Can you imagine being a star?

Can you imagine being a star?

Can you imagine being a star?

“Can you imagine being a star?” A sentence that was part of my English lessons at school that reflects one of the strongest desires of humanity: becoming famous. Being rich and popular, walking down red carpets, wearing extravagant designer clothes, posing for the paparazzi, looking flawless, owning the most beautiful things, knowing the most influential and fascinating people.

One of the most attractive roads to fame: acting. A world that displays the seemingly perfect balance of transparency and mystery.

We are shown everything on social media, aren’t we? Almost every actor who has 'made it’ in, let’s say in Hollywood, has an Instagram profile. We get insights into their exciting lives, into the ups and downs, the buzz and the drama. We are taken along to red carpet events and photo shoots, we get 'exclusive’ insights into some parts of their private lives, we see their children grow up on Instagram.

There is, of course, also the other side. The excesses, the debauched parties, substance abuse, rehabs, public breakups, cheating, the suicide attempts – and it all appears to be a little more intense than it is for those not part of that world. But again, it’s all there. Apparently transparent.

Acting has always been a career path that many aspire to. When I tell people that I have studied acting it fills them with awe. Second to none – I found – the word ‘acting’ immediately creates an avalanche of pictures in people’s heads. Their reactions are a mixture of fascination and curiosity, immediate questions like have they seen me’“in anything they would know’ or if I know this and that famous person, spiced up with some hugely disrespectful comments, sometimes even disgust. Whatever flavour it is – telling people you are an actor prompts a lot of reaction. Most want nothing to do with it. But there are many who do.

What makes people hunger for a career that looks shiny on the outside but so obviously leaves many bodies in utter devastation? Yes, there is the glamour, the fame and fortune and all that promises to be. But the dark side of that glamour is not so hidden, it’s right in our faces. And a big part of the dark side is the fact that we, humanity – as much as we love to put someone on a pedestal – just as much love to see them fall.

The media use personal stories of our favorite stars to denigrate, gossip, blame, accuse, ridicule, condemn and humiliate the target chosen and often lied about, the spat out lies more often than not gleefully chewed, swallowed and regurgitated by the masses. The devastation those bodies are left in, harmed, abused and empty, is proof for the toxicity that is a major part of the acting industry.

Have we not been witness to countless actors who have entered the business with a bang, a successful career before them, and the more famous they got, the hollower and less vibrant they seemed? Shouldn’t having ‘made it’ have made them happier, more content, and more vital? But why does it seem like the more someone achieves in the acting industry, the more they lean towards addiction, be it alcohol, drugs, gaming or whatever the flavour de jour? It is in plain sight, even more so now that everything is displayed on social media, what ‘fame’ does to a person: the effects of the choices one is forced to make and impose on the body in order to keep up with the industry’s demands and maintain the achieved position.

We see it, we acknowledge it, and yet – those who choose this career path believe they are going to be the ones who will make it without the dark side of the fame. And maybe they will. Maybe they will not need to go to rehab for excessive substance abuse. Maybe they will manage to keep their private lives out of the spotlight. Maybe they will not get publicly divorced or body shamed or crushed by the media. Maybe, on the outside, it will look as if they have made it.

And I can speak from my own experience, my own dreams and desires and hopes, that, when you audition to go to drama school, you do believe that you will be one of them. One of those that have a stable and healthy social circle so that you don’t lose yourself. That you will be one of those who are rewarded and recognised but do not become a target of the media. That you will actually succeed, despite the also not hidden reality of countless waiters and hostesses, bartenders and babysitters who studied acting and can’t make a living from it. You hope, because you believe the world is waiting for you. And even if they tell you – like they told me on my very first day at drama school – that absolutely no one out there is waiting for you: you still believe you have that extra something that will get you into the spotlight.

Why do we believe that we can succeed despite all the dark stories we hear about and follow on social media?

Because there is a part to this career that is not transparent. A part we can sense, we can feel is there, somewhere underneath, but it does not get revealed until you pursue that path. The hidden ingredient. The mystery part that makes people wonder how you can succeed in this industry.

That special ingredient is the need that drives those who choose an acting career. That need can look different for everyone.

  • It can be a lack of recognition in your life. The feeling of not being seen, not being recognised for who you are and what you do. This need breeds the burning wish to be seen.

  • It can be the belief that you need to change the world by telling stories of those who are unheard of, not listened to, forgotten by history and humanity. The desire to educate.

  • It can be as plainly obvious as needing the applause, the glamour, the rewards and awards, the feeling of being special and better than others.

  • It can also be revenge for not being seen as a child. Showing the world, your parents, society, that you have become someone. That against all odds, you made it.

This was the flavour of my personal need to pursue an acting career. This and a lack of expression in my day-to-day life I wanted to make up for. Another flavour. Not expressing your feelings in your daily life can build an enormous tension inside your body. Acting can serve as a form of relief for that tension. You are suddenly allowed to do, say and express anything and everything you would never dare to express ’out there’.

