Would You Rather Be Rich Or Famous?
01.08.18

“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. 

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  • Bella

    Wow. This makes me feel guilty about my social media.
    But I can see why some big celebrities avoid it, or take a break from it, to get away from the negativity. Meanwhile none of them ‘take a break’ from having loads of money (which, if they earned it, is fine). So I can see why people will snap into the rich over famous part; especially when the downsides of fame are more publicized.

  • Alice

    Wealth, no doubt. I’ve recently had a health scare and even though I live in a country with a national health system, the fact that I can pay to have it treated more quickly and choosing when to do so is crazy relieving.

    I have to admit, I have a super uncomfortable relationship with showing off my wealth. I’m not rich by any means but I live comfortably however I abstain from showing certain parts of my life because I feel bad that people know how many expensive lipsticks I own or how many shoes I have or where I stayed where I went on holiday. I would love to have a beauty blog or instagram but most of my friends don’t live as comfortably so I feel bad about “showing off”.

    • Cristina

      I struggle with that balance as well. Even with small things. We are working to pay off debt, but we still budget to live. I struggle with what people will think that I want a pair of $250 Tory Burch flats, but also just bought some decor for my house of a used website. Maybe people judge more (not that it should matter) when people frivolously spend? I can save up for those flats, but would I really need 5 pairs of them?! Hmm…

  • Summer Fulp

    I’d say wealth, simply because i’d love to be able to travel nonstop. Thats not to say I wouldn’t fully attempt to turn into some travel blogger. If the question was one or the other, fame but no wealth or wealth but no fame, i’d choose wealth. My brother has a bit of instagram fame and his life with fame is not that different than mine with relative anonymity. That said, i can’t deny that the instant gratification of showing the world the coolest parts of my life and hoping that more people see isn’t a very real motivator in my social media habits.

  • Definitely wealth! I have student loans to pay off! I am not super big into sharing my life on social media anyway- most of my instagram is just sharing art stuff that I do (and the occasional bowl of delicious pasta, fine) in hopes of making connections for freelance. If I didn’t have to worry about that hustle I’d be free to just make what I want without worry of it being good enough to post.

    • rozelin

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  • Abby

    Rich, 1000000%. Living a debt free life with the ability to do what I want, when I want, without people bothering me is my dream.

  • Elizabeth

    To be quite honest I’m shocked you never brought up the issue of privacy that’s inextricably linked to fame – and the paparazzi, which is invasion of privacy in its final and worst form. I’m picking wealth over fame 100 times out of 100.

  • Wealth for sure. I wouldn’t want to deal with paparazzi/having everyone all up in my business all the time.

    • rozelin

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  • I’d prefer massive wealth with pretty much total anonymity. Most of the truly wealthy people I’ve known or met through work have been pretty low profile people and these days, privacy (as you’ve pointed out on this very site) is a luxury.

  • Cristina

    I think wealth. Well, I know wealth. But these days, the stairs to wealth are fame. Which is why you have people on reality TV solely for the purpose to build their social media following and grow their brand. These regular people suddenly get famous and then paid dolla dolla bills ya’ll to promote tea. It’s easier to take steps to fame that might lead to wealth, rather than understand personal wealth is what you make it. It’s not buying every product an Influencer hacks, it’s being debt free. Wealth can be acquired without fame and riches, it’s just a helluva lot harder.

  • Moe

    Rich 100%

    also most rich people find some sense of fame, especially if they’re active on social media because their lifestyle attracts people. most people don’t actually like “famous” people because they’re famous. they like them because they’re pretty or they’re rich or they have talent. even people who are “famous for no reason” like the kardashians are still pretty, rich etc

  • Alyson Zetta Williams

    Wow, I’d totally want to be famous over rich! Surprised at the response. The way I see it, you can live forever with fame. You’ll be remembered. Wealth’s longevity is only a lifetime

    • Jeanie

      I don’t see it that way. It’s very hard for me to equate people knowing my name for years and years to actually being alive. I see my life as experiences though, and you can’t experience anything if you’re dead, no matter how famous. Wealth gets you access to experience a lot of things that are out of reach.

