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Where Are They Now? - The Big Issue, 12th January 1998

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Title: Where Are They Now?
Publication: The Big Issue
Date: Monday 12th January 1998
Writer: Eleanor Bailey

The pop star Richey James, seemed to have everything. So why did he vanish in 1995? Eleanor Bailey on the celebrities who go missing.

Somehow it is hard to be sympathetic with the sufferings of the rich and famous. The problems of adjusting to a sudden change of status - for the better - is something we feel that really one should be able to cope with. Overnight millionairedom? New-found adulation? The constant pressure of fans and press attention? Hmm. Tough but not that tough. Better sudden wealth than sudden loss of wealth, after all. So you can't go to the corner shop in your pyjamas any more - so what?

When a celebrity disappears through anxiety, we can't understand it. "The general attitude is that the celebrity should be grateful for the position they're in, and that can compound the feeling of pressure," says Fiona Smith, counsellor at Shrinkwrap, a consultancy for over-stressed celebrities.

Apparently, though, suffer they do. Author Agatha Christie disappeared for ten days in 1926 - and was found in Harrogate suffering from memory loss. And Stephen Fry's 'disappearance' to Bruges in 1995 was a classic case of celebrity panic. He was a highly talented performer who was convinced that one in production - Simon Gray's Cell Mates - he was terrible. But the problems that made him run away, causing the show to collapse, started long before that. "Cell Mates was a catalyst," he says. "One of the things I realised was that I was lonely."

Fry is a good example of the can't-live-with-it-can't-live-without-it celebrity paradox. Driven by the pressure to what he called "not a nervous breakdown, more a nervous stalling" and the unexpected trip to Bruges (his second choice after dismissing gassing himself for the sake of his family), he nevertheless chose to expose his inner feelings to Anthony Clare, Radio 4's celebrity shrink.

Thus in every celebrity there are apparently two people and three egos. One person is who they really are. The other is who the public thinks they are and they think they ought to be. According to Andrew Evans, director of the Arts Psychology Consultancy, it's "the fantasy that they're marvellous, the fantasy that they're dreadful and the truth which lies somewhere in the middle."

Indeed, one theory on Manic Street Preachers' guitarist Richey James' mental deterioration and subsequent 'disappearance' was that it was just this schizophrenic fame thing he couldn't cope with. He hated being called a fake. Once when an NME journalist accused him of fakery he carved '4REAL' on his arm. He felt under pressure to live the life of his songs.

Singer Scott Sherren was a textbook example of the effects of fame. He was hand-plucked in his early 20s by Esther Rantzen, played Leroy in the West End musical Fame! and was a presenter on That's Life before undergoing a personality change due to the pressure, which ended with him living rough. He was missing until his body was discovered in the Thames. What went wrong? Why, when after achieving a lifelong dream, did he so spectacularly, tragically lose his sanity?

"There is a huge gulf between expectation and reality," suggests Fiona Smith. "When someone becomes very famous, they are often ripped from their family and friends. They achieve things that everybody wants and envies, yet very often inside they feel so different. It is very unreal."

Another problem is that the personalities that we want to idolise-the artistic, creative types-are perhaps the least well-suited, personality-wise, to the pressures of fame, according to Andrew Evans, who frequently counsels performers of all kinds struck with an urge to run away from it all. "They are enormously more imaginative than the rest of the population. That's why they cam do what they do, but they're not the most rational people in the world."

Richey James disappeared nearly three years ago. With any ordinary member of the public, the clues of depression, anorexia, alcoholism, and self-mutilation, plus the note saying "I love you" left in the hotel room and the car found by a suicide spot near the Severn Bridge, would lead to one obvious conclusion. But with celebrities it is never that simple-or perhaps we don't want it to be. We like to think they are sipping cocktails in the sun, feet up, Ronnie Biggs-style. That is a happier interpretation of the more likely-grim truth. The suicide of a man who has everything is unacceptable for us; for, if he couldn't cope, what does that say about the rest of us?

Manic Street Preachers' Nicky Wire, a lifelong friend of James, says: "Deep down, my gut feeling is he's alive. But that's not based on any logical evidence. I just try to tell myself that he's done what he wanted."

Staged suicides add another dimension to our voyeuristic obsession with celebrities. Disgraced former Labour MP John Stonehouse is one example-taking on the identity of one of his dead constituents, although it wasn't long before he was traced and jailed.

Being a famous person is necessarily and obviously couched in unreality. "You are surrounded by people who are paid to agree with you," says Fiona Smith of Shrinkwrap. "It is very isolating. There is a lot of temptation from drink and drugs. Often people become famous very young when they lack the experience to cope. Then there's the constant public examination of your performance."

"If you're a plumber," says Andrew Evans, "you don't get every job scrutinised in The Daily Telegraph afterwards."

As the phenomenon of celebrity is a modern, mass-technology issue - before this century even a member of the royal family could have gone to the shop in their pyjamas in virtual anonymity - we are only just coming to terms with the pressure. "Record companies are beginning to send people to us for counselling as soon as they're signed up," says Fiona Smith. "In the past it was crisis-led when the singer could no longer open his mouth on stage through fear."

The fate of the missing celebrity can go a number of ways. They develop mythological status. Their cult following prompts 'sightings' in appropriate and completely inappropriate locations. People claim to have spotted Richey James in Tibet and South Africa.

Some people only achieve fame through their disappearance. Lord Lucan is virtually synonymous with sudden disappearance since botching the murder of his wife 20 years ago and killing the nanny instead. Then there are the celebrities who die but are reborn in the public imagination. Saying that Elvis is working in a burger bar in Acapulco, humming the gospel tunes he loved best, is the fin de siecle equivalent of belief in Heaven. It means he isn't gone, that he's merely out to lunch, and that one day he'll come again.