Houghton Mifflin: January, 2007
Fame Junkies chronicles journalist Jake Halpern’s journey through the underbelly of Hollywood and into the heart of the question that bedevils us all: Why are Americans so obsessed with fame and celebrities?
We live in a country where more people watch the ultimate competition for celebrityhood – American Idol – than watch the nightly news on the three major networks combined. So what are the implications of this phenomenon? In his new book, Fame Junkies, Halpern explores the impact that celebrity-obsession is having on three separate niches of Americans: aspiring celebrities, entourage insiders, and diehard fans.
Halpern begins his journey by moving into a gated community inhabited almost entirely by aspiring child actors. During his stay, he interviews dozens of kids and teenagers, who seem to have an almost religious conviction that fame is a cure-all for life’s problems. What’s truly impressive is that these anecdotes are then supported with hard evidence. As part of the extensive research that he did for this book, Halpern teamed up with several statisticians and orchestrated a survey involving three separate school systems and over 650 teenagers. Many of his findings were deeply troubling. For example – when given the option of “pressing a magic button” and becoming stronger, smarter, famous, or more beautiful – boys in the survey chose fame almost as often as they chose intelligence, and girls chose it more often. Among today’s teenagers, says Halpern, fame appears to be the greatest good.
Fame Junkies also draws upon a great deal of new academic research to argue that America is raising an entire generation of celebrity-obsessed young people who are convinced that they should and will be famous during the course of their lives. According to Halpern, this belief is reinforced by a number of factors including the apparent abundance of fame on TV, self-esteem curriculums in our schools, and the innately attention-craving nature of the adolescent psyche. Ultimately, this phenomenon poses a number of dangers, including the fact that it may be fueling an epidemic of narcissism. Indeed, preliminary studies involving the Narcissism Personality Index (NPI) indicate that no other demographic group in the world is as narcissistic as the American teenager.
Interestingly, even those teenagers who are not expecting to become famous themselves are very much caught up in this obsession. In his survey, Halpern asked teenagers to choose which profession they would most like to have when they grow up. Among girls, 43.4% indicated that they wanted to become assistants to a celebrity. They chose this option twice as often as “the president of a great university like Harvard or Yale,” three times as often as U.S. Senator, and four times as often as "the chief of a major company like General Motors.” What’s so interesting about this statistic is that, among girls who indicated that they received bad grades in school (i.e., C’s or below), the percentage who opted to become assistants rose to 67%. What’s more, among both boys and girls who got bad grades – and who described themselves as being unpopular at school – the percentage who opted to become assistants rose further to 80%. Certainly, as these teenagers mature, many of them will develop other professional goals. Yet even if a fraction of them pursue their current aspirations, there is still the potential that vast numbers of young people may soon be flocking to LA and New York, in the hopes of enhancing their self-esteem by working intimately with celebrities.
In the second part of his book, Halpern becomes an honorary member of the Association for Celebrity Personal Assistants (ACPA) where he spends a great deal of time with Annie Brentwell who has slavishly devoted every iota of her personal and professional life to celebrities like Oliver Stone, Sharon Stone, and (most recently) Dennis Hopper. In her spare time, when she is not serving Hopper, Brentwell teaches at a school that the ACPA runs to teach aspiring assistants; and, of course, Halpern tags along. This section of Fame Junkies also investigates a fascinating vein of psychological research on what type of people are most likely to “bask in reflected glory” or BIRG. For example, college students with low self-esteem are far more likely to embrace their school’s football team when it wins and dissociating themselves from that same team when it loses. Halpern goes on to consider how BIRG research applies to Hollywood.
The third and final section of Fame Junkies delves into the world of fans. Halpern travels to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he meets the biggest Rod Stewart fan of all time – Marcy Braunstein – who has a giant shrine or “Rod Room” in her house. He then accompanies Braunstein on a pilgrimage to Hollywood where they both ended up hanging out with Stewart and talking to him about the nature of her obsession. Halpern also makes numerous pit stops. He visits the LAPD’s celebrity anti-stalking unit, hangs out at the editorial offices of Us Weekly, and spends time at the lab of a renowned primatologist whose “subordinate” monkeys are willing to give up food in order to ogle at photographs of “dominant” monkeys. Along the way, Halpern helps us understand how psychology, technology, evolution, and profit all conspire to make us so enthralled with celebrities.
All in all, this book combines the colorful, entertaining, and poignant scenes that only a journalist can render and mixes them with the careful erudition of an academic. It is a book that readers of People Magazine and the New Yorker should both be able to pick up and read with rapt attention.
Radio segments, newspaper articles, and magazine features about FAME JUNKIES
9/27/2010 (HBO): Adrian Grenier's documentary, "Teenage Paparazzo," premiers on HBO on September 27th at 9PM. The documentary features many findings from my book, Fame Junkies, and I provide commentary. See more at the HBO website. Or listen to Adrian talk about his film and my book on NPR by clicking here.
2/24/08 (Fame Junkies Series on NPR - Weekend Edition Sunday): Hal Riddle is an 87 year-old character actor who is still dreaming about his big break; in fact, he thinks an Oscar might still be within his grasp. Listen here
2/17/08 (Fame Junkies Series on NPR - Weekend Edition Sunday): In my latest commentary, meet the members of the Association for Celebrity Personal Assistants and learn what they put up with for $56,000 a year. Listen here
2/10/08 (Fame Junkies Series on NPR - Weekend Edition Sunday): Meet the world's biggest Rod Stewart fan of all time. Listen here.
2/1/08 (FORBES): Though they would never admit it, some disgruntled movie executives may feel that Heath Ledger failed them by not taking better care of himself. The truth of the matter, however, is that it is the studios that have failed Mr. Ledger. Read my article in Forbes.
10/4/07 (WALL STREET JOURNAL): Did you know that one day, not long ago, CNN devoted 37 times more coverage to Britney Spears than to the genocide in Darfur? Read my Op-Ed in the WSJ .
Summer '07: Fame Junkies was featured at the following events: the Tribeca Film Festival (May 5th), the New Yorker Spring Book Party (June 1st), and the New York Public Library Lecture Series (August 28th).
7/17/07 (NPR's On Point w/ Tom Ashbrook): Jake and Camille Paglia discuss America's obsession with the famous. Listen here.
