Celebrity Sickness - Private or Public?

What does it mean to be a celebrity? To many, it means fame, money, and glory. But, of course, we can’t forget about the other side of the coin: the scrutiny. Constantly being in the public eye means you are being evaluated even under the most non-celebrity, humanlike circumstances. One such circumstance is times of illness. It goes without saying that celebrities are able to fall ill just like the rest of us. The difference, however, is the impact of that illness.

Each Option Has Its Reason

The media has been known to pounce upon a story about a celebrity dealing with an illness. I know that, you know that, celebrities know that, and publicists know that. So, it’s up to the celebrity to decide how they want to manage the media’s relationship with their sickness. There are several ways that a celebrity can go with this. One, they can do their best to hide the condition for as long as possible, trying to keep the story out of the press. Two, they can try and raise awareness or increase transparency. Three, they can use the illness as a media strategy to improve their reputation, hoping to evoke sympathy. Each of these paths has its own reasons and repercussions. 

It’s always a shock when we see articles about people in the public eye becoming unwell or passing away, and we often think to ourselves “I didn’t even know anything was wrong!”. Celebrities have a variety of reasons for choosing to hide their illness. We may never fully understand each personal journey, but we can start to hypothesize. 

Recognizable faces in non-entertainment fields such as politics or business may choose to hide their condition to prevent a perception of weakness. Especially in politics, where image can affect reelection, and therefore mean everything. As unfair as it may seem, illness of any kind can be disastrous to both one’s reputation and career. 

Signs of Weakness?

This past year, California Senator Dianne Feinstein has suffered a string of health issues related to falls, shingles, and potentially encephalitis (swelling of the brain).  Media quickly drew attention to the fact that these issues caused her to be absent from several crucial congressional votes, and when she did return, they noticed that she was suffering from impaired reaction time and memory issues. National outlets, including the New York Times. suggested that the Senator’s age played a serious factor, due to the fact that at 90 years old, Feinstein is the oldest sitting US Senator. Many question what these could mean for the immediate future of Feinstein’s office, and what the impact would be if she stepped down. The choice for a politician to share or hide their illness must be a very calculated one – one designed to be the best option for their political image. Team Feinstein stayed quiet. 

Back in 2020, Trump and his team famously downplayed the former president’s bout of COVID-19 to further their political agenda. However, a political figure might want to be transparent (or at least seem to be transparent) about the details of their illness to paint a picture of authenticity, especially during difficult or controversial times. For example, while leading the country through the Cold War, President Eisenhower needed serious intestinal surgery. He chose to be open and candid about the entire operation process to gain more trust from the American public in a time when secrets and confusion were often leading to public paranoia. 

Continuing to Work

For many celebrities the choice to stay private about their illness is made in order to maintain some sense of normalcy in their life, or even to continue with their career as much as they possibly can. When Marvel actor Chadwick Boseman sadly passed away in 2020, it was a huge shock to the public. Later, it came out that Boseman did not share his illness with people because he didn’t want anyone to pity him, but also because he was determined to finish filming Black Panther 2. 

Similarly, when Canadian comic Norm MacDonald passed away after a long, private struggle with cancer, people were taken aback. This feeling was heightened by the fact that MacDonald was seemingly operating as normal. Following his death, it was revealed that while living with cancer, MacDonald had filmed a show for Netflix, completed two comedy specials, and written a book. It’s unlikely that he would’ve been able to continue his career this uninterrupted and intensely had he been open about his diagnosis. 

Raising Awareness

Celebrities will also often go public with their condition, in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. It’s a well-known fact that when something comes out of the mouth of a famous person, the general public is naturally more likely to listen. Celebrities know this too, and so they use their platform to their advantage with regards to health. 

DORTMUND, GERMANY - April 13th 2019: Charlie Sheen (*1965, American film and television actor) at German Comic Con Dortmund Spring Edition, a two day fan convention

In 2015, Charlie Sheen revealed to the public that he had been living with HIV. In the wake of this disclosure, it was found that sales of at-home HIV test kits, as well as online searches for HIV information, were at an all-time high. In this case, Sheen shared his diagnosis in order to raise awareness, and that’s exactly what happened. 

In a more recent example, Celine Dion has gone public with her diagnosis of stiff-person syndrome, a very rare neurological disorder causing severe muscle rigidity.  By making it known that this is something she’s battling, Dion has started conversations about a lesser known condition. With many more people talking about SPS, there is potential for increased testing, funding, research, and treatment for the disorder.

At the same time, though, celebrities have the power to do more harm than good to the public by sharing false or out-of-context information. Gwyneth Paltrow’s health and lifestyle blog, goop, is often criticized for doing just that. She shares tips and products that she might believe are helpful, but which aren’t necessarily backed by a doctor, or can sometimes be accused of being a waste of time and money. So, it’s important to take any health tips from a celebrity with a grain of salt, even though we might really want to listen to what they have to say. 

Celine Dion at the premiere for Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" at El Capitan Theatre, Hollywood. Los Angeles, USA 02 March 2017<br /> Picture: Paul Smith/Featureflash/SilverHub 0208 004 5359 sales@silverhubmedia.com

Changing Perception 

As awful as illness is, it can sometimes be spun into a positive by some celebrities. If your public reputation isn’t looking so good, being candid about your health issues can often turn around people’s opinions of you. British reality TV star Jade Goody’s reputation was demolished after she made some allegedly racist remarks about Bollywood Star, Shilpa Shetty, on the show Celebrity Big Brother. However, not long afterwards, Goody was publicly diagnosed with cervical cancer. 

While Goody’s cancer was very real, and did unfortunately end up taking her life, it also helped to turn around the way the media reported on her. All the stories about her were centered around her terrible disease, not her controversial past. While it was an extremely unfortunate circumstance, being public with her illness did certainly make a difference. In the final years of her life, Goody raised awareness of the importance of young women getting regular cervical screenings, with the NHS reporting increases by 12% nationally and referrals for colposcopy increasing by 10% – this was dubbed the “Jade Goody Effect”

Celebs Are People Too

So, the paths that people in the public eye can take regarding their health situations are clearly varied. In a world of ever-changing media and technology, it’s impossible to say how celebrities will be able to share (or not share) things with the public in the future. But one thing’s for sure: celebrities are still people, and people get sick. Managing that sickness is where the uncertainty comes in. 

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