  • Autumn

    I always thought I’d like to be anonymously famous or name famous. People knew my name but not what I looked like. Like how Sia and Dead Mau5 cover their faces when they perform (though I’d never be a performer). I think that would be the best of both worlds, though almost impossible these days with the Internet

  • Sarah

    I think I envy women more for being beautiful than for being famous or rich – many rich and famous women are rich and famous because they are beautiful, and that is why they are loved. Very few of the women who are famous or rich, yet not beautiful, seem to be well liked.

    • Here here

    • Rosemary

      This is such a sad truth of society! It makes me wonder how differently men think about wealth and fame.

    • PAINTINGS FLOWERS FURNITURE

      Really good point here

  • I would pick fame!! I think I just love to have my opinion heard. I think my dream is that the media’d ask me for my thoughts on some issues; publicly endorsing causes and thus increasing their visibility…
    I just love to express myself and have my voice heard.
    Also if I was famous for my choreographies (which are also a way to express myself) it would mean that I would be good enough at dancing so that would be amazing.

    I’m bad with money so I would make a miserable rich person!! I would always spend more than I earn. I would be a Johnny Depp or a Tori Spelling.
    (Except for the poor of course) I believe it’s more important to have wisdom than money. Without wisdom you’d always want more money.

  • Kittybat

    Big ups to those who actually admitted they wanted to be famous. And big ups to those who actually want wealth.

    The way I always saw it is, if you’re good enough to be famous, the wealth will follow.

    • Jeanie

      But then there’s those who kill in order to be famous…

  • Seriously? I’d choose wealth first, fame later-or no fame at all [don’t matter]. It’s much better than living from pay check to pay check.

    Also, coming from a background: where tons of families can barely afford to eat a decent meal everyday, I think I speak for a lot more people, when I say – wealth trumps fame.

  • Bo

    My immediate response was “wealthy, obvs” but this article actually made me think more about fame and its various subtypes. I wouldn’t mind being famous if it were for a meaningful achievement or excellence in a field – like an Olympian or academic or something. I would hate to be Kardashian-famous (read: famous for the sake of it) or famous just for my looks, which thankfully are not showstoppingly showstopping (a girl I went to university with once said I had a “lovely, ratty” face, which is so accurate I can’t even find offence in it) so I can’t foresee that happening in the near future.

    If I really delve down into it, I think for me it comes down to respect and recognition. I would like to be renowned for doing something well or having a certain quality. I often wish our culture wouldn’t focus so much on Hollywood and its celebrities (the majority of whom are v. talented performers who deserve to be celebrated, don’t get me wrong) and laud the efforts of the broader community instead. Like, let’s hear it for the really dedicated aged care nurses out there! And the overworked teachers! And that team of medical researchers who have been chipping away at breakthrough new cancer treatments (like the one that put my dad into remission)! And farmers (like my dad!)! And my dentist! And my dentist’s secretary! And the waiter at my favourite Indian restaurant! And the guy at the local coffee shop who remembers my order! We need magazines about how great those people are, not about whose thighs have cottage cheese on them yet again.

    In retrospect – I digress massively but am standing resolutely by it all

  • Beasliee

    For both I’d say how earned, how much and for how long long?
    Excessive wealth where you’re being harassed for money and attempts at fraud all the time – not fun.
    But earned in an ethical way with enough to do the things I like and support my priorities, yes please!

    I always think it would be awful to have hustled your 15 minutes of international internet fame with a sniff of money and then go back to a ‘normal’ job #awkward
    This is a great article, btw: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/dec/18/what-is-a-milkshake-duck-and-why-isnt-it-the-word-of-the-year

  • Jo

    I must admit that I have for a long time had dreams of being famous. And although a big part f the explanation why, lies in the fact that I am narcissistic and want recognition. But to me, the greatest part of it actually lies in the fact that you have the opportunity to affect people’s opinions and values. I work as a volunteer for Red Cross, and charity work really does mean a lot to me. I also do my best to live in a way that’s environmentally friendly. And with fame you wouldn’t have to work as hard to reach out to people talking about the cases and movements that are important to you. I know that it is possible to reach out to a lot of people in other ways, it’s just that as a famous person you’ll already have the attention of others and wouldn’t necessarily have to be an expert on your field or whatever for people to actually follow.

