The first time I heard about Amy Winehouse, I was watching the news with my mom.
I can’t really remember when this was- but I’m guessing, based on the timeline of her life, it was 2010-ish, when I was about twelve. I do however, remember seeing her on the news- standing on stage, stammering and stumbling. You could almost smell the booze on her.
I know it was the first time I’d heard of her, because when I asked my mom about her, I remember her being described as trashy. A drug addict. Someone who used to be famous. Her career was over now, my mom told me.
It wasn’t much long after this that her life was over.
For those who aren’t familiar with Amy: She was a British jazz singer, famous for her tracks like “Rehab”, “Back To Black” and her fabulous cover of the Zutons’ “Valerie”. Perhaps just as iconic as her raspy vocals, was her big black hair kept in a beehive style, as well as her lifelong struggle with mental illness.
There’s a documentary about her life currently available on Netflix (aptly called Amy), and it’s definitely worth a watch. From a young age, Amy struggled with eating disorders, and through her life she abused a number of drugs, from heroin to alcohol to meth. She had a troubled relationship with her father, with her fame, with her friends. At just fourteen, Amy started seeing doctors about depression, and with her fame came a number of angry, violent outbreaks.
In 2011, she was found dead from alcohol poisoning in her apartment at 27, joining other musicians like Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix into the famed “27 Club”.
People were sad when she died.
Being ignorant and young, it didn’t make sense to me- wasn’t she a screw up? An addict? Wasn’t she trashy and slutty, had she not thrown her own life away? That’s what the media had told me in the months before her death- why the sudden change?
Amy isn’t the only star to be treated like this- I remembering knowing who Whitney Houston was before her death, but her name at that point was synonymous with her addiction- it was no longer even seen as “not politically correct” to mock her, let alone seen as an act of bullying. It wasn’t until she had passed, and every headline in North America had her name in it, when my dad began voicing his opinion on her relationship with her husband Bobby Brown- he theorized he had “gotten her on drugs”.
Regardless of whether or not this is true- isn’t it interesting that before a star dies, their mental illness is a source of entertainment, and after they die, people find nuanced, complex reasons why their lives went downhill?
Genetics. A troubled relationship with their parents. A serious disorder that wasn’t medicated in time. She wasn’t able to handle fame. She couldn’t control her addiction. She had body image issues her entire life.
It’s so easy, after someone dies, to look back and see the complexity and tragedy that is mental illness. But why could we not see it before? Why are the actions of people who suffer from mental illness- partying too much, getting involved in illegal activities, having complicated relationships, showing up drunk to their own concert- seen as a reflection of poor character- until, of course, the day they die?
Worse yet, why are these actions so entertaining?
Whitney and Amy are not the only celebrities to experience something I like to call the “Amy Winehouse Effect”- when a person is a source of entertainment during life, and a tragic hero after death. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, movie star Heath Ledger, actress Brittany Murphy, and even River Phoenix, who was just 23 when he died, all made headlines for their “reckless” behaviour, but are posthumously seen as a martyr of sorts- as though their art had killed them, not their serious medical conditions.
After their deaths, people were quick to bring up all their many qualities- Whitney was a once-in-a-lifetime vocalist, Amy revolutionized her genre, Kurt really was a loving father, Heath was a legendary actor. Why weren’t these qualities front and center while they were still living and struggling?
This effect, to an extent, can apply to living stars too- we’ve seen the so-called breakdowns of Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Courtney Love and even former child stars like Macaulay Culkin and the Olsen twins being used as entertainment. Amanda Bynes, Halsey, Justin Bieber, Kehlani, even Demi Lovato- the list goes on and on. The press almost never mentions, however, the fact that many of these stars started work at a relatively young age, were bombarded by the press even before exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, and often had complicated family relationships.
This pattern is troubling, it’s exploitative, it’s saturated within our media, and it’s a reminder of how far we still have to come to end the stigma on mental illness and develop a deeper understanding of it. We can’t always avoid the headlines, but we can choose whether or not we take the bait. We can choose not to read articles mocking Lindsay Lohan for going back to rehab or making snide jabs about the body of a woman recovering from an eating disorder. We can choose to separate our feelings about a celebrity and their work (Justin Bieber, anyone?) from our opinions of their so-called “downward spirals”. We can speak up when a friend voices their opinion on how Kehlani was attention seeking or Amanda Bynes is a “nutjob”. We can aspire to fix our own negative language towards people with mental illness, and we can use the tragic deaths of mentally ill celebrities not as an excuse to tear them apart or glamourize their struggles, but to seek to understand them, and raise awareness of the very real and very permanent consequences of a world where people in need face exploitation and stigma rather than treatment and support.
This July will mark the fifth anniversary of Amy’s death- she would have turned 33 this September. Today, there is an Oscar and Emmy-award winning documentary about her life, she has sold over twelve million albums worldwide, and has been named one of the pre-eminent voices of the 21 century and one of the most influential female artists of all time. The world has finally seemed to open its eyes and see that her life, her illness, and her death were ultimately worth more than tabloid headlines and entertainment value. We see that she was worth more than that.
If only she were here to see it.