Whatever the personal flavour, there is, in most cases, a need behind the desire to become an actor. Even those who say they are simply 'passionate’ about it – what exactly are they passionate about? The moment of catharsis when the relief hits the body after playing an emotional scene? The endless repetition of a scene, be it on set or on stage? The melting into and getting lost in a character so that after a period of filming or performing on stage you need therapy to collect the pieces of yourself to remember who you are? The extremes your body needs to go through?

The answer is: Yes. All of it. Because in order to fulfill the need – whatever it looks like – two more ingredients are added to the mix: abuse, and something I can only describe as internal poverty.

What you don’t see on social media is the abuse your body is subjected to when on this path. And I’m not talking about the obvious, in your face kind of abuse that makes you end up in rehab. I talk about the much more subtle abuse that starts when you attend drama school. How you are trained to numb your body to any feeling of shame. From dressing and changing in front of everyone to performing almost naked because you are desperate to pass an exam or get good grades.

I’m talking about silencing your body’s voice that would make you stay at home when you are so sick that you can barely walk but hey, just pump some pills into your body and you can perform, perhaps even better than usual because the pills also serve to dull the instincts to honour your natural boundaries.

I’m talking about the diminishing comments you are subjected to as a young student at drama school. How you will never make it because you are too thin, fat, old, gay, innocent or whatever the particular flavour.

I’m talking about the sexualisation of almost everything you are asked to play. About being asked to open up completely, be ‘transparent’, to then be crushed by harsh critique and judgement.

I’m talking about the fostering of self-abuse. How can you treat your own body with self-love and self-respect, when you learn that you get rewarded exponentially to the level of dishonouring what your body needs? Be it a strict diet, excessive workouts or the simple lack of adherence to what your body needs to be healthy and vital.

And where does poverty come into the mix? It’s not a secret that many, many actors cannot live from their profession. You can find them everywhere. In cafés waiting, as personal trainers at a gym, as bartenders. But the poverty goes beyond the material wealth.

Many are told (myself included) that you will not make it as an actor if you have another job. You are not 'flexible’ enough to be booked for auditions or actual jobs. A fear that is ingrained very deeply into many actors. So, they wait. They apply for acting jobs, and they wait. In most cases, Hollywood does not call. In even more cases, no one calls.

But there is the hope to make it one day, so they persevere. A perseverance that is nothing but a vicious cycle keeping you in not only material poverty but also with an inner emptiness, lack of joy and purpose, which leads to a lack of self-worth and self-respect. Not to forget the dishonouring of a body that is ready to accept abuse, and you have a life that can be very dark.

In all that darkness and emptiness, what do you do to justify this way of living? You flaunt it. You promote it. What else can you do? How else would you be able to explain the choices you make? You need to take pride in the poverty, the inner and the outer. You need to identify with it, ’That’s just part of being an artist, I don’t need much, it’s the arts I live for’. You trade a purposeful, joyful and harmonious life for an empty and desperate existence full of frustration, self-doubt, fear of losing your livelihood and, in many cases, depression.

If people ask you why you are doing it, you have the answers at the ready. 'At least I’m following my dream and am not working in an office 40 hours a week.’ ‘There are so many examples of famous actors who made it in their forties or even fifties, I just need to be patient and it will happen.’ ‘The perfect role just hasn’t been written yet.’

I did use those excuses for five years. They were heavy on my tongue and felt toxic in my body, but what other choice did I have? The only other choice would have been to give up. Another layer of the whole construct: the fear of failing. As long as you persevere, as long as you hold on to that lifestyle, the poverty, the abuse, you haven’t failed, because you still tick society’s boxes of what it means to be an actor. As long as you take on projects you get very little or sometimes no money for because you are so grateful to at least be working – you are a part of that world and get some recognition. It’s not the recognition you desire but still, recognition.

And in many cases that false recognition does serve just as well to fulfill the need as would the big red carpet events. It’s all the same. Rich and famous or poor and caught in a waiting loop – there is no difference.

You willingly become an advertising billboard for non-commitment to life, for withdrawal, for the seemingly justified refusal to be a full, contributing part of society. Because how can you possibly contribute anything if you keep holding on to that inner poverty, which does, disguised as the excuse of an artist’s lifestyle, nothing but promote the movement of arrogance and entitlement and the ceaseless demand that you will only contribute when your agenda is met. And this is not only communicated to, but normalised, celebrated and glamourised in the world.

Until someone comes along and asks you the very same question you have been asked hundreds of times, but they ask you with an integrity that makes you stop and that makes all the at-the-ready-replies crumble to dust in your mouth. 'Why do you want to be an actress?’ When I was asked this question in 2020, I had been stuck in this vicious abusive cycle for five years. I was frustrated, angry, sad and there was very little self-love or self-respect in me. I was ready to be stopped. And stopped I was. By someone who inspires me deeply, who works as an actress in this industry with an integrity and level of self-honouring and tenderness, not only towards others but also towards her own body, I had never come across before. From that point of self-care, she asked me this question, clearly seeing the abuse I had allowed to be imposed on my body. And it resonated deeply. It made me stop. It made me realise that there was no joy in my life, no purpose, no lightness. I could suddenly see the poverty I had held myself in, while desperately holding on to my 'dream’.

