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— by Jennifer Vineyard

It's not easy being a celebrity. In fact, it can be downright exhausting.

They're overworked, some of them are extremely overpaid — "Mo Money Mo Problems," anyone? — and good help, the kind that doesn't go running to the tabloids with lurid tales about strange diets and off-color personal habits, is so hard to find.

Exhaustion among the fabulous is fast becoming an epidemic: In recent months, it's been cited — initially, anyway — as the cause of cancellations by Lindsay Lohan, Eminem, Gwen Stefani and Hilary Duff, among others.

But what exactly does it mean? Is it something that can be cured by spending a few days in bed — or is it just a get-out-of-jail-free card to camouflage a different problem? Like substance abuse, psychological issues, pregnancy and other things far more titillating than this intentionally vague catch-all ailment?

Let's take a look at some of the recent months' most severe cases — and, when we've been able to find out, what was really going on.

Victim: Gwen Stefani

What happened: Called off plans to release a second solo album in 2006.

They said: "It's more important that I take a nap," Gwen told the San Francisco Chronicle in early December. "I just need to hiberate for a minute."

But could it be ... ?: A couple of weeks after Gwen said she needed a break, Us Weekly broke the news that she is, indeed, preggers. A few days later, Gwen confirmed the news during her final tour stop, exhorting the crowd to sing "so loud the baby hears you!" She then told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm really horrible with secrets. It's amazing we kept it quiet as long as we did, I suppose."

The solution: Either way, Gwen deserves a rest. In the last year or so, she's released her first solo record, done her first solo tour, had her first film role, and mounted her first New York fashion show — she even gave up a 10-day vacation with hubby Gavin Rossdale to record with Pharrell. That girl's earned some maternity leave!

Victim: Ashlee Simpson

What happened: Collapsed and was hospitalized after performing at MTV Japan's "Cool Christmas" concert on December 16.

They said: "Exhaustion."

But could it be ... ?: Acid redux? After walking off the stage midsong, Ashlee later came back to croak an apology and say she's losing her voice.

The solution: Do what Mariah does periodically — go on a voice vacation.

Victim: Colin Farrell

What happened: Stopped promoting "The New World" and entered a drug rehab facility in mid-December.

They said: Exhaustion, and addiction to undisclosed prescription drugs taken for a back injury.

But could it be ... ?: Prescription pain medication is what tripped up Courtney Love during her high-profile breakdown in October 2003 and her relapse in July 2005 — which earned her a mandatory "break" (i.e. trip to rehab) from a judge in September.

The solution: Do your 28 days, and don't make so many movies this year — "Miami Vice" will be more than enough. Please.

Victim: Lindsay Lohan

What happened: Was hospitalized twice in 2004, missed an appearance on "Live With Regis and Kelly" in early December but recovered just in time for "TRL," was hospitalized again in early January.

They said: Exhaustion ("She was wiped out," her rep said), kidney infection, food poisoning and then asthma.

But could it be ... ?: Though her reps denied it at the time, saying, "She'll eat a muffin if she wants," Vanity Fair reports that Lindsay now admits she suffered from bulimia, brought on by the stress of her much-publicized family drama and breakup with Wilmer Valderrama. "I was sick," she's quoted as saying in Vanity Fair. "Everyone was scared. And I was scared, too. I had people sit me down and say, 'You're going to die if you don't take care of yourself.' I knew I had a problem and I couldn't admit it." (Lohan is disputing the quotes, saying her words were changed and taken out of context. Vanity Fair, however, says it has tape to back up the quotes.)

The solution: Slow down! Cut down on the partying, stop airing your family's dirty laundry in public, stop making so many movies, and get some help. And if you must have that huge entourage, encourage them to be useful.

Victim: Mary-Kate Olsen

What happened: Left college before the fall semester of her sophomore year.

They said: The recovering anorexic twin decided to take an approved leave of absence "to focus on business and to pursue personal interests."

But could it be ... ?: Those personal interests apparently involve mourning the loss of ex-boyfriend Stavros Niarchos, who was plucked away by former friend Paris Hilton for her collection of Greek-heir boy toys. "It's a hurtful and painful subject," Mary-Kate lamented to W magazine. "I've pretty much been with someone my whole life, so this is a hard time for me."

The solution: A pint of ice cream, a box of tissues and maybe some real friends. And get back to school — Paris can't take that away!

