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Addiction on The X-Factor

Will The X-Factor's decision to hire Britney and Demi Lovato change the public perception of addiction?

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The X-Factor's new leading ladies Photo via

By Sam Lansky

05/15/12

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About a year ago, I wrote an essay for this site about how my identity as a recovering alcoholic and addict was informed by Britney Spears’ struggles with mental health and addiction. Perhaps that sounds silly to those who complain about the shallowness of celebrity culture and how far removed it is from the unglamorous mundanity of everyday life. 

But a funny thing happens when celebrities come out publicly as addicts: it changes the understanding of addiction in the public space in a very real and meaningful way—in a way that has implications for those of us who have struggled with addiction and how others perceive us. Maybe it even makes it safer for those of us who might feel otherwise stigmatized. A meme circulated on social networking sites several months ago, with pictures from the famous photo set of Spears attacking a paparazzo with an umbrella; it is captioned, “If Britney Spears can make it through 2007, I can make it through this day.” It’s a good reminder, both as a reinterpretation of the tried-and-true “one day at a time” maxim circulated in 12-step culture, but also that celebrities, our postmodern deities, can act as inspiration in those dark moments when the familiar confines of a meeting feel terribly far away.

It was announced yesterday that Spears will be a judge on The X-Factor next season, a move that is as smart for her as it is for the show. There’s no denying that the first season of the series was a lackluster affair; the hotly anticipated American reboot of Simon Cowell’s wildly successful British series, which refined the original formula for reality competitions, was plagued by problems from its onset. Judge Paula Abdul’s return to primetime was marked by a familiar pattern of ineffectual guidance and incomprehensible feedback. Another of the four original judges, Cheryl Cole, a star in her native UK, was replaced at the last minute by Pussycat Doll non-sensation Nicole Scherzinger, whose transparent narcissism and cowardice at the moment of decision made her a villain in the eyes of the public. Label executive L.A. Reid was a forceful presence at the judges’ table and Cowell was typically, and likably, strong-minded, but even he seemed too taken with highlighting the show’s bullishness, too eager to plug his own creation as an Important Television Show. Despite the considerable vocal talents of the eventual winner, Melanie Amaro, the show simply didn’t work. The previously announced second season seemed dubious.

Giving both women a platform like live television is a strong vote of support for their once-questionable mental stability.

To avoid making the same mistakes twice, Cowell needed to lock in a higher level of talent, both to grab headlines and also lend the flagging show a level of credibility that a name like ex-Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger simply couldn’t deliver. So on Monday, when—after months of speculation—the FOX upfronts saw Simon Cowell and L.A. Reid taking the stage with newly announced judges Britney Spears and Demi Lovato, it seemed that he had done just that.

In terms of recruiting high-profile talent, Britney Spears is about as big as you can get: despite her professional peaks and valleys, she remains one of the most iconic stars of her generation, an artist whose records go platinum with virtually no promotion, a person whose routine purchase of a Frappuccino makes headlines. Demi Lovato’s name may command less immediate cachet, but her following is virtually unparalleled in the teen demographic, and her records have been consistently successful, sometimes even excellent. In particular, her last album, "Unbroken," featured the big comeback single “Skyscraper,” a stirring ballad that took the tested overcoming-obstacles tropes and made them fresh through unusually industrial imagery. (Even Bret Easton Ellis was a fan.) True, Lovato needed that comeback single after a much-publicized public spiral punctuated by a trip to rehab and a tell-all interview with Ryan Seacrest where she admitted that she had struggled with bulimia and cutting (later, she confessed in a magazine interview to use of cocaine, confirming what industry insiders had been whispering for years, although Lovato was cagey about the details and minimized the extent to which that contributed to her crisis).

Spears has never outed herself as an addict in any way (she is far too well-managed for that) but her erratic behavior in the latter end of the last decade, coupled with ongoing rumors about her use of Ecstasy, cocaine, and prescription drugs—which may have triggered the bipolar disorder that supposedly spurred her downfall—marks her as an addict in the public consciousness. Lovato, too, has said that she was diagnosed as bipolar. There’s some irony in the fact that she’s been more forthright about her bipolar diagnosis, self-mutilation, and eating disorder than her drug use or it may simply testify the extent to which addiction remains stigmatized; better to be a bulimic cutter than a cokehead.

While Lovato’s relative transparency when it comes to her misdeeds is admirable, a star of Spears’ magnitude has more to lose; at the same time, though, giving both women a platform like live television is a strong vote of support for their once-questionable mental stability. Maybe Cowell is counting on public embarrassments to bolster his ratings but I think he is smarter than an overtly cynical gambit like that would suggest. Incompetent judges have hurt his show in the past, and they could hurt him again. And for those of us who are sober, it is better to see both of these troubled stars in control of their lives, to know that these once-addled figures have rebuilt their careers to the point where they are trusted to perform adequately on live television. Even more powerfully, they are being trusted to guide the professional directions of other talent, since mentorship—a dynamic not unlike sponsorship—is the primary hook of The X-Factor. As a sober person, I’d be remiss if I said that wasn’t inspiring.

And while Lovato has always been better at maintaining her PR game face than Spears has, both stars remain, to some extent, a liability; as recently as March, blind items that appeared to be about Lovato had continued to circulate, including a claim that she had quietly returned to rehab following a relapse. Meanwhile, since her ascent back to the top of the pop game, Spears has been so tightly controlled by her handlers that her interviews reveal nothing. A sad, beautiful robot blinking anxiously, her adjectives of choice remain “cool” and “fun” when describing anything from her new album to a tour and yesterday, at the FOX upfronts, she was visibly nervous as she took the stage. “I’m so excited about this whole experience,” she said dully. “It’s gonna be so much fun and so different from anything I’ve ever done. I’m ready to find the true star.”

Lovato was more enthusiastic about the announcement, squealing that she was “totally stoked” about the opportunity to join the judges’ panel, but the most telling detail of Spears’ upcoming appearance on the show was captured gleefully by TMZ, who zoomed in close on a photograph of her hands. Her nails were chewed down to tiny nubs, her cuticles raw and bloody, a crimson scab on her middle finger. Old habits die hard, I guess. And yet, I’m not so worried. If Britney can make it through 2007, she can make it through anything.

Sam Lansky is an editor at Wetpaint and a regular contributor to The Fix who also wrote about his sobriety in relation to Britney Spears and dating in sobriety, among many other topics. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samlansky

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