6/15/07 (Hollywood.com): Every week, for the next ten weeks, Hollywood.com will feature an adaptation from FAME JUNKIES. Check it out.
3/2/07 (ESQUIRE): In her article, "Why We Are Addicted to Gossip," Carolyn Wilsey explores research from Fame Junkies. Click here to read
2/27/07 (TODAY SHOW): NBC's the Today Show will be running a two-day series on "fame addiction" that features characters and findings from Fame Junkies. Click here to watch
2/19/07 (CNN): CNN.com ran its top story on Fame Junkies. Click here to read
2/15/07 (NERVE): NERVE.com ran its lead story on Fame Junkies --including a Q & A with the author. Click here to read
1/16/07 (NEWSWEEK): Click here to read about research from Fame Junkies in this week's issue of Newsweek.
1/5/07 (ABC's 20/20): John Stossel of ABC's 20/20 will be doing a double segment on Fame Junkies at 10 PM EST. Click here to watch.
1/5/07 (ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY): EW will be running a 8-page excerpt from FAME JUNKIES. The excerpt describes the inner workings of the Association of Celebrity Personal Assistants. Click here to read on the E.W. website, or read the story as a PDF.
1/4/07 (USA TODAY): The front page of the LIFE section ran a profile on Fame Junkies and its findings. Click here to read.
1/3/07 (FOX & FRIENDS): Jake appears to discuss his book. Click here to watch.
12/1/06 (PSYCHOLOGY TODAY - BOOK EXCERPT): Why do teenage brains crave the attention that fame promises? Read this exclusive excerpt from FAME JUNKIES.
Why I Wrote This Book
As a writer, I have always been drawn to people with a tendency towards obsession. For a long time, I was interested in people’s attachments to their homes, and eventually this interest led me to quit my job as a reporter and set out to write a book on the subject matter (BRAVING HOME, Houghton Mifflin, 2003). In the course of doing this, I spent months living in some of the most dangerous homes in America– rickety houses, precariously situated on erupting volcanoes and on storm-battered islands – in the hopes of learning why these die hard residents refused to give up their homes.
My interest in my new book (FAME JUNKIES, Houghton Mifflin, Jan 2007) grew from this same vein of curiosity. The big difference was: The niche that I now intended to explore was governed, not by our devotion to home, but by our devotion to celebrity. I wanted to delve into a world where celebrity was not just a persistent distraction – but a full-blown, all-encompassing obsession. I had my eyes on the vortex. This, of course, meant that I had to set out for Hollywood.
It is commonly said that Americans are obsessed with celebrities, but this observation begs the question: What exactly makes someone a celebrity? Indeed, the word “celebrity" seems to encompass everyone from high-profile sushi chefs to Olympic shot-putters to Supreme Court Justices. I was most interested in the quintessential entertainment celebrities – like 50 Cent, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and even Paris Hilton – whom we often see parading down the red carpet. I wanted to know: Why do countless Americans yearn so desperately to have this sort of fame? Why do others, like celebrity personal assistants, devote their entire lives to servicing these people? And why do millions of others fall into the mindless habit of watching them from afar?
I will be the first to admit that writing about fame is a stretch for me. I grew up far from the glitz of Hollywood in the rust belt of Buffalo, New York, with a leftist father who for years wore a massive Castro beard and a mother who accumulated advanced degrees but who, despite my best efforts to teach her otherwise, constantly confused Bob Marley with Barry Manilow. The closest I got to “glamour” was donning my moon boots and polar parka to trudge through the snow and visit my neighbor’s house for a screening of Wrestlemania. Even years later, during my first encounter with a real Hollywood agent, I asked so many broad and apparently obvious questions that he finally snapped, “Kid, where the hell are you from, Buffalo?”
My first real exposure to celebrity culture was in the mid-1980s, during my early adolescence, when my parents briefly acquiesced to my demands to get cable television. Almost immediately, my show of choice became Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which first aired in 1984 and signaled the dawn of television’s craze with the personal lives and “lifestyles” of celebrities. On wintry evenings, as gale force winds howled through the deserted streets of North Buffalo, I cozied up to the warm glow of the television and let host Robin Leach whisk me into the rarefied world of private yachts and gold-plated bathroom fixtures. Perhaps needless to say, these were things that weren’t too common in Buffalo, especially during the 1980s, when the city was still reeling from the loss of the steel industry.
Looking back, it seems odd to me that Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was as popular as it was. In other times and places, the flaunting of such discrepancies in wealth has incited revolution, but for some reason this show did precisely the opposite: It enthralled millions of middle-class viewers like me. I was a ridiculously skinny, uncoordinated kid and so I avoided sports, read way too many books, and talked pretty much continuously. I must have set off an almost Pavlovian response in the schoolyard bullies. Robin Leach seemed to provide a reprieve from all of this. For thirty minutes, his show allowed me to escape from the cramped confines of our family room – with its watermarked ceiling and buzzing radiators – and enjoy an intoxicating dose of glamour.
One of the many things that still fascinates me about Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous is that there were no actual rich or famous people on the show. The only thing that we, the viewers, saw were these people’s possessions. In a way, the whole show functioned as one continuous “point of view shot,” which is what facilitated the voyeurism of it all. And I’m pretty sure this is why I liked the show so much. Once a week it allowed me to imagine that I was there, in Malibu or Beverly Hills, mingling with the glitterati or barking orders at my butler, and receiving fan mail in my mahogany-paneled study. At the time, I was only nine years old, but I was clearly already nursing delusions of grandeur and beginning to fixate on the idealized notion of what it meant to be a celebrity.
Eventually, my parents became so annoyed with my nightly devotion to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that they actually gave away our television set, thus ending my obsession with Robin Leach and the world from which he came. To fill the void they bought me a bicycle and, when the weather permitted, I channeled my time and energy into cycling. Still, there were momentary relapses. I’d sleep over at a friend’s house and before I knew it I was glancing at the television and pining for the sound of Robin Leach’s English accent.
