Shame for Fame: The New Path to Stardom in the Age of the Status Cult

The Extinction Papers – Chapter Two


I am routinely wrong about many things.  The enduring popularity of televised talent shows.  The assured success of former Raider Bill Callahan as the new head coach of my 2004 Nebraska Cornhuskers.  The viability of something called Twitter.  While the second one caused me more pain (barely edged out by the first), the last might be my biggest miss as a cynical and formerly smug prognosticator.

From what I knew of Twitter at the time, I just couldn’t imagine that this insignificant and seemingly limited tentacle of social media would be embraced, let alone last long enough to metastasize into a societal norm, and even a verb (“tweeting” <shudder>).  Allowing one to send out uninteresting life updates in 140 characters from the line at the grocery store (“Ugh! I’m SO ANNOYED by people who pay for their cat food with checks!  FML!”), or the gym (“Just ripped off 15 reps at 230 on bench, bruh . . . Feeling pumped”), or from their own living room (“Watching re-runs of ‘Cagney & Lacey’ on Oxygen, y’all, and gotta’ admit, Tyne Daly is at the top of her game”), just didn’t seem to have any cachet, let alone meaning.  Even with the proliferation of insipid reality programming, I still didn’t foresee the voracious interest in the mundane minutiae of the lives of everyday people.  I had no idea that sharing random thoughts on traffic lights or a blurring phone pic of what one is about to eat for lunch would enthrall a nation, let alone a world.  One would assume that a so-called enlightened civilization would have more important things to occupy their hopefully expanding brains than your college roommate’s recent sock purchase at Target.

But, I was wrong.  Lords of Light, was I ever wrong.  People dig this shit.  CRAVE this shit.  JOIN IN on this shit.

So I sat, baffled — with my quiet, unintelligent phone stowed somewhere in my bag — by the explosion of Twitter and the flood of tweets that were now an essential part of seemingly everyone’s daily lives.  And baffled I remained, until I remembered that in the 21st century, EVERONE wants to be famous and recognized, even if only amongst a small group of friends, family, and online acquaintances.  This is the era where fame trumps all, trampling the desire for talent, happiness, and stability, and just barely edging out success.  Fame is king, queen, emperor, and god.  As such, it attracts acolytes of the Status Cult, who routinely have sacrificed and will sacrifice anything upon the freshly stained, newly hewn titanium altar to achieve immortality, which these days can last only a few minutes, falling far short of that promised Golden Fifteen.

In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.

– Andy Warhol



Welcome back, dear readers, to The Extinction Papers, your monthly dossier of the death of things, doled out one chapter at a time every third Wednesday here at The Teeming Brain bulwark.  Chapter One dealt with the possible assassination of the Devil in the wake of the dissolution of God.  Today, Chapter Two is devoted to the mass death of integrity in that quest to become someone that someone else recognizes, if only for a moment.  But to many, a moment is long enough, and is worth whatever the cost.

The martyr cannot be dishonored. Every lash inflicted is a tongue of fame; every prison a more illustrious abode.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Disgrace.  Degradation.  Public shaming.  These excruciating descents into infamy were once akin to death, at least of the spirit.  They blotted hope and were avoided like the proverbial and literal plague. But today there is no cost too high for profile.  “Better death than dishonor,” the Christian martyrs would mutter in Latin between clenched teeth before their life was willingly traded away.  Today, you will more commonly find “dishonor” swapped out for “anonymity,” as modern attention seekers will barter anything and everything they have — which is often merely their honor — to make a dent into the social consciousness, no matter how fleeting.  While once pride and integrity were guarded against and defended with every last breath, they are now willingly cast aside for even a sniff of the faded and infinitesimally diffused limelight.  The stage lights are crowded, and very little light is left unabsorbed, leaving mostly shadows cast by the Kliegs.  But many must reckon that dancing in those shadows of unnatural light is better than living in complete, unreachable darkness.  No one remembers the normal anymore.  And for those willing to trade it all, to shame themselves for fame, the outlets to achieve their goal are now seemingly limitless, and are increasingly financially lucrative.

 I’m shy, paranoid, whatever word you want to use. I hate fame. I’ve done everything I can to avoid it.

– Johnny Depp

How many minor socialites, groupies, wannabes, and most-likely-never-will-be’s have achieved not just fame but fortune as well by humiliating themselves in front of the panting public?  Sex tapes, substance abuse, acts of violence, and generally dodgy behavior aren’t just accepted with a shake of the head and a tsk from the side of the mouth; they are eventually rewarded by employment in the entertainment sector.  Those with talent will toil for years, usually in vain, to achieve just a modicum of the same level of access to the filthy rich flickering screen (or YouTube portal), while others without a seeming whit of ability besides the knack for courting humiliation rise to become the scions of global celebrity.  Can we blame an impressionable, marginalized teenager who’s tired of being an ignored nobody in the middle of an unknown nowhere for seeing the Shame for Fame path as their ticket out of a gray, lifeless backwater?

