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An Excerpt from Fame Junkies for Psychology Today: November / December 2006 Issue

School for the Starry-Eyed

By Jake Halpern 

“You can ask anyone in my family or any of my friends, and they will tell you that what I want more than anything is to become famous,” says Lucinda Wells. “It's just what I want to do. It's the one thing that makes me feel good about myself.”

Fourteen years old, she's clutching a large three-ring binder emblazoned with the words I WANT TO BE FAMOUS. Like many of the other teenage girls who take evening classes at Personal Best—a school in Buffalo, New York, for kids who want to be famous—Lucinda is here because she wants to be a movie star. She's attending an information session for kids interested in going to a pageant, or “talent convention,” in New York—run by the International Modeling and Talent Association (IMTA)—where they will compete against thousands of other kids for the attentions of several dozen agents and managers from New York and Los Angeles. Technically, the only way to get invited to a talent convention like this is to attend a registered acting or modeling school like Personal Best.

For many of these girls, the most obvious draw of fame is the glamour that accompanies it. One Personal Best student was saying, “For me, it is not even about the glitz and glamour,” when her mother quickly interjected, “Yes, it is! She loves being pampered. She loves someone doing her nails. She loves someone rubbing lotion on her face and feet. And she likes the attention. She's a brat!” The girl, who seemed somewhat shocked, confessed to me rather sheepishly, “I'm a princess. It's not my fault. My mom always told me, ‘Always shine, never blend.'”

For many of the girls, fame also means a one-way ticket out of Buffalo. Sixteen-year-old Amy Lumber, an aspiring actress, told me that Personal Best—like a number of out-of-town colleges she was investigating—offered her an escape from her father, who could be verbally abusive. She didn't need to be a movie star, she told me. “I could do commercials. Like this one for Listerine.” She then recited an entire Listerine commercial and shot me a hopeful glance.

It was around six o'clock when students began arriving and heading to the back of the house, where a former living room had been converted into a performing arena, with two dozen folding chairs and glaring overhead lights. All the students were female, ranging in age from 8 to 20. They wore chic outfits— pearls, Guess scarves, Ugg sheepskin boots.

By comparison, their parents were strikingly unhip. Clearly hardworking and solidly middle class, these Buffalonians included a retired police officer, a town clerk, a toolmaker, and a bus-parts salesman. None of them seemed like the sort of person to toss away the $3,000 that it cost to attend the upcoming IMTA convention.

The odds, of course, were that few, if any, of these girls would get “discovered.” But almost every one of them told me she believed that she had at least a 50 percent chance of becoming a star. Many of them had already begun to plan a move to L.A., and some were being pressured for gifts from the money they would supposedly earn in the future. Fifteen-year-old Kim Palazzo told me with a shy smile, “My dad wants a Corvette, my neighbor wants a Harley, my brother wants a helicopter, my mom wants a '68 Camaro, and my track coach wants me to build the school an indoor track.”

For the opportunity to have their children attend the IMTA's talent convention, many of the parents would be spending upward of $5,000, which covers the IMTA's attendance fee, plus airfare, lodging, and the dozen Personal Best classes designed to prepare them for the convention. It was an awful lot of money for a middle-class family from Buffalo. I assumed that many of the parents would have serious reservations. To my surprise, not a single parent raised any concerns. They simply accepted that a shot at fame, like a college education, came at a high price. At one point, one of the girls asked me to recommend a good SAT prep class. I suggested the Princeton Review, which costs $900. Later I learned the girl's parents—who'd already promised $7,000 for two years worth of IMTA conventions—had rejected the Princeton Review as too costly.

Toward the end of my evening at Personal Best, I got to talking with 8-year-old Jodi Polowska, the youngest in the class. “What if someone notices you, and you get to be on TV?” her mother asked.

“You just gave me the chills,” Jodi replied.

***

What explains the fact that so many American teenagers are so hungry for recognition, fame, and adulation? Oddly enough, part of the blame lies with American educators, who have been embracing self-esteem-building programs since the early 1970s. One popular program, called “Magic Circle,” requires one child a day to be given a badge that says i'm great. The other children then take turns praising the “great” child and eventually, these compliments are written up and given to the child for posterity. Programs like this were intended to make young people feel better about themselves, but many educators now concede that they may have overshot the mark and fostered a culture of narcissism among American youth.

According to psychologist Keith Campbell at the University of Georgia , American teenagers exhibit much higher levels of narcissism and entitlement than older Americans and teenagers from other parts of the world. Campbell fears that in America—with TV talent shows like America Idol and celebrity parades such as Entertainment Tonight making fame seem readily available—teenagers' sense of entitlement and narcissism will grow and fester. Adolescents everywhere may have delusions of grandeur, but in America these fantasies don't seem so farfetched. The problem is that teenagers are encouraged to adopt the self-centered mindset of prima donnas—constantly looking to be admired—because they believe their own fame is imminent.

Why do so many teenagers believe they are destined to live exceptional, celebritylike lives? Psychologist David Elkind maintains that by their very nature, adolescents are unable to grasp what other people are thinking or feeling, so they exist in a sort of egocentric daze, assuming that everyone else is as obsessed with their lives as they are. This explanation, known as the Imaginary Audience theory, posits that teens often feel as if they were on a grand stage in front of a watchful audience that notices every facet of their appearance and behavior. Hence, the teenage drama queen. Her bad hair day is a catastrophe because she believes that everyone is watching only her. And because she feels she is of such importance to so many people, she comes to believe that her life must be utterly unique.

