Celebrity Death & Downfalls
What is it about a celebrity death that shakes us?
Actors, musicians, and famous people of the public eye are essentially people who have overcome a great many obstacles to achieve their success. Of course there are certain celebrities whose fame came more easily, either through their family or their fortune, or through something explicit, like the occasional sex tape (But hey, even that takes “work” and some good marketing). These however are not the people we are addressing here today.
What I speak of are people whose fame came through their dreams, their talent, their discipline, their desire to contribute to society and their ability to manifest their vision.
Why do we bow down to these celebrities? Why does their existence, and therefore their death, hold such an influence over us? Why is it when they do something awful or unlawful that we find ourselves shocked, or even offended?
These people of fame have found a way to lift themselves up. We consider them the ultimate “rule to the exception.” They are by no means “the majority,” they are the very fine and refined select few. They have striven and in their focused stride have achieved an enormous measure of success, in which both status and power are the offspring. They struggled against adversity, and pushed on despite countless failures or limitations. To them, failure was never the end; it was merely a learning experience. They are famous because in most cases, they have cultivated their garden.
The reason why I believe people mourn celebrities is because we felt these people beat all the odds, and for a while, watching them at the top, watching them on TV, or hearing them on the radio, and seeing them on a grand stage, for a moment we were all fooled into thinking that they were invincible, in some way beyond human. It almost seems as though that the magic of a magazine or a television screen somehow prolongs their existence, if not continues it indefinitely.
If they could overcome all they have, if they could climb as far as they did, how could they not overcome death? If they grew to know such success, how could they fail? Is a pre-mature death not considered the ultimate failure?
Because we feel these people are super-human, we feel they must be exempt from certain human experiences. We find ourselves shocked when we are always forced to learn that of course, these people are just as human as we are.
Could it be that because these people are in the public eye that we assume better of them? That we expect more of them? That because they remain under a lens with the whole world watching, that they should constantly strive to not only do better, but to do well by us?
Is it possible that we feel connected to them through their work? That we feel we know them through the roles they play, the emotions they exhibit, or the songs they create? Is it plausible that we internalize all of this, feeling as if we had actually connected with the artist themselves?
When I first heard about Owen Wilson’s suicide attempt in 2007, I was just as taken aback as everybody else. How could this funny and happy wonderful blonde haired actor want to commit to such a fate? Just like many others, I too was naive in thinking that the roles he played somehow embodied who he was. He is an actor, and a good one. After the initial shock wore off, I was glad to hear the story was getting around. Because I, along with many others, needed to realize that our assumptions of those of fame are both absurd and distorted.
When Michael Jackson died I knew the news would spiral for months. In addition to his personal physician being convicted of involuntary manslaughter, more facts began to surface regarding Jackson’s history of drug abuse. People were disturbed. They had many questions. Their mourning did not end quickly and Jackson continued to get more radio time.
Paul Walker, famous for his roles in Fast & Furious, ironically died in a car crash. It is believed he had once said: “If one day the speed kills me, do not cry because I was smiling.” People were upset and my newsfeed, and I’m sure yours as well, was full of photos, quotes, and comments.
I had the pleasure of meeting Philip Seymour Hoffman once. I was strolling through NYC and I saw him walking alongside his friend. He was dressed in grey sweats and a grey hooded sweatshirt to match. He didn’t look like a celebrity but that face was unmistakable. I ran to him, knowing I had to make contact. As I approached, being completely star struck and so in the moment, I had forgotten his name. I felt like an idiot but I continued regardless. Despite my presence perhaps being a bit abrupt, I ran up to him, grabbing his hand to shake it and to say, “I just wanted to tell you that you’re remarkable.” He said thanks, not sure how to accept the spontaneous compliment. I would also never assume that a man of such talent and status would die of a heroin overdose, but that’s the problem: We assume too much. I didn’t know him. I didn’t know his life or what consisted of his inner dialogue. I only knew the roles he played.
We must remind ourselves that no matter how remarkable, these people are not invincible. We perceive celebrities to be these God-like entities but they’re not. We feel they are superior because of what they’ve achieved and putting them in such high regards sometimes blinds us to the knowledge that celebrities can be just as profound as well as just as flawed as we are. They too will be prone to downfalls and rock bottoms. They too will wither away.
And whether or not you believe that our soul carries on after death, be warned that this flesh will decay. This is a calling to understand your fellow human, rather than judge or assume that one should know, do, or die better. Love who you love. And mourn whoever it is that you must. Realize that we are all perfectly flawed and that nothing, nor no one, lives on forever. We all have an expiration date and we all have our journey.