Elvis Presley, Mental Health, and the Harm of Celebrity

Heidi S.
10 min readAug 22, 2021

(This is Part 3 of a series on fame, but each part stands alone | Part 1 | Part 2 | Interlude | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Postlude)

British historian Greg Jenner’s definition of celebrity is: “A unique persona made widely known to the public via media coverage, and whose life is publicly consumed as dramatic entertainment, and whose commercial brand is made profitable for those who exploit their popularity, and perhaps also for themselves.” My definition would probably be something more like: a person who leaves themselves open to judgment by strangers and becomes an object of intense and widespread scrutiny to the detriment of their self.

There are a significant number of celebrities who have talked about the perils of fame. Megan Fox likened it to “being bullied by millions of people constantly.” FKA Twigs said media scrutiny makes her want to “smash [her] face into a mirror.” Harrison Ford said it’s “a total lack of privacy” and a burden. Lady Gaga talks about how she has no freedom once she leaves her house and how she “belongs to everyone else.” Dave Chapelle said fame is “a horrifying concept when it’s aimed at you.”

All of this makes me think of Elvis Presley. I use Elvis as an example of a celebrity, because he is the example. He’s still an icon. I have seen his image in graffiti in Germany and on a cake in a market in Leeds. I would venture to say that the majority of Americans have at least heard of Elvis Presley, whether they wanted to or not.

A closeup of a neon sign on a building that reads “Elivs”
In Faro Broskogs, Sweden. Photo by Nikola Johnny Mirkovic on Unsplash

I used to live in Memphis, and I’ve toured Graceland more than once. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place that made me feel as sad (except for the Las Vegas airport). There’s a lot I could say about Elvis that you probably know. He had a lovely singing voice. He was used as a symbol to sell products. He was a white man whose early recordings were mostly cover songs of Black artists (like Otis Blackwell and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup) who didn’t get adequately compensated or recognized in a highly segregated music industry. His manager Colonel Tom Parker worked him to the bone. He used amphetamines, opiates, and was probably addicted to prescription barbiturates, which contributed to his death at age 42.

But there are three things about Elvis Presley that I learned from touring Graceland that you might not know.

  • He watched a lot of television. There’s a room in Graceland that has three TVs mounted in a wall next to each other. And it’s hard for me to see pictures of Elvis and not think of a sad, lonely man sitting in his basement watching three TVs at once.
  • He was extremely generous to his friends and family — to the point where they probably took advantage of him.
  • He wanted to act in other roles than the ones he was given. He didn’t want to always play the soft, crooning love interest with the guitar. But Hollywood wouldn’t let him, because being Elvis Presley is what sold.

It’s that last one that sticks with me, because you get the feeling that he tried to not be Elvis Presley. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that being Elvis Presley is probably what ultimately killed him.

It seems somewhat common for child stars especially to end up in troubling situations — drug abuse, going broke, eating disorders, emancipation. Former child actor Mara Wilson has said there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of children in the entertainment industry whose parents were child stars. She has spoken about how actors are treated like objects, and how children don’t understand enough to not take criticism personally (I’m not sure adults can do this either) or to deal with a loss in praise as they outgrow their cuteness.

There’s a host of factors that lead to these situations, including exploitation and abuse that undoubtedly goes on in the entertainment industry and sometimes by parents and family. But there are subtler forms of trauma, too. Being put to work grueling hours isn’t good for adults, and it certainly isn’t good for children, who have even less life experience to have developed healthy coping mechanisms for stress.

That said, younger generations do seem increasingly more willing to talk about mental health and advocate for themselves insofar as they can. I’m speaking mostly about the US context here, because it’s my own context (I’d love to talk to people from other places about this), but it also seems like it’s becoming more common for K-pop stars to take breaks for mental health, specifically anxiety, including Jeongyeon and Mina of Twice, Joohoney of MonstaX, Haseul of Loona, S.Coups of Seventeen, and all of Day6.

