Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

The Death of Amy Winehouse & the Dangers of Fame

Singer Amy Winehouse died today. While tragic, this event speaks to the pressures and temptations celebrities face. Moreover, it’s a warning to would-be influencers and others seeking fame.

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse (Photo courtesy of Fionn Kidney - Creative Commons)

What concerns me is that our culture — our world, even — glorifies celebrities, when in actuality their lives often seem empty. We should see the unfortunate death of Ms. Winehouse as a clarion call to those of us seeking influence to be cautious.

Fame is seductive

Any influencer or communicator will tell you:

It’s tempting to want to be famous.

The opportunity to have more influence, to talk to more people, to increase your followers, is sexy.

Fame is a seductress. It draws us in with one tempting thought: the allure of more. Thousands of screaming fans. The thrill of an audience. It hits us right where we’re weakest, right where so many of us fall, where evil itself originates — our pride.

All the while, we don’t realize we’re being led to the slaughter.

Every day, we see actors and musicians rise to fame too quickly and pay the price. And yet, we’re blind when we face these same temptations in our own lives.

At the age of 27, Amy Winehouse joined many others in ending life all too early, and I can’t help but think that fame was one of the culprits.

Fame is addictive

The problem with any kind of influence is that once you build it, you have to maintain it. If you cut ethical corners to get to where you are, you’ll have to continue those patterns to continue having influence.

While there’s nothing wrong with having a platform, the requirements of it can be costly.

Standing in front of an adoring audience is exhilarating. Receiving a standing ovation in a crowded auditorium is exciting. Getting a hundred people to retweet you on Twitter feels good. It gives you a rush.

This is the thrill of fame.

But the problem is that the feeling eventually goes away. And next time, you need a little more. And then a little bit more…

You keep trying to top your last performance. You may even start performing solely for the cheers. But at some point, even that doesn’t feel that good anymore. And you start looking for exhilaration elsewhere.

Winehouse’s bout with alcoholism (and many other artists’ struggles with drugs) tells us that one addiction naturally leads to another. And an addiction is something that you have to keep feeding to feel normal.

Fame is consuming

Anyone who knows what it means to be addicted knows that these obsessions ultimately consume you. Every thought, every craving, every waking moment becomes captive to the addiction.

The irony is that you worked so hard to build an audience — to influence people with your words, your music, your art — and now it owns you.

What, at one time, was a vocation now consumes your identity.

You become what you do.

Fame is dangerous

Why are there so many Hollywood divorces? So many rock stars in rehab? Why are mega pastors prone to moral failure?

Once it hooks you with its seductive claws and addicts with its compulsive nature, fame begins to sink its teeth into you. Slowly, it takes over until you are no longer yourself.

You are only your public persona.

This is, of course, not inevitable. But it is unfortunately common. No wonder many celebrities choose to take their own lives.

For some, it seems like the only escape.

How do you break the fame addiction?

The cure to this dangerous cycle is this:

Be yourself.

Live with integrity. Tell the truth (even when it makes you look like a human being).

For many influencers, this is scary. Because it’s vulnerable. And they’ve made a profession out of being someone else. Sometimes, they’d rather destroy themselves than face who they really are.

Those of us who aspire to have more influence should take heed. When we see an influencer fall or when a celebrity dies, we should consider the lives they were leading.

Fame is dangerous, because ultimately, it can destroy you.

So is all influence bad?

Of course not. It all depends on your motivation.

Are you seeking influence to merely be famous? You may find yourself on a path that leads to destruction.

But if you seek to influence others for the sake of making their lives better, you would do well to be a person of integrity — the same onstage and off.

As your influence grows, be cognizant of the temptations you face. Beware of the “performance mentality” and the thrill-seeking addictions of fame.

Alternatively, consider the possibility that may not actually need fame to do your life’s work. If, however, you do, be careful in how you attain it. Remember: whatever you build, you will have to maintain.

Do you think fame is dangerous? Why or why not? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: Fionn Kidney (Creative Commons)

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Anonymous

    Well said, Jeff. A great reminder for us all, celebrities or not.

  • Caitlin

    I will weigh in us this only, because I don’t think it’s her fame that actually killed her. I mean it is her fame, but it isn’t. Of course because of the nature of her death many people in my circle of friends are shocked. Not so much my Christian circle, because they usually just look and feel sorry. It’s true it is a tragedy, but I guess my circle understands the tragedy all to well. My fellow alcoholic and drug addicts can’t help but feel sorry because she died of an illness. An illness that is cunning, baffling, powerful unfortunately for her rock bottom was her death. The same goes for millions of Alcoholics. I’m sad for her family and for her, because at 26 with almost 7 months sober I can totally relate to her struggle with this disease, but unfortunately for her she had this disease and she had fame to worry about. Celebrity drug and alcohol addiction is sad no more sad then your neighbors dying all around. My fear and the danger of celebrity is that too many people die, because they need that anonymity but the media and the fans don’t allow it. I can’t image getting sober with the world watching me. Truly a sad thing, but a reminder for us to not be so involved in the lives of celebrities because in the end we are all just broken people in need of Grace.

