What We Keep Getting Wrong About Fame


A peek at three docs we’ve been talking about in 2021 — “Fake Famous” and “Tiger Woods” and “Framing Britney Spears” – mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to be famous!

Fake Famous

When I was young, my parents weren’t too worried about what I wanted to do in life (as long as I got on with it), but when my millennials were growing up, most kids wanted to be athletes or teachers. Now, apparently, kids just want to be famous. This startling news comes from Nick Bolton, Vanity Fair reporter and producer of a new HBO documentary Fake Famous. The film follows Bolton’s “social experiment”  to create  influencers out of regular people by boosting their Instagram feeds with doctored posts and purchased BOT followers.  Bolton, who reported on the internet from the vaunted sidelines of the NYT and Vanity Fair, is now a canary in the coal mine for social media’s demise. His film declares LA’s #1 tourist destination to be the pink wall at Paul Smith’s stor on Melrose.  For years, the Getty was LA’s top attraction, until it was replaced by The Grove.

If Bolton is correct, we’ve slid from art to shopping to selfies.

Fake Famous‘s social experiment starts with a casting session in which seasoned casting agents react with shock and awe to selfie-snapping kids saying inane things about why they want to be famous. Ultimately, three young folks are chosen and get makeovers before Nick starts to buy them BOT followers, and create their status as (fake) influencers.  Apparently, you can buy a toilet seat, frame it over a photo of a view out a plane window and pretend you’re jetting off somewhere. You can also rent a space that mimics a private jet. What is the goal? To get enough of a following that you’re sent free stuff to talk about to all your (fake) followers.

The moral of the story is Be Careful What You Wish For. A young actress turns out to be the most successful of Bolton’s three guinea pigs. She opens boxes on IG live and goes to Vegas in a party bus with other influencers;  this feels like a fun acting gig that works in her favor, but she recognizes the tiresome work that goes into making a living this way.  One of the subjects – a gay man from Atlanta, gets freaked out after his friends back home call him out for his BOT followers; he abandons the experiment and finds a job that suits him better than being a real-estate lackey. The final subject is an athlete and clothing designer who resists any fakery at all, wanting to be famous just for who he is. Ultimately, the pandemic ends the experiment but Bolton’s subjects wind up with an aversion to the process that comes as a relief; although the urge for fame was real, it quickly turns empty. The doc’s ultimate learning – and what we should really be worried about –  is that BOTS are here to stay because there’s no economic incentive to end their rule.

Tiger Woods

HBO’s Tiger Woods documentary starts with incredible footage from the golf phenom’s early years – he arose out of a perfect storm of natural talent, access to training, and a parent that enabled the process. Tiger’s father Earl is at the heart of the tale, creating the myth of a barrier-breaking athlete before Tiger could think for himself. Tiger worked as hard as anyone could work and the string of success led to the top; he was the youngest to win the Masters, the first black man to win golf’s highest honor; that moment remains iconic in all sport.

The doc traces Tiger’s legendary achievements, which seem like a fairy tale until they don’t – until he starts having stretches of not winning, serious back surgeries. His ability to climb back from injury is more incredible as he gets older but then, the true disaster came when his sex addiction was revealed through the tabloids, and he was arrested for DUI. Many of us wrote Tiger off after this – the ruination of his marriage broke our hearts. But as the story lays out year by year, it’s impossible to ignore the enormous pressure that came from Nike’s financial backing.  So much was laid on this young man’s shoulders. All that money and all those cameras, and the astonishing expectation that he could make golf “cool” again.  But at what cost?

Tiger Woods and son Charlie by Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

We got a glimpse of Tiger playing a tournament with his son earlier this year, which warmed hearts, and like this doc, went a long way to rehabilitate his image, among those who don’t care about golf – after all, it’s hard not to feel empathy for him after his brave apologies and subsequent return to a victorious Master’s victory in 2019.

But, this week’s horrible car accident means that Tiger probably won’t be at the Masters in late spring as he’d hoped. But the staying power of his talent and fame is undeniable and if anyone can come back again, it’s this man.

Framing Britney Spears

Speaking of incessant paparazzi, Hulu’s Framing Britney Spears puts us back to the 1990s, when our obsession with fame was fed by tabloids such as Us Weekly.  The documentary makes a case for Britney’s subjugation by just about everyone (from Justin Timberlake to Diane Sawyer) and suddenly everyone wants to apologize.  Filmed by the New York Times, without any involvement of the family, the doc asks more questions than it answers, but the tease is a sticky one. What happened to this phenomenal star? And… what does her story tell us about the conflagration of the music business hit makers and the sexualization of young (women) pop stars?

The documentary spends a bit too much time twisted up in the “free Britney” movement, but the millennials’ compassion for Britney is part of the fascination of the story. In the words of my 27 year-old daughter – who grew up in peak “Opps I Did It Again” days, much to my horror at the time – Britney might have turned out differently if she’d been able to control her image with social media instead of only being objectified.  The mythology pushed in the film is that Britney was “in control” of her career and, by implication, “owned her sexuality”. But, was she? And what does that even mean? How could she have truly understood her position as cog in a system that creates, uses, and spits out stars (and specifically young women). The documentary shows interviews that are painful to watch – she parries seasoned interviewers ask about her body or her virginity, clearly tossed into the lions ring without protection. Not at all a portrait of control.

What we’re all wondering is at what point she fell under the wheel and got crushed by her own fame? It’s not much discussed that Britney suffers from a bi-polar disorder – which has to factor into the story. Maybe her family is protecting her with the conservatorship, or maybe they’re exploiting her. But without any true access, it’s hard to know the truth.

On the Media did an excellent podcast about the Britney doc; listen to it here.

So…. what’s a parent to do?

These docs offer a glimpse of what it feels like inside the fame bubble. They lay out the human toll in a way that makes fame feel like a trap as much as a liberty. The point is to focus on the work – what is someone famous for? And then, ideally, how can they maintain control of the narrative?

A recent master of this tricky art is Sacha Baron Cohen. In one of the many interviews he’s doing around his double Golden Globe nominations (for Borat Subsequent Movie Film and The Chicago Seven), SBC recalled the time in his life when the world was talking about Borat and Ali G, but he could ride on a subway without being recognized. It’s a great image. He enjoyed all the benefits of fame (calling anyone on the phone and being able to meet with them, for instance) but none of the annoyances.

Listen to a recent Fresh Air interview with Sacha here.

By focusing on the skills that an athlete or a pop star has – and the work it took for them to achieve the pinnacle of their success – maybe we can dethrone FAME as something kids want for the sake of it.

To inspire you, here is Serena in (one of) her trophy rooms, basking in the glory of her brilliant career. At the 2022 Australian Open, she was dethroned by phenom Naomi Osaka, a woman 15 years her junior who grew up idolizing the older athlete. The passing of the torch was elegant, and if you blinked you might have missed it. Their fame is real, and thus far, they’re controlling their narrative and their pocketbooks. Brava!