Secrecy, shame and integrity: The struggle of being a celebrity

 
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Tabloids reported the unfortunate news that Australian television presenter and health guru Kylie Jay (sometimes spelled Kylie Jaye), aged 48, had died after a long battle with anorexia nervosa, after collapsing in her Gold Coast (Qld) apartment weeks earlier.

“The powerhouse personality, who once fronted sports shows, food and lifestyle programs and celebrities on the red carpet, had secretly struggled with anorexia for decades,” wrote Candace Sutton for news.com.au. Jay was known for role as a TV presenter on health and lifestyle shows Yoga TV and Pilates TV.

Jay’s passing was commemorated by many, including ex-partner Jason Roberts who wrote in an Instagram post: “We may not have made it to the altar KJ. . . we certainly had our fair share of ups and downs. . . I’m heartbroken you’re gone.”

Tragically, Jay is not alone.

Stephanie Adams, a former glamour and Playboy model, committed suicide in 2017, also killing her 7-year-old son. In 2019, Daniel Desmond Amofah—aka “Etika”—an American YouTuber, streamer and model, died after battling with mental illness for months. And in 2021, English television personality Nikki Grahame died from complications due to anorexia on April 9, 2021, only days after Jay’s death.

Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams, Avicii, Alexander McQueen, the list could go on. From A-list celebrities to online influencers, each of these individuals appeared to have it all—fame and fortune, success, good looks, talent, personality, friends and family—yet each died from illness or suicide stemming from mental health issues. It’s easy to assume that such things shouldn’t happen to people who “have it all”, but despite the perks of stardom, navigating mental health is just as difficult—and in some cases more difficult—for those in the limelight.

In the media recently, the #freebritney movement has highlighted the ongoing damaging effects that teenage superstardom, and the increased scrutiny and control that comes with it, has had on international popstar Britney Spears. A Current Affair reported that she “made headlines last year when she cancelled her Las Vegas residency and checked into a mental health facility.” Singer and actor Demi Lovato is also known to have struggled with bipolar and bulimia, telling Billboard that they “attribute a little of [their] insecurities to being onstage and judged for [their] beauty.” They now advocate for young children with self-image issues and raises mental health awareness.

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Riddled with expectations, criticism and publicity—good or bad—the life of a celebrity isn’t easy in that respect. Tabloid news companies thrive on “mistakes” made by the world’s elite, causing many to experience poor mental health or self-esteem, develop mental illness, or turn to coping mechanisms—commonly alcohol or drug dependency.

For A-list celebrities like Britney and Demi, their struggles were experienced very publicly, with paparazzi and tabloids continuing to expose them even today. But other, lesser-known celebrities and influencers, who can better hide their struggles from the media, often suffer in secret. This was the case for Kylie Jay.

According to Daily Mail, “Fans knew the Sydney-born Channel 10 and E! Entertainment presenter was deeply unwell for two decades, but the details of her death were shrouded in secrecy. Her little brother Isaac Humphries said Jay only admitted she had anorexia while lying in a hospital bed nine months ago and used a ‘cover illness’ for years to hide the extent of the disorder.”

Jay hid her illness even from close family, but if it wasn’t for the shame and secrecy surrounding her condition, it is possible the situation may have turned out differently. Yet her silence is understandable. Speaking out about her disorder could have led to a different death—of her identity, reputation and livelihood; being exposed as a “fake” and losing everything would have been an incredibly high price to pay.

Understandably, Ms Jaye’s family originally withheld the cause of her death from the media, labelling it a “mystery” or “rare” medical condition, to minimise negative publicity for the “health and lifestyle guru who used her own well-publicised ‘self-health’ mantra to manage her medical condition [now understood to be anorexia] when she was diagnosed in 2002.” That’s nearly two decades of suffering in secret.

At one point in her life, things may have been different—perhaps at the beginning of her career she genuinely lived and promoted a healthy lifestyle; her identity and practice in congruence. But over time, sometimes through no fault of their own, influencers can become trapped—pressured to maintain a reputation that doesn’t align with their day-to-day reality. And for Jay, this pressure came with grave consequences.

