“Obviously rich. Who cares about fame?” read the sole response to an anonymous Twitter survey I conducted recently where, of the 76 votes cast, an emphatic 97% decided in favor of wealth. And they were right, weren’t they? Only a complete idiot — or a complete narcissist — would opt for the fickle pleasures of fame over the indisputable privileges, security and freedom that money provides…right?
By pitting fame against wealth, even though the two so often go hand-in-hand, I wanted to see whether people would admit (even anonymously) to valuing fame for fame’s sake, as opposed to valuing fame for the adjacent privileges it grants. The answer was no — but I wasn’t convinced.
Before I could begin to prove my theory that, deep down, we’re all celebrity-hungry fame-moths who desperately yearn toward the light, I wanted to figure out what makes us (or those of us who’ll admit to it) want to be famous in the first place. I put the question to an expert: psychoanalyst and psychotherapist Diane Barth, who told me that in seeking fame, “what we really crave is recognition, and we have this idea that being famous would give us the kind of recognition that we long for.” She points to Sally Field’s infamous 1985 Oscar acceptance speech, where the actress ecstatically declared, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me! Right now, you like me!” as a rare lifting of the veil usually thrown across that basic human desire to be liked. “Often, the fantasy of fame goes along with the fantasy of making a lot of money and being totally okay in life,” Barth continued, “but if you take all of that away, the real wish is to be valued by lots of other people because we think that that’s going to make us feel good about ourselves.”
Is that so bad, I wonder? Who doesn’t want to feel good about themselves, even if it is patently naive to presume that being famous is the key to achieving self-acceptance? We tend to regard people who openly chase fame or notoriety with extreme suspicion; there’s something unbearably gauche about admitting to wanting to be seen, and craving fame for fame’s sake is a desire inherently understood to be kind of shameful. Think about the snark so often reserved for Instagram stars deemed too obvious in their pursuit of, if not fame, then certainly recognition, and their barely concealed desire to be seen and followed. Actively craving fame is often treated as a modern affliction, the zenith of a society drunk on narcissism and seduced by the prospect of an easy route to the top. Thinking about it in light of Diane’s words, though, it starts to feel like the most natural desire in the world.
She goes on to explain that “although most of us have a desire to be recognized in some way, we don’t like [admitting that to] ourselves. We don’t feel like that’s a good quality – so when we see it in other people, we’re critical of it just the way we would be critical of it in ourselves.” Could it be that a disdain for Kim Kardashian and her ilk represents a form of self-loathing, an aversion to our own insecurities writ large?
In the recent indie hit Ingrid Goes West, a movie intended as a commentary on the superficiality of social media culture, we’re introduced to Taylor Sloane, a pastiche of the typical L.A. “cool girl” influencer, who trades almost exclusively in hollow platitudes and hashtagged sunsets, pointedly befriending other influencers with bigger followings in order to boost her own Klout score while posting photos of Joan Didion books that (spoiler) she’s never actually read. As viewers, we’re supposed to be quietly scathing of Taylor’s fame-hungry tendencies, in particular the extent to which she art-directs her life with a view to how it appears to other people.
Yet in a way, those of us who partake in social media are all Taylor Sloanes, constantly seeking external validation for experiences that on their own should be “enough.” Who among us hasn’t visited a particularly Instagrammable art exhibition or queued up to sit cheek-to-jowl at a buzzy new restaurant without on some level thinking of the social media post to follow? Modern living is characterised by a compulsion to broadcast, and experiences increasingly don’t feel fully satisfying unless we also share them with others, reaping the ensuing social capital. It’s not enough to simply go on vacation or buy those shoes you’ve been saving up for — that shit’s gotta make it to Instagram to complete the circle. Wealth alone is not enough. We want fame, even if we’re too embarrassed to admit it or think we’re above such base desires.
In an age when, thanks to the internet and social media, everyone really does seem to get their 15 minutes in the spotlight, fame feels more achievable than ever — and that desire consequently more pressing. “Nobody wants to be ‘gen pop,’” a friend suggested recently, a shortening of “general population” I’d never heard used in this context but instinctively understood the meaning of: Unexceptional. Unrecognized. Unfamous.
Years ago, I dropped my phone on a concrete floor a few days before a long-awaited vacation to the South of France, instantly rendering it useless. It was a company phone, which meant our IT department could repair it free of charge. The catch was that going through the official channels needed to fix my phone under our workplace insurance would take at least a couple of days — meaning I’d likely be phoneless for the duration of my holiday.
I weighed my options. I knew I could happily bear the inconvenience of being phoneless for a week given that my plans mostly included lounging beside a pool and ignoring work emails. However, the inability to broadcast the bottles of pale pink rosé and Insta-ready bougainvillaea I’d been dreaming of for so long was, alas, too much to bear. After all, if you go on holiday and you don’t Instagram it, did you really go on holiday at all? Undone by my own vanity, I picked up my shattered iPhone and headed to a local electronics store to make all my problems go away that same day — for a price.
Perhaps it’s a stretch to suggest that many of us would realistically choose fame over wealth. Though I’ll happily admit to wanting to win all the awards and get all the recognition, I know I’d choose an overflowing bank account over fame in a heartbeat. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that to fully enjoy the type of lifestyle that having lots of money might bring, many of us would need it to be accompanied by other people’s awareness of it. When we picture wealth and its associated perks — the house, the holidays, the Hermès bags — that picture often involves other people knowing we have those things, a fame of sorts. Isn’t that part of the reason people wear luxury brands’ logos on display?
And so, I turn the question over to you: Fame or wealth, and why?
Gifs by Kelsey Lim.