Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and Fame: Suicide, Genius, and Hidden Pain

Fame is no laughing matter. Fame is hard. That is what my research discovered, and that is why we often see such despair in the demise of certain celebrities, like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

While many people purportedly crave fame, they have no idea what is in store for them. The saying, “It is lonely at the top” came out of the truth of real loneliness experienced by those who rise to fame’s highest glory. What my research found profoundly eroded in the well-being of the lives of the famous was: a lack of trust in old friends and new ones; a sense of depersonalization in what is described as an “entitization” of their personhood; lack of privacy, as in no personal privacy in public spaces (loss of the healthy experience of anonymity); impact of celebrity’s fame on family members; and, ability to navigate post-fame life without feeling like a has-been (learning how to tolerate the craving of what-once-was). A by-product of figuring out how to ride fame, and tame its rough and tumultuous course, is using fame as currency to make the human experience, well, more humane for other people. If the the celebrity’s focus can be held on this helping of “other,” which many celebrities have done, a transcendence of personal consumption and experiential avoidance in order to serve “other,” there may be a chance to survive fame, which in the end can be a difficult thing to do.

Like the children left behind wondering why, fans may similarly experience parasocial reactions after the suicide of a beloved celebrity, feeling abandoned by someone who actually felt like family. Celebrity allure pulls us into its orbit, and we, as customers to this fare, as sitting ducks, as sponges who soak in the notion of hero, of role model, of alter ego, become voyeurs to lives we could never hope to live, but experience in vitro through the petri dish of celebrity culture. Celebrities become bubble gum for our minds, so we can chew on something outside of our own personal struggles for a much needed psychic break. Celebrity Worship and Parasocial Interaction research point to the extent we overly identify with famous people.

So many of the celebrities we come to know, the Spades and Bourdains, are geniuses really, living out their own brilliance right before our eyes, capturing our hearts, and mesmerizing us by the cascading comet that is their lives. Comets burn out because they are so combustive in their vital trajectory. People who are sensitive enough to change the world through a handbag or an authentic conversation about food and culture, need the rest of us to understand more broadly the landscape of such an expansive mind. The Center for Disease Control guidelines that suggest asking loved ones and friends if they are depressed, asking if they think about suicide, if they have a plan, and if they contemplate carrying it out, are important steps to take and should comprise a teaching moment right now for each of us. If there is any doubt, do not leave the person and take him or her to a hospital emergency room. Getting through the current moment of darkness becomes the task at hand.

There are long-term interventions to ward off, and work with, the mindset that may lead to despair and hopelessness in depression and anxiety, and various other states of mental anguish, and while certain approaches are helpful to some people, the same treatments can be counterproductive and in fact dangerous to others. It is critical, though, to be under the care of a doctor if there is any thought of suicide, and consider medication case-by-case based on unique, personal, and individual differences. New, research-based non-pharmaceutical interventions being lauded for lack of negative side effects, and reportedly contributing to resilience and well-being, include: the cultivation of gratitude and self-compassion; mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation techniques for frustration tolerance and affect control; and, talk therapy which highlights humanistic-existential approaches, such as: unconditional regard; self-responsibility; experiential empathy; cognitive testing; awe; and, encouraging innate potential through self-actualizing behaviors.

Treating the whole person, holistically, provides a necessary container for the existential shocks, developmental hurdles, and unexpected turns we cannot possibly foresee around the curves of life. Famous people exemplify what the rest of us are going through; and, while we hear about celebrity suicides, there are tens of thousands that transpire without mention on our media devices. So many people, famous and otherwise, dwell in hidden pain.

At this time of rapid rise in suicide rates, up 30 percent since 1999, and deep pockets of inequity and loss of meaning, may we choose to reach out beyond the existential despair of a particular moment, and create community, cultivate human connections, say no to loneliness and isolation and say yes to the courage to be, the courage to wait out the pain.

“Did you really want to die?”
 “No one commits suicide because they want to die.”
 “Then why do they do it?”
 “Because they want to stop the pain.” 
 ― Tiffanie DeBartolo, How to Kill a Rock Star

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, PLEASE call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255).

Rockwell, D. & Giles, D. (2009). Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology. 40 (2): 178–210.