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Daniel Johns and the fame trap: get famous enough to buy back the freedom you once had

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Martin Philbey/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Martin Philbey/Redferns

Fame. You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy, particularly not if your enemy was very young.

Fame of the extreme kind – when you are a household name and your image is worshipped on bedroom walls and all manner of fantasies are projected on you – can be experienced as a form of trauma.

A case in point is Daniel Johns, the former frontman of Silverchair.

Related: Who is Daniel Johns? The hit podcast untangling Silverchair’s enigmatic frontman

Johns was 15 when he became globally famous, and much of the hit new Spotify podcast Who is Daniel Johns is about the trauma resulting from such intense and early fame.

In the podcast Johns details not being able to leave his house because of fans camped out in his street; people ringing his manager and threatening to kill themselves unless they talked to him; girls who said they were pregnant with his child, and middle aged women who had maternal fantasies about the teen singer.

His manager, John Watson, told the podcast: “A number of the more obsessive crazies who would come after Daniel were people his mother’s age, who sadly had terminations around the time Daniel had been born, and they became obsessed with this idea that Daniel was the son they had never had. There were many of these people.” One woman stole his mother’s ID and would use it to get backstage. She followed the band around Europe. Johns ended up needing extra security.

“Can you imagine being 17 and every time you need to do a piss, he (security) would follow me and stand right beside me? It made me feel anxious, like really anxious,” Johns said.

*

Anxiety is a common thread that runs through the five episodes of the podcast. But I wonder how it would be possible to be famous, and not anxious?

Part of the problem for the famous person is that when in public, they can’t just be. Something is always being demanded of them (a selfie, a conversation, a connection) and they are monitored in unnatural ways. Every time a non-famous person meets a famous person, it becomes a story.

If you ran into Johns at a bus stop, any interaction with him would be transformed into an encounter and your friends would ask, “What was he really like?” A diagnosis or assessment of character is then made from the thinnest slice of reality, and the encounter with the famous person then becomes an anecdote to be repeated and repeated.

This robs the famous person of just being a person, of being rude or tired, or a bit off. This is actually the most damaging kind of theft because it is the loss of the ability to be unselfconscious, which is just another way of saying the ability to be free. Instead the famous person is watched and photographed and reported on to the extent that it would put the most gnarly surveillance state to shame. But we call it fame and hold it out as something to aspire to.

The self-consciousness that results from this level of fame can become a sort of prison. That is why you often see the famous person create and develop shields in the form of a posse of friends and associates that always accompanies them in public. Or the famous person becomes a recluse. Or they use drugs and alcohol as a shield to dissociate from the crippling and unnatural self-consciousness of always being watched and wanted.

The Spotify podcast is titled Who is Daniel Johns, but it’s a question that could be asked of any famous person. Who is Britney? Who was Amy? Who was Kurt?

The famous person has a secret self, probably in order to actually survive, and what we see is projection, PR, image and our own desires reflected back at us.

Enough money and enough runs on the board, and they even get a free pass to fail a bit.

But fame can create a hunger in the media and for fans to possess and know the real who of that person – the secret sauce, the authentic essence, the unguarded moment (the “who” is so essential to the fame enterprise that Australia’s leading celebrity magazine is simply called Who).

What fame is good for, is it allows the famous person to get into the place where art is made – and for the true artist that’s the only place they really want to be.

The fame gives them the money, or the reputation or the connections to create something that’s going to light them up. Enough money and enough runs on the board, and they even get a free pass to fail a bit – do a record no one buys, or write a bad book or do strange collaborations with people that have always fascinated them. The fame is like something real and tangible in an account that they can draw down on. If they suffer enough and are successful enough, they too can be free.

Related: What will happen to anger if it’s left to fester? It will blow up | Brigid Delaney

Of course this is like someone enduring 30 years of misery working a desk job at an insurance firm so they can spend their retirement in a fishing boat off the gulf of Mexico, when in actual fact that choice was always available to them. You just do it. What was stopping them at 25 doing what they are now doing at 65? Just go to Mexico and drop a line in the water. People have been doing it for thousands of years without a million dollars in the bank.

And this is the horrible irony – get famous enough and they just might be able to buy back the freedom that they had before they were famous.

The joy at the end of the Daniel Johns podcast is that you can see he’s made his break for the border – that freedom is there for him in a way it wasn’t before.

“I have been learning that the longer I’m away from people’s opinions the stronger I become,” Johns told The Project when promoting the podcast. “Art is not a way to receive validation. I believe it’s a way to feel connected to whatever this is and not a way to make people feel something for you. I’m not sure what I’m doing. I am sure how I want to do it though.”

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