The following Wall Street Journal essay, written entirely by Jennette McCurdy herself, provides the inside look on the rapid celebrity lifestyle. In just a few years she transformed from the youngest nerdy prankster to being the glorified fashion celebrity actress idolized by millions of fans worldwide. She describes the lifestyle as both stimulating but mentally exhausting and confusing. She originally embraced the attention in the early years of iCarly, but as the series grew to be one of the biggest sitcoms for Nickelodeon, it started to become overwhelming both positively and negatively. With the surge of social networks, a celebrity has more opportunities to interact with fans, but can come at a price, which unfortunately can result in tears.
I wanted to act since I was six years old, after seeing “Star Wars,” but my goals were more “wear a sweet costume and pretend to be cool” than “be famous.” So the fact that I was cast in the Nickelodeon sitcom “iCarly” at age 14 and catapulted into tween stardom was both an exciting and unexpected journey.
When “iCarly” first started growing in popularity back in 2007, my castmates and I quickly felt the swell in attention. I started getting invited to movie premieres, designers were sending me clothes, old friends were reaching out, and I could no longer go to a public place without getting asked for a picture or an autograph. It was all pretty cool. At the time I didn’t realize I was losing myself, but I was.
Somewhere in 2009, the show hit a really sweet spot in its success and the ratings were huge. “iCarly” was watched in millions of households on a daily basis, and there were constant reminders of that fact in things like network “congratulations” gifts of Gucci bags (I didn’t even know who or what Gucci was) or being escorted from a water park with my castmate because of danger issues caused by the overwhelming crowd of fans.
As the show grew in success, so did my desire to get back to a private life. I started feeling like I was always on my guard, always looking for someone sneakily taking a picture or wondering what favor someone was going to ask for when they sent me a seemingly friendly “just checking in” text. It seemed everywhere I went, someone (professional or personal) wanted or needed something from me. It was as if I made a deal with the mob in some cheesy, old movie. I was no longer in control. People had expectations of me. My job was simple: do everything anyone around me wanted and smile doing it. There were times when I contemplated walking away from it all…
…but I couldn’t. For every “negative” repercussion of fame, there were positives. In my childhood, I was a sensitive nerd with mischievous undertones, and being on television made me cooler, made people love me, gave me the ability to do things others couldn’t dream of, and let me get away with more. What’s not awesome about that? Which is how the fame addiction begins. So innocent, so slight, so not of my doing or even in my control. Did I want to go backstage and meet my favorite singer and hear about how they loved me, too? Um, yes, please.
Also, I noticed my normalcy was regarded as if it were a treasure. I would be at a drive-thru fast food restaurant window and the employee would shake their head in disbelief as they praised me for being down-to-earth. I’d smile and accept the compliment, though in the back of my mind, I felt confused. How does ordering a hamburger make me down-to-earth? Last time I checked, craving a Big Mac doesn’t make you humble — just hungry.
A lot of the time, I feel like I’m pulling one over on the world… like I slipped through the cracks and am that random misfit who somehow crossed the barrier into the “popular” category. It baffles and satisfies me all at once. A natural born prankster, I feel proud to think I’m pulling off a prank of this magnitude. Then again, maybe the joke’s on me.
Many try to capture the false highs they experience in entertainment through drugs. It’s no secret how many lives have tragically been lost to people trying to fill a void that simply can never be filled. What’s worse is that nowadays drugs come in all shapes and sizes, including if not especially in phone-size. There are a million apps out there used to connect and share with your friends, or in the case of a celebrity, with your fans. I’ll post a picture and get fifty thousand likes within minutes. “They like me! They really, really like me!” Well, if they really, really like me how come the next day when I post a picture, it only gets thirty thousand likes in the same amount of time? What did I do wrong? How can I do better? How can I get back to fifty thousand likes? It’s a new, more virulent form of instant gratification and is so much more addicting and harmful. It’s something celebrities of decades past did not have to contend with. The more adulation you receive, the more you want. You’re hunting the affection of people who know you as a brand, not a person.
