Is the recent trend of celebrities sharing their deeply personal stories an effort to shine a light on issues everyone faces? Or is it more about lining their own pockets? Emily Heist Moss says it’s both, and that’s OK.
Angelina Jolie Had Breast Removal Surgery. Christine Quinn Opens Up About Her Struggles with Bulimia and Alcoholism. Gwyneth Paltrow Discusses Miscarriage Trauma. Catherine Zeta-Jones Battling Bipolar Disorder. Ashley Judd Reveals Troubled Childhood and Sexual Abuse. Beyonce Opens Up About Miscarriage. These are not your run-of-the-mill celebrity headlines. These are some seriously personal stories about issues that are often covered up or hidden behind glossy photos and fluff pieces and they’re coming from our biggest stars.
Jewel tones, pixie cuts, an obsession with nude overlays and oddly placed cut-outs. Selfies with their pets, sex tapes, fundraising their next projects through Kickstarter. Rather than sartorial choices or social media strategies, the celebrity trend du jour is a bit more controversial. With the platforms they’ve built, famous folk are using their megaphones to talk about some heavy stuff. What should we make of this move past the overshare—where stars wax their legs or shampoo their poodles—and into the megashare?
Over the last decade or two, with the rise of reality TV and ever increasing accessibility to our favorite stars through Twitter and the like, we have come to expect to know everything about them. And yet, there are still some things we are surprised to find out. Are celebrities who share their medical, emotional, and psychological histories just playing to what their adoring fans are constantly demanding? Are they merely trading the most extreme confessions they have to sell more books, acquire more followers, drive box office numbers, make magazines fly off the shelves? Or, as many of them claim, are their confessions a form of public service announcement? Are they doing what any of us might do with such a platform, and trying to shine a spotlight on issues oft suffered in silence? Can it be both?
As I am sure you are shocked to know, I tend to skew toward the oversharing side of the privacy spectrum. For one thing, I write openly about some intimate stuff on the Internet, but if you meet me, you’ll find there’s little I’m not willing to share in “real” life, too. It’s not just self-absorption that leads me to offer my stories and pry into other people’s, I really do believe there’s value in experience-sharing. The hardest parts of being human—illness, fear, grief, insecurity, disappointment—are often the loneliest parts. For me, the give and take of oversharing is the first line of defense against feeling adrift in the world. You are never the first to have suffered what you are suffering, to have pondered what you are pondering, to have cried over what you are crying over. If others have found paths through, you can too.
Celebrities are in the unique position of possessing giant megaphones and the brightest of spotlights. As many have pointed out, Angelina Jolie’s New York Times editorial about her family history of breast cancer and her subsequent medical decisions does more for the conversation about breast cancer prevention and treatment than millions of dollars of pink ribbon advertising. If you think breast cancer could use more discussion (debatable, given that the pink ribbon campaign makes breast cancer an illness that decidedly doesn’t have an awareness problem), you could hope for no better instigator than an Angelina Jolie editorial.
Can it truly help people to hear about their celebrity crushes suffering from the diseases and dysfunction of mere mortals? In her People magazine cover story about her bipolar disorder, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones said, “This is a disorder that affects millions of people and I am one of them. If my revelation of having bipolar II has encouraged one person to seek help, then it is worth it. There is no need to suffer silently and there is no shame in seeking help.” New York mayoral candidate Christine Quinn reached out to The New York Times to share her history with bulimia and alcoholism and said, “I just want people to know you can get through stuff.”
Our lives get markedly better when we can let go of the “failures” of which we’re still ashamed and accept that sometimes shit gets hard for no reason. In many communities, mental health struggles are still shrouded in darkness and viewed as a personal weakness instead of a medical condition. Alcoholism and addiction are similarly stigmatized. Miscarriage, which happens to one in five women, is still a tragedy that many couples bear privately, not realizing how common their experience is. When Beyonce appeared on Oprah’s Next Chapter and was asked why she eventually shared the news of her miscarriage, she said, “It was hard, but I’m not the only person that goes through this. So many people go through this.”
Sexual assault, another trauma that celebrities are beginning to speak more openly about, is so fraught with victim-blaming and guilt that many survivors are afraid to seek help. Ashley Judd has recently come forth to discuss the three instances of sexual assault in her life. Last year, baseball player R.A. Dickey’s memoir revealed his experiences with abuse as an 8-year-old. About writing the book, he said, “I hope sexual abuse is never looked at in the same way, as far as something that is taboo to talk about, or something that is tough to discuss.” The common thread among these confessions is the professed desire to take something difficult, but often suffered alone for shame or fear or embarrassment, and bring the conversation of healing into the light.
At least, that’s what I’d like to believe.
There is money to be made and fans to be won over with these celebrity confessions. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ People issue killed it on the magazine stand. According to Quinn’s team, her story was shared with the Times to “try to soften her often rough-edged political image and build a campaign that draws heavily on her personal appeal to women.” These people are not just people, they are brands. It is not coincidental that their announcements often coincide with new movies, new books, or deadlocked campaigns.
Let’s assume that like most people, their motives are mixed. They seek professional successes that come with these megashares, be it the Oprah interview, the bestselling memoir, or the image makeover. Even so, they are also turning their spotlights on issues that need to be brought into the light.
Not everyone wants to discuss their miscarriage on the Internet, or share their psychological diagnosis with the world. But we need people to know that they can, if they want. They need to know that their challenges should not be a source of shame, that their secrets only have to be secrets if they want them to be, that there is help and support and empathy to be found. If celebrity megashares help the average Us Weekly reader realize that, then I’m all about it. Nobody ever said you couldn’t do well for yourself and do good at the same time.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.