Over the last two years both Scott and me have heard several teenagers respond to the what-do-you-want-to-do-when-you-grow-up question with one word: famous. “I want to be famous.”

Apparently we’re not the only ones noticing this phenomenon. The witty and extremely entertaining Scottish writer, Andrew O’Hagan, talked about it an interview he did as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. He claims that the majority of the girls he talked to at one London high school said they wanted to be famous and didn’t care how. He imagines them all growing into very disappointed adults and sees their desire for fame as a symptom of moral decay.

I’m not sure.

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a writer, but I had other passing fancies. For a while I wanted to be a film director. But I never did anything about it other than watch lots and lots of movies. I didn’t get my hands on a camera, I didn’t enroll in courses to learn how, I didn’t memorise the movies I watched frame by frame. I just fantasised about making movies, which in my mind was more like writing a novel than having to deal with hundreds of different people—producers, camera people, editors, actors, best boys, digital effects people—and do all the other stuff movie directors have to do. I think I sussed even way back then that directing films was too much hard work. Especially for the likes of me. Directors don’t get to lounge around in their pjs all day.

I suspect that most of the teenagers saying they want to be famous want it the same way I wanted to direct films. Not that much. It’s a shapeless desire. They’re not interested in putting in the hard yakka to achieve it. It’s something to say while they figure out what they really want to do.

Most people don’t know what they want to do till they’re long past high school. For one thing you don’t have that much of a clue about all the professions and ways to make money there are when you’re in high school. My sister had no idea she was going to wind up working in the digital effects industry. I doubt she even knew such an industry existed way back then.

It’s one way in which I’ve always felt lucky. I’ve always known I wanted to write. Most of the people I went to school with had no idea what they wanted to do and stumbled into various different jobs and professions before they found one that suited.

Some people never figure it out. Or get the opportunity to do what they want to do.

Fame is a safe thing to say when you don’t know what you want to do with your life. It doesn’t pin you down to any specific career path. It’s open and nebulous. It’s also something to say to shut the people up who keep asking that annoying question over and over again.1

I’m not convinced there really are that many people who seriously want to be famous and don’t care how. Once most people think it through and see the side effects of fame—serious fame—they change their minds quick smart. Who wants to end up like Michael Jackson or Britney Spears? Your entire life fodder for the tabloid. Complete strangers speculating about just how crazy you are, knowing what you like to eat, and stalking you with cameras wherever you go.

It’s the very opposite of fun.

Which is why I’m not that worried about today’s youth and their apparent incessant fame desire.

Do any of you desperately want to be famous? Do you know anyone who wants to? Have you come across hordes of teenagers saying they want to be famous and don’t care how? Does this desire worry you? Should I be more concerned than I am?

  1. When I was in high school I was always tempted to tell people that I wanted to be a monkey. []


  1. lili on #

    I’m think people use ‘famous’ as a kind of short-hand. I’m sure if you grilled them, they’d reveal that they don’t want to be famous in a Paris Hilton/Sarah Palin/Osama bin Laden sort of way. What they’re really saying is that they want to be extraordinary. And that’s something I understand. I don’t want to be Rowling-famous, but I want my books to be known, bought, read and respected. I want to be that level of famous.

    And I think you’re right about not having any idea about professions when you’re in school. I knew I liked reading and writing, and I thought my options were publisher, editor or writer. I had no idea that you could be a literary events coordinator, or a reviewer, or run a literary award, or manage a website about books and reading (all jobs I have had).

  2. cat on #

    I agree with what you wrote and what lili wrote. There are many different reasons why young people want to be famous. One is that they equate famous with being loved and happy and that all their dreams will come true. As we get older and have more life experiences we realize that is not always true. They think that they want the adoration but do not understand what that really is or what they might have to do to get it. There are many reasons why and there are some dark reasons. I remember being young and being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was young, creative, and loved stories (and everything on TV) so I said an actress. A few years later I just knew i wanted to be a writer. (Still do.) Pop culture influences many of our decisions until we get older and (hopefully) much wiser. These are just a few reasons why but I think you are right that sometimes they just do not know what they want to do and something famous fits the bill at that time. Later some people find their direction and some do not. I wish them all well. I work in medicine but I will always be on my learning quest for the rest of my life and that is okay for me. That is MY thing.