When I find myself loving a script or feeling good about an audition or inflating when I make someone laugh, that is pure and that is good and that is healthy… but when I start getting caught up in the fame aspect of it all, and I expect attention or get excited about paparazzi, that’s when I realize there is an unhealthy aspect that absolutely needs to be tamed and kept in check. I feel like no one starts entertainment with an impure intention, but somewhere along the way, lines become blurred and you’re no longer sure which way is up and which way is down.
A movie I related to tremendously was “The Devil Wears Prada.” Andy Sachs, a girl with big hopes of a hard-hitting journalistic future, lands a typical girl’s dream job (she considers it fluffy) at Runway magazine. Months into her Runway stint, the bug hits her and she starts vying for attention and promotion harder and stronger than anyone. Toward the end of the film, Andy reflects on her roots and voices her desire to get out of the all-consuming fashion magazine industry so she can get back to basics and focus on what really matters to her. Miranda Priestley, the president of Runway, snaps her head almost in irritated shock and snaps, “Oh, don’t be silly. Everyone wants this. Everyone wants to be us.”
It’s true in a strange way. People fall in love with you easier, treat you better, give you things for free, and think you’re an angel when really you’re just not a complete jerk. You meet all kinds of celebrities, and people compliment you a lot. A team of professionals do your hair and makeup to make you look better than you typically would. You get to wear cute clothes, and you get to answer all kinds of questions about yourself and be told how original and cool you are. Who wouldn’t want all that, right?
Ah, but see, that’s just the problem. When all of that glitter starts to fall and reality kicks in as it always inevitably does, you realize once again that you are painfully, troublingly, awfully average. The hype and the attention is short-lived and comes and goes when your projects are released. You are not, as it turns out, the center of the universe. Maybe one of your projects is for a second, but rest assured, it will quickly be replaced by the next flashy thing that comes along. And no matter how hard you work and how hard you try, you’ll never catch that feeling you’re chasing, and you’ll never know why.
When you’re the object of everyone’s affection, make no mistake about it, you are an object. People don’t have any interest in loving you for you. Their love for you is for who they think you are. They have ideas on how you should live your personal life (family, friends, relationships), on how you should steer your professional life (roles, projects, politics), and on who you should become. And if you stray from that vision, their vision, with say your own ideas and goals and dreams of who you are and who you wish to become, they will let you know, usually by casting you out and treating you cruelly.
Once you become a celebrity, you are no longer a person, but an archetype. To me, it’s like we young public figures are all our own little Harry Potters, cast out through no fault of our own, or welcomed in through none of our own doing. We’re living up to a legend created for us, and we’re either living in the hype, or dwelling in the fact that it’s impossible to live up to. The only difference is we’re not battling dragons. Or mixing potions. Or attending a cool magic school. But I digress…
All this to say, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my seven years in the public eye, it’s to not get wrapped up in the rat race of it all… there’s more to life than lights, cameras, and what you wore to the last event. There’s more to life than a tweet, an interview, contrived compliments, and photoshoots. Again, that’s not to say I don’t succumb to the stupidity. I sometimes have to ask my friends to take my phone away so I can’t check how I’m doing on Twitter, Vine, Facebook, Instagram, and whatever new one was invented as I typed this. Or I have to stop myself from crying because one article will be filled with comments about how fat and ugly I am and another will have nothing but sentences deriding me for being anorexic and disgustingly skinny. Realizing you can’t win is the closest thing to a victory there is in this world. The money’s not bad either, although I do hate knowing there’s a good chance this is all gone forever tomorrow.
People start in entertainment to make art in the way they know best, and they try to leave their mark on the world. That’s such a pure, hopeful, dreamer’s goal–but it’s too often tarnished by the petty interventions thrown our way in an attempt to get us caring more about the frame than the painting itself. My hope for myself and other artists out there is that we can separate the work and the love of the work from the fluff. We’re here to entertain, and we’re lucky to do so.
I’m gonna go check Twitter now.