Susan Boyle and the celebrity machine - when will we learn?

|PIC1|The sad news that Susan Boyle, popular runner-up in the latest series of Britain's Got Talent, has been admitted to The Priory suggests yet again that celebrity culture is not all the hype suggests it to be.

Ms Boyle is apparently suffering from the extreme pressure of performing and dealing with the public's interest in her life.

When will we learn that the hyped-up publicity and bubble-like lifestyle that accompany modern celebrity are not particularly healthy, emotionally or psychologically for any human being caught in its glare?

Yes, there are many who deal with the impact of celebrity better than Ms Boyle seems to be able to do at present, and we can only hope that she will have all the support she needs to see her way through this period.

But let's face it, the entire celebrity machine is set up not for the benefit of the performer, but in order to sell 'units' for multi-national corporate 'talent factories'.

A few weeks ago, in an interview for BBC Radio, I shared why I believe celebrity culture is counterproductive for the people it sells to - and especially the young.

Among other things, celebrity culture offers young people only a very limited worldview, a myopic understanding of what real success is all about.

Drawing all one's heroes from the world of entertainment can't be particularly helpful to the development of a well-rounded worldview.

Yet the negative impact of celebrity culture is usually most pronounced on those whom it purports to celebrate. In this respect, the modern celebrity machine has a sad history.

History is, of course, replete with examples of celebrity, from Mozart and Liszt to Picasso. Human beings have always looked for individuals of unusual talent to celebrate.

It wasn't until the 1950s, though, that ubiquitous electronic mass media such as TV allowed people to find instant fame on a large scale. What once took time to develop, giving the celebrity time to grow into the role, became an instant phenomenon.

The scale and speed of this new kind of celebrity often chewed up the lives of the people it worshipped.

You don't have to reach far back in the news archives to find evidence of the negative impact of celebrity on artists who, by nature, are often fragile to begin with.

Recent reports suggest, for example, that Michael Jackson may pull out of more concerts in his forthcoming O2 London commitment, because of his frail physical condition - which is surely a by-product of his bizarre lifestyle.

Michael has chosen his often erratic lifestyle, but it has been encouraged by sections of a gossip-obsessed public because it feeds brilliantly into the come-watch-the-freak-show escapism of celebrity news.

Two years ago, the mysterious death of Anna Nicole Smith and the appearance of a new look Britney Spears, minus her golden locks, offered timely reminders of the vacuous and destructive nature of modern celebrity.

Though authorities ruled out foul play in the death of Ms Smith, it's hard not to see parallels with the untimely end of another blond sex-symbol, Marilyn Monroe.

For her part, it seems that Ms Spears has come through the worst of her own self-destructive phase, but one still can't help feeling she may not have totally dealt with the inner demons that afflict her.

As a society, we should think long and hard about where the culture of celebrity is leading us.

Celebrity is built on novelty. When celebrities see their star beginning to wane, they often turn to shock value to rescue them from obscurity. But when something loses its shock value, something even more alarming has to take its place - and the downward spiral begins.

What may start out as a ploy to gain publicity can all too quickly become a life-threatening bondage.

Celebrity is largely about image, and image can be a dangerous thing.

Julian Lennon, son of John, reportedly said: 'The only thing I ever learned from my dad was how not to be a father.' Image can ruin families. It also warps our sense of who we are. Marilyn Monroe once said, 'I seem to be a whole superstructure without a foundation.'

Celebrity also turns a person's work into their entire meaning for existence - creating a dangerous bias away from inherent self-worth, toward performance-based value.

Unless they're deliberately acting up in some way, all we people know about celebrities is what we see of them when they're functioning in the area of their greatest gift.

We all have special gifts, activities in which we excel. Imagine other people only ever saw you when you were doing that one special thing. They would only see you at your very best.

That may sound attractive, but before long you would begin to feel guilty about the other areas of your life, where you're not so strong. In the areas where we are weak we need the support and understanding of others.

In the end, if people only see the best side of us they place upon us expectations that we can't possibly fulfil. When that happens, a well-balanced self-image becomes impossible, and relationships become very difficult to sustain, for relationship is built on vulnerability as well as strength.

Reading today's news reports, I can't help feeling that a relatively quiet and normal life would suit someone like Susan Boyle far better than the life of instant worldwide name and face recognition that seems to have opened up before her.

I'm fairly sure she didn't enter Britain's Got Talent to become a cog in a huge money-making machine - to improve her lot, yes; to show what she could do, definitely; but not to become either a sign-on-the-line corporate slave or fodder for press headlines.

In the end, celebrity is a poor substitute for what we as human beings really crave, which is not image but influence.

About Mal Fletcher:

Mal Fletcher is an author, business and media consultant, media commentator, global conference speaker and broadcaster based in London.

He has pioneered several major leadership networks and is the chairman of 2020 Plus, a London-based leadership and communications consultancy which is helping business, media and community groups to proactively engage future change, especially in difficult times.

Mal hosts the annual Strategic Leadership Consultation, which he founded in 1998, and was the founding National Director of Youth Alive Australia, a large, nationwide organisation teaching positive values to young people and running drug and alcohol-free events.

Follow Mal on Twitter or go to for more information. Copyright Mal Fletcher 2009