Some stars seem born to be in the spotlight, thriving in the attention and adulation of their adoring fans and finding a way to navigate the downsides of intense public scrutiny with seeming ease. Others, such as troubled singer Amy Winehouse, appear to have difficulty handling the harsh spotlight and retreat into a destructive cycle of substance abuse and self-harm from which they never return.
Winehouse died at age 27 on Saturday. And though her cause of death has not been determined, it would seem with her sadly short career, which saw her rocket from obscurity in 2006 to tragic demise just five years later, she is the latest example of an artist for whom fame was to be too much, too soon.
“Anyone who is thrust into that kind of celebrity with that kind of attention needs a solid, well-built foundation and support system that they can wrap around them like a blanket,” said Dr. Charles Sophy, a psychiatrist who has appeared on VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab” and “The Housewives of Beverly Hills” and is the author of a new book on conflict-free communication for mothers and daughters, called “Side by Side.”
“If you don’t have those key elements, you’re more likely to implode and hit a wall,” Sophy said.
Winehouse, a child of divorce, appeared drawn to destructive personal relationships — including a tumultuous marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil that resulted in a number of public spats and arrests. To the public at least, it seemed she lacked some of the foundation Sophy says is necessary.
And though it’s impossible for outside observers to know for sure, Sophy speculated that genetics may have also played a part in Winehouse’s difficulty in dealing with fame, especially if there is a history of addiction or mental health issues in her family. “If those things are not dealt with, then they are huge issues too,” he said. “And if all that hits at once, you need coping skills and if those aren’t there …”
Though her legend was based almost entirely on a single album, 2006’s Back to Black, which spawned just two singles that charted in the U.S. — “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” — Winehouse was among the few young women in recent pop history to have attained worldwide critical and commercial success only to either spin out or retreat in the face of the rigors of fame.
Some, such as former Fugees star Lauryn Hill, continue to perform sporadically, but have been unable (or unwilling) to release a proper follow-up. Others, like Alanis Morissette, survive their moment and go on to solid careers that never quite reach the same zenith. And some live somewhere in between, such as Courtney Love, who cracked up for years before getting clean and continuing her career at a lower orbit, or Fiona Apple, who seemed uninterested in playing the fame game and retreated into privacy, releasing just three albums over a 15-year career.
None of those examples really fit the Winehouse mold, though, according to Jenny Eliscu, a Sirius satellite radio host and Rolling Stone contributing editor who profiled Winehouse for the magazine in 2007, as the singer’s star was about to go supernova.
“It would be easy and understandable to think that this is a phenomenon that afflicts female artists, but the parallel that makes the most sense for me is Kurt Cobain,” she said of the troubled Nirvana singer, who committed suicide at age 27, after years of battling with drugs and struggling to deal with the limelight.
“He had a band to say, ‘What the f—?’ But when you’re solo, it’s entirely your own operation with no one there to keep you in check,” Eliscu said. “You can languish in your problems. … It’s easy to get in your own cave.”
Even if you’re not abusing drugs or alcohol, getting it together to make a follow-up to a huge album is hard. But Eliscu said that if you compound that with the loneliness of being a solo artist, particularly one who probably never expected her authentically pained music to reach such a wide audience, you have a recipe for major trouble.
For every Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan who spin out after achieving early celebrity, there are Justin Timberlakes and Taylor Swifts, who appear able to handle the pressure. Sophy said that could be because they have that support system in place early on to help them deal with the pressure.
“Someone who is 27 is not necessarily 27 years old emotionally,” said Sophy. “A 27-year-old can often act like an 18-year-old, because oftentimes addicts stop growing emotionally at the age they started using.”
Even if, as father Mitch Winehouse said in a statement released after Amy’s funeral, his daughter had been drug-free for three years, Sophy said it can take a long time for the brain’s chemistry to return to normal long after a patient leaves rehab.
Sophy said that any artist who puts themselves in the spotlight is taking a huge risk, regardless of their sobriety. As they look for affirmation that they’re talented enough, once success begins coming in a rush, it can make them doubt their skills more than ever.
“When they hit it and it becomes a big thing, then there’s more pressure on them and their self-esteem, which might have been an issue to begin with and that’s a bigger mountain to climb,” Sophy explained.
It’s hard for even the most self-assured person to say, “I’m really good at this,” and so, Sophy said, when that doubt creeps in while the world is watching, it sometimes makes it difficult to stay on the straight and narrow without self-medicating or finding some other way to cope with the pressure.
“Instant fame is like a drug,” he said. “It starts out slowly and then you can get a big rush from a big blowup and that little high you got from your first big interview or show is like a drug and you get addicted to the rush and adrenaline. Then you have that big [magazine] feature, and that really sends you over the top. And how do you beat that attention? You have to get another one.”
While Winehouse often seemed unaffected by the attention, if not downright uninterested in it, her music came from what seemed like a genuine wellspring of pain and emotion. Because of that, Eliscu said it’s not surprising that someone in that state of turmoil might retreat into a kind of cocoon of safety and escape the public world they’ve been thrust into.
“When you get to the level of someone like the Jonas Brothers, you have so many people protecting you that you can almost be sheltered from expectations of what people want,” she said. “But [Winehouse] never had that level of structure in place around her. Even after the success of the first album in the U.K., she could never have known how well [Back to Black] would have done.”