By: Larry Dobrow, Senior editor, MM&M
After Michael Phelps capped off his storied athletic career by winning five gold medals and one silver at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, he placed a call to longtime agent Peter Carlisle. While Carlisle was eager to conduct a postmortem on Phelps’ performance, his client had other ideas for the conversation.
“Michael jumped in with ‘I made a point to talk to every other person on the U.S. team, and these kids are screwed,’” recalls Carlisle, Phelps’ agent since 2002 and a renowned shepherd for Olympic athletes. “I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Nobody prepares them for what they’re about to go through. We need to do something about this.’”
At his previous three Olympics, Phelps was so focused on his goals that he barely interacted with members of his inner circle, much less his teammates. Now here he was, taking an active and urgent interest in the mental and emotional well-being of a group of people he barely knew.
Carlisle wasn’t surprised. The year before, an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden, envisioned as an Olympic preview, turned into a full-on confessional. Phelps spoke openly for the first time about his fragile mental health — and, in so doing, set the stage for his unlikely transformation into an influential mental health advocate.
“The feedback he got was incredible. Just speaking about it had such an impact,” Carlisle says. “He was so desperate and hopeless, then he found a pathway to a better life. That’s what he wants to share with people.”
Phelps may be among the most celebrated athletes to effect such a personal and professional transformation, but he isn’t alone. The ranks of famous people who have leveraged their celebrity to achieve a sizable degree of influence in the worlds of health and wellness continue to expand. Recent years have seen Serena Williams address a range of issues around childbirth, particularly those disproportionately affecting African-American mothers; actor Selma Blair chronicle the struggles and small victories that characterize her life with multiple sclerosis; and actor/comic Kevin Hart reinvent himself as a go-to source for running and fitness information.
That isn’t to say that celebrities hadn’t entered the mix well before social media lowered the bar for entry. For instance, Michael J. Fox is now arguably better known for his advocacy around Parkinson’s disease — he was diagnosed in 1991 at age 28 and disclosed his condition publicly in 1998 — than he is for Back to the Future or Family Ties. Similarly, in the wake of the accident that left him quadriplegic, Christopher Reeve’s advocacy and lobbying made him a superhero in the world of spinal-cord research.
But prior to the social-media era, celebrities had to steer their stories through traditional media channels — a People magazine cover here, a Diane Sawyer sit-down there. As a result, the authenticity felt stage-managed.
“It used to be all about getting someone that a morning show or a glossy magazine or a big newspaper would want. For companies, it was essentially, ‘Go find a celebrity who can retroactively fit into our campaign,’” says Jessica Birardi, a senior influencer strategist at Syneos Health, of the era in which the health and wellness influence of celebrities was media-filtered.
Social media changes the game
Not surprisingly, Birardi attributes the rise of celebrities playing in the health and wellness spaces in large part to social media. At the same time, she cautions that the ubiquity of Instagram, Twitter and the like gives rise to an unfounded confidence that influence is easily accumulated. “Most people’s authenticity radar is up. You can tell very quickly who is just doing something for the money and who believes in it,” she says.
You can also tell who’s peddling junk science. The dark side to celebrity advocacy is that such information — most notably about the “dangers” of vaccinations, which have been thoroughly debunked by myriad medical professionals — finds more of an audience via Jenny McCarthy than it would if peddled by some rando on Facebook.
That said, influence within the realms of consumer health and wellness flows naturally to well-known individuals who post credible information and share their own stories without artifice. “For celebrities on social media, if I believe that they’re real, I’m all in. They immediately rise to the top of people worth paying attention to,” Birardi adds.
For all the deep-fakery infesting social media, it turns out that honesty and empathy aren’t easy to counterfeit. Perhaps that’s why Shannen Doherty, previously renowned as much for her tantrums as her tele-emoting, has more influence as a survivor of breast cancer than she ever did as a working actor. In addition to documenting her treatment and recovery, Doherty has attempted to shine a light on the often downplayed physical and emotional aftershocks that hit in the wake of a grueling illness.
For celebrities on social media, if I believe that they’re real, I’m all in. They immediately rise to the top of people worth paying attention to.
