Why Celebrities Are So Susceptible to Grifters

The brutality of fame can change the basic way people evaluate others.

A crowd of paparazzi on the sidewalk
Timur Emek / Getty

Human history is riddled with people whose limited credentials have not stopped them from successfully hawking miracle cures and religious salvation, but Grigori Rasputin stands out as a talented wellness grifter even now. After arriving in St. Petersburg in the early 1900s, Rasputin ego-massaged his way into the upper echelons of Russian society, charming the rich and influential to access ever-greater levels of power until he reached the ruling Romanovs, the family that had been in control of Russia for more than three centuries.

Most of what historians know about what Rasputin actually did to ingratiate himself—or what skills he actually had—has been passed down through mere rumor and legend. What’s clearer is that the Romanovs apparently considered Rasputin’s abilities so indispensable to the health of their son and the legitimacy of their government that he was allowed to run roughshod over their court and alienate the trust of the public, hastening the Bolshevik Revolution and the Romanovs’ deaths.

Today, stories of celebrity gurus usually have more to do with Instagram than assassination. But many people who have built careers selling snake oils or spiritual transcendence have adopted Rasputin’s basic approach to cultivating celebrity followers. Dr. Sebi, a self-described herbalist and healer, claimed Michael Jackson and Eddie Murphy among his disciples. The Medical Medium, whose website features testimonials from Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert De Niro, doles out health advice from a spirit. Oprah has been criticized for her associations with self-help luminaries, including one whose teachings led to deaths. (In that case, Oprah’s representatives emphasized that she had no business relationship with a motivational speaker who was a guest on her show and later convicted on charges of negligent homicide.) Cast members of the Real Housewives franchise consult with energists and psychics so frequently that it has forced the word energist into my vocabulary.

Celebrities’ associations with questionably credentialed advisers are often dismissed as the product of simple vacuousness or vanity. But there are plenty of vain dummies in every segment of society, and in most circles, encountering someone who regularly consults a guru of some kind is still regarded as a kooky anomaly. In Hollywood, on the other hand, it can seem as if nearly every celebrity has been a devotee of some eccentric healer at one point or another. That might not be a coincidence: Some researchers believe that stars’ disproportionate involvement with people derided as scammers is a symptom of how the brutality of fame can change people’s psyches.

For certain celebrities, an increased vulnerability to scammers and sycophants might be baked into the reason they pursued fame in the first place. Research has found that even if people who seek fame for fame’s sake don’t fit the parameters of a full-blown diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, they are still more likely to exhibit narcissistic traits, such as grandiose self-regard or a lack of consideration for others. “They’re always scanning the environment to get as much attention, adulation, and admiration as possible to feed this hole that never gets filled,” says Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist whose work specializes in the phenomenology of fame (and who brought up Rasputin as an all-star celebrity grifter). That leaves them vulnerable to opportunists willing to tend to their immense psychological needs.

Most people with narcissistic traits develop them because of insufficient interaction with their caregivers in early childhood, according to Rockwell. But that can’t explain how common she says it is for celebrities to get drawn in—not just by gurus, but also by unscrupulous managers and financial advisers. Her research suggests that susceptibility to grifters is elevated even when stars began life as reasonably well-adjusted people who gained a high profile not through the pursuit of fame itself, but as a by-product of a legitimate talent.

To explain that phenomenon, the psychologist Robert Millman developed a theory based on his work with Major League Baseball players, which he called acquired situational narcissism, or ASN. ASN posits that through the extreme circumstances of celebrity, people can develop the traits normally associated with narcissistic personality disorder. Becoming famous has the power to change even the smallest daily interactions a person has from two-way socializing to one-way ego-feeding. “They are only taking in, and they forget how to look back out at what you need or what your day is like,” Rockwell says. People stop expecting stars to act like responsible, empathetic human beings once they become famous, so many of them eventually do.

That leaves stars as sitting ducks for scammers. “Some person comes along, they’re telling you all this great stuff about yourself, and you’re feeling admired and adored and affirmed,” Rockwell explains. “So you buy in, and you don’t have this discernment that is really needed to know if they’re good for you.” There’s evidence that this diminished capacity isn’t a result of stardom alone. People who have risen to any kind of power tend to make worse decisions once they’ve arrived than they did while on the way up.

But unlike other wealthy or powerful people, celebrities are easy to identify, especially in a culture saturated by social-media updates. The combination of a star’s wealth and public platform can make that person an ideal mark for someone looking to make quick money or find a vector for spreading certain beliefs and practices. In some cases, this ruins celebrities’ lives and empties their bank accounts. Others can transform enlightenment or alternative healing into part of their own brand, Rockwell says: “Celebrities also use this paradigm to extend their own wealth and expand in the marketplace.” Gwyneth Paltrow has been frequently accused of doing just that through her company, Goop. (In response, Paltrow has asserted that Goop tries its best, and that her critics are attention-seeking in their own right.)

Rockwell says stars constantly have to be on the lookout, not only for sycophants and long-con grifters, but also for people who might be on the hunt for a one-time cash-out. During her research, she interviewed a major Hollywood and Broadway star who described needing to be on guard at all times. (Rockwell doesn’t disclose her research subjects’ identities.) “He would go to a sporting event and be sitting there with his kids, and people would come down the aisle and try to trip next to him or be hurt by him in some way or provoke him into an altercation so that they could sue him,” Rockwell explains. “He said his entire life was pretty much figuring out when that was coming, from which quarter, and how to protect against it.”

That paranoia is isolating. Combined with the diminished discernment and exacerbated need for admiration that can coincide with fame, it might actually contribute to a heightened susceptibility to scammers who take a softer, psychologically reassuring approach to cultivating their marks. Rockwell found that to be especially true once a celebrity has passed the height of his or her fame. “They have a beginning and a middle, and the rest of life is just this grasping on to what once was, and what can’t be anymore, because nothing lasts forever,” she says.

It can be difficult to feel bad for famous people. They have money and access to resources that most people could never dream of. They’re often preternaturally beautiful, and being a rock star or an Oscar winner isn’t exactly digging ditches. But Rockwell says that she has come away from her research feeling thankful she’s not famous after seeing how brutal it can be. And although she says there are ways to stave off some of fame’s ill effects—therapy, meditation, devoting their lives to charity—most people don’t arrive at celebrity with the necessary coping skills for its psychological effects.

“It’s very difficult. There’s mistrust, no privacy in public places, isolation, loneliness,” Rockwell says. “Fame makes you feel like a doll in a shop window.”