Honor means that a man is not exceptional; fame, that he is. Fame is something which must be won; honor, only something which must not be lost.

– Arthur Schopenhauer

In a 2011 study conducted by the Journal of Psychological Research on Cyberspace, it was discovered that what tweens value most in planning their future is achieving fame.  Not becoming a doctor, or a school teacher, or a housewife, or the President of the United States (which is now suddenly accepting applications from any race and gender, as long as you appeal to the widest, most pissed off base as possible).  Kids just want to be famous, and, I’d reckon, would do sadly shocking things to be placed on the path to this dreamy pink ponyland.

Taken from CNN:

What do tweens value most?  If you are thinking honesty or self-acceptance think again.

What they value above everything else, according to a new study from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), is fame.  Other individualistic values such as financial success and physical fitness are also high on the wish list.

The study, published in the Journal of Psychology Research on Cyberspace, found children aged 9 to 11 now hold “fame” as their No. 1 value.  Fame ranked 15th in 1997.  [emphasis added]

This raises red flags for researchers, who say the shift in values over the last 10 years may have a negative effect on the future goals and accomplishments of American youth.

“(Tweens) are unrealistic about what they have to do to become famous,” Patricia Greenfield, Ph.D from the Department of Psychology at UCLA and co-author of this study, told CNN. “They may give up on actually preparing for careers and realistic goals.”

“With Internet celebrities and reality TV stars everywhere, the pathway for nearly anyone to become famous, without a connection to hard work and skill, may seem easier than ever,” said Yalda Uhls, a UCLA doctoral student in developmental psychology and lead author of this study. “When being famous and rich is much more important than being kind to others, what will happen to kids as they form their values and their identities?”

– “Study: Tween TV today is all about fame,” CNN, August 5, 2011

Just four years prior, according to a USA Today poll conducted in 2007, 81% of young people sought riches, while 51% were hoping for fame.  That’s quite the shift, folks, and in very little time.

And despite the overriding international sentiment that all things vapid and shallow arise from the smoking shores of the New World, it’s not just an American thing.  Taken from Parent Dish in the United Kingdom:

Over half of teenagers want to be famous

By Emma Cossey, Feb 19, 2010

A recent study of 1,032 teenagers has revealed that 54% want to be famous when they’re older. This far outweighs the number of 16-year-olds who want to get into a medical career (15%), those who want a media job (13%) or the 9% who want a legal role.

The survey was carried out by to discover the ambitions of teenagers and who they look up to. Of those that craved fame, 68% were unsure how to achieve their goal…


“Many must reckon that dancing in those shadows of unnatural light is better than living in complete, unreachable darkness.  No one remembers the normal anymore.”


And for those without the stomach or photogenic smile, there is a darker path to fame via the avenue of ultimate shame that isn’t as softball as giving a blowjob in a poorly lit room.  Robberies, beatings, and even murders are now captured on film for future use in the Fame Game.  Terrorists and cartel thugs saw off heads in front of a video camera boasting a well-worn USB port.  Suicide, the most personal and private and often shameful act, is now posted online like performance art without the possibility for an encore.  Better to die disgraced, hated, and/or incarcerated than to leave this mortal eyeblink anonymous.   From “death before dishonor” to “I’d kill myself if I’m not famous, and will kill myself to become famous.”  Or worse yet, and increasingly common, “I will kill you to become famous.”

People are drowning kittens and chopping up (and even consuming) fellow humans and posting those videos online.  In the old days, compelling evidence of animal cruelty and first degree murder was urgently erased and/or disposed of, as remaining free of imprisonment or a date with the electric chair was always the desire of any criminal.  They just wanted to get away with it and slink back into the shadows. Not these days.  Perpetrators now define the success of their crimes by the spectacle it creates, with them in the center, looking into the camera, the stars of their own twisted reality shows.  “I Love New York” is so passé.  “I Love Death” is the new ratings king.

The act of getting caught isn’t as important as the recognition of the act.  Once again, fame trumps not only shame but also common sense and the innate human desire not to be locked up in a cage surrounded by the worst of society.  This goes beyond the extinction of integrity and treads onto alien shores of shedding our humanity for a name in the stars.  This is the embrace of real and lasting horror in the name of fame.

Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.

– John Wooden

Even those who don’t seek legitimate fame aren’t unaffected.  And by “those,” I mean me.  Recently on the radio, I heard a woman who once worked directly with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg comment about the “performance” aspect of social media and living one’s life as if you are in front of an audience — or a potential audience, once that status update is written and posted and that photo or link uploaded into the feed.  This gave me pause.

