Does Celebrity Sobriety Hurt or Help?
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Does Celebrity Sobriety Hurt or Help?


Many of us who’ve gotten sober have done so as a result of someone who has come along and planted the seed. Sometimes that person is a family member or a person we love. It can also be someone you’ve just met or will never meet.

Over at Salon, Patrick Krill has written about how the host of The Late Late Show, Craig Ferguson, helped him to realize he needed to stop drinking. He writes about why he looks up to Ferguson, describing the host as smart, darkly comedic and genuine— traits definitely associated with people struggling with addictions or in recovery.

Never mind the AA tradition that requests members remain anonymous at the level of radio, press and film, Ferguson is pretty obvious about being a “friend of Bill.” And lots of other celebrities are out (AfterParty’s podcast has featured more than a few). I think that’s a good thing.

A quick search will turn up list upon list of celebrities that have become, willingly or unwillingly, spokespeople for sobriety—Robert Downey, Jr., Kristen Johnston and Marc Maron, just to name a few. Russell Brand is a personal favorite of mine. He not only can write but he’s also an outspoken advocate for the rights and dignity of drug users. I actually teach his piece, For Amy, in my essay class. As I tell my students—and as Brand’s essay so aptly illustrates—personal testimony can be highly persuasive. Celebrity testimony can be especially convincing because in our current culture, they have influence almost beyond measure.

I grew up watching Kelly and Jack Osborne get drunk on their reality show, Meet the Osbournes, and so it was sweet news to hear how they each, in turn, gave up that lifestyle. To me, watching a celebrity publicly struggle with alcohol and drugs makes their hard-won sobriety feel like a shared success. Though I’m a little too young to remember Rob Lowe and a little too old to relate to Mathew Perry, Robert Downey Jr. is someone whose career I’ve watched go up and down and back up again due to sobriety.

Of course, not all “sober” celebrities are success stories. I’ve heard people complain that people like Lindsay Lohan set a bad example and an embarrassment to the AA name. But relapse is a part of many people’s recoveries. And to be fair, sometimes celebrities can’t help it. How do you protect your anonymity when TMZ’s just followed you into rehab? They are often forced to just hire an undercover sober companion that can pose as their “friend” or “assistant.”

Clearly not all celebrities mean to be role models. Rather, in interview after interview, they’re compelled to explain why we never see them with a drink (dude, all sober people know how it feels to have to answer that question).

Other times, we are obviously proud to get sober, and that’s great, although I have to admit that the personal essay that Pete Doherty wrote from a rehab in Thailand made me cringe. One thing I’ve noticed about those of us battling addictions, whether sober or not, is that we all seem to have an air of someone striving for self-improvement. When we’re not sober—and even in early recovery, like Doherty here—this trait can come off as a bit desperate. “You can’t give away what you don’t have” is a slogan you’ll sometimes hear in recovery. This is what I thought of when I read Doherty’s promises to raise money to help addicts who can’t afford treatment—ahem, just as soon as he gets out of treatment himself.

While I’m by no means a celebrity, being a writer means being a public figure, and so the issue of breaking my anonymity is one that I’ve dealt with. Me, I have no trouble saying that I’m sober. Sometimes I say I’m in a program of recovery or that I’m a member of a spiritual community. For a while, this might’ve meant AA; it could also mean that I’m a Buddhist. When I wrote a piece for Salon that cited a passage from the Big Book, I received an email from a friend of mine and fellow writer expressing regret that I’d made that choice. But that’s just it: it was my choice. I got that critical email; as a result of that article, I also got a new sponsee.

Sure, at times it’s probably a self-serving act—I know that, for me, talking about recovery helps me figure stuff out and get things off my mind—but I’d bet most public figures who write and talk openly about their sobriety do so with the intention of being of service. Because we know that’s how it works. No, not every public figure that admits to being sober is necessarily saying they once had a problem with alcohol and drugs, let alone admitting to being in 12-step recovery. There are lots of reasons not to drink, and other modalities to give up alcohol if it’s an issue. But I’ve watched friends struggling to stay sober who look up to and admire public figures fighting the same fight. In a culture that constantly bombards us with messages implying that being sober isn’t cool, how lucky are we when a person with a platform steps up to deliver the opposite message?

Photo courtesy of Blackbow17 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.