Fallen Celebrities: Casualties of Fame or Victims of Circumstance?

This is a guest post by Kathy Iandoli. Kathy has written for MSN Music, Village Voice, Bust, VIBE, and other publications. She is a writer in the New York City area.

There seems to be this recycled response when a female celebrity dies from anything other than an accident, illness or old age: “She couldn’t handle the fame.”

It’s not the fame that is the problem; it’s the symptoms that are derived from it. Just like an AIDS patient might die from “pneumonia,” fame might be the disease, but it certainly doesn’t kill the person – everyone else does. The real tragedy outside the loss of a life is that even in their passing, female celebrities are subjected to the same level of scrutiny that enveloped their careers on earth. Whitney Houston’s death on Saturday night – while many globally mourned her – was still met with snarky and heartless jabs about her drug addiction in the same juvenile manner following Amy Winehouse’s death. And what was it that killed them both? Oh yes, “fame.” Showing up to movie sets, recording albums, performing onstage, managing a family in the public eye – all of these things drove Ms. Whitney Houston to substance abuse, which ultimately killed her. “Crack is cheap,” was the quote that haunted Houston for the duration of her career, followed by rumors of freebasing and chasing wine with designer drugs. This lifestyle was the direct result of her inability to “handle the fame.” Or so we are led to believe.

When a male celebrity is caught red-nosed, it’s for one of two reasons – it either enhances his creative genius (Miles Davis, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix) or it makes him sporadically awesome (Chris Farley, John Belushi). The eulogy for the aforementioned includes a “live fast die young” mentality, while women in the same state (Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe) are ticking time bombs waiting for the journey six feet under. Is that really what we’re made for? To give life and then sit under a microscope while the world awaits the end of ours? There has yet to be a pool for Charlie Sheen’s death the way there was one for Amy Winehouse. But he’s, duh, winning. Sheen’s a part of the age-old examples of men who haven’t died despite sharing the same afflictions as their female counterparts. What’s preserving them? Their gender?

Testosterone isn’t keeping Mick Jagger alive. It’s pure luck.

Meanwhile, when male celebrities die, it’s such a “shock.” Even the King Of Pop Michael Jackson’s passing was so surprising despite his years-long partner named Prednisone. He didn’t die from “fame” though. He was “murdered.”

As we mourn yet another passing of a star, let’s all keep something in mind: fame kills no gender more than the other, and berating them in their afterlife won’t promote that ill-informed theory. No one really knows what brings a celebrity to self-inflicted pain, but assumptions won’t bring them back.

Rest In Peace, Whitney Houston.

28 comments for “Fallen Celebrities: Casualties of Fame or Victims of Circumstance?

  1. ginmar
    February 17, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Look at Britney Spears and Linday Lohan. I’m not going to bother with the standard disclaimers. If they were men, they’d be sympathized with. When one of the Wilson brothers tried to commit suicide, the family requested privacy and respect and largely got it. Watching Spears spiral, I was seriously afraid she’d kill herself. It was all played for laughs. “Har har har she crazy! Look at her shave her head!” Of course, the Fug Girls have devoted reams of paper to mocking her, and there was already a pool of resentment built up from when she was positioned as a jail bait singer, yet claimed to be a virgin. God knows how she was raised or treated by her parents. If Lohan were a young man, there’d be at least some articles, bemoaning her potential in very serious terms.

    When Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose, he was mourned. Whitney Houston is being jeered at.

  2. February 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Susie Bright posted a similar article earlier this week. The music industry in particular has a problem with this: men’s addiction is brushed away as “bad boy” debauchery, and when it finally kills someone, he’s romanticized (Kurt Cobain, et al.), while women are shamed for the same behavior.

  3. jesus_marley
    February 17, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Look at Britney Spears and Linday Lohan. I’m not going to bother with the standard disclaimers. If they were men, they’d be sympathized with.

    I disagree,wholeheartedly with this. A lot of the issue regarding Britney and Lindsay was their blatant courting of the paparazzi. Basically, the assumption that as long as you are news you are relevant is pervasive in Hollywood. Also bear in mind these two are or were considered A list celebrities, so their every move was documented for public consumption.

    “When one of the Wilson brothers tried to commit suicide, the family requested privacy and respect and largely got it.”

    This goes back to the status level of celebrities in Hollywood culture. Owen was at best a ‘B lister’ and thus not as worthy of the public eye and thus it was much easier for him to hide. Consider the attention that Mel Gibson or Christian Bale received when they had their respective meltdowns. They were lambasted as badly as Britney and Lindsay ever were.

