Almost Infamous

Why overnight stars like Ted Williams get into trouble.

Ted Williams

The typical celebrity career arc, with a few variations, is familiar to anyone who has ever waited in a supermarket checkout line: Struggle, breakthrough, fame (or at least fawning media attention), stumble, infamy (or at least media backlash), descent into drugs and booze, rehab, D-List reality TV show. It just rarely happens as fast as it has to Ted Williams.

Williams, the homeless man with the “golden voice,” became an overnight celebrity after a reporter with the Columbus Dispatch interviewed him on a slow news day and the video went viral. He has since appeared on the Today show and Dr. Phil and has entertained offers to do voice-overs for Kraft, MSNBC, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But fame already seems to have soured. Los Angeles police detained Williams and his daughter Monday night after a loud altercation in a hotel lobby. Williams claims to have been sober for two years, but his daughter says he’s been drinking heavily. He is now reportedly entering rehab.

Longtime celebrities go through ups and downs. But the parabola is a lot more harrowing for people who find themselves suddenly famous. “It’s the people rocketed to stardom who may crumble,” says Glenn Wilson, a professor of psychology at Gresham College and co-author of Fame: The Psychology of Stardom.

Since the rise of reality TV and the Web, instant celebrities—including Susan Boyle, Carrie Prejean, Nadya Suleman (aka “Octomom”), Jon and Kate Gosselin, and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger—have become more common,. Nearly all of them have had trouble adjusting to their newfound fame. Here are a few things that tend to happen to overnight stars:

Narcissism. In 2006, Drew Pinsky—better known as Dr. Drew—published a study in the Journal of Research in Personality that found celebrities, especially females, disproportionately exhibited narcissistic tendencies. That doesn’t mean self-love, Pinsky told the New York Times: “It’s a clinical trait that belies a deep sense of emptiness, low self-esteem, emotional detachment, self-loathing, extreme problems with intimacy.” The need for attention is self-reinforcing: The more you get, the more you want. Celebrities need handlers—assistants, accountants, lawyers, stylists—and tend to surround themselves with sycophants. A.J. Jacobs described the phenomenon thus: “[W]hen you’re a celebrity, anything that emerges from your mouth that vaguely resembles a joke is cause for gut-busting laughter from everyone within earshot.” All that praise can lead to what Wilson calls “imposter syndrome”—the secretfeeling that you don’t deserve all the attention.

Distrust of friends/family. The problem with surrounding yourself with sycophants is that you know you’re surrounded by sycophants. You begin to distrust everyone around you—even those who mean well. When Williams’ daughter told reporters he was drinking, Williams said she was trying to take advantage of him by “selling me out on this fame and fortune ticket.”

Exhaustion. Susan Boyle, whose performance on “Britain’s Got Talent” launched her to stardom in 2009, said that “fame was like a steamroller; it flattened me.” After her initial victorious high, she started acting out. When game show judge Piers Morgan praised one of Boyle’s rivals, she reportedly flew into a rage. At one point, she checked into a mental clinic.

Media backlash. Would-be celebrities assume fame is a constant upward trajectory, without considering the inevitable backlash. Boyle got sick of her increasingly negative coverage, lashing out at two reporters who seemed to be harassing her in a hotel lobby in 2009. “There were a lot of press people outside my door,” she said. “There were phone calls 24 hours a day.”

Loss of identity. Being famous means being approached by strangers who think they know you. Only they don’t—they know your public persona. This kind of over-familiar treatment can lead to a loss of identity, or a “dispersion of the self,” says Wilson. “Is it Daniel Craig they know, or his James Bond persona?” The celebrity himself may start to question who he is.

Drugs. Sudden celebrity means sudden access to every substance imaginable. As the opportunities for self-gratification multiply, the likelihood of succumbing increases—especially for people with longstanding habits. After Williams’ sudden rise to stardom, his daughter said he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day—and not just any vodka: Grey Goose. Having a protective entourage of bodyguards and lawyers can reinforce bad habits by protecting the celebrity from the consequences of their behavior.

Financial woes. People assume celebrities have a lot of money. But that’s not always the case. Even after five seasons of Jon & Kate Plus 8, Kate Gosselin signed up for Dancing With the Stars because, she said, her family needed the money. The pressure supposedly drove her to cry on-set. Williams, who has been homeless for years, seems especially vulnerable to a financial crash-and-burn. “I feel like a million-dollar lottery winner,” Williams said on the Today show last week. The comparison is apt: Like lottery winners, celebrities can get carried away with their wealth as expenditures rise to meet income. (MC Hammer filed for bankruptcy in 1996 after racking up millions in debt.) They assume the cash will continue to flow. When it doesn’t, they make more by doing what they do best: Humiliating themselves in public.

That’s not to say sudden success is all bad. Williams might not have reunited with his mother if not for his big break. Boyle, whatever her stumbles, cut a best-selling album. Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s book, which he wrote after successfully landing a plane on the Hudson River in 2009, helped him fix his finances. Plus, there were side benefits. Lorrie Sullenberger described having “hero sex” after her husband became famous. “Rock star sex,” he confirmed.

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