  3. cat on #

    And I do not need to be famous to to that.

  4. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I don’t like “being famous” as a job description, because that would be someone like Paris Hilton who for the most part doesn’t DO anything, and certainly didn’t *do* anything until after she became famous. I mind less the “I want to be a famous actor/singer/surgeon/politician/astronaut” thing. It just means that they want their work, whatever it is, to be renowned.

    I wonder if the reason it’s a popular statement for teens is because it maps pretty perfectly into the “popularity” paradigm that many teens are faced with in school. the idea that what they say and do does not matter unless they are popular. They look out at the world, at magazines and such that seem to only care what you wear/eat/pray to/think about politics if you’re famous, and wonder if that’s the real-world equivalent. Is saying they want to be famous like saying they want to be popular?

  5. Miriam on #

    Ew. I don’t want to be famous. Maybe well-known, as in: there goes Miriam, the well-known children’s writer. But not famous. Ick. Everyone watching you and taking pictures of you and hanging on your every word and analyzing everything you say. Like living life under a microscope. The introvert in me shudders.

    I mind the idea of “famous” less than “instant” though. I’ve noticed that lot of people want fame or money without having to work for it, or worse, wait for it. They get bored and go one to the next big thing that will get them what they want.


  6. robin on #

    I don’t know — I think you’re right for the most part, but I think what you’re leaving out is that while the *desire* for fame may be harmless and everpresent over the generations, the ability to achieve it as a ‘regular person’ has changed radically, thanks to reality television and the internet. Now if you want to be famous, you can try out for Survivor, you can go nuts in Key West and get your chest on a Girls Gone Wild video, you can create your own ‘Secrets of My Teenage Life’ youtube vlog. Maybe I’m being naive about the past, but I do think that fame and achievement are a lot more disconnected than they’ve been in the past, and that the potential shortcuts to notoriety are a lot shorter. Thanks to the internet, one dumb choice can be broadcast to the world. No “hard yakka” (um, whatever that is) required.

    That said, I’ve always wanted to be famous…but the more I see the realities of people’s lives who are semi-semi-famous, the less I like. Maybe I’d like to be a famously reclusive hermit.

  7. Patrick on #

    I wanted to be famous. Actually, I EXPECTED to be famous.

    Back when I was in 5th grade, I loved Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Eddie Murphy and actively tried to figure out what it was about them that made them immensely successful/famous. But for me, the fame was always tied to the accomplishments.

    I think the world is different now than it was then, though.

  8. Patrick on #

    Now I’d rather just settle for having money. Enough so I never have to work again.

  9. Jennifer on #

    Well, I want to be famous. I’ll admit to that.

    What that means to me:
    (a) I can get access to working with certain people who are already famous. As a nonentity, you are simply not allowed even near those people. There are definitely folks who intrigue me and I’d love to work with (mmm, Joss Whedon), but as a nobody, I can’t even speak to them. If I got real lucky, I could get an autograph (too bad I don’t care about autographs).

    (b) I can get access to working on certain projects. I would get more job offers, period. If people have heard of you, it’s a lot better for your job prospects, especially if you are in an artistic field where you are always having to look for the next paycheck.

    (c) Famous, to some degree, is a guarantee of a good paycheck.

    I don’t give a damn about wanting the attention. I don’t want tabloids sorting through my trash. Not interested in being a fame whore. If I wanted to be a fame whore, I could have done it on the Internet by now, but Internet fame is no guarantee of access and money. I do, however, want certain things that I just plain can’t get access to without being well known.

    You may be asking why I haven’t really done shit with regards to TRYING to get famous. Answer is, I am conflicted as to how to get the “right” amount of fame to get me the money/access without ending up with tabloids. (I am also female, “fat” (i.e. not anorexic), and not cute, so that is a factor against me on getting fame. If I was a dude, nobody would care.) Once you go that far, it’s hard to turn that tide back, and even now and then we still hear about what Vanilla Ice is up to.

    To some degree you can only manage the fame so far. The only thing I can think of to “manage” it is to stay the hell off television and maybe do like David Sedaris- mainly stick to text and radio.

