Dr. Fredric Brandt's unexpected death shines a light on the perils of fame

Apr 6, 2015 at 6:37 p.m. ET
Image: Cindy Ord/Stringer/Getty Images

This week Dermatologist Dr. Fredric Brandt, 65, was found dead in his Miami home. According to his publicist, Jacquie Tractenberg, Brandt had been "suffering from an illness" that many are speculating to have been depression.

You may not know the name Fredric Brandt, but his unique look was unmistakable. You have probably seen photos of him with some of his celebrity clientele like Kelly Ripa or Madonna. Or perhaps you've been watching Tina Fey's show on Netflix, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In a recent episode Martin Short played a doctor who appeared to have been a parody of Brandt, one that he found both unflattering and hurtful and, in the words of Miami Herald journalist Lesley Abravanel, left him "devastated."

There are several issues here. One is Dr. Brandt's distinctive look that he once told The New York Times was due to using himself as a guinea pig to test new injections and fillers. His face was famous, even if his name was not. He wrote books, had a radio show and courted celebrities but, in my opinion as a psychologist, was either given terrible mental health care or none at all.

If he had a therapist, I question his or her understanding of fame and celebrity in terms of how it related to Dr. Brandt. Shame on any doctor who treats any patient with severe depression while encouraging them to pursue the celebrity life.

Here's the thing; celebrity culture is not for the fainthearted. Everybody wants to be famous, and if they can't be, they want to be associated with celebrities and be a part of the fame world. However, those who do it well know that it takes an incredibly thick skin.

If people like Kim Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow, who are equally as criticized as they are loved, suffered from severe depression they would not be able to function. Someone who is severely depressed is more apt to believe the negative comments about themselves and, in this case, the hurtful parodies, putting them in dangerous territory. It begins a cycle of thought in which you already feel badly about who you are, and then you seek out a negative narrative that confirms your negative thoughts about yourself, thus keeping the cycle of depression going.

That's why so many in the public eye are actors. They are uniquely qualified to take regular criticism for their work, and always have. A young actor coming up is torn down on a regular basis by acting coaches, peers, agents and critics, thus developing a strong sense of self and a very thick skin. Actors are also better at deconstructing the psyche in order to play a role so genuinely, so their understanding of the human condition is deeper. They are trained to take it. Dermatologists are not.

The big untold secret is that celebrities are ridiculously good at dealing with "Celebrity" with a capital C. When Jimmy Kimmel has a star read "Mean Tweets" they are laughing along and know how to separate who they really are with who the world thinks they are. People like Dr. Brandt are not skilled in that way. People who satellite around celebrity: the makeup people, the doctors and the trainers, are not equipped to handle ridicule, even in its most innocent form.

Tina Fey and Martin Short are not bullies. They were not "out to get" Dr. Brandt or attack him in a hurtful way. That was certainly not their intention. That may have been the result, but that parody was not created with malice. However, what they may not have realized is that they, who are actors, adept at fielding hate and criticism, and not just from social media but from their own industry as well, probably didn't appreciate that Dr. Brandt was just a regular person. He may have cavorted with celebrities, but he certainly was not one of them.

If you suspect someone might be considering suicide, or you have struggled with those thoughts yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).