  • Katie M

    I think wealth would bring you freedom where as fame may take it away.

    Also, as someone who cares way too much what people thinks, no thanks to the judgement part of fame!

  • Fabiana Copelli

    while I rather be wealthy for a slew of reasons I think one interesting perk of fame would be the opportunities you would be presented that as a member of the gen pop (even a rich one) you might not be offered

  • I would agree if it wasn’t for the fact that people can turn on you SOOO quickly. One wrong sentence, slip up or misunderstanding and you go for famous to infamous.

  • Jay

    Thank you for that piece.

    Cause…

    Well, I live in a world where everyone has their insta and their twitter and their facebook, and certainly I do. And just over the break of the year I have come to realise that I got kinda addicted to that?

    We started that off because of one of my friends struggling with depression and the idea was to have a cheer me up every other day.

    But that actually, and I am being totally honest, resulted in a total cheer me down.

    Insta is a great place to compare yourself to others. It is a great place to feel bad about yourself. Or the need to make your life shine as bright as other people‘s.

    Reading what you wrote here just confirmed to me that – despite the noble cause I started this for – this is all vanity now. And I actually feel like needing to reset my account. (Dont want to let go of the history, but there are several posts I could easily take out, if it weren’t that much work?)

    Cause I seriously dont want to be that girl. Dont want to be the one going for all the money in the world either and selling my soul.

    But fame (or social media to that end) is like selling your soul as well.

    So if anyone is in for the challenge to „clean out your closet“, I would be.

    And thanks again, girl.

  • Sarah Porter

    Fame. Not because I’m glory hungry, or starved of attention, just because being famous without money meant that you DID something. You went out and accomplished something remarkable without millions of dollars, the right clothes, or just a wealthy lifestyle in general. You were you, without the nice things plied on like most celebrities have. To be honest, life without money can be more raw and real, and when it comes down to it, you were someone without all those things, and someone who was AMAZING.

  • Incredible article, and so right in many ways. This hit the spot for me: “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.” I think for me, I’d want to be wealthy but only because of being rewarded for excelling in a creative field. Fame without substance seems like a bad deal.

    Lately social media has made me feel MORE average, rather than less. I have a wonderful life, but if I’m spending my time comparing it to someone who posts only the best parts of their life when traveling in a tiny bikini, I’m left feeling less fulfilled and with more longing/inadequacy. We all want to matter, but I don’t want it to be because I posted all my brand named items or because I eat out a lot or can show off. When I see people taking the “obligatory” Instagram photo, I usually chose to not take a photo instead. It no longer is special – it’s superficial, blank, and more average than anything else. The recognition I crave is because I made something people liked, rather than being recognized because I’m showy or superficial. It’s hard, because there are so many people who are simple okay with that, use what they’ve got and are rewarded in kind.

    More and more I think the people who never use social media are the ones who are the most stable. But I’m torn, I want to build a brand, find my creative voice, express myself, and make a living – and these are the tools we have to do them. I battle with this every day.

    http://www.shessobright.com

  • Rosemary

    Otegha, you’re an amazing writer! I’m in love with everything I’ve read of yours, you have such a lovely voice in the MR conversation.

    • Otegha K. Uwagba

      *blushes furiously* thank you so much 🙂

  • Helena Kate Tattersall

    This article was really interesting, I had never thought about it that way before and previously would have automatically picked being rich for the reasons you describe.
    Wealth has a similar thing going on: you don’t pick wealth for the sake of money, you pick it because you want greater material security. However, most people would probably agree that’s obvious, whereas wanting fame because you want recognition (greater social security?) doesn’t seem so immediately apparent, or acceptable.
    Maybe the question ‘Would you want greater material security, or guaranteed recognition and acceptance by the people around you?’ would be harder to answer.

  • PAINTINGS FLOWERS FURNITURE

    I loved, loved this topic! In fact, these sort of big question think pieces is what draws me to MR. No other website really does it the same way, so well done. In response to this, I’m probably the only person who openly says fame. Everybody I know says Money. The reason why is because fame is a currency that lasts even if you have no money. It’s like having a wealth that you can carry as long as you are still alive. Yes, you may fade in relevance over the years, but you’ll always be in the cultural tapestry and that’s something that cannot be bought

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