Even today, a similar celebrity-watching urge lingers. The big difference now is the number of" celebrity news” outlets. All you have to do is flick on E!, the 24-hour celebrity news network, or buy a copy of US Weekly and turn to the “Stars– They’re Just Like Us!” section in order to learn about Brad and Angelina’s latest tropical vacation. And I still get sucked in. I’ll be walking through the airport, hustling toward my gate, and the next thing I know I’m standing beneath a television set, watching a segment on Julia Roberts’ adorable children. And as I’m absorbing every last word of this pap, somewhere in the back of my head, the faintest of voices is asking: Why on earth do you care?
The Fame Survey
As part of my research for Fame Junkies, I teamed up with several academics and conducted a survey of some 650 teenagers in the Rochester, New York area. The survey yielded some interesting and disturbing findings on how teens think about fame. Some highlights are included below. Detailed information on how exactly this survey was administered is included at the bottom of this page.
 I’d rather be famous than smart…
 Jennifer Lopez is more popular than Jesus…
 Forget being president of Harvard – Make me a celebrity personal assistant…
 Black kids are more desperate for fame…
 Teens who watch TV and read “glam mags” want and expect fame the most…
 Heavy TV-watchers are especially likely to believe fame will improve their lives…
 Lonely and depressed kids hope that fame will solve their problems…
 Lonely kids are also more likely to follow the lives of celebrities…
 Lonely kids prefer 50 Cent and Paris Hilton to Jesus…
 Kids believe that celebrities deserve their fame…
 I’d rather be Famous than Smart…
In one of the questions in the survey, teens were given the option of “pressing a magic button” and becoming stronger, smarter, famous, or more beautiful. As it turns out, boys in the survey chose fame almost as often as they chose intelligence, and girls chose it more often.
 Jennifer Lopez vs. Jesus…
As part of the survey, students were asked to choose which famous person they would most like to have dinner with. There were a range of options including “none of the above.” Among the girls who opted for the dinner, the least popular candidates by far were President Bush (2.7%) and Albert Einstein (3.7%). Far ahead of them were Paris Hilton and 50 Cent (both at 15.8%), who tied for third place. Second place went to Jesus Christ (16.8%) and the winner was Jennifer Lopez (17.4%).
 Forget being President of Harvard – Make me a Celebrity Personal Assistant…
Another question asked: “When you grow up, which of the following jobs would you most like to have?” There were five options to chose from and, among girls, the results were as follows: 9.5% chose “the chief of a major company like General Motors”; 9.8% chose “a Navy Seal”; 13.6% chose “a United States Senator”; 23.7% chose “the president of a great university like Harvard or Yale”; and 43.4% chose “the personal assistant to a very famous singer or movie star.”
It’s worth noting: Research psychologists, like Robert Cialdini at Arizona State University, have long suspected that people with low-self esteem are the ones most likely to “bask in the reflected glory” of others. This appears to be true here. For example, among girls who indicated that they received bad grades in school (i.e., C’s or below), the percentage who opted to become assistants rose to 67%. What’s more, among both boys and girls who got bad grades – and who described themselves as being unpopular at school – the percentage who opted to become assistants rose further to 80%.
 Black Kids Are More Desperate for Fame…
African American kids were especially keen on becoming famous. When asked whether they would rather become famous, smarter, stronger, or more beautiful, 42% of them opted for fame whereas only 21% of whites did so. What’s more, almost 44% of African Americans said that their families would love them more if they became famous, while only 27% of white students said so.
It’s worth noting: Of course, there are many ways to explain this data, but one factor to be considered is that African American kids often have especially hard childhoods. According to a 2005 article in the New York Times, two-thirds of black children are born out of wedlock and nearly half of those children who live in single-parent households are poor. All of this seems to suggest that hardship may be driving many African American kids to embrace fame as a remedy to their woes.
 Teens who watch TV and read “glam mags” want and expect fame the most…
According to the study, teenagers who regularly watch certain celebrity-focused TV shows – namely Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, and Insider – are more likely to believe that they themselves will someday become famous. The same trend appears to be true for those teenagers who read celebrity-focused magazines like US Weekly, Star, People, Teen People, YM and J-14. There is also a strong correlation between how many hours of television that teenagers watch in general and how badly they want to become famous. One of the questions on the survey asked: “If you could push a magic button that would change your life in one way, which of the following would you pick?” The options were (a) becoming smarter, (b) becoming much bigger or stronger, (c) becoming famous, (d) becoming more beautiful, and (e) my life doesn’t need any changing. Among those teens who watched one hour of television a day or less, only 15% of the boys and 17% of the girls opted for fame. But among those teens who watched five hours or more a day – and a good number of them did – 29% of the boys and 37% of the girls opted for fame.
It’s worth noting: Admittedly, it’s unclear whether these TV shows are to blame, or whether the kids are opting to watch these shows because they already believe that they’re destined for fame. There is evidence, however, that some TV shows are to blame. One question in the study asks: When you watch TV shows or read magazine articles about the lives of celebrities, how do they make you feel? A number of teens commented that such stories made them feel like they could and would become famous. One wrote: “When I watch TV shows or read magazine articles about the lives of celebrities, this makes me feel like one day I will probably be in their shoes.” Another wrote: “They make me feel like one day I’ll be there on the magazine, talking or telling people about my life.”
 Heavy TV-watchers are especially likely to believe that fame will improve their lives…
Findings from the survey also suggest that teenagers who watch television frequently are more likely to believe that fame will improve their lives. For example, teens who watch five hours or more of television a day are significantly more likely than those who watch just an hour or less to agree with the statement, “Becoming a celebrity [will] make you happier.” Teens who watch five hours of television or more a day are also twice as likely as those who watch an hour or less to believe that their family will love them more if they become a celebrity.
 Lonely and depressed kids hope that fame will solve their problems…
According to the Rochester survey, there is some compelling evidence that children who feel lonely, depressed, and under-appreciated are more likely to seek fame in the hopes that this will make them happier or better liked. For example, teens who described themselves as often or always “depressed” were more likely than others to believe that becoming a celebrity would make them happier. Teenagers who described themselves as feeling “lonely” were also more likely to believe that fame would make a positive impact on their lives – though the results were slightly different for boys and girls. Lonely boys were more likely to reply that fame would simply make them “happy,” whereas lonely girls were more likely to answer that fame would make them better liked by kids at school.