    • Thanks, Caitlin. This is beautiful. You need to be recording these thoughts.

  • I concur, if it is fame only that your are seeking, you are on the path that leads to destruction. I think this is one reason you need a system of checks and balances, people to hold you accountable, and a value system that keeps you in check. So many on the path to fame just don’t have a good value system, and have poor influencers, enabling their behaviors even. 

  • I have to agree with Caitlin. While her status as a celebrity may not have helped, I am more inclined to believe that it was chemical (be it alcohol or any other) addictions that ultimately led to her death. Addiction is cruel and debilitating in many ways. I will be 48 years old in November and on August 9th of this year I am celebrating 2 years of living sober AND happy, after literally being all but dead in a hospital emergency room. I can only believe that if I had also had the additional stress of being a celebrity, I too would be dead.

    I am currently authoring a series of posts about addiction & recovery at Life Is A Glorious Trauma! If anyone is interested. I only mention the name of the site as I am not sure if it is ok to post links here and hope it was ok to mention my site name 🙂

    • Right. What do you think drove her to addiction, though? That was the point I was trying to make.

      • Oh I definitely agree that her celebrity status helped drive the addiction forward, but I would almost bet that addiction was an issue long before her celebrity status. Admittedly I know very little about her or her life prior to becoming famous, but people rarely become addicts “suddenly.”

        • Yeah, I don’t want to to speculate too much. The point was that fame is an addiction and can feed or work alongside other compulsions.

  • It took guts to write this Jeff, and I’m proud of you.

    Might be a bit cautious with the “be yourself” advice. I totally get what you’re saying, but humans are fallen creatures. 

    Put me in a bar with three beers in front of me and tell me to “be myself”,

    annnd prehty soon I’ll have thass swag iN my drawl … 😉

    • Good call, man. What I meant was that you need to be honest with yourself, but you’re right. Good catch.

  • Andrea

    Fame is a bit more complicated.  For instance, there are people who tend to hang on and try to take what they can.  The ‘yes’ people who assist those with an addiction.  Then, there is the press who will build people up then tear them down. Someone who is weak may not tolerate the criticism well. At the end of the day, she was part of a business but probably not equipped for it.  How quickly will people make jokes based on her song “Rehab?” People are fickle.  Her talent was wasted.

  • Right on here Jeff. I think the lure for fame is something most of us struggle with (particularly those of us who are creative). It is deadly and it is a lie. It’s like a great mask that we want to put on. This mask, we think, will cover all our inadequacies, shame, and faults.

    I think deep down we know this, but “knowing” and “believing” are often 2 different things, aren’t they? Blessings.

  • Jeff, this post really gets at the heart of fame’s allure and dangers. Susan Erickson  Bloland  wrote a provocative case study of how fame affected her father, child psychologist, and their family in her memoir: In The Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson. Real eye-opener. She also has very interesting insights into the change she saw in her parents as they rose to the heights of psychology fame.

    Thanks for “being yourself” and adding value to your readers and me.

  • Well said Jeff.  As someone that is mindful of addiction and its consequences, this is a wonderful post on the allure of fame, its trappings and the trappings of every addiction. 

    Fame and being in the spotlight and wanting to hear the crowd’s roar night after night is what drives some people to be famous. Whether they are authors, politicians, actors or musicians, the allure of the stage and its bright lights can push someone over the edge or drag them kicking and screaming to that edge. 

    Addiction has many forms and being yourself, as you said, is important. Once the lights go off you are always there with yourself, so you must live with who you are, or who you created!

  • A really thoughtful post, Jeff, thanks. It’s a complicated issue. I’ve posted my thoughts on my blog, but just wanted to say thanks for kick-starting my brain this morning. Libby

  • Good post, Jeff.  I agree with Micheal here, though.  I have relationships with multiple homeless alcoholics and believe they’d be alcoholics whether they were famous or not.  The same is true for Amy.  “I don’t care enough about what people think of me to conform to anything,” she said in a 2007 CNN interview.  Fame certainly didn’t help, but I don’t think it’s what drove her to the addiction.  Then again, I don’t know her personally, so…  And like Trey said, good reminder no matter what.

    • Here’s some food for thought: Perhaps fame doesn’t lead to addiction, but it certainly enables it.

  • Thanks for be willing to share your thoughts, Jeff. While a lot of different things in her life may have prompted the addiction, once she was famous she hardly stood a chance to change that part of her. People expected her to stay “the bad girl”, so what incentive did she have to change? The energy and the creativity that it takes to be a famous performer, when fueled by substance abuse, cannot be maintained, and so it cripples their ability to function normally. Caitlin is right when she says that alcoholism and substance abuse and addiction are something so many people deal with that we shouldn’t be so preoccupied with celebrities who deal with it, too. But at the same  time, the fame applies the problem in a whole different way.