The conversation about mental health has also opened up in sports because of athletes like tennis player Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from competitions for the sake of their mental health. Osaka specifically mentioned anxiety in having to speak to the media after matches, which is understandable. (I’ve always thought post-match interviews were unnecessary and invasive.) Biles spoke about an experience gymnasts are familiar with, the “twisties,” which is a loss of ability to sense body position in the air and points to how extremely dangerous a sport gymnastics is, especially if mind and body aren’t working together.

They both got some criticism for it, a lot of it blatant misogynoir (from white guys with podcasts and columns in conservative-leaning media), which reflects the way US society puts a specific pressure on Black women to be “tough” and a “strong Black woman” while refusing to legitimize their vulnerability, which is simply part of the human condition (and which is sometimes weaponized by and on behalf of white women).

I don’t like the phrase “mental toughness,” because it doesn’t mean much. But I don’t love the phrase “mental health” either. I get that it’s broad because people don’t want to talk about their specific issues, which is fair. We hyperindividualized, personal-responsibility-loving USians think of health exclusively as private, personal information that’s not owed to anyone (upward and including public health issues like vaccines and contact tracing). But “health” is a broad idea that actually encompasses the entire human community, and “mental” extends to things outside the mind that we react to.

It’s a double-edged sword, because people should be afforded privacy about how health affects their personal life, but we also don’t reduce the stigma of psychological or neurological conditions if we don’t talk about them more specifically. So “mental health” runs the risk of becoming yet another phrase that the Right can strip of its intended meaning and context and then say it’s bad and use it to rail against the rest of us who are being held hostage by them, because politicians, the media, and the corporations that control our lives are too financially conservative, too beholden to an idea of “both sides,” and/or too chicken shit to tell them they’re wrong and dangerous.

That was a side rant. Back to the celebrities.

A wall with graffiti on it, including the head and torso of Elvis Presley with a cityscape painted over his body
In Brighton, England. Photo by Michèle Eckert on Unsplash

There are also a lot of issues in US society about who we allow to take care of their mental health, while not acknowledging the social determinants of mental health or how contemporary practices of capitalism are destroying many of us from the inside. Mental health conditions are still stigmatized here (and seem to be stigmatized in other places as well), and you can see that in the way we treat celebrities when they talk about it. There also seem to be clear gendered lines in the way we talk about mental health. It’s almost as if there are “acceptable” conditions for men to have, like addiction issues and antisocial disorders, whereas women have anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Statistics back this up, but a lot of the literature ignores that the diagnostic process itself is affected by gendered assumptions.

It also seems like women talk about mental health more and are more willing to seek help. I imagine this is tied to our societal ideas of masculinity and “weakness,” and men probably feel like they can’t talk about their mental health. This comes part and parcel with a society organized around a gender binary and essentialist ideas about masculinity and femininity, and I assume it’s true in most societies that employ such a thing. I’m not interested in trying to evaluate what gender has it “better” or “worse.” I’m just saying that standards are different (and are clearly different between white women and Black women, between wealthy people and poor people, between cisgender people and trans or nonbinary people, etc.).

And, to go back to celebrities, we apply gendered standards even in situations where men and women do the exact same thing — like wear clothes and eat.

And if you don’t see it, I don’t know how to convince you of this. Other than with this thought exercise — When you are talking about a woman celebrity, ask yourself, would I say this about a man? Would I even have an opinion on this if a man did it? Would I hold that man to a different standard?

Simone Biles’s “mental toughness” comes into question but Novak Djokovic’s does not. Women are “divas” or “difficult” on set; men are “demanding.” Women get compared to whales; men have “dad bods.” It’s different.

I suspect there are more celebrity tell-alls from women. I also suspect that women are driven out of entertainment professions more often than men — Harvey Weinstein alone intentionally destroyed women’s careers if they didn’t sleep with him. I assume he’s one among many. As with child stars, it’s often the industry — abuse within the system — that comes out looking bad.