    “When Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose, he was mourned. Whitney Houston is being jeered at.”

    The thing to consider was that Heath’s drug problem was to my knowledge not as prolonged or as in the public eye as was Whitney’s. That said, there is obviously going to be more attention paid to people who bring their issues into the public eye versus those who are not as well documented. It’s like comparing the Titanic disaster to the the destruction of a small fishing fleet in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

  4. February 17, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    I have to disagree. I think fame is equally destructive for both men and women. We likely have a sexist bias in place, but I’m more concerned with the psychological impact. The example that jumps out at me most is Dave Chappell. He walked away from a very popular television show and the promise of much more beyond it. And the answer provided we, the audience, for his decision was that he couldn’t handle the pressure and demands of yes, fame.

    Addiction is a potent stigma for both sexes. And it’s very common for celebrities. We’d first have to concede that our stars are fundamentally the same as us before our negative attitudes stop. The system places them up higher than normal human beings and we see them in superhuman terms. What we’re really criticizing about them is that they didn’t live up to our conception of how they were supposed to be.

    Female celebrities, like male celebrities can seek to cope with fame through drug addiction. Or, like Fiona Apple, they can become reclusive and totally withdraw from the world. Either way, it’s the method of coping strategies we’re really critiquing here. If we want to stop our judgmental attitudes, we’d best dismantle the system, brick by brick.

  5. lucy
    February 17, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    great article
    i disagree ginmar : Charlie Sheen last year has been bashed and crusified in a very very cruel way by medias and lot’s of ‘good american’ people..some even cheered for his death..it was insane..so the men/women double standards i don’t buy it..except if you want to talk about women always labeled as some ‘victims’ like now Whitney Houston is a ‘victim’ and he ex Bobbi Brown the ‘bad guy’..enough with that, as a woman it is offensive, i believe in equality between genders, women like men are flawed human-beings, they are not always victims, they are also strong people who make mistakes.

  6. Lindsay Beyerstein
    February 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Our society is more tolerant of intoxicated men than intoxicated women. There’s this whole macho mystique of substance abuse. Remember how Christopher Hitchens, the most famous literary drunk of his generation, published an essay asserting that female drunkenness was completely beyond the pale?

    The guest blogger is right to point out this double standard, but I think she’s wrong to condemn the “fame kills” narrative for women because it’s not applied as often to men. If a male star’s addiction is indulged to death–either because people think that the abuse is part of his genius, or simply because nobody will dare tell him “no”–then arguably fame killed him. Sure, “fame kills” is a cliche, but like most cliches there may be a grain of truth. Celebrities are indulged and if you’ve got self-destructive tendencies, that can be dangerous.

  7. Carl
    February 17, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    I think it depends on the celebrity. After he died, I remember a lot of focus on Chris Farley’s downward spiral, and the sickness of his wanting so much to be like John Belushi until he died in the same manner. It felt like a cautionary tale to me. He was mourned, but I don’t think he was ever made awesome – he’s probably already forgotten in larger pop culture. I also think Janis Joplin has had almost as much glorification as Hendrix or Morrison – she’s remembered for hard rocking and a cool style, not for choking on her own vomit.

    I do see these double standards sometimes, although addiction isn’t always involved. For instance, John Candy was mourned, while Mama Cass was and still is subjected to nasty little rumors. Then there is Dusty Springfield, who, if she is written about, is focused on because of her “sad” or “tragic” life. Whether it’s an article on TNR or even a DVD showcasing her work, this comes up again and again. Why can’t we remember her music without being reminded yet again of what we already know about?

  8. ginmar
    February 17, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Comrade Kevin, did not know notice any of the things I or any one cited? We romanticize male users and drunks: we condemn female ones. In fact, men who drink are regarded as being less responsible, while women are blamed and seen as distasteful, if not outright asking for it. Both Spears and Lohan are attractive women, but both of them get a certain amount of outrage over ‘spoiling’ their looks—-for men, presumably. Spears spent a certain amount of time touting her virginity while selling sex appeal—-apparently at the direction of her parents. Female celebrities are expected to dress in ways that aren’t expected of male celebrities, and they have much shorter professional careers, because their looks are all. Tabloids feature badly-dressed female celebs and other faux pas of women far more often then they do of men. Her career’s at stake if she’s not incredibly thin. He’s got leeway. And so on. Show business is probably the most sexist thing in the world. Drug addiction for the men in it makes them romantic heroes. Drug addiction for women makes them into sleazes, which is part of a far larger narrative for women centered on safety, appearances, and usurping male privileges. Having a high old time is not something women are supposed to do all the time. If guys do it they’re sowing their wild oats.