  • Michelle

    I don’t think her fame killed her.  I always feel a tremendous sadness when people die of alcohol or drug related issues.  The jury is still out on that, but I think its probably safe to assume that she did in fact die from one of these.  Some want to call it an illness.  I don’t know if I would.  I had an alcoholic father and I’m not an alcoholic.  I made different choices in my life — but I wouldn’t say that it was because of my heroic efforts that I am not an alcoholic.  It was only by the grace given me from God above that I can sit here and say I don’t struggle with alcohol addictions like my father did.  My father also smoked his entire adult life and ended up getting cancer and dying in a pretty awful way.  Again, God’s grace on me that I don’t even feel the need for that kind of stuff.  I think all people are given a chance to accept God’s grace when He shows it to them.  For whatever reason, Amy died and her days are over.  I could blame pride, alcoholism, drugs…but what it comes down to is our days our numbered.  We all live on borrowed time.  Fame is something that I think ruins people, for sure.  I wouldn’t say that it, in and of itself, will kill but those who seek fame and glory over what God offers will certainly come to ruin.  The bible talks explicitly about that.  We all do need God’s grace.  Maybe it isn’t with alcoholism or drugs, but we all have something.  It also reminds me of who I let my children idolize.  I know parents that let their kids go head over heels for celebrities like Winehouse.  What does that teach your kids?  I don’t idolize people and I certainly don’t tell my kids to either.  I know it sounds sappy, but we idolize saints and Christians who we can learn from and we especially talk about people in Scripture that have overcome horrible odds.  There is lots to glean from if we look.  Those people in the Bible weren’t perfect either, but we see God working in them nonetheless.  Great food for thought Jeff.

  • Jeff, thank you very much for this food for thought. It could be the reason of her death (I didn’t knew Amy Winehouse that much). But you have a point that pride works inside us all that way.

    Did anyone see the movie Devil’s Advocate? In the ending scene, after playing with the advocate’s pride, the reporter transforms into the devil (Al Pacino), looks into the camera and says “Vanity, my favorite sin”. I still get the shivers of the realistic acting.

    • Yes, I have. That movie is spooky in how it accurately portrays our fallenness.

  • Good stuff here, Jeff.  I definitely agree that fame is seductive and dangerous.  But I’m more inclined to think that the antidote to fame-seeking is fame-resisting.  The argument could be made that Winehouse’s untimely death was the result of being completely and utterly herself (and not letting anyone else speak into her life).

    Resisting fame is, in my opinion, a far more effective way of protecting oneself from the destruction that fame brings if only because we are complex creatures with complex motivations.  The truth is that we don’t do anything with a single motivation, but with many.  Some are strong and others weak.  By default, the desire for fame will always be a strong one.  It appeals to one of the most pervasive – and deadly if we are to believe the Bible –  sins in humanity: pride.

    We would do well to treat fame as a calling which few should aspire to.

  • turner_bethany

    I do think fame can be quite dangerous. There are lots of examples of people who had a reputation of being a family person with the traditional American values until one day their name is all over the news for something that seems totally out of the character and reputation they have. 

  • Hi Jeff, you bring up some great perspective here and I’m glad for the reminder that influence is what you make it; either way it’s powerful, as a danger or as an incredible blessing to others. However, I’ve been a bit sad to see Amy Winehouse’s death so quickly turned into a teachable moment. There are certainly things to learn from her life and death and the dangers of fame, but I just feel that first and foremost any person’s untimely death is a tragedy, not the other way around. 

    • Indeed. I’m sorry if I was too quick to respond to this — thanks for the correction.

  • Layla

    hm, non-famous people are alcoholics/addicts too, or may have bipolar and/or other mental health problems… or self-destructive behaviors that may ultimately destroy them…

    There is A LOT of pressure on people in the music biz in general, and these days especially… It can be VERY stressful before going on stage to sing your heart out, and there’s a buzz of energy afterwards, difficult to go to sleep or wind down… so many people have resorted to ‘uppers’ or ‘downers’… even Beatles in their time etc. 

    I do wonder if she’d still be alive if she had a different boyfriend/partner in life and different people around her…

    There are some famous people who use their fame for the good too, to promote good causes or inspire people to change for the better etc.

  • John Mitten

    Very good article.

  • anon

    Thank you for this. I am probably going to be famous. I actually quit music for four years out of fear of fame (and for good reason, it is after all potentially dangerous)… I was saying, if I could make a living from music without being famous I would. But I want my face to be associated with my music as it’s self expression and I want to connect with fellow human beings authentically. I want to comfort them. I want them to draw strength from my example. I want them to feel less alone with their burdens. I want to help them to manifest more love and happiness in their lives.