Victim: Hilary Duff

What happened: Put her next movie, "Outward Blonde," on hold because she's wiped out.

They said: "It's the type of exhaustion that, like, one night of sleep doesn't fix, you know?" Hil told MTV News in November. "I was supposed to take September off for my birthday, but it didn't happen."

But could it be ... ?: A Duff bluff? Probably not: Her 2005 included shooting three movies, releasing a best-of album with three new tracks, performing a sold-out tour and more public appearances than anyone except the Black Eyed Peas. No wonder she's got bags under her eyes.

The solution: Stop being an overachiever! Instead of shooting three mediocre movies a year, try doing one good one. That part you talked about, the "cool and weird and messed-up" character you want to play? Do that.

Victim: Eminem

What happened: Abruptly canceled his European tour in August.

They said: Exhaustion and "other medical issues" — at first.

But could it be ... ?: Two days later, his rep revealed that Eminem had been hospitalized for sleep-medication dependency. (But if he was so exhausted, why did he need ... oh, never mind.)

The solution: Maybe trying to be two different people at once is what's so exhausting — try just being Marshall for a while. That is the man Kim's marrying (again), isn't it?

Victim: Dave Chappelle

What happened: Abandoned the taping of the third season of his Comedy Central show in April and never came back. Was later spotted in South Africa — and his native Ohio.

They said: Actually, it was more about what they didn't say. Comedy Central denied Chappelle's disappearance had anything to do with "creative differences," and the comic's rep denied it had anything to do with rehab. Everyone finally agreed it was a "spiritual retreat."

But could it be ... ?: Newsweek reported that Chappelle's exit was a combo of "pressure, partying and power struggles." And Entertainment Weekly said the "retreat" was actually a mental-health facility. "It was a little weird," Chappelle told the Cincinnati Enquirer about the ensuing hoopla. "It felt like some of the stuff in the media was real tabloid, like raw speculation. It was like becoming a public person and learning all the responsibility that comes with that."

The solution: Next time, just tell everybody what really happened. Then get some rest, take a retreat or do rehab (your pick!) without the missing-person reports.

Victim: Mariah Carey

What happened: In 2001, Mariah left some despondent voice recordings on her Web site, saying, "I really don't feel that I should be doing music right now. What I'd like to do is just take a little break, or at least get one night of sleep without someone popping up about a video." In a sunnier moment, she also tried to do a strip tease on "TRL."

They said: At first, when she was hospitalized, it was "extreme exhaustion." And not a moment too soon: her disappearance delayed the release of (and lowered expectations for) her now-legendary movie, "Glitter," which is widely considered to be one of the worst major films ever made.

But could it be ... ?: A week later, her rep conceded that Carey had "an emotional and physical breakdown," and was under a doctor's care.

The solution: Some time off, a new record label, no more feature films — and eventually, the best therapy of all: a hit album.

Victim: Britney Spears

What happened: She took another one of her "breaks."

They said: In a post on her Web site, Britney said that she wants to focus on being a wife and mother. "My prerogative right now is to just chill and let all of the other overexposed blondes on the cover of Us Weekly be your entertainment. Good luck girls!"

But could it be ... ? : Maybe she knew it would make her the object of public fascination again: During her "time off," she's debuted some new tracks on a Los Angeles radio station, directed her first video, promoted her reality show, "Chaotic," put out a perfume line and a remix album. She has also given cover-story interviews to People for every milestone of her married life thus far, from engagement to wedding to baby shower to first official baby photos. This from the girl who vowed, "I will refrain from discussing my private life in interviews. It will be expressed solely through art."

The solution: More like her private life has become her art. Britney's hit the PR jackpot: taking a "break" has ensured that Us Weekly will keep her on the cover all year round. "Time off" could be the next big thing!

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Photo: Casablanca/Interscope/Buena Vista/MTV News

160x600 DART richInline(S). pagename: bands

 Gwen Stefani

 Ashlee Simpson
I Am Me
(Geffen Records)

 Lindsay Lohan
"Confessions of a Broken Heart (Daughter to Father)"
A Little More Personal (Raw)

 Hilary Duff
"Beat of My Heart"
Most Wanted

"When I'm Gone"
Curtain Call: The Hits

 Mariah Carey
"Don't Forget About Us"
The Emancipation of Mimi

 Britney Spears
"Someday (I Will Understand)"
(Jive/Zomba Label Group)