When a celebrity discloses an illness, the world seems to stand still for a moment. Acknowledging that the beautiful, talented and rich are also, well, human reminds us commonfolk of our own mortality.
In this situation, celebrities typically choose one of two routes: Either they become champions for the disease afflicting them, as Michael J. Fox did after announcing his years-long battle with Parkinson’s, or they ask that the public respects their privacy and they go through treatment in (relative) peace.
While neither option is “right” or “wrong,” people who have the same health condition as a celebrity often have strong opinions about how this celebrity handles their illness. As health insights website Treato discovered in an analysis of online conversations about celebrities and their health conditions, people want celebrity patients to be proud advocates — and resent them when they’re not.
Out of all the celebrities Treato looked at, Catherine Zeta-Jones was the most well-liked. If you don’t remember, it was reported in 2011 that the Welsh actress sought treatment for bipolar disorder. In subsequent interviews, Zeta-Jones was frank and open about her struggles with mental illness because, she said, she didn’t think it was anything to be ashamed of and recognized that tens of millions worldwide dealt with similar issues.
To people struggling with bipolar disorder and other types of mental illness, Zeta-Jones was seen as a positive role model. The stability that she appeared to have achieved in her professional and private lives made her not only relatable but also enviable. In other words, fans wanted to be like her.
In the health forums Treato investigated, fans decidedly did not want to be like Kim Kardashian, who suffers from psoriasis. If Catherine Zeta-Jones is the picture of elegance and professional achievement, Kim Kardashian is the exact opposite. In the episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” in which the reality star and model visits a dermatologist and is diagnosed with psoriasis, she worried about “what the tabloids would do to [her] if they saw all these spots.”
Patients with psoriasis felt that Kardashian had wasted an opportunity to address the stigma related to the condition. Had she accepted her diagnosis without shame, she could have inspired others to do the same. Not surprisingly, there were no positive online conversations regarding Kim Kardashian and her treatment.
Former President Jimmy Carter and actor Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ husband, were two other notable celebrities in Treato’s analysis. People felt that Carter, who recently underwent treatment for melanoma, was raising awareness for immunotherapy, a new method for treating cancer. Similarly, online commenters said that Michael Douglas had taught them that HPV can cause cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2010. Like his wife, Douglas was seen as more relatable than other celebrities.
Perhaps what patients ultimately want from celebrities with whom they share a health condition is hope. If stars, who have so much to lose, can face an illness with courage and speak openly about their struggles, what’s stopping the rest of us?