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We didn’t have the empathy to talk about Elvis’ health problems then. What about now?

  • July 06, 2022

Elvis catapulted into fame with his legendary pompadour and pelvic gyrations, America swooned. The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll shocked prudish 1950s America with his hip swiveling and unprecedented charm and was treated as an icon – until his tragic final years.

Numerous documentaries have exposed the fatal cost of fame for Elvis, who wasn’t the healthiest of eaters and increasingly relied on drugs to both sleep and perform. And with his grueling recording and concert schedules, many speculated that he was struggling with isolation in Graceland as well as the pressures to excel after his hiatus in the Army and the booming popularity of The Beatles.

Once he strayed from his picture-perfect, seductive image, some ridiculed and discarded him. Since he died 45 years ago, he has become the butt of “fat Elvis” jokes and is still mocked over the circumstances of his death. (According to the medical examiner’s report, the singer died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease at 42.)  

“Elvis” (in theaters) strives to humanize the legendary singer beyond his musical abilities. Austin Butler stars as the American heartthrob through the years: as a rocking teen who eventually spirals under the crumbling pressure of success, money and power.

“I realized this man was as iconic as they come, and yet he of course was a human being, sensitive and vulnerable, with virtues and flaws, and I got to experience all of that,” Butler said in a USA TODAY interview. 

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Psychologists say efforts to reimagine celebrities as more than their stardom and wealth succeed in destigmatizing and humanizing the mental health conversation.

“We tended to treat Elvis as someone who was supposed to be a very wonderful icon of American rock and roll. As he began to age, his mental health problems began to surface and people didn’t know what to make of that, because many assume that type of person should be impervious to human issues,” says Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of “Joy from Fear.”

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Instead of being shown compassion, Elvis was mocked and ridiculed. Why?

Elvis embodied modern American youth and rock ‘n’ roll, changing the course of popular music with his songs, dance moves, charisma and wardrobe.

But especially in his later years, he developed a range of phobias and obsessions, had trouble sleeping and gradually relied on drugs to get through the day. And rather than being shown empathy, he was mocked by the country that lifted him onto the pedestal. 

Experts say it’s common for people to detach celebrities from reality and laugh at them for entertainment and amusement.

But Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist specializing in celebrity mental health, says the cultural mockery of imperfect stars speaks to “a part of human nature we’re not particularly proud of.”

“We don’t want celebrities to actually have that picture-perfect life. … We really aren’t happy for them, because we want that life, too, and we can’t get it,” Rockwell says. “So when we see a celebrity altered in any way, we can say ‘Oh, see, they faltered,’ or ‘They’re not perfect.’ And we love to criticize the celebrity to bring them back down to our level.” 

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Manly adds the objectification of Elvis also played a role in this mistreatment: not only was he used as a “moneymaking machine” by power-hungry leaders in the industry, but he was also sexualized and reduced to an image by his young female fans. 

As soon as we begin to objectify real people, “we completely remove the individual’s personality, their true selves. We don’t know what their fears are, what their hopes are, what their dreams are, what their sadness is. We just see whatever we want,” Manly says.

“When Elvis was doing well, people were projecting onto him the rock star, sexual image …  then as he began to get older and he lost the luster, people were no longer seeing him as a sex symbol, as the man of America, but they saw him as a deteriorating rock star. And they did not like that.”

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overwhelming demand from fans played a part in his fall. 

Some experts agree Elvis may have been performing at a feverish pace to meet fans’ demands at the expense of his well-being. The pressure to perform, the loss of privacy and the incessant public scrutiny can also cause anxiety and depression – leaving some to cope with medications, alcohol or other substances to reduce stress.

“People become agoraphobic. They don’t want to go out. Why would you want to go out and have people staring at you and judging you all the time?” says Rockwell, adding that “a lot is given away when an artist becomes famous that they are ill-prepared for.”

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When it comes to public figures and mental health, Manly notes that it is often difficult for those constantly in the spotlight to seek help.

“People think: ‘Oh, you’re a star or you have money. Therefore, you should be happy. You have all of the money in the world. How could you possibly have problems? … If you’re depressed, go see a therapist or check yourself into rehab if you need to.'”

But in the case of Elvis, Manly notes, it would have been “much more difficult than your average Joe, who isn’t worried about how people will be looking at him.”

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We may have failed Elvis. What needs to be done in the future?

In recent years, Hollywood has tried to spread awareness about the human aspects of celebrities. Aside from “Elvis,” new retellings like Netflix’s “Blonde,” starring Ana de Armas,  “explore the widening split between (Marilyn Monroe)’s public and private selves.”

These efforts do not right the wrongs of the past. But when we see the complexity of stars beyond their fame and fortune, “the public is then forced to see them as human,” Manly says.

“It’s more difficult to project onto somebody who’s showing their fault lines. It’s more difficult to project onto that person that ideal of perfection.”

Having studied the psychology behind fan-celebrity relationships for more than 20 years, Rockwell says, she has observed a growing culture of empathy and compassion from the younger generation. She credits this to public figures like Selena Gomez, Billie Eilish and Michael Phelps, who use their platforms to share their struggles and help reduce mental health stigma. 

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“What will create a better and more empathic relationship between fans and celebrities is more celebrities empowering themselves to speak out about their authentic being,” Rockwell says. “I think that younger people today are really responding to vulnerability in ways that an older generation just didn’t.” 

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Contributing: Marco della Cava

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