Ultimately, some of the most compelling evidence about the relationship between loneliness and the desire for fame comes from question #20 on the Rochester survey, which asked: “If you suddenly became a celebrity – like a movie star or a rock star – what would be the best thing about being famous?” The answer for a number of teens was simply companionship. “If I was to become famous, people would probably think I was sooo cool and they would all want to be my friend,” wrote one participant. “A lot more people would notice me and my friends might want to be with me more,” wrote another. “I would have a lot of friends and I would have a lot of really, really, really nice clothes,” wrote a third.
 Lonely kids are also more likely to follow the lives of celebrities…
There is also evidence from the Rochester survey that lonely teenagers are especially susceptible to forming para-social relationships with celebrities. Boys who described themselves as lonely were almost twice as likely as those who said they weren’t lonely to endorse the statement: “My favorite celebrity just helps me feel good and forget about all of my troubles.” Meanwhile, girls who described themselves as lonely were almost three times as likely as those who said they weren’t lonely to endorse that statement.
 Lonely kids preferred 50 Cent and Paris Hilton to Jesus…
Another interesting phenomenon emerged in a question that asked teens whom they would most like to meet for dinner: Jesus Christ, Albert Einstein, Shaquille O’Neil, Jennifer Lopez, 50 Cent, Paris Hilton, or President Bush. For boys who said they were not lonely, the clear winner was Jesus Christ. For those who described themselves as lonely, however, Jesus finished at the back of the pack and 50 Cent was the clear winner. A similar trend exists for girls who feel underappreciated by their parents, friends, and teachers. These girls tended to favor having dinner with Paris Hilton, whereas those girls who felt appreciated were far more likely to opt for dinner with Jesus Christ. It’s hard to know exactly what explains these results, but one interpretation would be that lonely and underappreciated teens are especially desperate to befriend the ultimate popular guy or girl.
 Kids Believe that Celebrities Deserve their fame…
In the Rochester survey, teenagers were asked to choose the most likely explanation of why certain celebrities were so successful. There were a number of options including luck, innate talent, hard work, and even the possibility that the entertainment industry simply decides to turn certain people into stars. Of these options, however, more teenagers chose “hard work” than all of the other options combined.
Details on Exactly How this Survey Was Administered
I. The Basic Information
Jake Halpern and Professor Carol M. Liebler of Syracuse University wrote a survey containing 32 questions, most of which were related to fame and pop culture. Copies of this survey were distributed to a total of 653 students at three different schools in and around Rochester, New York. The students were 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. Meredith Height, a graduate student at Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, input this data into an SPSS database. Summary responses were tabulated by Professor Elaine Allen at Babson College. Professor Grant segmented the results by demographic information and by several key variables including loneliness and amount of television viewing among others. Analyses were examined using chi-squared statistics, with results having a p-value less than 0.05 determined to be statistically significant. (Statistical Significance implies that there is a relationship between the categories that were being compared.) For good measure, these results were then reviewed and confirmed by Professor Richard McGowan at Boston College. In text below, the details and methodology of this study are explained.
II. Why Rochester, New York?
In 2004, Josh Herman – who works for a company called Acxiom – authored his “Mirror on America” study, in which he ranked those cities whose consumer demographics most closely reflect that of the U.S. as a whole. Herman did this by using a system called Personicx, which analyzes demographic information such as age, marital status, home ownership, number of children, estimated income, net worth and “urbanicity” (i.e., whether you live in the city, suburbs, or countryside). Using this method, Herman compiled a list of those 150 metropolitan areas whose demographics are the best “mirrors” of America as a whole. In September of 2004, Rochester, New York, ranked second on the list.
For the most part, Personicx is used by marketers who want to better understand the “consumer landscape” of a given city. Admittedly, for purposes of this survey, the Acxiom study it is not a perfectly ideal tool for measuring the comprehensive demographics of American cities – in the way that the U.S. Census Bureau does, for example – because it does not look at certain factors like race, national origin, or religion. Nonetheless, it does provide a strong indication of which cities are most quintessentially American, and Rochester is at the top of the list.
III. Information on the Three Schools in Rochester, N.Y.
Three different schools participated in this study, including one in the city of Rochester and two in the suburbs. Some basic information on each of these schools is provided below:
1. Monroe High School (Rochester School District): There are 1,192 students at this school. Surveys were given to 8th graders during class time. This school has a high percentage of poor and minority students. The total non-white population at Monroe High School is 88.1%. The poverty rate at the school is 89.1%, which is defined by the percentage of students who are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch.
2. Twelve Corners Middle School (Brighton School District): There are 865 students at this school. It is situated in Brighton, which is a suburb of Rochester. The surveys were given to 6-8th graders during class time in health and “home and career” classes. At this school, the demographics are as follows: 75.8% Caucasian/White, 10.4% Asian, 6.8% Black/African-American, and 3.1% Latino.
3. Willink Middle School (Webster School District): There are 1,100 students at this school. It is situated in Webster, which is a suburb of Rochester. The surveys were given to 6-8th graders at the end of classes and during study halls. At this school, the demographics are as follows: 93.3% Caucasian/White, 6.6% Hispanic, 3.1% African American, 1.8% Asian.
IV. Demographic Information on the Participants
Of the 653 students who participated in the study, their demographic information is as follows:
Gender: There were 312 Males, 310 Females, and 31 subjects who did not indicate their gender.
Grade: There were 2 fifth graders, 76 sixth graders, 165 seventh graders, and 377 eighth graders.
Race: There were 329 whites/Caucasians, 95 mixed, 62 black/African-American, 58 Hispanic/Latino, and 14 Native American.
From the Intro
Are Americans Literally ‘Addicted’ to Fame?
Anyone who has ever been in the limelight, even for participating in a high school musical or telling a good story at a cocktail party, can attest to the fact that there is a rush that comes with commanding everyone’s attention. Isn’t it possible that this feeling is, in fact, addictive? Isn’t it possible that many behaviors related to fame – including becoming famous, being near the famous, and even reading about the famous – trigger a rush, a high, or even a numbing effect that is potentially addictive?