— Jessica Birardi, Syneos Health
That, perhaps, is the major difference between the current era of celebrity health influence and the one that preceded it: Digital trails are easily followed.
Take the example of singer Bebe Rexha. On April 15, she disclosed on Twitter that she has bipolar disorder. “For the longest time, I didn’t understand why I felt so sick. Why I felt lows that made me not want to leave my house or be around people and why I felt highs that wouldn’t let me sleep, wouldn’t let me stop working or creating music. Now I know why,” she posted. “I’m bipolar and I’m not ashamed anymore. That is all. (Crying my eyes out.)”
Had she stopped there, Rexha might have had credibility to insert herself into the ongoing conversation around mental health. However, the tweet that followed suggested an ulterior ambition behind the revelation: “This next album will be [sic] favorite album ever because I’m not holding anything back. I love you all very much. And I hope you accept me as I am.”
Is it just for their brand?
“It’s become in fashion for a celebrity to say, ‘I have this disorder.’ But it’s easy to sniff out who’s doing it to help people and who’s doing it to help their brand,” says Eric Kussin, head of We’re All A Little Crazy, a nonprofit that counts normalizing perceptions of mental health as its mission.
Kussin, who spent what he calls “two and a half years in hell” suffering from PTSD and depression due to unresolved personal life traumas and now works alongside athletes including Amanda Beard, Chamique Holdsclaw and Tyler Hamilton, doesn’t point fingers or attempt to ascribe motives to people he doesn’t know. But it’s worth noting that Rexha — who joined the Jonas Brothers on their “Happiness Begins” tour over the summer — hasn’t mentioned her condition or amplified any messages related to mental health since that date. And that’s fine. Not every celebrity wants the responsibility, or is cut out to handle it.
“Social media can, in some cases, help people realize they’re not alone,” Kussin adds. “It’s a little bit like fast-food communication, though.”
That’s why the next generation of celebrities with a health- or wellness-related story to share would be wise to follow the Phelps or Blair model of consistent, empathetic engagement. “I don’t think many people are looking at famous people as the end-all, be-all for medical knowledge,” says author and entrepreneur Peter Shankman, who hosts the Faster Than Normal podcast exploring issues around ADHD and neurodiversity. “But if what they say triggers a conversation and a person ends up going to speak with someone who is a professional — you’d rather see that conversation than nothing at all, which is what we used to have.”
Birardi agrees, adding celebrity involvement around a health issue, whether it comes in the form of a new-era post or an old-one staged interview, practically amplifies itself. “It’s a great place for people to start and maybe find encouragement,” she says. “[Health and wellness] is not about whether you’re going to try this new lipstick or not. It’s something that encompasses your entire life.”
I don’t think many people are looking at famous people as the end-all, be-all for medical knowledge.
— Peter Shankman, author and entrepreneur
As for Phelps, the speaking and hand-shaking/baby-kissing opportunities that come his way now have less to do with inspiration than they do empathy and forging genuine connections. When people approach him to discuss his Olympic glories, Carlisle says, Phelps tolerates it: “He loves talking about swimming, but it’s taxing for him. He’s expending energy.”
But when they seek to talk with Phelps about mental health — theirs, most often, but also his — Phelps instantly engages. “Some guy will come up and say, ‘Hey, I have this problem…’ and Michael won’t want to stop talking to him,” Carlisle continues. “After a little while, the guy will try to get away from him, because he feels bad about taking Michael’s time. But Michael just loves that role.”
It’s one that he plans to embrace even more enthusiastically in the years ahead. While he’ll continue his relationships with online therapy provider Talkspace and mental health research and technology firm Medibio (Carlisle sits on its board of directors), Phelps will devote a lion’s share of his energy and attention to his eponymous foundation. Its signature offering, IM, aims to add a mental and emotional health component to the curriculum at schools worldwide.
The effort is an ambitious one, to be sure. “It’s a completely different kettle of fish to get something like this into public schools,” Carlisle concedes. “But to have Michael’s voice in this, addressing these types of issues and getting kids to talk about it, is so important. Not to dump on Mr. Jones the science teacher, but Michael Phelps telling you it’s OK to not be OK is going to have a different impact than Mr. Jones saying the same thing.”