Life, it seems, has become an endless pursuit of perfection. The perfect partner, the perfect job, the perfect body, the perfect house, the perfect car, the perfect face.
Except, of course, it’s never enough. No matter what we achieve, we keep redefining what we mean by perfection. Yet I’d argue that when we define perfection, we’re instead allowing ourselves to be defined by how we want to be seen by others.
This is certainly true of celebrities. The rock stars, film icons and sporting heroes who occupy the unrelenting attention of the world’s media live in a strange and terrifying alternate reality in which they are presented with an image of themselves and experience the suffocating pressure of trying to live up to it.
A life of celebrity can be almost Orwellian, where the definition of self can become so blurred that the person in the spotlight in turn becomes convinced that the image they see on the news, in the papers and on film is actually who they are or should become.
That’s a road fraught with danger, because the sheer pressure of trying to live up to an ideal is so great, so all-consuming that it becomes destructive.
This manifests itself in many different ways – often in acute depression or anxiety or, as we’ve so often seen, in some form of serious addiction.
I could write at length on why celebrities are so prone to becoming lost to themselves to such an extent that their mental health is seriously compromised, but it’s enough to say that the nature of stardom is such that it tends to happen when we are young and unprepared and the industry of stardom often – though not always – isn’t qualified to offer the sort of protection needed.
And when I talk of about the industry of stardom, I’m not referring to the film or music industry or a particular sport (though they certainly play their part), but rather to the amorphous machine that exists to service the uber-famous – the agents, the PR gurus, the security and the seemingly endless hangers-on that make up the entourages of the famously rich.
Like all stress, the pressure of living up to an ideal is enormous and breeds a near-genetic imperative to find a release valve. Addiction, whether to alcohol or drugs, is an apparently attractive escape route because it offers immediate relief from the stress of living under public scrutiny and, by and large, the tools of addiction are relatively easy to come by – particularly when you have people on hand whose job description is focused on meeting your every need.
Consider, also, that a great many of the world’s superstars spend a great deal of time alone. Separated for long periods from friends and family, confined to an endless blur of hotel rooms, dressing rooms or trailers and often befriended by people whose only wish is to live in your reflected glory, being an icon can be a desperately lonely existence.
And because drugs and alcohol give the illusion of washing away the stress or unhappiness or boredom almost in an instant, it’s easy for addiction to be the wolf in sheep’s clothing you invite in.
The equation of addiction is as simply as it is destructive: stress + relief = repetition.
Those who have good people around them probably find it easier to reject the empty solace that addiction provides (though not all of them have escaped, or will escape, its clutches).
There are also those who, like Robert Downey Jr., for example, found a way to beat their addiction and managed – through enormous hard work – to rebuild their careers and lives with a greater sense of perspective.
Yet the world’s graveyards are filled with the headstones of those who were unlucky; the stars who failed to see the monster under their bed until it was far too late: in the relatively recent past addiction has claimed the lives of Prince, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Winehouse, Corey Monteith, Joan Rivers, Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger and George Best.
The ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle’ is such a cliché yet it perseveres because there is something other-worldly about it. It’s associated with money and the high life and good times. It’s linked to applause and adulation and validation. And we revere our icons because they represent a life we think we want.
Our idols are, to us, the personification of perfection, even though the people we see are merely products we have ourselves manufactured through the prism of the media.
And in that lies a profound irony.
That the perfection celebrities feel bound to project in public masks the greatest imperfection of all: that of their own emotional wellbeing.
Zoe Clews is one of London’s most recommended hypnotherapists and the founder of Zoe Clews & Associates.