In search of answers, I paid a visit to Dr. Hans Breiter at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Breiter is a large teddy bear of a man, well over six feet tall, but with soft facial features and a neatly trimmed red beard. He is one of the nation’s top experts on the neurological underpinnings of addiction and he spends most of his days working in a laboratory that is equipped with several giant MRI machines. Typically the magnetic fields generated by MRI machines vary in strength by a measure called “teslas” and you can actually feel the difference between the various machines. When you approach the lab’s most powerful 7-tesla MRI machine, for example, you’ll sense a slight pull on your feet. This is because there are innumerable microscopic pieces of metal embedded in your shoes that are gravitating toward the machine’s magnet. When I visited the lab, Dr. Breiter was guiding a subject into a 3-tesla MRI machine. Once the subject slid into this device, he was asked to play a “game of chance,” in which he observed a small computer screen that showed a spinning roulette wheel. Every time the wheel stopped spinning, the monitor informed the subject how much money he had just won or lost. This was “real money,” Dr. Breiter explained, because at the end of the experiment subjects were allowed to keep their winnings. As this experiment continued, Dr. Breiter and his colleagues huddled around a small computer screen to see how the subject’s brain was reacting to his wins and losses.
Within the last several years, Dr. Breiter has gained a great deal of attention for his research on how our brains react both to “games of chance” and to cocaine use. (He has done another experiment, similar to the one I witnessed, in which he gives subjects intravenous infusions of cocaine while they are inside an MRI machine.) Dr. Breiter has demonstrated that both activities affect an area of the brain known as the “reward-aversion system.” Basically, whenever you feel a rush of pleasure or of pain, that feeling originates from this system. Ever since the dawn of man, the reward-aversion system has played a key role in human evolution. It punishes us with pain when we harm ourselves and it rewards us with pleasure when we do things that help us survive and reproduce like eating and having sex. In addicts, this delicate system essentially starts to malfunction. Cocaine users tamper with their reward-aversions system by artificially inducing feelings of euphoria, and they ultimately succeed in changing the chemistry of their brains so that they crave more and more of the drug in order to feel good. Dr. Breiter speculated that a similar thing might occur with gambling. He tested this idea in relatively simple fashion. When his subjects were in the MRI machine, either gambling or high on cocaine, he asked them to rate how they were feeling. In both cases, he found that identical parts of the brain “lit up” when gamblers and cocaine-users indicated that they were feeling very good. In fact, during these times, the MRI scans were so similar-looking that he could not tell them apart. These studies do not prove that gambling is as addictive as using cocaine, but they do suggest that both activities appear to affect the brain circuitry in a remarkably similar fashion.
Although this field of research is still in its infancy, Dr. Breiter and others have shown that similar results occur when people eat chocolate, view arousing nude pictures, or even play video games. All of these activities prompt the brain to release a variety of chemicals or neurotransmitters, including dopamine and endogenous opiates, which ultimately make us feel good. This phenomenon has led some scientists to observe that the brain is, essentially, a “giant pharmaceutical factory that manufactures powerful, mind-altering chemicals.” Over time, many of us find ourselves craving the activities that trigger these chemical releases. In order to get a fix, we feel driven to eat chocolate constantly or bet $1,000 on a Yankees game again and again and again. Indeed, scientists now believe that there may be a whole range of activities that can, over time, change the chemistry of some people’s brains and create internal chemical dependencies. One addict’s craving for gambling or eating chocolate may be physiologically every bit as real as another’s craving for heroin or nicotine.
Of course, from time to time, we all gamble, or get drunk, or eat too much chocolate, but what scientists still don’t know is why certain people become addicted to these behaviors. According to Dr. Alan Marlatt, who runs the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, most addicts are essentially looking for a way to “self-medicate.” “It is rare to find an addict who is feeling good and just wants to feel a bit better or more euphoric,” Dr. Marlatt told me. “Far more often, addicts are trying to escape a low of depression or anxiety.” Many clinicians also believe that addicts are looking to exert control over their lives. Craig Nakken, an author and addiction specialist, argues that when happiness eludes us – and we fall into despair – some of us resort to addictive behaviors that temporarily get us high, change our moods, and offer us relief. The food addict might have a fight with his spouse and then consume several cartons of ice cream. For a moment, instead of feeling depressed and empty, the food addict feels both emotionally and physically full. Again, we all engage in such escapism from time to time, but with addicts these behaviors spiral out of control. True addicts get locked into a destructive cycle in which they come to depend on an activity or a substance for pleasure and comfort. Gradually, the addict’s set of priorities – or “value hierarchy” – begins to change as the addiction itself becomes more important than other values like work, friends, or family. Eventually, even if addicts desperately want to quit, they find it very difficult to do so.
Dr. Nora Volkow, who is the director of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, says that there are two things that define addiction – whether a person can bring himself or herself to quit and how well he or she functions in society. For example, you couldn’t say that Bill Gates is “addicted” to making money or being famous because his desire for these things doesn't appear to debilitate him as a CEO or as a figure in his family. “But if Bill Gates was compulsive about making money or getting fame at the cost of his integrity, his family, or his health – and he couldn't quit despite wanting to do so – that could be described as an addiction,” Dr. Volkow told me.
In general, the notion that people can become addicted to a whole range of substances and activities is gaining credibility not just with clinicians and scientists, but with the public as well. Over the last several decades, there has been an emergence of numerous 12-step recovery groups including “Alcoholics Anonymous” (founded in 1935), “Narcotics Anonymous” (circa 1950), “Gamblers Anonymous” (1957), “Overeaters Anonymous” (1960), “Debtors Anonymous” (1968), “Sex Addicts Anonymous” (1977), “Clutterers Anonymous” (1989), “Shoplifters Anonymous” (1992), “On-Line Gamers Anonymous” (2002) and the list goes on.
As far as I know, there are no support groups that cater to any of the celebrity-obsessed niches that I explored. There is no “Attention Seekers Anonymous,” or “Celebrity Sidekicks Anonymous,” or “Diehard Fans Anonymous.” This may seem like a silly notion, but is it? If people are getting hooked on the rush of shoplifting or playing video games, isn’t it possible that others are getting high either by fawning over celebrities or, better yet, by joining their entourages and riding with them in their limos? Isn’t it even more likely that a select few are getting high by receiving massive amounts of attention from hordes of cheering fans? Don’t all of these activities offer at least a bit of euphoria and a certain degree of transcendence or escapism? So why couldn’t they be addictive?
