When we were planning the current edition’s cover story about Josh Sundquist, we faced a minor dilemma: Should we focus the article on Best Foot Forward, Sundquist’s new TV series slated for mid-July release (it debuts in two days); or should we highlight his latest book, Semi-Famous, scheduled to hit the shelves the same week (it came out yesterday)? We consume way more books than TV shows, so we were inclined toward the latter. But we had to admit that the TV series is more newsworthy, due to its groundbreaking portrayal of limb difference and the preponderance of talented people with disabilities in the show’s cast and crew.
We ended up featuring Best Foot Forward in the magazine, with a brief sidebar about the book. But now that Semi-Famous is shipping (order your copy at Better World Books or IndieBound), we’d like to address that project in more depth, using segments from our Sundquist interview that didn’t fit into the print article. As always, we’ve edited for length and clarity. You can find Sundquist at his website, on Instagram @joshsundquist, or on TikTok @josh.sundquist.
What got you interested in the connection—or maybe the disconnect—between fame and happiness?
I’ve always been fascinated by this question of whether it’s possible to be both very famous and very happy at the same time. Just from observing pop culture and entertainment, I tend to have a perception that famous people are less happy due to the stress, the invasions of your privacy, and all those downsides of fame. But on a more personal note, as a semi-famous person who has a new television series and a new book coming out in the same week, I am somewhat at risk for becoming at least somewhat more famous. So I had to ask myself: Am I on a road who’s successful endpoint is inevitably also going to guarantee my unhappiness? And if so, isn’t this the wrong road? Should I make some changes? Or are there people who are really famous, who are also happy? And if so, what’s the secret? What are they doing differently than than everyone else?
I did a survey of my internet followers, who tend to be younger people, and I found that about 50 percent of them want to be famous at some point in their life. And then I asked, “Do you think fame tends to make people more happy or less happy?” Eighty percent answered, “Less happy.” So if you do that math, that means there’s a 30 percent chunk of my followers who would rather be famous than happy—or, at least, who want to be famous even though they think it will make them unhappy. That was a phenomenon that seemed worth exploring.
Specifically, I set out to learn about fame and mental health. Because these are things that everybody’s always talking about, but they don’t necessarily always talk about them together. And I was surprised how little research there was into kind of the psychology of fame, and how it feels to be famous.
How does one go about researching that sort of thing?
I attempted to interview some people who are very famous, but I didn’t get any of them for obvious reasons—and reasons that are what some of the book is about. But I did interview a lot of people who I would at least describe as semi-famous, and some psychologists who have studied fame. They are a lot more accessible than celebrities. And I will also say that fame is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. I don’t know all the TikTok stars that my 24-year-old sister knows, and the movie stars who I think are very famous, she’ll be like: “Who’s Nick Cage? Never heard of him.”
I divided the book into six sections, as if it’s a school day—there’s a math section, a biology section, an English section. So for example, in the English section I tried to find out what we really mean when we throw this word around. What is the definition of fame, and how did it change over time? And then in math section, I asked: Can we measure fame numerically? Is there a mathematical way to measure fame that allows us to objectively compare different types of celebrities, or to compare people who were famous hundreds of years ago with people who are famous today? Can we compare people who have big internet followings with people who are famous because of sports?
There’s a fantastic website called pantheon.world. It was originally created by this team at MIT that measures fame using an incredibly complex formula. Let me ask you something: What occupation in the world today would you guess has generated the largest number of celebrities?
NBA player is the first thing that jumps into my head.
Soccer players. Right? I would have answered “movie stars,” which it turns out are number two. But worldwide, as a group, soccer players are the most famous people on earth. Of course, it’s only recently that soccer players have become so famous. Another chapter in the book is about history, because I wanted to know: When did fame become a thing? When did it become possible for people to know all about you even though they haven’t met you personally? When did it become possible for someone’s face to be recognizable even to people they’ve never met in person before? When did that first happen? It turns out it started thousands of years ago. A lot of it happened in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, a lot of it happened during the Enlightenment, a lot of it came in Paris in the 1800s. There were these hotbeds of advances in celebrity culture.
Earlier this year we had an article about Admiral Nelson, who was the amputee leader of the British Navy and arguably the most famous person in the kingdom—even more well known than the king. Part of the piece was about Nelson’s ambivalence about fame, especially as a person with limb difference, because people made these inaccurate assumptions about him.
There’s one chapter, the social studies chapter, where I asked: Who gets to be famous in our society? Are there barriers to certain types of people becoming famous due to gender, ethnicity, or disability? A lot of people who read this book won’t know who I am or anything about me, and I deliberately didn’t reveal that I have one leg until one of the late chapters. Will people think differently about me once they know I have one leg? Yeah, of course they will. It doesn’t mean they will think worse of me, but it changes people’s perceptions. So it’s natural to ask, Would that affect someone’s chances to become famous? That’s not a major theme of the book, but it’s something that I address because I think it’s part of the story.
To read about Sundquist’s new TV series, Best Foot Forward, see the July/August edition of Amplitude. The show debuts Friday night on Apple TV+.