    Jesus Marley, you’re getting really close to victim blaming there. Blatant courting of the paparazzi? Was it them courting the paperazzi or the paps simply being out of control and stalking them non stop. It’s well known what kind of pictures get big bucks and nothing’s worth more than somebody self destructing. Especially a woman, who’s marked as sleazy. Being hassled by the paperazzi night and day sounds pretty hellish.

  9. QLH
    February 17, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    A lot of the issue regarding Britney and Lindsay was their blatant courting of the paparazzi.

    In other words, they asked for it.

    The paparazzi gave them attention, but in which ways? Through which narratives? With emphasis on what? If the “they asked for attention” point is valid, what sort of attention did we give them in return?

    Are there no/fewer male stars asking for attention? No/fewer male stars courting the paparazzi? If/when they do, what sort of response do they get? What sort of attention?

  10. Stubborn Kind of Fellow
    February 17, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    While I agree with the crux of the article – that female celebrities are subjected to a lot more scrutiny than their male counterparts, I think you’ve missed the point somewhat.

    Surely the problem is more that, because of sexist attitudes within the industry, female celebrities are allowed less control over their careers and are often subjected to various forms of sexual victimisation (not that this is restricted to women, male child stars seem to go off the rails more heavily than anyone and I’m sure this is a factor). It’s these factors that lead to dependence on chemical crutches as much as any public scrutiny (from which many celebs are often insulated to some degree).

    As far as media portrayals go, the ‘fame kills’ is often used as a frame for the story, but not strictly for one gender. With Michael Jackson and Kurt Cobain – both mentioned in the article – it’s certainly a crux of the popular narrative, though since they both had images as ‘feminine men’, which could well have been a factor in this.

    The substance abuse thing is less clear cut too – people like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears are seen as tragic messes because they’re also seen as untalented. Winehouse was framed similarly to Pete Doherty – a wayward talent driven and destined to be destroyed by a tortured soul that found solace in drink and substance abuse, just like Billie Holiday (and I don’t think there is a difference between how she and, say, Robert Johnson, are portrayed just as there is no real difference between Joplin and Jim Morrison). Surely that was the opinion of the mourners who left cans of beer on her doorstep as memorials.

    As far as Whitney goes, if she’d died earlier there would have been more attention directed to her talent but unfortunately, it’s been a long, very public decline. As with Michael Jackson, she was sadly a walking punchline years before her passing. Heath Ledger’s was a sudden shock, accompanied by the peak performance of his career – there really is no comparison.

  11. jesus_marley
    February 17, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    @QLH – As Eminem once said, “There’s no such thing as bad press.” I realize quoting a guy such as him here is touchy but it is no less valid a point. In the world of fame where it’s a struggle to remain relevant, some people court the press with bad or other questionable behaviour. They see any kind of attention as good as it keeps them on the front page. This goes for men as well as women.

  12. jesus_marley
    February 17, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    Addendum – “Are there no/fewer male stars asking for attention? No/fewer male stars courting the paparazzi? If/when they do, what sort of response do they get? What sort of attention?”

    Look at the two examples I provided, Christian Bale and Mel Gibson. both became instant sensations when they had their respective meltdowns. Hell, Andy Dick is another, known primarily for being in and out of rehab. Michael Richards is an extreme example and in his case I would certainly say it backfired horribly. Same thing for Gilbert Gottfried though to a lesser but still detrimental effect. Even Charlie Sheen who I would argue is likely suffering from an (officially) undiagnosed manic depressive disorder. every one of them increased their respective market shares by losing their shit in front of the camera.

  13. ginmar
    February 17, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    Jesus Marley, you seem completely incapable of seeing sexism at all.

  14. jesus_marley
    February 18, 2012 at 12:19 am

    @Ginmar – That is not correct. I see sexism in all kinds of situations. That said, I am also not one to automatically assume sexism without an analysis. If I see a situation which affects both men and women in roughly equal terms, I am very reluctant to call sexism without a very good reason.

  15. EG
    February 18, 2012 at 12:32 am

    men’s addiction is brushed away as “bad boy” debauchery, and when it finally kills someone, he’s romanticized (Kurt Cobain, et al.), while women are shamed for the same behavior.