The final and perhaps most important issue to consider is availability. Many health care experts, including those at the National Institute of Health, believe that one of the biggest causes of alcoholism may be how readily available it is. Similarly, there is a growing belief that gambling addictions are on the rise, in large part, because of the spread of casinos. Craig Nakken notes, “The more available addictive objects and events are, the greater the number of people who form addictive relationships with them.” So wouldn’t all of this apply to fame? If cable television and reality TV has helped increase the availability of fame, and if fame itself is addictive, might this explain why so many people are pining for it? And couldn’t the same logic apply to celebrity-watching? If celebrity tabloids and TV shows are so available, and perhaps even mildly addictive, might this not explain why we can never get enough of them? In the final analysis, could many of us be suffering from a widespread and insidious addiction that no one has ever bothered to diagnose?
A ST. LOUIS HIP-HOP STORY THAT DID NOT MAKE THE BOOK
In the process of writing Fame Junkies, I ended up befriending a young rapper from St. Louis named J-Kwon, whose song Tipsy rocketed to the top of the Billboard charts in 2004. I chronicled my adventures with J-Kwon in an article for the New Yorker. For a number of reasons, much of my best material did not make it into my article or my book. I am now publishing the full story here on my website. Enjoy!
Several months before he became famous, seventeen-year-old Jerrell Jones visited the Black Pearl tattoo parlor in downtown St. Louis and made an unusual request. He asked to have a six-inch-long barcode, complete with a minute serial number, etched onto his forearm in dark green ink. As far as Jones was concerned, his decision to get the tattoo was just one more step on the path to fame. Prior to this, he had run away from his home in the suburbs and spent several months living the life of a vagabond on the streets of St. Louis, sleeping in abandoned cars and writing his rap lyrics by the flame of a cigarette lighter. During this time, he renamed himself “J-Kwon,” and began to brace himself for the fame that he felt was imminent. “I got the bar code because I knew that someday I’d be a product,” he told me. “I knew they were going to sell me.”
He was right.
J-Kwon eventually enlisted the help of two local rap producers known as the Trackboyz. Together they recorded his debut album – Hood Hop – and sold it to Arista Records. By the time that I caught up with him, he was not yet a star, but he was busy getting ready for the release of his album. We first met at a dance hall called Spruill’s in a bombed-out section of downtown St. Louis. Our meeting was arranged by “BD,” who was J-Kwon’s manager / adoptive father. As BD explained it over the phone, he was the one who had found J-Kwon living in abandoned car, adopted him, and begun grooming him to be a rap star. “The kid has crazy skills,” explained BD. “You’ll see when you meet him at Spruill’s.”
Spruill’s was situated amidst of a bleak landscape of abandoned homes, potholed parking lots, and weed-speckled sidewalks. One of the few surrounding buildings that appeared to be in use was a charred-out concrete bunker used by firemen in training. The lone sign of commerce was a giant billboard looming overhead with an ad for a personal injury lawyer named Charlie “Ed” Brown, a middle aged man with a pirate’s patch over his bad eye, who listed his telephone number: 231-Hurt. Inside Spruill’s, a flickering strobe light revealed staccato glimpses at a shabby dance hall with fake trees, stacked chairs, and a grimy floors. It was two o’clock in the afternoon when I arrived. The club was empty and closed to the public and still it reeked of spilled beer, heavy cologne, and the grease of yesterday’s French fries.
On stage, J-Kwon performed his dance moves to an imaginary audience. He was a rangy boy of seventeen whose excruciating thinness was camouflaged by his formless clothing that could easily have fit a man twice his size. He wore baggy black pants, an oversized black t-shirt, and a matching black do-rag on his head. Around his neck, hung a gold chain connected to a hefty, solid-gold padlock that swayed like a pendulum as he gyrated to the music. For good measure, he wore a hunk of diamond in each ear. His face was boyish, soft, and delicate. His voice was raspy, still screeching through the awkwardness of late adolescence. And his skin was lavished with faded tattoos including a large barcode on his forearm.
As I stood in one of the club’s many darkened recesses, J-Kwon pranced about the stage belting out the lyrics to his song “Welcome to the Hood”: “Do you got a gun? Welcome to the hood! / Got a pocket full of crack? Welcome to the hood!” When this song was done, J-Kwon stepped off stage and introduced himself with a complicated five or six-part handshake that I fumbled my way through. “So you are the guy that is writing the book about me,” he said casually. “Nice to meet you.”
Moments later, J-Kwon signaled to his bodyguard Rod – a muscular man with a mouth full of gold teeth – and the three of us exited Spruill’s. J-Kwon led the way across the club’s desolate parking lot to a large Chevy Yukon. He unlocked the car, got in the driver’s seat, and motioned for me to go around the other side and sit up front with him. Rod sat in back, keeping silent and looking tough. “We are going home,” explained J-Kwon as we pulled out of the parking lot. “We can do our interview there.”
As I would soon learn, J-Kwon’s “home” was currently a suburban house belonging to the Trackboyz – Joe Kent and Mark Williams – a pair of affluent twenty something rap producers who created the “beats” or instrumentals for J-Kwon’s raps and helped get him his record deal with Arista. The Trackboyz had recently asked J-Kwon to move in with them, both to get him out of the inner city and, in a sense, to begin grooming him for his imminent fame. “I’ve learned a lot from the Trackboyz,” J-Kwon told me as he navigated us onto the highway. “I even call them my uncles.”
As we sped out towards the suburbs, J-Kwon told me more about his record deal, including the story of how he’d done a showcase at Arista’s headquarters in Manhattan. “I auditioned for the Arista executive in New York City,” J-Kwon explained. “They flew me in and I performed for them.”
“What was that like?”
“Well to begin with, I had never been on airplane before, so that was pretty crazy,” explained J-Kwon. “Then they take me to this big office with the executives. There were Caucasians executives, African-Americans executives – the whole Arista urban and pop section. Basically, they put me in there with the sharks. They just threw me in there and you might as well say I was biggest shark.”
According to J-Kwon, and several others who later verified his story for me, he strutted into the office where all the executives were assembled, jumped onto a table, and shouted, “Give me my music!” After running through several of his raps, J-Kwon mooned Antonio Reid, then the C.E.O., took a bow, and thanked everyone individually for his time. “My performance was right out of the Third District of St. Louis,” J-Kwon later told me. “But it was corporate, too.”
