Are Celebrities More Prone to Addiction?

By Kristen McGuiness 01/18/12
Are celebrities more likely to be addicts? As it turns out, fame and addiction are closely linked—and more similar than you might think.
The "winning" combination: fame and addiction Photo via

Every time you turn on the TV, flip through the local tabloids, or look to see who’s trending on the Internet, you're bound to see addled celebrities behaving badly: Lindsay. Tiger. Alec. Charlie. And more sports figures than most of us can count. Which begs the question: would these people have been acting out—or addicts—regardless of whether or not they were household names, or did becoming household names inspire the behavior?

According to Dr. Scott Teitelbaum, an Associate Professor and Vice Chair of the University of Florida psychiatry department and the Medical Director of Florida Recovery Center, “Some people who become famous and get put on a pedestal begin to think of themselves differently and lose their sense of humility. And this is something you can see with addicts, too.” He continues, “Famous or not, people in the midst of their addiction will behave in a narcissistic, selfish way: they’ll be anti-social and have a disregard for rules and regulations. But that is part of who they as an addict—not necessarily who they would be as a sober person. Then there are some people who are narcissists outside of their disease, who don’t need a drug or alcohol addiction to make them feel like the rules don’t apply to them—and yes, I have seen in this in many athletes and actors. Of course, you also have non-famous people who struggle with both.”

People with addiction and people with narcissism both seek outside sources for inside happiness. And ultimately neither the fame nor the drugs nor the drinking will work.

Yet in this world of reality stardom, as more and more people seek and achieve fame without any real talents (Snookie, Teen Moms—we’re talking to you), fame and addiction increasingly intersect. According to Dr. Dale Archer, the medical director for psychiatric services at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital says, “Fame and addiction are definitely related. Those who are prone to addiction get a much higher high from things—whether it’s food, shopping, gambling or fame—which means it  [the behavior or situation] will trigger cravings.” 

Fame cravings? Not so crazy when you look at the research. In a 2005 Duke study, Macaque monkeys were given the choice of either drinking some of their favorite juice or looking at pictures of high-status individuals in their group. Guess which one they picked? That’s right, our obsession with fame started back with our most primal instincts.

Here’s the way Dr. Archer explains it: “When we get an addictive rush, we are getting a dopamine spike. If you talk to anyone who performs at all, they will talk about the ‘high’ of performing. And many people who experience that high report that when they’re not performing, they don’t feel as well. All of which is a good setup for addiction.” Yet, Archer adds, the addiction component of fame goes beyond performing. “People also get high from all the trappings that come with fame,” he says. “The special treatment, the publicity, the ego. Fame has the potential to be incredibly addicting.”

Of course, celebrities who also suffer from narcissism can be more susceptible to using drugs and alcohol to help them cope. Says Teitelbaum, “People with addiction and people with narcissism share a similar emptiness inside. Those who are famous might fill it with achievement or with drugs and alcohol. That’s certainly not the case for everyone. But when you see people who are both famous and narcisstic—people who struggle with staying right-sized or they don’t have a real sense of who they are without the fame—you know that they’re in trouble.”

Perhaps one of the benefits of our Twitter-crazed, TMZ-obsessed world is that the behavior of famous people who are acting out that once would have been swept under the rug is now brought out in the open and ridiculed. The now-sober Alec Baldwin was recently—and famously—booted from a flight for thinking the rules (yes, everyone must turn off their electronics) did not apply to him. “One of the biggest problems with fame is that people cater to you and want to take advantage of you and they are willing to forgive a lot of bad behavior,” offers Archer. “People think of themselves as a famous person and not a real person.”

The problem is exacerbated when someone becomes famous at a young age, says Archer. “The younger you are when you get famous, the greater the likelihood that you’re going to suffer consequences down the road,” Archer says. “If you grow up as a child star, you realize that you can get away with things other people can’t. There is a loss of self and a loss of emotional growth and a loss of thinking that you need to work in relationship with other people.” As Dr. Archer and others have found, having a stable home environment and a strong support system can help people better handle the trappings of fame; still, at times, being a celebrity is simply too much.

Many child stars (Corey Haim, Dana Plato, Brad Renfro) who have suffered from addiction never actually had a chance to grow up—a fact that doesn’t surprise experts. “You see a trained narcissism with young celebrities—especially with athletes,” explains Dr. Teitelbaum. “They have been taught since seventh grade that they’re different, special, or better. You have it in the entertainment business as well, particularly with young stars. When they grow up, that narcissism becomes a real barrier to recovery.” But, of course, this isn’t true for all former child stars—even the addicted ones. As Todd Bridges, who starred alongside Plato in Diff’rent Strokes and has been sober for over 20 years, told The Fix last year, “I think it’s a myth [that all child stars end up becoming addicts]. It’s a very small percentage, actually…For every child star you can name who’s an addict, I can name five who are completely sober.”

Still, according to Archer, addiction to fame is increasingly becoming a serious problem. “If you talk to a lot of kids today and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they say they want to be famous,” he says. “Fame has become a professional choice amongst the youth and that’s warped. But in the end, the question is what type of high are you getting from this activity and if the high is enough, will it be more pleasurable to you than other things in your life? That’s what becomes addictive, and fame is no different.”

The missing link is therefore narcissism—a condition that can afflict the non-famous as well as the famous and which, according to Teitelbaum, doesn’t always arise from the same circumstances. “I have treated people who are narcissistic because they have always been treated special, and then I have treated other famous people who never really liked themselves,” he says. “But it’s really just two sides to the same narcissist coin. People with addiction and people with narcissism both seek outside sources for inside happiness. And ultimately neither the fame nor the drugs nor the drinking will work.”

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about old timers in AA and sober travel, among other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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