Fame's Growing Pains

Consider the following simile: Growing up is like getting famous. The confusing internal and external changes, the influx of sexual attention, with its addictive qualities, and the magnified sense of shame. There’s a reason Disney Channel shows have found coming-of-fame to be such a useful narrative tool. While the coming-of-age novel often employs supernatural metaphors to explain puberty and its burdens—vampires or werewolves as an allegory of otherness, adult responsibility, and animal desire—burgeoning fame may offer a way to understand adolescence that’s closer to home, even as it remains intriguingly alien. The following books are not about superstars. Instead, they each illuminate the fertile time in which a person makes the transition, becoming more aware of their effect on others. The phenomenon of celebrity puberty, of being just on the edge of renown—whether or not one ever makes it to the next level—can offer surprising insights into the human psyche.

Edie: An American Girl by Jean Stein, edited with George Plimpton

Edie Sedgwick always managed to avoid stability—including the relatively even ground of mainstream success. Before her death at twenty-eight, she burned a lot of bridges. Her self-sabotage, in retrospect, looks rather elegant: Since she was never truly a top model or actress, she has remained a tragic heroine instead of a self-centered celebrity. This oral history perhaps ends up saying more about Sedgwick’s time and its tastemakers than about Sedgwick herself, but nonetheless, it beautifully traces the constellation of her life via the anecdotes of her mystified acquaintances, upper-crust family members, art stars, fellow tastemakers, and the musicians who wrote songs about her. Always in love with someone or other, always addicted to a few substances, and always keen to be in a fast car or on the back of a motorcycle, she seemed to strive for something impossible, undefined, and, most importantly, out of her own control.

The Bling Ring by Nancy Jo Sales

What makes Nancy Jo Sales good at her day job—profiling celebrities for Vanity Fair—is that she cares so deeply about just what might make someone want to be famous in the first place. The Bling Ring, which started as a magazine profile of the teen thief Alexis Neiers and was then turned into a book and a Sofia Coppola movie, asks why Neiers and her friends stole from celebrity homes. It clearly wasn’t that they hoped to make money, so perhaps it was an attempt to find fame by osmosis. The targets of the group’s robberies were often themselves only on the fringes of mainstream success: at the time, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan were better known for their partying than anything else. Sales has a long history of examining the line we draw between the famous and the notorious: She wrote the first real profile of the heiresses Hilton, and she’s interviewed everyone from Courtney Love to Donald Trump. Her stories about young people—their sex lives, their crimes, and their (our) addiction to attention—aim to understand what drives us to do things that wreck our reputations in order to be well known, whether within a peer group, on social media, or in any other made-up world. 

The Wretched of the Screen by Hito Steyerl

Filmmaker Hito Steyerl has spent much of her career studying the screen, in all senses of the word. This book of her essays concisely, and sometimes playfully, maps out her politics when it comes to image-making and art, and offers some illuminating observations about fame along the way. In one piece, she points to the 1977 songs “No More Heroes,” by the Stranglers, and “Heroes,” by David Bowie, identifying a particularly cynical fame fetish that somehow felt a lot more enticing at the time. What counts, today, as authenticity in terms of self-image creation? Questions about visibility and celebrity (and the risks and uses of both), have always been twisted into feminist discourse, Steyerl writes. Feminists have sometimes fought against objectification—but over the past few decades, new ideas have emerged about what it might mean to be an object. Could it be that wanting to be a thing is no worse than wanting to be an idea? “A desire to become this thing—in this case an image—is the upshot of the struggle over representation. . . . Did the public image—of women or other groups, for example—actually correspond to reality? Was it stereotyped? Misrepresented? Thus one got tangled in a whole web of presuppositions, the most problematic of which being, of course, that an authentic image exists in the first place.”

Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller

Over the course of this story collection, the actor and John Waters muse Cookie Mueller describes how she approached art stardom, eventually becoming a critic and columnist for publications like BOMB and Details. The events of her wild life would surely have traumatized, or at least hindered the memories of a lesser writer, but Mueller continually surprises the reader by expertly condensing them into captivating tales: of meeting a serial killer, working as a stripper, dangerous drug use, kidnapping, childbearing, film festivals, farming, and a certain type of fame. The stories never stall or stop to take in the laughs, as any stand-up comic with such gifts would—and that makes Mueller’s fame seem somehow purer, more justifiable. Take this sentence, from the first page of “Haight Ashbury—San Francisco—1967”: “It was too early to get up, but I decided I couldn’t sleep any longer in the same bed with this person who I liked just fine yesterday when we liberated two T-bone steaks from the Safeway supermarket which we cooked and ate, much to the disgust of the vegetarians I lived with.” Cookie Mueller was essentially allergic to fame, and that’s what eventually made her famous. In her world, the main effect of becoming recognizable as an actor in art films was simply that it became a little more embarrassing to be caught climbing a fence after leaving a hotel via a fire escape to avoid the angry concierge.

The Coxon Fund by Henry James

This novella crystalizes the vacancy of our obsession with famous people and things. They are important. Why? Because they are famous. When asked to describe what a lecture by the celebrated so-called genius Frank Saltram would have been like, had it happened, the narrator says, with glorious vagueness, “The sight of a great suspended swinging crystal—huge, lucid, lustrous, a block of light—flashing back every impression of life and every possibility of thought!” Of course, one can only accurately describe fame as indescribable. Real fame is inherently baffling—in general, and still more so in any specific case. How can the momentum continue, and why? There can never be a satisfactory answer, and therefore the questioning continues, which tends to result in the person becoming even more famous. The Coxon Fund is a clever illustration of how fame, often bestowed on someone with little to offer except bad behavior, is seen as a virtue in itself. As in real life (and in this sense nothing has changed since 1894), the other characters are jealous of the attention the famous person receives: They soon conclude that he cannot be deserving of it after all, and this fact must be proved. Frank is torn down, as most celebrities are sooner or later, but the joke is on everyone else. Once we’ve destroyed our own creations, we can rarely resist making a show of how much we miss them.

Natasha Stagg’s first novel, Surveys, was published this year by Semiotext(e). She works as senior editor at V magazine in New York.