Following the Two and a Half Men star's very public meltdown, our experts debate who's exploiting who
No, says brand and entertainment publicist Mark Borkowski
After a week during which Charlie Sheen was fired from the massively successful Warner Bros show Two and a Half Men and found himself with 2 million Twitter followers, all eager to witness every second of his compelling meltdown, it is clear that if anyone is fuelling Charlie Sheen's breakdown, it is Charlie Sheen. Don't blame the media. The media does what the media does, be it reporting from a war zone or scavenging among the celebrity hotspots of the world.
Sheen seems to have let drugs and hubris get the better of him. He is operating without PR counsel (his publicist baled out three weeks ago) and over the heads of wiser men. The media do not operate as a marketing or brand consultancy ? Sheen is creating news and it would be severely remiss of news organisations to ignore it, especially given readers' appetites for this sort of story. Look at the reaction to Britney Spears shaving her head or Michael Jackson waving his baby over the balcony.
Charlie Sheen has seen an opportunity to be taken ? he is pleased that he has 2 million Twitter followers and is prepared to play up to that and try to monetise it. He is fully prepared to exploit his own exploitation. The media, naturally enough, given the news cycle's continuous sprint for new news, want a piece of the action and Sheen is happy to accommodate them. Like the fox in the fable, Sheen has allowed the scorpion on to his back to carry it across the river. It may well sting him halfway across. He may well ask why it has done so. The scorpion ? and the media ? will always reply, "because it's in my nature".
What Sheen's manic decline proves beyond measure is the importance to stars of a powerful publicist, a person more vital to them, in these days of instant news, than a therapist. Sheen needs someone controlling his ego, shaping the tone of the narrative in such a way that the star is protected.
He will come to realise that the publicists he has eschewed or ousted as he attempts to manage his meltdown were the people getting grey hairs so he didn't have to. Many of the most able publicity players in Hollywood are grey well before their time, in the same way that the leader of a country tends to age rapidly on the job.
If he were to pull up sharp now and find someone willing to manage his image from here on in, Sheen would remain newsworthy without slithering further into decline. What is really pulling him into the abyss is his own disregard for boundaries and a clear refusal to listen to good advice. He needs to remember the Tom Cruise Oprah moment, dancing on the sofa. Cruise sacked his publicist, Pat Kingsley, and his star quickly lost its shine. Sheen has been a bad boy for years, but without a gatekeeper his actions are on show for all to see. Of course the media are going to pounce.
The media may be rapacious, but they are simply going about their daily business. Face the facts of the celebrity jungle. They are more hyenas than lions these days ? that's the price to pay for the speeding up of communications ? and if hyenas see something in the wild that is injured and without protection, they will circle it and consume it. The same is true of Charlie Sheen and the media. Sheen is out there trying to make a fast buck on the huge interest in him at the moment but, without protection, there is every chance that he will be entirely consumed.
Yes, says psychologist and author Oliver James
Solid World Health Organisation data shows that an American is 14 times more likely than a mainland western European to suffer from the kind of personality disorder that seems to be afflicting Charlie Sheen. There are many reasons, but the media and consequent celebrity culture are significant. In this culture, as Erich Fromm put it, they are encouraged to be a "marketing character". Rather than as people, they see themselves as commodities whose value they seek to increase by any means possible.
Sheen's value can be increased by "sick" behaviour. His antics have recently attracted 2 million Twitter users, from which he can make significant advertising revenues.
Sheen, son of the famous Martin, doubtless had a troubled childhood in his celebrity home. If he had had the same kind of difficult childhood and background, but had been raised in Denmark and always lived there, I do not doubt that he would be a troubled soul. But there is no market for celebrity stories in Denmark, and no pressure to be a "marketing character". Exhibitionism is so frowned upon in Copenhagen that Sheen would by now have no friends. He would be pitied but his antics would not be considered either funny or newsworthy, which they are here as well as in the US.
Some years ago I appeared on a TV programme with George Best and he regaled us with his favourite anecdote: "A reporter asked me, 'George, where did it all go wrong?' At the time I was living with Miss UK, drinking champagne and a millionaire." That Best sidestepped the reality of his disturbed state with reference to possession of a certain category of woman (not a person with a name) and other objects is typical of the way people in English-speaking, capitalist societies think. It helps to explain why we are twice as likely as Europeans to suffer a mental illness. As long as you are rich or famous, it does not matter how desperate and miserable you are. There are shades of Best in Sheen's comment that: "The partying has been epic ? what I can remember of it. It was entertaining as hell."
Sheen's case is an extreme example of how the media peddle a toxic materialistic ideology. The (nearly all rightwing) media in America, and in this country too, have been only too happy to sell papers or broadcasting space by reporting his disturbance. But these stories only sell because people in the UK and US have become addicted to the media's continuous recycling of materialist values. There is now no doubt that the kind of person who seeks celebrity is more likely to have a pre-existing potential for narcissistic, self-aggrandising behaviour. This was proved by a recent study of 200 US celebrities, while a 2006 study showed that, as a whole, Americans are six times more narcissistic than they were 50 years ago.
Denmark has narcissistic people too. But its culture ? strongly reinforced by its media ? encourages them to tone down their attention?seeking behaviour. In Denmark, seven decades of low inequality, a political system that puts wellbeing before the profits of a tiny elite, and, above all, a much healthier balance between individualism and collectivist values strongly militate against me-me-me, febrile, personality-disordered behaviour.
Sheen's disturbance has been exacerbated by the media. That he wants the coverage is one of his psychiatric symptoms. That we consume stories about him is a sign of just how sick our society has become.