  10. Haddy-la on #

    i know someone who waant to be famous like that and she aasked me dont you want to be famous and im just like no then i thought about it and i decited if i was to be famous it would be for being a facious dictatior of a small but importaint country (not that i support facious dictatorship) or for discovering or inventing something

  11. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Jennifer, I don’t think that most people who work with Joss Whedon are famous. Most are working folk in Hollywood. Not famous but known in their field by people in their field. Think of the writing staff of television shows — how many can you name? Not many even if you are obsessed with the show and DVD extras where they actually get a chance to talk. If you aren’t deeply interested in that industry, none at all. When you read the blog of TV writers, it’s all about the work. Another spec script, another pilot pitch, etc. etc. Jane Espenson is a good example.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with fame — it’s a quality of having a known body of work in a field where the person you want to work with has a need for someone with a known body of work in that field.

    I agree with you that fame can be a guarantee of a good paycheck, in the sense that if you are famous, people will pay you for who you are, rather than what you do, because your fame will be sure to generate money. That’s why you have movie stars and celebrities writing books, or opening restaurants, or hawking face soap and cell phone minutes. But you can also guarantee yourself a good paycheck by being good at what you do, and I don’t equate fame with having a good reputation within your industry. That’s why, even in acting, which is such a fame-driven industry, you have the “hey it’s that guy” well known character players.

  12. Marina on #

    Justine, your comment about being tempted to answer the “what do you want to be?” question with “a monkey” reminds me of being pregnant. Pregnant women get asked inane questions even more than teens get asked the “What do you want to be when you grow up? question.

    The one that most people love to ask is: “What are you hoping for?” I always smiled sweetly and said “a golden retriever”.

  13. carbonelle on #


    I’d like to be massively rich and completely anonymous no matter what I managed to accomplish.

    More fun that way.

  14. E. Kristin Anderson on #

    I totally agree with you. I think most people, at some point, wanted some sort of fame. Fame is like popularity – you don’t know how you want to achieve it, but you want it, because it would make you feel good. I used to want to be famous. I used to want to be the first fourteen year old girl to do _____ but every time I settled on a ______ I found that someone younger had already done it.

    Now I’d rather be moderately notorious. I’m hoping that, should I have any luck with future manuscripts, I get some good reviews and a niche audience. Would totally love awards and best sellers, but I think it would be TERRIFYING to be a writer on par with, say, Stephenie Meyer or J.K. Rowling.

    I think wanting to be famous just a stage some of us go through while we’re figuring ourselves out. The idea that any teen should HAVE to know what they want to do with their lives is pretty goofy, I think. I had a customer the other day looking for a book to help her daughter pick a major in college….and the daughter was only a sophomore in high school. Now I think it’s way healthier to want to be famous than to pigeonhole ourselves before we’ve had so many crucial life experiences (not that teens don’t experience a ton, but there’s SO MUCH out there).

  15. Kim on #

    My take on this is not that kids want to be famous, per se, but they want all the trappings of fame: fabulous wealth and all the toys that can buy, and a glamorous life where you are worshipped by the masses. I think it’s an easy and flip response that encompasses some very human desires, and while it is mildly disturbing in and of itself, I also think it is something that most people will grow out of, with maturity.

    Take a gander at the show “Total Drama Island”, an animated spin-off of “Survivor”, and its theme song, lyrics basically consisting of “I wanna be famous” to a very catchy tune that I’ve caught my 3 year-old singing. UGH!

  16. Gabrielle on #

    I sometimes have a passing want to be famous. But like you said, I would never want to be some kind of movie star. Honestly, I kinda want to be famous as a writer. I think it’s the best way ever to be famous. And when I *want to be famous*, it’s mostly the aspect of being able to talk with loads of people who love the things I do, discussing things with people who do. I pretty much loathe the idea of paparazzi and trash-sucking interviewers.

  17. PixelFish on #

    I always said when I was a teen that I wanted to be Neil-Gaiman famous instead of Brad Pitt famous. (Of course, I think I might revise that downward to Scalzi-famous or slightly-less-than-Scalzi-famous, as I understand Neil Gaiman can no longer go to Comic-con without having humongous crowd following him and overwhelming the areas he is in, which is perhaps verging on too much fame. I would settle for able-to-enjoy-the-fruits-of-my-fame-without-going-crazy famous.)

    Mostly I just want people to look at my art and read my stories and think they are nifty. Which is what the interweb is for.

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