4 Rags-to-Riches Success Stories That Are Full of Crap
Some lies are obvious. If a homeless person approaches you and says that he can predict your future in exchange for a dollar, you'll probably realize that he's not telling the truth (personally, this only took me $4). If your parents raised you to believe that punching a pack of wolves to death is the only noble way into adulthood, you're going to learn soon after your first wolf bite that your parents are crazy people.
Thanks a lot, Mom.
Other lies, however, are so insanely prevalent that they've become difficult to recognize. For example ...
"My Upbringing Was So Rough!"
These days, it's trendy for famous, successful people to talk about how terrible their life was before they made it big. This is especially popular in the music industry. If you're a famous musician who was unfortunate enough not to come from a poor or underprivileged background, don't worry: You can exaggerate wildly, or just plain make shit up.
For example, if you're a Canadian former child actor who starred in Degrassi as a teenager, that won't stop you from releasing songs in which you brag about how you "started from the bottom." If you're the child of a successful Nashville songwriter, you can emphasize how said parent was a struggling single mother, to the point of allegedly lying about never knowing your father.
"I was born to indigent sharecroppers at the height of the Great Depression."
But we can't really blame these people. We, the general public, like to maintain the belief that there is no real system of class or inherited wealth in this country, and part of this belief is a demand for rags-to-riches stories. Public figures know that their successful careers will appeal to us much more if they hint that they spent their childhood hunting and killing beetles for food rather than taking violin lessons. Despite how widespread it is, there's no word that describes this exaggeration of a famous person's former indigence. So I'll call it "indigeration," because I like my made-up words to sound like obscure Roman sex acts.
Why It's Ruining Everything
It takes a lot to develop a successful music career. You need money for instruments and lessons. You need hours of leisure time daily to practice and develop skills. You need family members to drive you around and take you to lessons and competitions. You need a butler to pick up all your crumpled music-writing sheets and broken guitar strings. None of these things are exactly overflowing in genuinely damaged backgrounds.
Most working-class Americans can afford, at best, a part-time butler.
Of course, there are musicians who are born so talented that they don't need any of that and build their own instruments out of the piles of dirty needles in their parents' bedrooms. But successful people from horrible backgrounds usually get out of those situations by doing things that are not typical for that background. This applies to all kinds of successful careers, not just music: If your upbringing really sucked, a big part of becoming successful will involve differentiating yourself as much as possible from the people around you. If you're from a family of meth dealers, you'll have to forgo spending your teenage years learning the meth trade. If your parents are poor alcoholics, you'll need to save up all those beer cans and trade them in for deposit money instead of learning the art of crushing them with your head like everyone else.
It's like missing your own bar mitzvah.
But audiences don't want to hear that about their favorite musicians, because "staying inside practicing scales while all the other 15-year-olds drink until they puke" is far too boring and middle class and unromantic a story for the music industry. So instead, young music fans are left with the impression that, even if you're raised by homeless crack addicts, you can just party hard and one day the magical success fairy will come to you, too.
Sure, you say, but some people do make awful adolescent decisions and end up doing just fine. Well, some people can get away with bad decisions more than others. Which leads me to ...
"I Haven't Had Any Help!"
Years back, I worked in a hotel that had a bunch of boutique clothing stores across the street from it. I noticed that these stores hardly ever had any customers, and I asked another hotel employee how the hell they stayed in business. "Oh, they're vanity stores," he said. "They're run by women with rich husbands. They don't need to make a profit."
I guess the shop called "FUCK YOU, CUSTOMER" should have been a clue.
Since then, I've discovered that these vanity projects are much like our reptilian overlords: hidden everywhere in plain sight. If you live in a big city, you've probably frequented many of these for-fun businesses without noticing that they don't need to turn a profit to survive. Think of that artisan coffee shop that made you grind your own beans, or the gallery that contained nothing but impressionist portraits of the artist's own dick. The cash support behind vanity projects is not always quite as obvious: The writer across the street might technically be living off the money he makes writing free-form poetry about Nicolas Cage, but his parents are probably still buying his health insurance and chipping in money whenever he gets hit with another stalking charge.
Why It's Ruining Everything
There's nothing inherently wrong with a business or career being financially supported by another person. It's the fact that nobody admits to this that does the damage. In our society, financial help of any kind is treated like an embarrassing groin rash to be kept to ourselves and the necessary professionals. But this means that many of us who don't have that outside support see people like the Nicolas Cage poet getting by just fine, and we conclude that Nicolas Cage poetry is a viable career for anyone.
Even for Nicolas Cage.
Everyone laughs at Joe Graduate Student, who spent $50,000 on a useless master's degree in fan fiction studies or whatever. But maybe Joe, and many students like him, grew up seeing other people with similarly useless degrees who seemed to be doing just fine. No one mentioned to Joe that these other uselessly degreed people had parents who were quietly paying off their credit cards every month. So Joe followed his dream and got the degree, and today he is selling his body to supplement his fan fiction income.
You don't want to know what's in that cup.
