In 1999, a young Elon Musk took delivery of a McLaren F1 platinum supercar at his Palo Alto home. You can watch it on YouTube. The then 28-year-old, wearing a two-tone suit too long in the arm, looks pallid yet excited. He’s been thrust into the spotlight after selling his software company for $400 million cash, and seems to be buzzing on his newfound celebrity. “Receiving cash is cash. Those are just a large number of Ben Franklins,” he purrs unconvincingly into the camera, in reference to the American Founding Father whose likeness adorns the $100 bill.
It’s difficult to imagine that this gauche tech nerd would go on to date Canadian electro musician Grimes. But times change: Musk is now a world-famous space bro with a jaw so chiselled you could build a decent likeness of him on Minecraft. He wears nice clothes, his hair is thick, his body language confident. His metamorphosis seems to mirror a truth about status: the more famous Musk has become, the more he has visibly leant into it, altering his appearance, dating actresses and pop stars, tweeting frequently to his 27 million followers (in spite of pleas from investors to rein it in). Celebrity tends to change the way people present to the world. And a growing body of research shows why.
In the mid-2000s, a group of Stanford University researchers were investigating a species of cichlids – a fish that inhabits brackish lakes in Africa. The study looked at the colouration of the cichlids, which changes according to the individual fish’s social status. A low-status cichlid with no territory is a drab taupe. But if it senses a chance to gain status through something like the acquisition of territory, or the defeat of a rival, there’s a shift in gene expression. The cichlid can transform from “dull grey” to a peacocking “flashy blue or yellow” in just 20 minutes. A prominent stripe appears across its face like some aquatic Aladdin Sane. Shimmering aggressively through its territory, the opalescent glow signals to lovers and rivals that this fish is high status. And this fish is down to fuck or fight.
“These mechanisms are really ancient,” says Dr Michael Platt, a neurobiologist at the University of Pennsylvania who specialises in social attention and behaviour. “If you take a lowly male – a drab male – you can turn it into a brightly coloured, dominant male, pretty quickly. And its brain will change, too.”
People who actively court celebrity are sometimes dismissed as narcissistic or shallow. It flatters us to presume that the Kardashians and Hiltons of this world are our cichlids, bending to the fish-brain urges that cause them to covet fame. But most humans do seem to exhibit some level of attraction to status and celebrity – even if they claim not to read MailOnline.
In 2005, Dr Platt and fellow neurobiologist Dr Robert Deaner at Duke University published the results of an experiment they called “Monkeys Pay Per View”. The animals were taught that if they looked in one direction, they would receive a squirt of cherry juice. If they looked in another, they received a smaller squirt, but they also got an image to look at: either the face of a high-status monkey or the attractive back end of a female monkey (so, yes, a kind of monkey pornography).
Over and over, the scientists demonstrated that monkeys were willing to “pay” for a chance to check out high-status – or celebrity – monkeys by trading off juice. The experiment showed that monkeys discriminated between other monkeys in terms of their social status and that the importance of this “social information” was wired into their brains. According to Dr Platt, the study may have implications for our own strange fixations. “We put down $5, and we buy People magazine, and we turn on Entertainment Tonight, and we tune into Twitter. And it’s honestly silly, because those people are not part of our lives at all.”
One of the strange quirks of acquiring higher social status is that it tends to make people less interested in others. “You can think of attention as a knob that you can turn up or turn down,” Dr Platt continues. “And when you are low status, you turn that knob all the way up. You’re paying attention to everybody [and] you’re trying to learn about them. If you’re high status, then your knob is turned down pretty low because it doesn’t really matter – you do whatever you want. It just makes you more aloof.”
The parameters of this aloof manner are so well-defined that successfully imitating it can be enough to win the trust and attention of others. Anna Sorokin (aka Delvey) – New York’s “fake heiress”, sentenced to up to 12 years in prison after cheating socialites and bankers out of at least $200,000 – succeeded in no small part thanks to her believable mimicry of her entitled associates.
But lack of interest in the civilians comes at a price, and one of the paradoxes of celebrity is that it can be very isolating. Dr Donna Rockwell is a clinical psychologist who specialises in fame and celebrity. Together with Dr David Giles, she’s the author of Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame, a study of the experience of being famous based on the lives of 15 well-known American celebrities from a range of fields.
“In a way it’s almost like an excommunication because now you are an object. People are watching you,” says Dr Rockwell. “So in a way, as much as the superstars love their fans, fans are predators. There is a great quote from Harrison Ford. He said: ‘Being famous is like walking down the street with a skunk on your head’.”
Dr Rockwell and Dr Giles identified four phases of fame: period of love/hate, addiction, acceptance and, finally, adaptation.
Some celebrities, like tragic, traumatised Kurt Cobain, never seem to make it past the love/hate phase. Kristen Stewart – who experienced the pivot from fame to notoriety after a 2012 affair with the director of Snow White and the Huntsman – has described fame as “the worst thing in the world”. Megan Fox has said it can be like “being bullied by millions of people constantly”. Others, such as Burial, Jai Paul or Frank Ocean, attempt to avoid it altogether, with Ocean determining in 2011, that “the internet made fame wack and anonymity cool”.
Acclimatise to fame, however, and you face a whole new set of challenges, according to Rockwell. “The sad part of the adaptation is that if you are famous, your brain becomes accustomed to all of that attention, that adoration and all of those eyes on you,” she says.
Whether from the flash of a camera or the thrill of a thousand Instagram likes, for the brain this translates to a cocktail of feelgood chemicals such as serotonin (which at a basic level leads to feelings of wellbeing and happiness), endorphins (that reduce your perception of pain) and dopamine (which is often characterised as the body’s own chemical “pleasure” producer). The brain adapts to this, which may be part of the reason why celebrities grow accustomed to their level of fame.
“Your neurons get used to a certain level of excitation and stimulation,” says Dr Rockwell. “And then, forevermore, you kind of want it to be at that level.” When the fame begins to wane, it can, then, be difficult to adjust.
“Another person in my study is an R&B superstar around the world. She’s older now,” adds Dr Rockwell. “She says to me that when she walks down the street in her town, people recognise her and point her out, but now they say: ‘Hey, didn’t you used to be…?’” Rockwell recently bumped into the R&B star at a wedding. “The person she was there with was a fan. A lot of these people are friends with fans because that’s the kind of level of ‘specialness’ and validation they expect.
“Ultimately, when it goes away, there is this craving after what once was. But,” she concludes, “you cannot stay in that bright light of fame at its original luminosity forever.” Fame is fleeting, but at least if Elon Musk tires of celebrity he has a fleet of spaceships to play with. Perhaps he had it right all along: shoot for the moon, land among the stars.