Triskaidekaphobia is the formal word for the fear of the number 13 and it’s a phobia that I’ve treated occasionally in my time as a hypnotherapist. But if you happen to be famous, a far scarier number – and one deserving of its own phobic classification – is surely the number 27.
Depending on how old you are, you might now be thinking of Amy Winehouse or Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison. Possibly Kurt Cobain. Maybe Brian Jones.
No-one is old enough to be thinking about Alexandre Levy, even though the Brazilian composer became the founding member of the now notorious 27 Club in 1892.
And in case none of this is making any sense to you, all the aforementioned musicians – together with 57 other people who achieved celebrity in a variety of different ways – died at the age of 27.
If you look at the list, what becomes obvious is that more than half of the deaths can reasonably be attributed to the lifestyle their fame led them into – drug or alcohol abuse and suicide are given as the official causes of death for around 30 of the unlucky 64 who didn’t make it to 28.
Aside from those for whom 27 proved to be the unluckiest number of all, history is littered with celebrities who met a premature end because of the bad choices they made when public adulation and money arrived early in their lives and led them into dark emotional alleyways from which they never quite managed to escape.
George Best, Corey Monteith, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Whitney Houston, Marilyn Monroe, Jackson Pollock, Judy Garland and Elvis Presley are just a few names on a seemingly endless list of celebrities whose addictions led them into an early grave.
And as we mark the 20th anniversary of her death, one can make a powerful argument that fame also cost Princess Diana her life in that Paris tunnel, hounded to her end by the press who had ultimately made her life a living hell.
But the casualties of the fame game are evident in life as well as in death. Paul Gascoigne and David Hasselhoff have endured very public struggles with alcohol (the former Knight Rider star has been sober for 8 years now), whilst Britney Spears, Mel Gibson, Macauley Culkin, Mario Balotelli, Drew Barrymore and (let’s not beat about the bush here) most of the Kardashian family have all come under the spotlight for their battles with addiction and mental health issues.
So what conclusions can be drawn from this depressing and often morbid litany of tragedies?
The obvious one would be to say that fame is damaging to your physical and mental health. But that’s too easy. It’s too trite to pass off celebrity as the villain of the piece. Fame may open the door on a hedonistic existence that’s hard to ignore, but fame in and of itself isn’t the problem.
In fact, my theory is that it’s absence that destroys famous lives. Fame often comes fast – particularly in music and sport, less so in acting – and when it does arrive with more money than most people would know what to do with, these young and often highly impressionable individuals simply don’t have the experience to make the right choices for themselves.
Worse, when fame screeches to a smouldering halt at your doorstep, it’s usually followed by an entourage of sycophants and hangers-on whose sole interest is parting you from your money and leveraging your fame for their own ends as quickly as possible.
For the Amy Winehouses of the world, life becomes a funfair full of flashing lights and noise, the promise of a new and ever more thrilling ride around each and every corner and someone on hand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year to indulge your every whim and fancy.
While many stars do escape the clutches of addiction, managing to lead fulfilling and relatively normal lives, it’s largely because they have – either through luck or judgement – surrounded themselves with people who keep them anchored to who they really are.
For those who aren’t so lucky, it is the absence of those anchor points that allows them to drift away on a hedonistic whirlwind that, much like a toadstool, looks pretty on the outside but has a dark and toxic underbelly.
There is an absence of protection around the stars of today – and this is particularly true of those who ‘make it’ in their very late teens and early twenties, just beyond the age at which the instruments of Government automatically afford at least a veneer of protection through required education and guardianship.
Footballers who are at their commercial prime if not the peak of their ability between the ages of 22 and 30 are showered with more cash than they can possibly spend (though they do their best with a tiresome string of purchasing clichés), represented by agents for whom they’re a cash cow and employed by global commercial brands which, even with the best of intentions, find it hard to look beyond the monster revenue streams that players’ imaging rights bring.
New music stars are transported into a blur of hotel rooms, planes and limousines where reality is far distant. Movie stars spend months in what are, at best, genetically modified communities of trailers and hotels, separated from family and friends.
The influence of the people who love them enough to say ‘no’ is suddenly removed and in its place crawl cronies and lackeys whose only mantra is ‘keep the talent happy at all costs’.
It is, in many cases, a depressing existence lived by people who use their new found super-wealth to find new, artificial, increasingly destructive and often illegal ways of making it and them look and feel better.
And then it’s a downward spiral. A drink becomes a few drinks which bloom into alcoholism. And when the Jack Daniels doesn’t take the edge off quite like it used to, there’s a ready-made network of ‘friends’ who know people who know people who can access a veritable smorgasbord of drugs that will. And the truth is, this depressing existence that once seemed so exotic eventually and inevitably leads to self-loathing and depression from which escape will one day be just one drink or one drug too many away.
As I write this, a breaking news notification flashes on my screen to tell me that singer and X Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger has opened up in the media about her battle with bulimia. It’s far from the desperate situation in which some of the people I’ve mentioned in this article found themselves, but even so, it surprises me because everything about the former Pussycat Doll led me to believe she was one of the grounded ones.
Bulimia is no barrel of laughs – years of treating people with eating disorders has shown me that in no uncertain terms – but, like all eating disorders, it’s just another form of addiction, and, like all addictions, it’s usually a symptom of trauma deeply-rooted in the past.
Even the apparently strong can buckle under the weight of the pressure of always being the person the camera lens created.
It simply can’t be the case that fame attracts a disproportionately high number of emotionally damaged people, so it must therefore be reasonable to assume that this brokenness coincides with finding public favour. But perhaps it’s simpler even than that.
Maybe it’s that the mental degradation that celebrity seems to trigger in some people coincides with the removal of the people and places that kept them anchored to themselves in the first place.