Expert Explains How The ’27 Club’ May Be A Result Of Stars Having ‘Formative Years Hijacked By Fame’
Many famous artists have fallen victim to the 27 Club – from Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain, to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin – it begs the question of why this age can be so catastrophic for those in the spotlight.
Some of the first known musicians to have died at the age of 27 date all the way back to the 1800s, and it’s a trend that doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.
While the 27 Club may be known for rock and roll members like Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison, visual artists include Jean-Michel Basquiat and Dash Snow – its doors opened for Big Brother’s Jade Goody.
Singer and former Disney star Miley Cyrus found herself on a downward spiral in her early 20s, which led to the Wrecking Ball singer sobering up in a bid to steer clear of the 27 Club.
Cyrus, who turned 28 last November, said in an interview last year, as per NME:
27 to me was a year that I really had to protect myself. That actually really made me want to get sober because we’ve lost so many icons at 27. It’s a very pivotal time.
You go into that next chapter or this is it for you. I just feel that some of the artists that almost couldn’t handle their own power and their own energy and their own force… It’s an energy.
One thing many of those who have ended up being part of the 27 Club have something in common; they all became famous at a young age. While Miley Cyrus didn’t fall victim to the club, she’s a shining example of the affects fame can have on young people.
Your teens and early 20s can prove as pivotal times for your mental health development, and undeniably those who find themselves in the spotlight end up having very different experiences compared to those who don’t. Amy Winehouse was first signed by a record label at 16, while Jimi Hendrix was playing in Little Richard’s band by 22.
Psychologist Lee Chambers explained to UNILAD, ‘There is no doubt that fame has a psychological impact on those who seek and acquire it. When somebody becomes famous, they are suddenly thrust into a surge of attention that is in itself an intense experience. At the same time, once we have transitioned into a position of fame, we can never go back to the unknown version of ourselves.’
‘It is a transition that is not dissimilar to dying, and it is especially challenging given those who chase it devote a significant part of their lives to do so. It becomes their mission, a goal and focus to push towards, and then suddenly they achieve it, entering this new world where it’s pretty isolating, but everyone is looking at them.’
Discussing how it affects people who find fame at a young age, Lee said:
The world of a famous child is lonely, high pressured, full of external influences and expectations and often challenging to navigate. Parents or guardians will likely be behind the scenes, making decisions and providing support, but fame forces you to grow up quickly and be under the public gaze constantly. This leads to not only a shortened childhood, but also significant difficulty in expressing their identity when they start to venture out beyond parental control.
A childhood of expectations has shaped their self-image, and at the time when they are shaping who they are to become as an independent adult, they struggle to both find this and express it amongst all the noise. The fear of being trolled, exposed and losing fame are all frightening realities.
Fellow psychologist Roxana Rudzik-Shaw also doubled down on the affects fame can have on a person. She said, ‘Fame has the potential to become increasingly more addictive, yet fame has less defined boundaries as compared to a drug or gambling addiction per se.’
‘As trend setters and brand ambassadors, reach of the famous can be measured in terms of viewers or likes, which can be addictive and could be an indicator of elevated or demoted status and thus, may directly impact sense of self-worth. Being objectively self-aware, or viewing oneself through the eyes of others, is likely to enhance self-consciousness, exaggerating expectations and/or the activation of self-destruct mode as a means of escapism from said self-consciousness.’
Young people in the public eye who lack appropriate support structures may be overcome with feelings of helplessness, anxiety, worry, guilt, denial, uncertainty, loss or despair. This may present as feeding or sleep problems, behavioural difficulties or withdrawal for children and for young people may present as regression, mood swings, anxiety or panic, disordered eating, self-harm, withdrawal or disengagement to name but a few examples.
All of these things would be difficult for even the most level-headed of individuals; so you can only imagine what it was like for someone who had pre-existing mental health conditions like Rehab singer Amy Winehouse, who battled drug and alcohol abuse and an eating disorder, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who was diagnosed with bipolar and ADHD as a child.
