Fame: A Cautionary Tale

Many people dream about their 15 minutes of fame. But sometimes, worldwide celebrity comes at a cost.

Case in point: Susan Boyle, the contestant from Britain's Got Talent, became a household name. She later wound up in the hospital, reportedly for nervous exhaustion.

Guests:

Ted Koppel, NPR news analyst

Henry Winkler, actor, writer and producer. He starred as the Fonz on Happy Days for ten seasons.

Jake Halpern, author of Fame Junkies

Fame — The Real Thing — Is A Curse

I remember the moment distinctly, because it was the day of my 40th birthday. A senior ABC News executive called me and asked whether I would like to become the permanent anchor of the program that would come to be called Nightline. That decision took all of about three seconds.

I recall exactly what he told me next: "You," he said, "are going to become famous." I bridled at that a little bit. I had, after all, already appeared on ABC News for seventeen years at that point. I'd served as a war correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, political correspondent; I'd even anchored the Saturday evening news for a couple of years. He could sense my irritation. "I get it," he said. "You've been on television a long time and you're reasonably well known. But you're not famous. Now you will be."

I came to understand what he was talking about.

When Nightline was at the peak of its popularity, when nine or ten million people a night were watching, when the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, New York Magazine and a dozen others had me on their covers and Playboy wanted me to be the subject of one of its interviews, the recognition factor was huge and ego gratification was high. But, at its peak, my experience with fame was a pretty modest affair. Nothing at all on the Oprah, Bono, Brad and Angelina scale. I have never had to deal with photographers and camera crews staking out my home; nor have body guards ever been necessary. You do learn not to slow down too much in public places and to avoid eye-contact; but signing a few autographs, posing for a few photographs has never amounted to a real annoyance.

Last fall, though, at the Democratic Convention in Denver, I got a taste of what the other variety of fame must be like. I was out there for the BBC, which did not have its own office space at Mile High Stadium. And in that setting, television anchors and political reporters were hot commodities. "Nerd celebrities," as one of my young colleagues put it. I had nowhere to hide; and if I stopped walking purposefully, as though I had somewhere to go and was late getting there, I would immediately draw a crowd with cameras and things to be signed. For a couple of hours, I literally couldn't escape the attention; and it was not fun. Finally, I sought refuge with my former employers at ABC News; who did have an office under the stadium.

The point I'm making is this: Fame is fun only as long as you can turn it off when you need to. The minor league fame that I've enjoyed over the years is perfect in that regard. Just enough to get you a good table at a decent restaurant; not enough to set young women to tearing your shirt off.

Poor old Susan Boyle, God bless her. No one had ever intruded upon her privacy until just recently, when she made the mistake of singing rather beautifully on Britain's Got Talent. She never had a gentle run up to fame and didn't have a clue how to deal with it. How could she? She was elevated to white hot celebrity in the nano-second that it took Simon Cowell to raise a surprised eyebrow.

It takes generations to adapt to that kind of public attention. The royal families of Britain and Japan, for example. And if you want a sense of how tough it can be for outsiders, you need look no further than Princess Diana.

Fame — the real thing — is a curse, not a blessing. But the worst thing about it, is that when you really want to, you can't get rid of it; and the world imagines how wonderful it must be and each onlooker is wishing that he or she could have a turn in the spotlight.

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