Obviously, this doesn't mean that anyone without rich parents should resign themselves to working 16-hour shifts in the potato factory until they die (well, unless they're in Idaho. I'm pretty sure they don't let anyone out of Idaho). But lacking a hidden safety net woven from your parents' hundred-dollar bills means that you'll have to work harder, accept more risks, and recognize that if you fail, you will fail harder. Instead of acknowledging this, though, we've created a fantasy world in which we pretend that anyone can afford a condo in New York with the profits from their homemade cat jewelry startup.
"The Weight Just Fell Off!"
Did you know that a big part of being "successful" in our society consists of being thin and good-looking? Now that everyone's jaws have undropped from that shocking revelation, I'll go on: Every week, dozens of magazines feature "weight loss secrets" from various formerly slightly fatter celebrities, and these secrets always seem ridiculously easy. Usually, this weight-loss wisdom consists of comments about how they "do yoga occasionally" or "go to Jazzercise twice a week." Every actress and model in the world stays in rake-thin shape simply by exercising a normal amount and not stuffing their face with every roll of unbaked cookie dough they see.
"I cut down to five dough rolls a day. Six, tops."
Sorry, Skinny Magazine People, but this is bullshit. The human body is extremely good at conserving energy and remaining in a lumpy, dumpling-like state. Losing a lot of weight quickly, especially after age 25 or so, usually requires a huge amount of effort. I'm talking hours with a personal trainer every day, personalized diets, and (sometimes) just plain starving yourself. And indeed, several celebrities have come out and admitted that their publicists instructed them to wildly exaggerate the ease of their "easy" weight loss. One catwalk model admitted that she spent years telling magazines that she simply ate healthy to maintain her figure, when in reality she and most of the models around her were literally starving themselves. Maintaining the "model" figure can be so hard on the adult human body that magazine editors have even been caught editing out signs of poor health and starvation in catwalk models.
"Just edit those teeth right back in."
So what's with all the lying? Most of these celebrities give out their dieting advice via publicists. It's not a publicist's job to get their clients to tell the truth; it's their job to make their clients likeable, and people like celebrities they can relate to. Extreme dieting, or an exercise regimen that's more demanding than a full-time job, does not exactly make you come across as one of the common people.
Why It's Ruining Everything
This "Losing weight is easy!" bullshit is about as good for society as a no-calorie diet is for your health. People who want to lose weight and try to follow celebrity advice will soon discover that the weight isn't "falling off" as promised and give up. Women who aren't rake-thin two months after having a baby are left looking like they're just too lazy to walk around the house now and then. Even people who successfully lose weight probably won't get any credit for it: After all, that stuff is easy, right?
Ten minutes ago, both of these women were 200 pounds heavier.
You might be thinking, "Well, it serves people right for listening to celebrities!" But like it or not, models and actors are considered the professionals of being thin and good-looking. If Olympic runners started lying about how easy it is to be an Olympic runner -- they didn't train at all, and "the seconds just flew off" -- we'd probably have a problem. But these professional non-fat people keep dishing out shitty dieting advice year after year, and everyone's OK with it.
"I'm Here Because I Followed My Bliss!"
From businessmen to best-selling authors to the billionaire whose ruby-encrusted shoes you're currently shining, every successful person hands out this same piece of career advice: Follow your dreams. Be passionate. Believe in yourself, and one day you can be where I am now.
"Assistant manager of the Giant Rubik's Cube Storage Yard, bitches."
Why It's Ruining Everything
It's not that this advice is bad, exactly. It's that it's useless.
You will never be this man.
Imagine you're watching the end of a bear-triathlon. Ten thousand people started this great annual event, and 30 managed to get past the swimming-away-from-bears, cycling-away-from-bears, and running-away-from-bears components and finish. These 30 people then give speeches telling us that the key to finishing the bear-triathlon is to believe in yourself. And they would know, right? They haven't been eaten by a single bear!
Until you consider that everybody who entered that triathlon believed in themselves. And it wasn't enough. Some of the losers hadn't trained enough, some ate bad Mexican food the night before, and some just weren't fast enough to outrun a bear. Similarly, everyone wants to be successful enough to be able to give speeches telling others how they can become just as awesome. If it were that easy, everyone would be that awesome already, and these speech-givers wouldn't have an audience.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't try to do what you're passionate about. That's for your earnest working-class parents to tell you as they beg you to take over the family air-conditioning business instead of starting your own naked hipster circus or whatever. But we should stop putting so much weight on this "having passion" thing, and instead accept that passion is the first step, one that makes absolutely no guarantees. If you can't get what you want despite throwing bucketfuls of passion at it daily, the problem might not be as simple as you not passioning hard enough. Maybe there's something else that's getting in your way. Or maybe your passion object just isn't suitable for you and it's time for you to move on and try something else.
Like making cat jewelry.
C. Coville has a Tumblr here and a Twitter here.
For things celebrities aren't fooling about, check out 33 Facts About Famous People You Won't Believe Are True.