Psychotherapist and Founding Director of UK Therapy Guide Floss Knight explained how fame can sometimes have worse effects on those with pre-existing mental health conditions. She told UNILAD, ‘Those with underlying mental health conditions are far more at risk than those with a stable mind. Those with a delicate psyche are much closer to the threshold of psychosis. The volatility of fame and the huge ups and downs places them at risk. This depends largely on those around them. If they have stable, grounded family or friends then things can be different, but with stardom often comes a divorce from such anchors.’
But what makes 27 such a significant age?
Lee discussed how despite many people thinking they’re ‘adults’ at 18, but up until the age of at least 25, we continue to develop hormonally and neurologically. He said, ‘From my professional perspective, it is clear that our often thought principle of becoming an adult at 18 doesn’t ring true, especially in terms of cognitive development and emotional maturity.’
‘In the period of our lives between 18 and 25, we are still developing hormonally and neurologically, and support during this time is still highly relevant. This later adolescence plays a role in our mental health development, as we are likely to become more independent and have societal expectations placed upon us.’
Interestingly, the age of 27 has been stated to be the age where we very slowly start to decline cognitively. We are still in a place of understanding the many elements and variables in our mental health development, and we are all bio-individual, each having our own journey.
But by the age of 27, we are likely to have reached a level of emotional maturity and rational judgement. We are likely to have experienced both some success and some adversity, and be in a settled place hormonally. And it is likely from this place of harmony and lived experience that we start to chisel our future, find our voice and start to express ourselves to the world. Sadly, for many famous young people, their lives have been lived at such velocity, stress and pressure, that the space for them simply isn’t there.
The spaces that prove pivotal for a person’s development that Lee’s referring to include the relatively low levels of responsibility, higher levels of exploration and play, and tolerance of behaviour you experience when you’re young. Undeniably, young people in the spotlight are thrust into an adult world much sooner than their non-famous peers. Lee explained this as them as having ‘their formative years hijacked by fame and a career’.
Meanwhile, Floss further explained how people having such high opinions of famous people can be damaging and that, for many people, by the age 27, you start to feel ‘more stable’.
She explained, ‘For a person who has a mostly balanced life experience, 27 is an age where the brain is more stable and feelings are less erratic as part of healthy maturation. This comes about if certain challenges have been negotiated and personal responsibility is owned. The result of the shift through the developmental phases has largely been accomplished and the reality of life becomes much more accepted. Men mature at a much later stage.’
‘Stars such as Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, whilst hugely creative were also indulged and very much lost sight of the reality of life. They were treated like demigods whilst living in a human world that throws up difficulties. They were indulged to the highest level and with this adoration comes many problems.’
A boundary-less existence can be hugely destructive. Experimenting with drugs can often provide a shorter fix and works initially, but then the drugs stop working. They are always chasing the impossible high. It’s impossible to live up to the unrealistic expectations placed on them by the outside world.
With all this in mind, it’s evident that more needs to be done to support artists’ mental health, something which can be done by accessing help through charities such as Help Musicians UK.
Help Musicians UK, a charity that’s been running for 100 years, prides itself on helping people in the music industry ‘at times of crisis’, as well as ‘giving people the extra support they need at a crucial stage that could make or break their career’.
Explaining the work they do at the charity, Liam Hennessy, Head of Health and Welfare at Help Musicians, told UNILAD, ‘Our dedicated mental health service, Music Minds Matter, provides direct support 24/7 to everyone working in the UK music industry. The phone is answered by accredited therapists who can provide emotional and practical support and they can refer musicians on to get individual therapeutic support.’
‘We’ve recently announced an expansion of our Music Minds Matter service, following research we carried out in late 2020. With the backing of the entire music industry, and already with a significant financial contribution from PPL, we will be rolling out a network of peer to peer support groups, plus better signposting to help those who work in music find the information and help they need,’ Liam continued.
As well as crisis support, Help Musicians UK offers preventative support and help artists facing money worries, physical injury and creative setbacks that can go on to affect their mental health.
Liam encouraged anyone working in the music industry that’s mentally struggling to contact them for support. He said, ‘The sooner you get support, the sooner your recovery can start.’
Music Minds Matter is available 24/7 and free-of-charge to support the entire music industry which you can reach on 0808 802 8008.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123.