J-Kwon’s story left me slightly dumbfounded. I always considered myself a pretty precocious teenager – at age 17, during my senior year of high school, I once mooned the principal and then talked my way out of a suspension – but what J-Kwon had done was in another league, nay, another universe. And so, as coolly as I could, I asked J-Kwon how on earth he had mustered the nerve to do what he’d done.
“Well,” said J-Kwon, “If you put a pit in a pit fight – even if he is just a puppy and he is licking you in your mouth – you are going to find out what kind of pit he is. That’s all that happened. I had a point to prove and I went there to handle business. At the end I shook all their hands. I know they were looking at my tats. They were thinking: He’s a little hood nigger, but fuck it, we can make some money with him. It was just business. That’s all.”
The Trackboyz’ home is situated in Hazelwood West, which is a suburb of St. Louis where a series manicured lawns and identical-looking Mc Mansions roll out towards the blur of the horizon and the Great Plains beyond. As we cruised through this neighborhood, a middle-aged neighbor was mowing his lawn, and a group of children were skateboarding on the sidewalks. A couple of women wearing fanny packs power walked past. For a moment, I felt certain that we must have taken the wrong exit off the highway, but we hadn’t. This is where J-Kwon now lived.
J-Kwon ushered me in the front door and through the first floor of the Trackboyz’ home. The walls were lit in red demonic light and the rooms were equipped with black leather couches, several big screen TVs, an ample supply of Grey Goose vodka, and a number of glass tanks containing a small zoo of reptiles – including two monitor lizards and two well-fed pythons.
“I never had anything like this before,” J-Kwon told me as he gave me a tour of the entire house, including the basement where the recording studio was located. “The walls are white. There is furniture in every room. Carpets in every room. Game systems in every room. Nice pictures that you can look at when you are angry. And there are cameras everywhere because there a lot of valuables in this house – including ourselves.”
According to J-Kwon, this sparkling new home also proved to be a good learning environment for him, where he came to appreciate the value of doing basic chores like cleaning the house. As it turns out, however, the only person I ever saw cleaning was a nineteen-year-old girl named Sugar. When I inquired about who she was, I was told that J-Kwon often “siphoned off” his housework to various girls whom he met. “His job is to make sure that the work gets done,” explained BD. “And it does.”
In general, J-Kwon’s living arrangements, like his family life, have been in a constant state of flux over the last few years. He started off living with his mother. He ran away from her suburban home in Bellville, Illinois, to become a rapper and live a tougher life on the streets of St. Louis. Then he met BD, who took him in and became his manager / adoptive father. Currently, he was living with the Trackboyz, who were his producers / uncles. Needless to say, this was a rather confusing family structure and one that J-Kwon’s mother, Terrie Jones, is not altogether happy with.
Mrs. Jones still holds onto the rather dire hope that her son will return home and live with her. She also tries to remind her son, whom she still calls “Jerrell,” that BD and the Trackboyz are not his real family. She made the same point to me when we met later in the week for coffee at a Denny’s. “I’ve talked to Jerrell about this,” she explained. “I’ve told him: ‘I just want you to remember that you are a pure investment to them – whereas to me you are not. You are my son. So if anything ever happens, you can always come back home. I am not saying that they don’t care about you. But they do not love you the way I do.’ And he is like: ‘Yeah mom, I know, I know.’ But I really don’t think he understands that. So I tell him again: ‘You are like a piece of stock, if you fall, you are out of there.’”
In some ways, J-Kwon’s story struck me as strikingly Faustian because of what he traded – his home, his identity, and even his original family – all for a shot at fame. To his credit, however, J-Kwon seemed to have a pretty firm grasp on the touchy dynamics of his situation, namely that his new family was in fact part of the fame machine. His “father” was his manger and his “uncles” were his producers. And on some level, I couldn’t help but wonder whether J-Kwon was playing the role of the hapless, orphaned child in order to endear himself to these men who were so well positioned to help his career.
After giving me a tour of the house, J-Kwon and I sat down in the kitchen and sipped some orange juice. We chatted for a while longer about his plans for the future, including how he planned to deal with becoming famous. “When I go out, I am a puppet for the public,” he told me matter-of-factly as he gulped his orange juice. “I always got to smile like I am happy to be there. It’s part of the deal. You sign up to give your life away and you better be happy about it, because the moment you are not, somebody else is ready to take your place.” When I asked him what would happen if his career faltered, he admitted that he might quickly find himself alone. “I am at a point where I know what I am getting myself into,” J-Kwon told me. “And I’d rather know the facts instead of being blind and when it happens – being like, Oh man nobody is with me anymore – I already know that will happen. I anticipate that.”
The way J-Kwon saw it, for the time being at least, his task was to stay focused. “Now that I am showing them something, I just got to keep showing them and showing them,” he explained. “There is a lot riding on J-Kwon right now. If J-Kwon goes under, there are a lot of people who will be disappointed. If J-Kwon goes under, there are a lot of people who aren’t going to get Christmas presents.”
“Does this stress you out?” I asked.
“I figure if I can deal with crack users and so forth then I can handle this,” he replied.
Later that night, as J-Kwon readied himself for another quiet evening at home, BD invited me to accompany him on a tour of the city. The goal of this tour was to promote J-Kwon’s new single, “Tipsy,” which had just been released. To do this, BD visited radio stations, dance halls, and strip clubs to make sure that “Tipsy” was getting played. “Sure,” I said. “I’d love to tag along.”
BD was a stocky man of medium height. He wore a scruffy goatee, a gold chain with a gold medallion that could easily have doubled as a paperweight, and a baby blue tracksuit with matching baby blue leather hiking boots. BD’s proper name, Sean L. Caldwell, was tattooed around the muscular girth of his neck. When I asked him what the “L” stood for, BD refused to tell me, because the name was “too girly.” As far as age was concerned, BD’s date of birth was a constant source of speculation. As J-Kwon put it, “Don’t anybody know how old pops is”; and as BD put it, “A man has to have his mysteries.” BD’s affinity for mysteries included a fondness for aliases and nicknames, of which he had several – including Boookie and Dough Boy. Before long I too had a nickname. “Come one Baby Boy,” BD said to me as we got his Chevy Yukon. “We got a lot to do.”
