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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Celebrities often have a certain cache about them, so much so that there are typically people who do what they can to be part of their lives. From fans and admirers to those seeking to profit from a celebrity connection, fame can attract people who enjoy basking in the reflected glory of an “anointed one,” who might feel special by claiming insider status in a celebrity’s life.

And while many people choose the company of the famous, children of the famous have no choice in the matter. While I am not aware of any comprehensive study on the experiences of celebrities’ children, it is clear that their family connections bring both opportunities and challenges.

Like anyone from a privileged background, children of celebrities often have resources few other have access to. Private schools, private tutors, the best health care available, and of course material goods are but a few examples of the benefits of having famous parents.

As Wall Street Journal Reporter Daniel Golden found while researching his book The Price of Admission, children of celebrities (and of the wealthy) often get admitted to Ivy League universities despite mediocre grades. Even highly selective schools (he singles out Brown University in particular) are wooed by the glow of celebrity.

Beyond college, celebrity offspring might have industry connections and doors opened for them by family friends that propel their careers. As I write about in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, we often think of stardom as a reflection of the American ideal of meritocracy. But we often forget that many of today’s biggest celebrities have famous family members (think Charlie Sheen, Angelina Jolie, and George Clooney, to name a few).

This doesn’t mean that these celebrities don’t deserve their fame or didn’t work hard, only that they have had some opportunities few others might. Like Jolie (nee Voight), Nicolas Cage changed his surname (from Coppola), so it is not simply their famous birth names that brought them recognition.

Even without specific connections or the cache of a family name, children of wealth can afford lessons and additional training. Likely unburdened by student loans, they might have less pressure to take a job that pays better than more flexible low-wage jobs like waiting tables that might enable someone to pursue another career at the same time.

But people with famous parents might face significant challenges—like criticism that their success is the result of their lineage rather than their own efforts. A famous name might open doors, but it can also feel like a burden at times, as people might face constant comparison to their famous parents.

Living in Los Angeles, I have had the opportunity to meet several children of celebrities whose parents’ success often overshadows their every accomplishment. Carving out a unique identity can be an added challenge when people expect that they should in some way be similar to their famous parent.

And then there is the matter of infamy. Most of us have that adolescent experience of being embarrassed by our parents at some point growing up, but the scale for children whose family is embroiled in scandal is much greater. The Schwarzenegger children’s every Tweet has become news since their father’s infidelity became public. While many families experience major disruptions like this, most children get to deal with upheavals privately.

While adults may choose to lead public lives—and others make seek to share the afterglow of the spotlight—their children don’t get to make a choice. Just as being born into a family of great wealth brings privilege, having famous parents can also create special challenges.

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