But one thing that always strikes me is that while people are often vocal in their support of celebrities talking about their mental health and taking breaks — which is a good thing even if I think the way we talk about “mental health” in general is lacking — we rarely acknowledge the way celebrities are treated by the public, by “fans” (and by “antis”), and how that has to be a factor in their mental health.

There are stalkers, sasaeng fans (a term used in South Korea), sisheng fans (the Chinese term) of celebrities of all genders, who show up at famous people’s hotel rooms and get their personal information. Jeon Jungkook of BTS once got a phone call from a sasaeng during a live broadcast. Two fans of Chinese entertainer Wang Yibo were arrested for putting a tracking device on his car. There are countless incidents of people stalking celebrities in the US, including Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Bella and Gigi Hadid, Selena Gomez, Sandra Bullock, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Aniston — I could keep going; it’s a long list.

Direct fan demand can also border on harassment. Chris Gethard is a comedian who has an entire comedy show about major depression and suicide. But because he is open about his mental health, he has said he gets people who corner him in person (which is scary) and online to unload their burdens on him or seek advice. And then when he gets overwhelmed by being accosted or doesn’t reply to everyone, he gets called a jerk.

And you could say this is only a few unstable, troubled people who are acting independently, but it’s not just extreme cases that cause harm.

A figurine that looks like Elvis Presley hanging off a car’s rearview mirror
In Ankara, Turkey. Photo by emrecan arık on Unsplash

Mara Wilson wrote in the New York Times that: “My sexual harassment always came at the hands of the media and the public.”

In 2018, Lindsay Lohan told the New York Times she moved to Dubai partly to get away from the press. “When I chose to change my future, my life, I was like, ‘Where’s the one place I can find silence?’”

Then there is social media, which is a platform where famous people can interact with fans and have control over their image, but where there is also extreme amounts of abuse. Some famous people like Daniel Radcliffe, Robert Pattinson, and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen just don’t use it at all. There are famous women who have been harassed off Twitter specifically: Leslie Jones (who came back) and Kellie Marie Tran come to mind — for being a Black woman and a Vietnamese-American woman, respectively, who each got a role in a movie that a lot of white fanboys like. (A lot of the harassment was about their looks.) There’s also the tragic case of television personality Charlotte Dawson in Australia.

Cyberbullying and media scrutiny and tabloids are a lot more than just a few bad eggs. It’s an entire culture.

It’s not just negative comments in the media, or virulent people on the internet, or fans demanding attention — it’s also pressure. Sometimes you’ll hear a famous person say they don’t want to let their fans down, and while that might just be them taking pride in their work, it’s also pressure to exist in such a way that fans will still like them. Having fans means having people who support you (on their terms), but those fans are also consumers. They are people who spend money to see you on tour and go to your movies and watch your TV shows and come to your games/matches. Fans are tied to your ability to keep getting work and to your very livelihood.

And while very famous people definitely get paid way too much money while behind-the-scenes people get too little, they are also pawns to a system that will just move on to the next person in a heartbeat.

All of this is bad. I think we put a tremendous burden on celebrities to be exactly who we want them to be — even though it’s impossible to please everyone. Only after a person is well-established in their career do they talk about the loss of privacy, bullying, and fear — all of which clearly negatively affect a person’s mental health and wellbeing. And some of that is from the media, from capitalism, but we as fans are part of that system, too.

I want to end this with a return to Elvis. He was an object until the end, to everyone making money off him and to the people who wanted to watch him be Elvis Presley. He was also a punchline — I’m sure you’ve heard a joke about “fat Elvis” or a joke about the way he died. We talk about him like an icon, an object of worship. It’s the word I used in the beginning of this piece, and I bet you didn’t question it. But we should. Because he may have become an icon, but he was always, always just a person.

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Heidi S.

PhD in philosophy | Feminist | Anarchist | Pop culture junkie | Kpop listener | Actually Autistic