How celebrities cope with the loss of privacy

August 25, 1992|By Orlando Sentinel

What do actors, politicians, athletes, TV journalists and guppies have in common?

They all have to learn how to deal with life in a fishbowl. Peering eyes. Alert ears. Probing questions.

"Fame is a double-edged sword," said Charles Figley, a psychologist and family therapy professor at Florida State University. "On the one hand, fame is a measure of your worth as a performer. But on the other hand, fame jeopardizes your privacy, freedom and safety; and the situation is much worse when your young children's lives are at stake."

On Aug. 17, Mr. Figley presented a progress report on his study of celebrity stress at the convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington. Mr. Figley became interested in studying celebrity stress six years ago at Purdue University while working with spouses of top state government officials.

While collecting data, he noticed there was little research on how famous people cope with the stress related to loss of privacy. So he has turned his focus to prominent figures such as actors, musicians,sports stars and TV journalists.

He hopes to complete the first phase of the survey by the end of the year. He plans to compile the findings for the participants to help them "survive their lifestyle and hopefully increase the likelihood of marriages sticking together."

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"Fame can be imprisoning." -- singer Michael Jackson, as told to celebrity interviewer Glenn Plaskin.

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Researchers at Florida State's Psychosocial Stress Research Program selected 200 famous people and last year asked them to participate in a study on celebrity family stress. Those interested in participating were sent questionnaires. Mr. Figley would not identify those celebrities because they were promised anonymity.

Twenty have responded thus far, allowing Mr. Figley to identify common threads. One key theme is privacy and the commitment to preserving intimacy without intrusion. Other issues are financial security and continual travel.

Some are more successful at managing stress than others, Mr. Figley notes. The more successful ones develop a split personality -- a public persona and a private self. Some said that whenever they go out of the home they "put on" the public self who is willing to be inconvenienced, photographed and bothered.

"They take that off when they come home," Mr. Figley says. "They can let that public part go and be much more spontaneous and sensitive and more like themselves."

Those who cope seem to have families that can differentiate between the celebrity's public and private personalities, Mr.

Figley says.

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"I would trade it all for anonymity again." -- actor Kevin Costner, quoted in the New York Times.

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The respondents also told Mr. Figley of the strain of even the simplest activities, such as grocery shopping. Many celebrity spouses or parents discourage the famous member of the family -- whether mother, father or child -- from going out, since their presence attracts crowds. That isolates the celebrity from loved ones and creates resentment within the family, Mr. Figley said.

Mr. Figley also is analyzing autobiographies and biographies, looking for feelings about fame's impact on a celebrity's family life -- especially on children.

"Most celebrity families have the same sources of stress as other families living in large urban areas," he said.

They are concerned about the quality of life for their children, job security and personal safety.

Mr. Figley said celebrity families worry even more than normal about the safety of their children. Stalkers, gawkers and overly exuberant fans present potential threats. Crazed fans and the general lack of privacy have forced many celebrity families to go to extraordinary means to live a "normal" life.

Beverly Hills psychologist and author Connell Cowan counsels a number of celebrities. Mr. Cowan says stars are more stressed out about keeping careers on track and fighting ageism than loss of privacy.

"Most of them get an occasional strange letter or some kind of communication from somebody because celebrities are easy to form obsessive fantasies about. They represent a lot of different things to different people. That's a problem, but I don't think that's an overwhelming problem," Mr. Cowan says.

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"It's funny to be someone everyone has an opinion about." -- actress Jodie Foster, quoted in the New York Times.

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Mr. Figley says much can be learned about the way celebrities organize their lives around the management of fame and how stress, including traumatic stress, is managed under such extraordinary conditions.

"Our work will be useful not only to understanding and helping celebrities at all levels, but also in predicting the sources of stress and methods of coping among those who become 'instant celebrities,' such as million dollar Lotto winners, and various people who gain notoriety and struggle to adjust to it," Mr. Figley says.

Psychologist Cowan says most of those in the limelight have no trouble adjusting whatsoever. "Some people thrive on their celebrity, and if they walked up to an opening and there weren't photographers around taking pictures, they feel like they're yesterday's news."

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