Robin Roberts and Our Confusing Connection to Celebrity Sickness

I don’t know Robin Roberts.

Or, to put it more precisely, I’ve never met Robin Roberts.

But I do feel as though I know her. She’s been an integral part of my morning routine for so long, I now associate her soothing voice with the blissful buzz of AM coffee. As I’ve loyally tuned into Good Morning America, I’ve gotten to know her quirks, her facial expressions, her utterly endearing and spot-on Dr. Evil impersonation.

And though she doesn’t know me, I’ve been there for Robin too. I was there when she reported on the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from her Mississippi hometown. I was there when she revealed to the world that she was battling breast cancer. I was there when she shunned the wigs and bared her post-chemo cropped cut on air and on the red carpet.

And I was there this week when she stunned viewers with the news that she has been diagnosed with yet another devastating illness: myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a potential consequence of her previous cancer treatment.

No, I don’t know Robin, but her revelation has been heart-wrenching to process. I suppose it’s silly to be so deeply affected by a complete stranger’s anguish. But is someone like Robin really a stranger? Isn’t some sort of profound intimacy established when a person enters your home every weekday morning, sharing her secrets and entrusting you with her raw vulnerability?

Celebrities play a considerable role in our society. Maybe you consider movie stars, musicians, politicians, newscasters and other public figures to be demigods. Or maybe you just see them as fame-seeking narcissists. Either way, you’re probably talking about them, whether you like it or not. These people become part of our cultural consciousness and dialogue. They’re topics of water cooler conversation and heated debates. We love them, hate them, envy them and worship them. So why wouldn’t we empathize and grieve with them?

Maybe the emotional turmoil of watching celebrities endure suffering is due to the fact that we don’t expect them to suffer. Suffering is what real people do. The celebrity faces we’ve come to regard as familiar are actually so foreign in the sense that they’re associated with lifestyles we’ll never lead. We expect them to be swathed in designer clothes, dining on unpronounceable gourmet treats, and smiling for paparazzi at the most exclusive soirees. We don’t expect them to get sick.

So what happens when a famous stranger falls ill? Is it okay to feel sad, angry, or helpless? Is it okay to ride out the same emotions we might experience if a loved were in trouble? Is it crazy, cathartic, healthy?

I really don’t know the answers to any of the questions, and I’m not sure there are any definitive ones anyway. All I know is that I’m pulling for Robin, regardless of our relationship or lack thereof. She’s been such an inspiration and role model in her bravery. So even if we never meet, I’m glad I’ve gotten to know her.

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