As I got into the passenger’s seat of BD’s car, I sat on something clunky that I assumed was the seatbelt buckle. It turned out be a clip for BD’s 9mm pistol. “Oh don’t worry about that Baby Boy,” said BD nonchalantly. “Just toss it in the glove compartment.” When I opened the glove compartment, a pistol and half a dozen other clips fell out. “Well, Baby Boy, I guess you’re not in Kansas anymore,” said BD with a little chuckle. He quickly assured me that the guns were for fighting crime. As BD explained it – and I later verified – he had recently gained fame as a vigilante for breaking up a notorious St. Louis car-jacking operation when he fought off three attackers who threatened him with Tec-9 assault weapons. BD was subsequently given the key to the city.
For the next several hours, BD and I drove around St. Louis visiting dance clubs where we handed out copies of J-Kwon’s single to various DJs. Among the places that we visited was the “Pink Slip,” an extremely seedy nightclub in East St. Louis that boasted a stripper with three nipples. “You’ve got to go to places where hoodlums hang out, because they are the ones who will buy the album,” BD told me.
As we made our pilgrimage across the city, BD told me more about his relationship with J-Kwon. “When I met J-Kwon…” BD paused and began again. “I didn’t meet J-Kwon, I met Jerrell Jones – okay – he was just this thirteen-year-old kid on the streets and my heart just opened up to him.”
“What did you like about him?” I asked.
“He was defying all odds!” exclaimed BD. “He was smart. He was intelligent. He didn’t have a family to call his own. He was an underdog and I always loved underdogs. He was breaking into cars and sleeping in them for the night. And it really broke my heart because he had so much together. One day I followed him and saw that he was sleeping in a car and it fucked me up...” BD paused for a moment – he was visibly choked up. “The kid didn’t let on that he was sleeping in cars,” continued BD hoarsely. “It was pride. He was a little kid but he had pride.”
According to BD, it wasn’t until several years later that he realized just how musically talented J-Kwon was. “I brought him into the studio and he ba-ba-ba-bopped the track!” exclaimed BD. “Once he did that it was a whole different game. I sat him down and asked him, do you think you are ready to run this? From then on I was like, ‘Whatever I can do, I am going to do to make sure that you make it.’ I did everything. And I’m not going to lie to you. I did some right shit and some wrong shit to create revenue. But I did it. And here we are.”
“Did you ever adopt any other kids off the street?” I asked.
“Before J-Kwon, there was another kid that I helped,” said BD. “His name was Ortega. I met him when he was exactly Kwon’s age – thirteen. I took care of him. I helped his family. I gave him money, clothing, a secure ride back and fourth to school. He was a hot rapper and he had the look.”
“You mean he was good looking?”
“For sure,” replied BD. “For sure.”
“What happened to Ortega?” I asked finally.
“He fell off the wagon,” replied BD. “Disappeared.”
“How did that happen?” I asked.
“He got shot up,” said BD.
“Literally shot up?”
“Literally shot up,” replied BD.
The following afternoon, as the sun made its descent between two identical looking homes in Hazelwood West, the Trackboyz’ home began to fill with members of J-Kwon’s entourage. This entourage included several personal assistants, including a kid known as “Versatile” whom J-Kwon recently renamed “Four” in homage to the rapper Nelly who apparently had an assistant named “Three.” Another member of J-Kwon’s extended entourage was an almost-famous rapper named 40 Grand, or “Uncle 40” as J-Kwon sometimes calls him, whose primary job was to recount his own failures and serve as a kind of living cautionary tale. There was also Rod, the bodyguard, who told me that he is always ready to take “extreme measures.” (When Rod learned that I was a journalist he proposed that we go into business together and asked for my home phone number so I could help him “track some mother fuckers down.”)
At some point, as the crowd in the Trackboyz’ home reached a critical mass, J-Kwon nodded at me to indicate that we were leaving. Somewhat discretely, J-Kwon, Rod, and I slipped out the garage door and got into one of the several SUVs that was parked in the driveway. J-Kwon got into the driver’s seat, I rode shotgun, and Rod hopped into the backseat.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To get some knowledge,” replied J-Kwon.
Rod nodded his head approvingly, as if this made complete sense. He then took off his black leather jacket. Underneath, Rod wore a formfitting T-Shirt that revealed two powerful arms, one of which was emblazoned with the tattoo of a scantily clad stripper and the inscription: Nasty Bitch.
“I need to get educated about the entertainment business,” J-Kwon told me as we pulled out of the driveway. “That’s what we’re doing now.”
Despite all of his self-professed wisdom about the workings of fame, J-Kwon apparently harbored some secret fears that he really didn’t know what he was getting into – that perhaps he was in a little over his head – and the remedy for this, he believed, was books. “I need to be reading books,” he told me as we got on the highway. “I need to be expanding my knowledge.”
I assumed that our quest for knowledge would take us to a Barnes and Nobles, or perhaps even a university library, but instead it took us to heart of the inner city where we visited the one library that J-Kwon knew from his youth. The library was housed in a rundown brick building with a sign on the front door that read: NO WEAPONS ALLOWED. J-Kwon, Rod, and I strolled into the main reading room and up to a desk where an elderly reference librarian was sitting. “I need to check out all of your books on the music industry,” said J-Kwon. The reference librarian nodded silently and began typing slowly, almost arthritically, into the dusty keys of his computer. After almost five minutes of searching, the librarian looked up meekly and said: “I am sorry son, but all of the books on the music industry have been checked out and never returned.”
The three of us returned to the car where we sat in silence as J-Kwon drove down a series of back roads, eventually ending up at a gas station with an accompanying mini mart. J-Kwon pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of his pocket, handed it to Rod, and told him to come back with a pack of Newports. According to the Trackboyz, J-Kwon wasn’t supposed to be smoking, but now that he was out of the house – with just his bodyguard and me for supervision – he obviously felt safe doing as he pleased.
“I am trying to get knowledge,” said J-Kwon calmly, revealing just a hint of frustration. “I want to know what I’m in for – what I am dealing with. I need knowledge. I can’t fully trust anybody. There are a lot of talkers out there and how can I know whom to believe unless I have knowledge?”
Moments later, Rod returned with a pack of Newports. Rod opened the cellophane wrapping and handed a cigarette to his boss. J-Kwon nodded his head appreciatively and slammed his foot on the gas.