As human beings, we hold the values of honesty, integrity and consistency in high regard. When people change their beliefs or give up things they once loved, we often label them as fickle or untrustworthy. We read the tabloid news for these tidbits too— nit-picking, criticising and capitalising on a person’s alleged divergence from a past truth or identity—“Brad gets back with Angelina”, “Meghan betrays Harry’s trust”; sniffing out any scent of change, whether true or not. But should they care?

Author Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t seem to think so. In an interview with Adam Grant, Gladwell stated, “I would be very concerned if I was still saying the same things today as I was saying 10 years ago . . . I’ve never attached any stigma whatsoever to contradiction. Consistency is surely the lamest of all human virtues, I’m not even sure it is a virtue. I’ve never understood why that should be high on our list.”

Here, Gladwell highlights an important point: that although integrity and consistency are important, these values should not be prioritised at the expense of inhibiting personal growth or change. Learning, changing opinions and making mistakes is a natural human phenomenon, and failure to recognise this puts people in a difficult position—one where their past identity and reputation conflicts with who they are, now. One where they feel they need to hide a part of themselves; to suffer in secret.

In a short video summary of her book The Way of Integrity, author Martha Beck puts it this way, “The word integrity actually comes from the word integer—to be one thing, whole and undivided. And that’s how we’re all born . . . but as we grow up, our nature runs into our culture . . . and at some point that culture pushes us away from our true nature. Our true nature wants to run around outside, and our culture says, ‘no sit in that chair for six hours’. At that point, we usually abandon our nature to serve our culture and we become split. Not one thing, integrity, but two things: duplicity. Getting back to integrity is the way to heal psychological pain, because these signal that we are out of integrity comes from suffering of some kind.”

Clearly, celebrity culture—jam-packed with expectations from fans, pressure to look or act a certain way, filled with judgment for change or contradiction—is a breeding ground for a duplicitous existence, as Beck describes it. But this culture is not only experienced by celebrities; it’s something everyone must learn to be aware of and navigate, or else end up living a double life, spiralling out of control.

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As humans, we need to be free to change our minds and admit our deficits. And we need to be more gracious and accepting of people who have the courage to do so. Researcher and storyteller Brene Brown would agree. The thesis statement of her work is that true connection is only forged through vulnerability and mutual weakness. Because, the reality is that identities must change to adapt to new information and environments. Nothing in this world is certain, and identities forged from work, relationships, appearances, achievements, belongings or religious practices will shift at one point in our lives. Relationships break down, ideologies shift, jobs cease existing, illness sets in, global pandemics take over, forcing us to admit failure and reconstruct who we are—or else, project a façade and lead a double life. We must learn to let go of the things that once defined us and move on, regardless of the judgment we face.

The question is how? When society encourages so many of us—like it did to Kylie Jay— to derive income, success and reputation from the identities we hold, how do we cope when these things break down? How do we let them go when the world tells us this is what matters?

For me, there is only one answer to that question. In a world where change is the only certainty, where judgment is infectious and suffering is rife, we must derive our identity from something higher than this world; something unchanging. To know you are valuable, worthy and loved despite your achievements, circumstances or personality frees you from the judgment of others, releases you from failure, immunises you from being defined.

For me, that source of identity is Jesus—who created me, loves me, knows me intimately and accepts me, flaws and all. That knowledge gives me the strength to fail and to know that despite all shame, judgment, comparison or weakness, that I am still valuable; that I can still go on.

God loved Kylie Jay. He loved Robin Williams and Amy Winehouse. He loves Demi Lovato and Britney Spears. He desires to free them from the struggles that entangle them and to release them from all shame and secrets. He wants them to experience His life-changing love in this world, right now.

And trust me—He wants that for you, too.

If you, a family member, or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or is contemplating self-harm, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mature trusted friend, a health care professional or an online/phone helpline or support service such as Lifeline Australia—13 11 14; New Zealand—0800 543 354

Maryellen Hacko is assistant editor for Adventist Record magazine. A talented artist, musician and YouTuber, she lives with her husband in Sydney, NSW.