Addicted to fame

19th January 2007 at 00:00
Hannah Frankel reports on the pupils seeking celebrity status - and the teachers who have to cope with them

Celebrity status may be the modern-day addiction but it's schools, not clinics, that often have to pick up the pieces. Take Murat Ucar, (pictured right) a bright 16-year-old from Tottenham, north London, who craves fame as a model or actor or singer - he does not particularly mind which.

The BBC traces his efforts in a documentary called The Wannabe, part of a week-long Sweet 16 series which starts this Sunday. In it, we see Murat skip school for two weeks so he can go to Turkey and have a nose job. "A famous person turns up to school when he feels like turning up, not when he's told to," he explains to the camera.

No sooner is he back than he is busy auditioning for The X-Factor, a modelling agency and a theatre company. The problem is, the professionals say behind his back, he does not have the looks or the talent to match his enormous ambition.

His teachers, meanwhile, are exasperated that his lack of work and attendance - he turns up to one out of a possible 14 RE lessons - are hindering his academic potential.

It is a phenomenon that is mirrored across the UK. More than one in 10 young people would drop education to give fame a shot, according to a Learning and Skills Council survey. Even though the odds of being picked for a Big Brother-type reality show and going on to further fame are 30 million to one - worse odds than winning the lottery - about 16 per cent of teenagers believe they will be "the one".

Most of the 16 to 19-year-old respondents cited money and success as their main motivating factors, but many hanker after greater recognition and acceptance. More than a quarter of the 777 young people who responded said they saw fame as a way of "proving other people wrong", while 19 per cent said it would "let everyone know who they were". Roughly 9 per cent said fame would "help them to feel accepted", and 7 per cent said it would "make them appear more attractive".

It can be an uphill struggle for teachers who try to keep pupils in touch with the real world. Ian Taylor, 26, is a maths teacher at Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough, a challenging school in special measures. "A lot of our pupils are absolutely obsessed with reality TV," he says. "When it's on, which is pretty much all of the time at the moment, it is the topic of every conversation.

"From a teacher's point of view, you see celebrities with lots of money but no qualifications and your heart just drops.

"It is hard to keep the pupils motivated in school when these celebrities have a lot more authority in their lives than we do."

Ian says specific strategies are vital if teachers are to counter the media's implicit message that success through celebrity is easy and fulfilling. He teaches his pupils leadership skills before encouraging them to help their peers in small groups. He hopes to extend this into primary schools, where bright but easily distracted pupils will be responsible for teaching Year 6 pupils.

"A large proportion of our pupils come from broken homes and they are often looking out for inspiration," says Ian. "If they don't get it from school, they look to TV. They crave the attention that fame seems to promise them.

It is up to us to show them that they can get that attention from achieving at school."

But Andy Kilpatrick, the head of Northumberland Park, north London, the school where Murat was a pupil, does not believe poverty necessarily creates fame wannabes. "Kids like Murat are the exception, not the rule. We are one of the poorest communities in London and that makes our kids pretty hard-headed.

"They understand that they have not necessarily been dealt a very good hand in terms of materialism and so they have a mature sense of realism. Even if they do want to be football stars, they know they still have to knuckle down and work hard if they are to achieve in life."

However, there does seem to be a recognisable divide between middle-class schools and those with poorer pupils, according to psychiatrists. This may be because the traditional working-class career paths, such as apprenticeships, no longer exist, leaving in their place a void of opportunities. A career as a celebrity can seem like one of the few viable alternatives.

Pupils at Unity City Academy, where 46 per cent are entitled to free school meals, may be more prone to escapism than those at Chancellors Secondary in Hatfield, Hert-fordshire, where less than 3 per cent are eligible for free meals.

Michael Perham, the 14-year-old record-breaking Atlantic sailor, is one of its pupils. Other mini celebrities from the school include pupils who have appeared in EastEnders, Harry Potter films and at the Royal Opera House. It also boasts two junior international footballers.

"The pupils do it because they enjoy it, not because they want to become celebrities," says Stuart Phillips, the head, who has spent most of his career working in Hackney, east London. "Perhaps there are more opportunities and choices for children here than in other parts of the country, but they are realistic about how competitive the entertainment industry is."

Nick Williams agrees that young people are more astute than we give them credit for. As the principal of the BRIT school in Croydon, Britain's only free performing arts college, he has seen his fair share of fame-seeking children.

"Most young people understand the difference between the fantasy life and reality," he says. "Celebrity only becomes a corrosive aspect when vulnerable people misunderstand the game."

Success stories from the school include Leona Lewis, who beat thousands of hopefuls to win The X-Factor last year, as well as singers Katie Melua and Amy Winehouse.

However, Nick insists that most pupils would rather build sustainable careers in the performing arts rather than become household names. "We constantly stress that long-term success can only result from genuine talent and incredible hard work," he argues. "Only the most tenacious and robust will get there and stay there." But with people like Jade Goody, worth an estimated pound;8 million, celebrity status will still appeal


Websites such as YouTube and MySpace allow anyone to share their video or music with a worldwide audience and some young people equate participation with success.

Sandra Scott, a resident psychologist on Big Brother, says: "Young people have a mountain of influences and it can be hard for the lone teacher voice to be heard.

"Every tabloid paper counters the teacher's message that happiness is feeling content with yourself, not about chasing fame for fame's sake.

"Celebrities used to be so remote, either because they were more talented, beautiful or richer than us.

"Now we have footballers from humble beginnings 'living the dream' and we have people like Chantelle on Big Brother who are famous just for being ordinary."


Craig McAlevaney is a bright student at Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough. Tests predict he should do well in his GCSEs but he struggles to concentrate.

Instead, Craig has his eye on becoming a footballer, ideally for his beloved Middlesbrough FC.

"Footballers get loads of money and I enjoy playing it as well," he says.

"Everyone knows who you are when you are a footballer, you are worldwide. I would just love the lifestyle."

Craig recognises it is tough to make it in football, especially as he does not have a clear idea how to turn professional. He has also been told to have a back-up plan in case his dream does not come true, so he is spending one day a week at Middlesbrough College, learning about bricklaying and other trades.

The-15-year old admits he does not always value qualifications. He says:

"You do not need them to become a footballer. All you need is skill."

The Wannabe is on BBC3, January 22 at 9pm

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