But who dares ask us a question like this, offering a real stop moment? Who is so free of society’s pictures and ideals and move in an industry designed to crush you, with tenderness and grace, not flaunting and promoting self-abuse, that they can see through the charade? Who opens the door to a sense of self-love we have long lost?

And the most important question: Do we want to be stopped? Do we want to hear the truth? Do we want to be a contributing member of society? Can we honestly say that we want to get out of the internal and external poverty? Are we ready and willing to let go of the ideals, to stop seeking false recognition, to end the self-abuse and to look at ourselves, our body and our life with love and tenderness?

And what would happen if the integrity I was met with could be found in the entire acting industry? What if the level of care, self-love and tenderness I was met with for the first time in 2020 was not the exception, but the normal? Would this change the how and why people aspire to become actors? Would it change the how and why actors are put on a pedestal, admired, envied and glorified?

It did change my life. That simple question, 'Why do you want to be an actress’, asked from a point of truth that did not want me to succeed, fail, excuse, justify, glorify or pretend – that just asked me to stop, lifted a veil I had been holding on to for years. I suddenly saw the ugliness of what I had promoted. I saw the false perfection I had seen in others and sought in myself. The need to prove to myself and others that I could make it. Become someone important. I saw how I had hidden from the world, withdrawn and empty inside, not able to see any purpose to why I would get out of bed in the morning. I saw it all and I stepped out of it.

I allowed myself to step out of the abusive patterns I had imposed on my body. I allowed to look at myself with love, which simply meant: is it true for me to do acting jobs I do not get paid for? Is it true to not work, to not take on a day job, so I am ‘free’ for a call that might come or not? Is it true to move in poverty, not only the financial kind but the internal one I could feel was feeding on me, gnawing away all joy and lightness? Did I need to prove anything to anyone?

The answer to all of those questions was: No. So, I let it go.

This was my choice. I did see with my own eyes that it is possible to work in this industry with integrity and zero self-abuse. But once the veil had fallen, once the need that had been feeding the desire to act was exposed, I was able to see that acting was not my path. For me, it was not true. For others, it might be. Not as a dream of wealth and fame and drama, but actually true.

What we get to see then on a screen or a stage, is free of those toxic impositions. It is not calling the audience to applaud a way of living that is driven by desire and demanding self-abuse. We get to see a body that supports telling a story, but without selling perfection or recognition. A body that supports questioning and exposing society’s ideals and beliefs on behalf of everyone. We get to see that acting is a job. Not more or less serving to all than any other job.

Wouldn’t this stop the false glorification of ‘stars’? But where are we at as a society that we do not demand to see this basic level of integrity on screen and on stage? Do we appreciate our own jobs? Do we do our jobs for ourselves or because we know it serves all others equally? Do we hold ourselves as important as the actors we happily put on a pedestal?

Or is that pedestal we put others on really a form of comfort we choose because deep down we realise that there is another layer to it, and that layer being responsibility? A responsibility that is asked of, but (in most cases) not being lived up to by those who are in the spotlight, who have a voice that is being heard by the masses, who have a wide reach and who are given the chance to speak up and address what needs to be addressed. And do we also realise that in truth, there are no levels of responsibility? That the choices I make in my day-to-day life are equally shaping our world, even if I don’t post them on Instagram? If we see ourselves as less than another, is that then not a convenient excuse to not take responsibility for our choices?

If I am irresponsible and no one sees me, who then cares? But what would happen if we allowed ourselves to see how important we all are, no matter what job we do? Wouldn’t we stop glorifying one career path and looking down on another? Wouldn’t we simply equally celebrate everyone?

What would the acting industry look like if we, as a society, supported actors to lovingly care for their bodies? If we supported them to nurture their bodies instead of promoting ideals, we, as a society, demand of them to promote?

None of us is more important than another. And thus, each and every one of us is equally responsible for not only our own life, but for the world we create and all live in, together. We have an impact on each other.

If we follow and like a story on Instagram that clearly displays a state of abuse, don’t we in some way contribute to that abuse by demanding more? Do we realise the pressure we place upon each other? And do we equally realise the beauty and power of us, as a collective, if we start caring about ourselves, about one another, thus seeing through the abuse that gets promoted and displayed, and potentially stopping it? If we say yes to that, what will be the new definition of a ‘beautiful body’ we see on a TV screen?

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  • By Nadine Nourney, Actress and voice actress, recording manager at a dubbing studio, translator and author of dubbing scripts, editor

    I absolutely love words and exploring their essence and beauty in written and spoken form. There is nothing more joyful than allowing a word to communicate everything it is, beyond what it first may look or sound like.

  • Photography: Iris Pohl, Photographer and Videographer

    Iris Pohl is an expert in capturing images with a natural light style. Little to no time is needed for photoshop editing and the 'original' moment captured to represent your brand and remain in its authenticity.