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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

It’s no secret that many celebrities struggle with substance use issues. This is nothing new—while studios might have been better able to squelch reports of benders and arrests in the heyday of the studio system, today’s paparazzi-driven celebrity news culture thrives on reporting such news.

But whether such news negatively impacts a celebrity’s career typically depends on two core issues: the celebrity’s “brand” and their ability to continue to be economically productive.1964_04_P52_compressed

If a celebrity’s image is that of a hard-partying rebel, then their drinking or drugging might fit in with their brand. It may not be healthy, but the behavior will likely be accepted by fans. Producers might not mind either if the celebrity continues to make money for them.

Actor Richard Burton, pictured at right, was known for his temper and for drinking. Some of his movie characters, particularly George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, were also drinkers. So his behavior did not threaten his on-screen persona.

Likewise, Charlie Sheen is known for playing bad boys. He has had run-ins with substance use (and the law) for over a decade, which apparently had not completely derailed his career. He was able to contine to star in a top-rated sitcom, despite recent legal and health problems. It was only his public criticism of the show’s creator that seems to be threatening his current job. His private behavior hadn’t seemed to matter before.

By contrast, when a celebrity’s brand has been constructed around their appeal to young people—as Lindsay Lohan’s once was in her Disney movie days—substance abuse offends fans’ sensibilities much more.

The public is more likely to turn on someone when we feel like they are not who they claimed to be. For instance, actress Jane Powell was a star at MGM in the 1940s and 50s with a squeaky-clean image. Characterized as the quintessential postwar wife and mother, when Photoplay discussed rumors of an affair her “career [hung] in the balance.”

In the late 1950s the fan magazines couldn’t get enough of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher’s supposedly ideal family. When Fisher left the Reynolds to marry Elizabeth Taylor, many fans never forgave him.

Investors typically shy away from banking projects with unreliable performers. But if the possible return is attractive enough, the most unstable celebrity might still find themselves employed. And adored.

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