bieber created a “no pictures” policy with fans, because “it has gotten to the point that people won’t even say hi to me or recognize me as a human. I feel like a zoo animal.”

One common theme of superstardom is the paradox of loneliness: that the more that people know of you, the less that people can know you. Many celebrities say they keep their inner circle very small for fear of being stalked, harassed, or used by hangers-on. It’s hard to have an intimate conversation with a bodyguard standing nearby. Others find that dating and meeting new people is awkward (and not in the charming, foppish way of Notting Hill). Romance is fodder for tabloids and exploitative bloggers, every new relationship and breakup a clickable headline. There’s even a perverse desire to see celebrities suffer, because it convinces us that they’re “just like us” — and that our private suffering is not so bad as their public kind.

In a 2009 study of American celebrities, psychologist Donna Rockwell found that celebrity status results in a kind of death — an “irreversible existential alteration” that includes loss of privacy and freedom to go about life with anonymity. The famous, she found, are alone on the “island of recognition,” where they find “a loneliness that happens because you are separate.” Adoration entails separation — you are above mere mortals and therefore untouchable, set apart from everyone else. Because of this, it’s not actually very nice to adore someone without the attendant knowledge of their foibles and a commitment to love them for the long haul.

Many famous people cope by using what Rockwell calls “character-splitting.” They craft a “celebrity entity,” a presentation of the self, while the true self is hidden away, shown only to trusted friends and family. Character splitting is in some ways healthy; the famous person realizes there is a vulnerable, beloved self that should be protected from overexposure. We are all more than the sum of our achievements and the acclaim that accompanies them. We all need communities that promise to love us instead of adore us.

At the same time, character splitting leaves room for a divided self, which is to say, a lack of integrity. Integrity means integration, but many celebrities, whether in Hollywood or the church, feel divided from within. The “celebrity entity” knows how to act to keep the watching public satisfied, but the true self might be crumbling, longing for a normal life. The true self might not even like the celebrity entity all that much. Yet the adoration bestowed on the celebrity entity can be intoxicating; one person told Rockwell, “I’ve been addicted to almost every substance known to man at one point or another, and the most addicting of them all is fame.”

Another word for this public-facing “celebrity entity” is “persona.” Persona comes from the Latin, meaning “mask” or “character played by an actor,” but it’s certainly not relegated to the stage. A persona is the self-presentation that all of us take on in various settings and roles. It’s closely related to the notion of personality — the set of qualities, traits, and quirks that together make you “you.” Some personality traits are ingrained, while many are learned early on, based on the roles we were expected or needed to play in our family or community. Our personality is how we learned, early on, to get our needs met for love, security, and belonging.

Twentieth-century philosopher Hannah Arendt said that a persona is the mask through which our true selves “sound through.” In a 1975 speech, she said:

“Persona” … originally referred to the actor’s mask that covered his individual “personal” face and indicated to the spectator the role and the part of the actor in the play. But in this mask, which was designed and determined by the play, there existed a broad opening at the place of the mouth through which the individual, undisguised voice of the actor could sound.

Arendt believed that our persona is necessary for fulfilling our responsibilities in the world. But it’s not ultimate. Despite the global recognition she received for her writing, she looked forward to obscurity, to a day when she could exist in her “naked ‘thisness’ … not seduced by the great temptation of recognition which, in no matter what form, can only recognize us as such and such, that is, something which we fundamentally are not.” This “naked thisness” is another way of saying our true self — the self who is created, held, and sustained by the living God, compared with the false self of ego, hustle, and image management.

Content taken from Celebrities for Jesus by Katelyn Beaty, ©2022. Used by permission of Brazos Press.

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2 responses to “The Paradox of Loneliness”

  1. Pierre says:

    Thanks for this excerpt; I may just have to read the book!
    It’s always incredible to me, given how much we know about the ‘costs’ and loneliness and isolation of celebrity, that we nonetheless valorize it so much. It amazes and depresses me that anyone – especially a young person – would desire to become famous. Maybe people think that being ‘seen’ and ‘recognized’ will cure their loneliness.
    It reminds me of something Freddie deBoer wrote last fall: “Young people understand the allure of being seen; they don’t yet understand the horror of being frozen in other people’s gazes. They don’t understand the costs of being defined.”

  2. Chris says:

    Thanks for this. I felt this way about Hoffman and Prince too. Been reading a lot on Prince lately for a lecture I’m going to give. One of his friends at one point said something along the lines of, “I just wish he’d never become famous and lived a quiet life as a music teacher.” One of the saddest things I’ve read in awhile.

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