This leads to Elkind's theory of the Personal Fable, in which an adolescent believes that his or her destiny is special and that conventional rules or odds don't apply. Hence, the teen daredevil who shrugs off the dangers of drag racing, or the aspiring starlet who goes to an IMTA convention utterly convinced that she has a 50 percent chance of being discovered. The premise underlying both these theories is that teenagers—for both social and biological reasons—are predisposed to have delusions of grandeur in which they are effectively playing the lead in epic movies about themselves.

Psychologist Daniel Lapsley believes that the imaginary audience and the personal fable are normal, natural parts of the daydreaming that occur as adolescents start to form relationships and define themselves outside the family. Daydreaming allows adolescents to conjure fantasies in which they assert themselves as individuals. These are painless trial runs: Teens can visualize doing bold things within the safe confines of their imaginations. A girl like Lucinda Wells may never become a starlet—she may not even command much of an audience in her high school cafeteria—but by imagining herself as a celebrity in the context of her everyday surroundings, she starts to carve out a unique identity for herself as a mature adult.

What makes things problematic, however, is that many teenagers are unable to distinguish between daydreams and reality. According to Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, the part of the brain that controls judgment and rational thought only gradually comes “online.” Between puberty and the full activation of rational faculties, there is the “special vulnerability and challenge of adolescence.”

If Lucinda was, in fact, more biologically vulnerable to lapses in rational thought and surges of feeling, then was she not also more vulnerable to sales pitches thin on logic and heavy on the promise of big emotional payoffs? If I were a teenager, with a logic circuitry that was not fully developed, might I, too, not beg my parents for $3,000? Might I not develop a personal fable, dismiss the long odds, and tell myself I had a 50-percent chance of making it? Perhaps it isn't that teenagers are addicted to fame so much as that they are biologically predisposed to crave what fame promises: endless amounts of attention.

***

I met with Amy Lumber, the aspiring Listerine spokeswoman, several times at a coffee shop near Personal Best, and eventually she invited me to visit her home outside Buffalo. She was a short girl with moss-green eyes and a mane of bright red hair. She spoke quickly and tended to sigh heavily, as if under considerable stress. “I already feel that I am falling behind for my age group,” she said. “I feel like the world is advancing rapidly, and there are so many kids who are doing amazing things. Like when you turn on Oprah, you see kids who have sold paintings for millions, made scientific discoveries, or recorded songs by age eleven. I even saw a girl who is so good at the stock market that she'll be able to retire by the age of twenty-five.”

One of Amy's goals in life was to become famous, though she insisted that she was not interested in that measly 15 minutes. She wanted the lasting variety—the sort inextricably linked to enduring achievement. Amy's biggest fear was that her teenage years would slip away and she would fail to make a name for herself. “I am more afraid of failing than I am of death,” she said. When I asked her where this fear came from, she replied, “My father—no matter what I am doing, he'll push me to do more. I think the army made him a little crazy.”

When I arrived at her house, Amy welcomed me with the impeccable manners of a debutante, taking my coat, pouring me a drink, and offering me a tour. Her red hair swayed from side to side as she chatted pleasantly and escorted me through the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen before asking me if I cared to see the basement. “My father has a lot of World War II memorabilia down there,” she explained. “I thought that might interest you.”

We descended a narrow staircase and emerged into an enormous, museumlike room lined with small alcoves and glass display cases. Part of the room was dedicated to World War II uniforms, medals, and photographs. What caught my eye, though, was a shrine to Marilyn Monroe. Along with numerous books, photographs, and figurines were more unusual items—a life-size replica of the movie star complete with an attached fan that blew up her skirt, to simulate the famous scene from The Seven Year Itch. Yet by far the most striking aspect of the display was what Amy referred to as the “off-limits section,” where several mannequins were decked out in clothing Monroe had actually worn—a strapless evening gown, a terrycloth bathrobe, a pair of high heels, and a sexy black nightgown.

“Who does all this stuff belong to?” I asked finally.

“My father,” Amy replied. “I think it's a little spooky, don't you? We finally got him to put the mannequins in the basement. They used to be up on the first floor, and sometimes you'd bump into them in the middle of the night.”

When I asked Amy why her father was so taken with Monroe, she shrugged and offered only a blank look. Later, when the subject arose again, Amy's mother said, “I guess he's just infatuated with pretty movie stars.”

Eventually Rudolph Lumber wandered into the kitchen. Both daughter and wife stiffened. I made a lame attempt at breaking the ice by expressing interest in his Marilyn Monroe nightgown.

“You're not going to write about the location of this house, are you?” he asked curtly. “Because some of the items in my collection are pretty valuable.” I said I wouldn't mention the exact location of the house, because I didn't want to be responsible for any cat burglars snooping around.

“Good,” Lumber said gruffly. “Because I don't want to be responsible for shooting them.”

“In order to be remembered or to achieve something—that doesn't start when you're adult, it starts now,” Amy told me when we had a moment alone. “It's just like Benjamin Franklin. He was a millionaire by the time he was a teenager.” Amy seemed to believe that her dream of becoming famous depended almost entirely on how hard she worked. In this regard, she is actually quite typical of American kids. In a large survey that I conducted for my book, Fame Junkies, teenagers were asked to say why they thought certain celebrities were so successful. More teenagers chose “hard work” than all the other options combined.

I asked Amy if she thought her father's interest in Marilyn Monroe had any bearing on her desire to become famous. “Maybe,” she replied tentatively. “When something sticks with you through your whole life, it tends to have an effect on you—no matter what way you look at it.”

 

Jake Halpern contributes to the New Yorker, the New York Times, and NPR's All Things Considered and is the author of Braving Home.