ucked away in a corner at a Hollywood juice bar favoured by the A-list, Erica* looks like any other celeb trying to fly under the radar. She’s got the oversized sunglasses and she’s dressed in headto-toe black. On her feet are trainers so she can flee from the paparazzi at any moment. The thing is, Erica isn’t famous – but she’d like to be. ‘I should be a celebrity by now,’ the 28-year-old says when I tell her she reminds me of an A-lister going incognito.
She looks different from her pics on Insta, where she has more than 10 000 followers. Her public persona is more polished than she is in the flesh. ‘I get recognised if I’m dressed up. Somebody once asked for my picture thinking I was Natalie Portman,’ she says proudly.
Like many of her Hollywood peers, Erica has tried her hand at everything in an attempt to become a celeb – so much so that she now behaves like one. In addition to dabbling in acting, modelling and singing, last year she tried to make her debut as a DJ, following in the footsteps of her idol, Paris Hilton. ‘I begged my friend, who is a professional DJ, to let me join in with him. But it didn’t quite pan out,’ she says. Instead, the privileged LA resident is working as a social media influencer for a music company as she continues her search for fame. Her parents were bankrolling her but ‘that’s all stopped now,’ she says. Using social media for work can be an ego boost, but she says she won’t feel content until she’s ‘legit famous’.
Erica’s pursuit of fame has taken its toll on her health. She’s on anxiety meds and has been seeing a therapist weekly for the past two years. ‘There’s no doubt in my mind that chasing fame is something I’m addicted to, and that’s taken me years of therapy to address,’ she confesses.
As a show-biz journalist in LA, I’ve met countless women (and men) like Erica. Their faces light up when I mention my job, thinking I can help kick-start their career. I’ve been asked to do favours for semi-famous stars, shoehorning their pics into articles in a bid to raise their profi le. I know what fame-hungry looks like, and it’s not always pretty. But I had no idea the addiction had become so potent – so much so that there’s now a place for people like Erica to go to seek help.
The Lumion Center in LA is home to the world’s fi rst specifically designed treatment programme for fame addiction. Founded by psychiatrist and addiction specialist Reef Karim in 2009, it’s only in the last year that it’s begun to treat patients specifically for fame addiction, after identifying what Karim saw as a growing problem.
It’s a sunny day when I arrive. The white building is a few blocks away from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (where Britney Spears was admitted at the height of her meltdown in 2008), on a leafy side street in West Hollywood. Its discreet location makes it easy for any celeb to be chauffeured in undetected – as many have been.
A Kardashian-esque receptionist greets me and hands over a confidentiality agreement. I’m about to gain unprecedented access to the centre, including sitting in on a group therapy session. The agreement forbids me from disclosing the names of any famous faces I might recognise. In the waiting room – all white furniture and mahogany floors – there’s the usual pile of fashion and entertainment mags. Only here, you might fi nd yourself sitting next to one of the cover stars.
Reef ushers me into his office. He has that LA charm and is clearly used to making people feel at ease. It’s no surprise that he’s a regular on US TV, appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show and CNN – perhaps ironic for someone trying to coax people away from fame’s lure. On the clinic’s website, fame addiction is described as ‘a behavioural condition centred around the desperate need for validation at all costs’.
Reef explains that celebs crave being seen, adored and valued by others. ‘It gives them an inner rush, or a hit of meaning, self-love and stress reduction – even though it’s usually fleeting.’
While he acknowledges there are ‘healthy celebs’, the ones he’s seen are often in existential crisis. ‘They had no idea who they were, so they were acting out in an addictive way by popping pills, drinking too much, having too much sex, gambling or shopping.’ However, fame addiction isn’t just a celeb problem. Reef points out that ‘most individuals have a fantasy of what fame could bring them – status, money, desirability, sex appeal’, and that while celeb status used to seem unattainable to many of us, the Internet and social media have made fame tantalisingly reachable.
The Lumion Center’s clientele includes everyone from actors, pro athletes and reality stars to the man off the street who isn’t famous but is desperate to be. They pay between R62 000 and R300 000 a month, and the average client stays with the programme for at least three to six months. Fame addiction is not recognised as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, but it’s a term churned out in the media.
Reef tells me his patients usually seek help because they’re depressed, lonely or suffering from anxiety. They don’t necessarily walk in thinking they’re addicted to fame, but he’ll identify the condition.