    My memory is that while he did have problems with heroin addictin, Cobain killed himself after suffering from bouts of depression most of his adult life. That’s not death from an addiction, nor is it debauchery.

    I’m not convinced that the division is as clear-cut as all that–not to say that there’s not a difference there, but self-destructive men have certainly been favorite picks in death pools. Before Keith Richards had revealed his superhuman indestructability to the world, how many people expected him to make it past his 30th birthday? The self-destructive drug-binging-as-genius mythos seems to be to apply to Janis Joplin as much as Jimi Hendrix (I won’t say Jim Morrison, because not only do I not think he’s a genius, I don’t even think he’s very good or interesting). And the cultural significance of Marilyn Monroe seems most paralleled with that of James Dean, to me–both about the sort of tragic sex symbol whose image is at odds with his/her complex/tormented soul blah blah blah. And in terms of watching the meltdown and just waiting for the kid to die, you can’t get much more so than Sid Vicious (the misogyny there lies in the consistent demonization of Nancy Spungen and the absurd idea that somehow she destroyed him, but not in the sense that anybody thought that smack enhanced his creative genius, because he didn’t have any, or made him awesome, because it didn’t and everybody knew it).

    I agree that the way we as a culture treat and talk about our celebrities is absolutely shot through with misogyny, but I’m not convinced that this specific critique is accurate. Does anybody think that Charlie Sheen is “winning”? Isn’t the whole point of citing that part of a culture-wide mockery of his self-delusion?

  16. February 18, 2012 at 1:32 am

    I don’t think it’s a matter of “handling” fame, per se. I think fame is just automatically harder on most women than it is on men – the game is rigged. And that’s not to say that famous men don’t go through torture.They’re just not expected to let on about it, which is another reason why Heath Ledger’s death was such a shock.

    “Crack is cheap,” was the quote that haunted Houston for the duration of her career

    Well, to be fair to Whitney in particular, it haunted her long after her best career days were behind her.

    And she did talk freely and openly about having too much money and not knowing how to deal with that in a responsible way, and well… You know, maybe the woman herself said it best:

    “The biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy.”

    I think she was very self-aware, and the fact that she lost the good fight – well, people lose the good fight sometimes.

    And maybe, as Lindsey pointed out, the real issue is that we just can’t handle the idea of female intoxication – and hence we don’t really confront it, as a society. We treat it as something hilarious and humiliating, and then whoops, someone else is gone.

  17. Lindsay Beyerstein
    February 18, 2012 at 2:07 am

    It’s weird that Iandoli brings up Michael Jackson because our reactions to his death undercut her argument.

    Nobody thought that drugs made Jackson more awesome. Virtually everyone believed that fame killed him in one sense or another. The only debate was over the relative contribution of various aspects of fame to Jackson’s downfall: Was he emotionally stunted by child stardom? Did his vast wealth enable a vicious cycle of bizarre behavior and social isolation? Did he turn to substance abuse to cope with stress and loneliness? Did racial and cultural baggage and the culture of celebrity fuel his obsession with cosmetic surgery? Did all that surgery contribute to the physical agony that marred the last years of his life and predisposed him to demand extreme measures for pain control that no non-celebrity would receive? Etc, etc.

    Jackson wasn’t murdered. He was killed by a Dr. Feelgood who wouldn’t say no to Jackson’s crazy demand to be put under general anesthetic for insomnia. That’s a classic example of how fame can kill. Celebrities attract yes men and hangers on, who can be deadly if they enable the celebrity’s self-destructive behavior.

    True, Jackson wasn’t reviled as a drug addict, per se, but that’s because drugs were the least conspicuously fucked up thing about him. Sadly, during his long decline, he became more famous as a tabloid eccentric than as a musician.

  18. bleh
    February 18, 2012 at 8:22 am

    Let’s not forget that both Amy Winehouse & Whitney Houston had abusive partners and the Winehouse’s boyfriend ‘turned her out’ (introduced her to drugs). It’s abuse they aren’t able to handle, not fame. And very few famous men are abused. The media downplays the abusive men in their lives and plays up their addictions. So yeah, sexism is definitely part of the problem.

  19. jesus_marley
    February 18, 2012 at 10:08 am

    @Bleh – “It’s abuse they aren’t able to handle, not fame. And very few famous men are abused.”