As a speculative fiction writer who joined Facebook a few years back primarily to connect with kindred spirits and promote my work, I definitely understand where the woman above is coming from, especially as the site becomes more and more a part of my daily life.  While networking has remain paramount in my immersion into Facebook culture, I often catch myself thinking in terms of FB World, where snatches of conversation, the discovery of a new book, the acceptance of a new story, and even lovely personal moments with family or friends trigger a desire to share these revelations with people that I honestly barely know and will probably never meet, but who are always watching and waiting to give a validation, no matter how small or fleeting.  Is this a surrogate family, a reflection of café culture with a cyberspace address and shittier coffee?  Or is it something more, something slightly insidious, that is rewiring my circuitry to assimilate me into the Borg hive of social media?  I clown Twitter, but what is Facebook if only the same species of beast without the limited fetters of word count?

Maybe I’m chasing after that same fame with the swarm of dreaming tweens.  If so, can shame be far behind?

That equals to being a fool, having fame and no fortune. A lot of guys out there have fame doing this and doing that, but they are broke

– Mike Tyson

Post script:  Englishman Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the brilliant writer, philosopher, scientist, and statesman, once famously wrote, “Fame is like a river, that beareth up things light and swollen, and drowns things weighty and solid.”  Expounding further on the topic, the famed Teeming Brainiac began writing the essay “Of Fame” (adding to his expansive “Of…” series of nearly 60 essays, written and compiled in earnest in 1625). He began thus:

The poets make Fame a monster. They describe her in part finely and elegantly, and in part gravely and sententiously. They say, look how many feathers she hath, so many eyes she hath underneath; so many tongues; so many voices; she pricks up so many ears.

This is a flourish. There follow excellent parables; as that, she gathereth strength in going; that she goeth upon the ground, and yet hideth her head in the clouds; that in the daytime she sitteth in a watch tower, and flieth most by night; that she mingleth things done, with things not done; and that she is a terror to great cities. But that which passeth all the rest is: They do recount that the Earth, mother of the giants that made war against Jupiter, and were by him destroyed, thereupon in an anger brought forth Fame. For certain it is, that rebels, figured by the giants, and seditious fames and libels, are but brothers and sisters, masculine and feminine. But now, if a man can tame this monster, and bring her to feed at the hand, and govern her, and with her fly other ravening fowl and kill them, it is somewhat worth. But we are infected with the style of the poets. To speak now in a sad and serious manner: There is not, in all the politics, a place less handled and more worthy to be handled, than this of fame. We will therefore speak of these points: What are false fames; and what are true fames; and how they may be best discerned; how fames may be sown, and raised; how they may be spread, and multiplied; and how they may be checked, and laid dead. And other things concerning the nature of fame. Fame is of that force, as there is scarcely any great action, wherein it hath not a great part; especially in the war. Mucianus undid Vitellius, by a fame that he scattered, that Vitellius had in purpose to remove the legions of Syria into Germany, and the legions of Germany into Syria; whereupon the legions of Syria were infinitely inflamed. Julius Caesar took Pompey unprovided, and laid asleep his industry and preparations, by a fame that he cunningly gave out: Caesar’s own soldiers loved him not, and being wearied with the wars, and laden with the spoils of Gaul, would forsake him, as soon as he came into Italy. Livia settled all things for the succession of her son Tiberius, by continual giving out, that her husband Augustus was upon recovery and amendment, and it is an usual thing with the pashas, to conceal the death of the Great Turk from the janizaries and men of war, to save the sacking of Constantinople and other towns, as their manner is. Themistocles made Xerxes, king of Persia, post apace out of Grecia, by giving out, that the Grecians had a purpose to break his bridge of ships, which he had made athwart Hellespont. There be a thousand such like examples; and the more they are, the less they need to be repeated; because a man meeteth with them everywhere. Therefore let all wise governors have as great a watch and care over fames, as they have of the actions and designs themselves.

And thus he ended. That was all Bacon wrote. The essay remained unfinished.  Probably because Sir Francis was too busy Tweeting.

The longer a man’s fame is likely to last, the longer it will be in coming.

– Arthur Schopenhauer

IMAGE: Andy Warhol, with Archie, by Jack Mitchell, 1973, via Wikimedia Commons

About T. E. Grau

Teeming Brain columnist T. E. Grau is an author of Weird, Lovecraftian, and Horror Fiction. His debut collection of dark tales will be published in 2013. He writes The Extinction Papers for The Teeming Brain and blogs about the beautiful, the terrifying, and the strange at The Cosmicomicon.

Posted on August 15, 2012, in The Extinction Papers and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Oh, mercy. We are a strange people. Maybe we’re trying to make up for the loss of being known by our whole tribe. Back then, shaming meant something closely related to one’s survival.

    Today’s famer actually caught my eye with the ridiculousness of a mother/daughter arrest for delinquency, etc, post yearbook-racy-photo minutes in the spotlight. It actually caught my eye though, which is horrifying.

    Ha ha, joke’s on me, they made me look!

    (says the nobody with a blog, pretending it isn’t just a re-telling of my breakfast menu, hoping I won’t be disgraced by it later)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.