Everybody is a little bit famous today. The age of social media and 24/7 communication has ushered in the age of the micro-celebrity, people with online audiences that, while smaller than a movie star’s, can still be quite substantial.
Tessa Violet is one of these micro-celebrities. A vlogger and musician, she has accumulated more than a million subscribers on YouTube. If a million people have clicked a button for you to say, “yes, I want to see every video this person makes”, you’re definitely a little bit famous.
A few days ago, Tessa posted a video about her desire for even more fame. The sentiment shocked some in her audience because, over the years, Tessa has come off more and more as a kind and fundamentally decent person. Fundamental decency is hard for some people to square with a burning desire for fame.
The issue Tessa raises is not at all irrelevant. Pair the natural human tendency to desire flattery with an economy whose currency is attention, and the question of whether wanting fame is wrong becomes urgent.
The short answer to it is:
Wanting fame is not, in and off itself, wrong. If by fame, we mean only that someone commands the attention of a crowd, then wanting fame is not only not wrong, but good. Having people’s attention makes it easier to get things done. We can educate people; inspire them to do more, to be better, if they are paying attention to us. In this sense, everyone wants fame. Tessa wants people to listen to her music. I want people to read this blog. It’s natural.
See, fame is a tool, one that can be used for good. Mother Theresa was famous, and her fame increased her influence. Had no one ever heard of her, she would never have been invited to speak before presidents and leaders the world over. I don’t doubt that even Mother Theresa wanted to increase the opportunities for her message to be heard, that she wanted to be famous.
The world is not populated by Mother Theresas. When we think of someone who wants fame, we typically think of those who want to be famous, not to serve a message or mission, but to serve the demands of their outsized egos. Their example shows us how easily fame, like physical strength, can be put to wrong ends.
The desire for fame becomes corrupt when it is not balanced with a desire for other, more important, goods. People who desire fame more than dignity, humility, wisdom and peace are not people we want to befriend.
Many of us recoil from people who speak openly about their desire for fame. We find this kind of talk disturbing because we sense the emptiness of soul that characterizes people who prioritize fame too highly. We sense that they desire acclaim as a substitute for the inner core they lack. We are not totally wrong to associate an open desire for fame with a kind of spiritual and emotional deformity.
Perhaps it is better to call this second sort of fame “celebrity.” When someone hungers for fame meant only to satisfy the insatiable hunger of ego, what he really wants is to be a celebrity, and not a mini-one.
The function of celebrity is mostly to reflect the shallow values of a shallow culture. Of course, we feel weird about someone who devotes himself to that job.
There are a lot of those people around. Even if they don’t move to Hollywood and pursue a big movie career, they build their lives around social media. A society that has destroyed family and community will inevitably breed people who look to celebrity at any level to fill the void.
In this, as in so much else, sex matters. Women are likely more drawn to fantasies of celebrity because they tend to be more sensitive to social validation. Being a celebrity is pretty much the apex of social validation.
Men are drawn to the idea of celebrity too, but, I suspect, it’s a smaller percentage. Men are more likely to be drawn to fantasies of glory borne from daring feats, rescuing a damsel in distress, founding a billion-dollar business empire than to fantasies of celebrity for celebrity’s sake.
How can we make sure our desire for fame remains within reasonable and moderate bounds? Tessa touches on the first step in her video. We can’t control what we don’t acknowledge. Admitting our desire for renown helps us reflect on it. When we acknowledge some part of ourselves we can get critical distance from it, begin to examine it, make sure we hold it in proper tension with our other values.
We can’t do that if we are distracted. Reflecting on our desires and values requires us to be still, to be comfortable being alone. No one sees honestly whether his desire for fame is improper when he is standing before an admiring crowd. Instead, we must step back because the great, ironic danger of fame is that its soul-corrupting powers can only kept in check if we do what we ought when no one is looking.
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