    Is it this or is it that we rarely here about it in the media. The few times that we do hear about a man being abused it is usually given short shrift if we even hear about it at all. Whitney Houston herself admitted to beating Bobby Brown. In an April 13, 1999 Associated Press article, Whitney Houston said that she was the aggressor in her marriage to Bobby Brown.

    ”Contrary to belief, I do the hitting, he doesn’t. He has never put his hands on me. He is not a woman-beater,” the singer and actress said in the May issue of Redbook. ”We are crazy for one another. I mean crazy in love, love, love, love, love. When we’re fighting, it’s like that’s love for us. We’re fighting for our love.”

    Even with her admitting openly that she did the hitting, she is the abused one.

    Bobby was certainly no angel though having a history of drunk driving and battery against other women himself and my example above in no way excuses his behaviour. The point being that it isn’t always as cut and dried as we may think it is.

    I mean hell, until today I didn’t know that Humphrey Bogart ‘s third wife (nicknamed Slugsy of all things) beat him. Now, again, it was apparently a mutual thing, but Humphrey did apparently get stabbed once.

    • February 18, 2012 at 10:49 am

      Farewell, Jesus Marley! You have officially annoyed me on one too many threads.

  20. jesus_marley
    February 18, 2012 at 10:09 am

    @Bleh – comment to you is in mod.

  21. February 18, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Sure, there is a huge asymmetry which will never disappear for a bunch of reasons.
    One of these reasons being that women function and / or are perceived as the main caregivers of their children. Even if they don’t have any.
    The society does not want to distinguish between people who are currently responsible for someone’s childhood and those who are not. This motherhood issue (real or phantom) gives way to a more heavy critique towards female celebrities compared with their male counterparts.

  22. Kathleen F.
    February 18, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Is it just me or is using the phrase “no angel” in a discussion about abuse and/or violence a pretty good automatic reason to tune someone out?

    I’ve noticed a disturbing tendency for white men’s talent to be viewed as something inherent to them, inseparable from them, whereas for black women, their talent is seen as something separate and apart from their identity. Whitney Houston’s Voice is assumed to be an entity unto itself for which Whitney Houston the person was merely the caretaker, and gosh, isn’t it terrible that her caretaking was so shoddy. (How black men and white women are judged on this spectrum can depend on a whole bunch of different factors, but it’s really disturbing that it seems to be by and large white men who get the privilege of getting actual credit for their own talent.)

  23. EG
    February 18, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    I’ve noticed a disturbing tendency for white men’s talent to be viewed as something inherent to them, inseparable from them, whereas for black women, their talent is seen as something separate and apart from their identity.

    That’s a great point. I’d never noticed that before. It also completely effaces the hard work and skill the black women do to make the most of their talent. Talent may be innate or it may not, but achievement is never the result of talent alone. But if what’s amazing is “Whitney Houston’s Voice,” as if it were a separate entity, as you note, then everything she did to train and practice and create is wiped out, because it’s just a random talent that happens to be housed in her body, and no more the result of her efforts than would be a bolt of lightning.

  24. j_bird
    February 20, 2012 at 1:33 am

    But if what’s amazing is “Whitney Houston’s Voice,” as if it were a separate entity, as you note, then everything she did to train and practice and create is wiped out, because it’s just a random talent that happens to be housed in her body, and no more the result of her efforts than would be a bolt of lightning.

    I’ve noticed the same thing, and I agree that it seems to work along racial as well as gender lines. In music reviews, terms like “craft” and “musicianship” tend to get applied to white artists more than black, and male artists more than female. The “noble savage” myth persists.

  25. Unree
    February 20, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    The great baseball hero Henry Aaron made the @23, 24, 25 point above. When he was chasing Babe Ruth’s record in the 60s and 70s the media kept describing him as a brute made of pure talent. Aaron pointed out that he actually had to do a lot of thinking to hit 755 home runs.

  26. Carol
    February 21, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    OK, even though Jesus Marley is gone, I think something needs to be addressed. In 1993, Whitney Houston called 911 and reported that Bobby Brown had hit her. The police report indicates she had a bruise on her cheek and a cut inside her lip. She stayed with her husband, and gave the whole “I hit him” story out to the media later, but I’m going to go with evidence listed in a police report.

  27. Diana
    March 4, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Mmm, definitely sad, male or female. Whether their death was expected (Amy Whinehouse, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and eventually Keith & Mick) or unexpected (Heath Ledger, River Phoenix) there is no need to make fun of their deaths. Maybe one day the world will learn:/

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