Dr. Drew: Profiting From Celebrity Tragedy

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Dr Drew

Country singer Mindy McCready, who was found yesterday after shooting herself, joins five of the past 43 participants in VH1’s Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew who have died from drug use or illnesses related to their addiction over the past two years.  Fellow contestants include Alice in Chains’ bassist Mike Starr, actor Jeff Conaway, Rodney King, and reality TV star Joey Kovar.

It's not great press for Dr. Drew Pinsky -  a relentless self promoter whose exploitation of celebrity culture seems to know no bounds.

Pinksy is a likable character - charming, seemingly compassionate and a natural star himself. He seems to be broadcast on every media medium on a daily basis, and has for years been America's de facto national health service. He doles out sensible advice on sex, drugs and other illnesses affecting the youth generation, and does appear to genuinely care about the patients he treats on his shows. Pinsky has spoken out loudly against celebrity culture, even writing a book about it called The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America. In an interview with USA Today, Pinsky said:

I've been working with celebrities many, many years. I've treated many for chemical dependency and the like. They have profound childhood trauma. It's not something to do with their job or the life they lead. They just happen to be people driven to seek celebrity as a way to make themselves feel better. Then the question becomes, why are we preoccupied with this population? This points toward the mirror. We, too, have been increasingly narcissistic. I speculate that that's what drives us toward this phenomenon of elevating people to almost god-like status. It's not so much that it's the glamour we like focusing on — rather it's the dysfunction. We're taking someone who needs to be a god and making them a god. Then we spend all our energy tearing them down.

Pinsky sounds convincing on subject, but the reality is that the shows he hosts ultimate reinforce and promotes the very culture that produces the suffering itself. Dr. Drew may rail against celebrity culture and its excesses, but if he truly believe that, he wouldn't be on television airing celebrity's problems to make money and get ratings. In fact Pinsky would never go on pop culture networks like VH1 and MTv given their main focus is entertaining young people with the exploits of idiotic celebrities. Pinsky can claim that he is merely trying to reach the biggest audience he can with his message, but the reality is that he makes a fortune out of celebrity voyeurism and does not have to answer to anyone for the fallout.

No one is blaming Dr. Drew directly for the deaths of his patients. Drug and alcohol addiction ultimately catches up to a significant percentage of sufferers who are unable to beat their demons. But there is an argument to be made that the show has a more long term, damaging effect on the recovery process than any initial success it may have.

Having lived in Los Angeles myself for close to 10 years, I can unequivocally attest to the enormous damage celebrity culture  has on people. Thousands of people flock to Los Angeles every year to make it in the entertainment industry - many of them attempting to reinvent themselves after escaping dysfunction and broken homes. Hollywood attracts the vain and fragile, and the city chews them up and spits them out with no remorse. It is a city built on pretending to be something you're not, and it catches up with everyone no matter how high they climb.

As I got older I found it increasingly difficult to live in a culture that idolized an industry that counts American Idol and Transformers 3 as major achievements. It's not that I have a problem with entertainment - I watch TV and movies and grew up in a media family. I just don't think it deserves more respect or adulation than any other industry, and the prominence it is given does active harm to the impressionable.

Dr. Drew's patients are victims of that culture - people who had varying degrees of success in the industry but ultimately could not escape their own fragility. Fame is a drug that satiates insecurity, but does not cure it. Part of the allure of 'Celebrity Rehab' is not only a chance stop the vicious cycle of addiction, but to relaunch ailing careers by getting air time that would otherwise not be available to them. So while Dr. Drew's soothing words and method for treating addiction may have success in the short term, the media exposure and attention they receive prolongs the ultimate source of their problems - celebrity culture itself.

Lindsay Lohan, the poster child for screwed up celebrities, was apparently offered $1 million appear on the show. While Dr. Drew and his team would have treated her to the best of their abilities, there's no doubt why she was invited on the show. Ratings would have gone through the roof as millions of people would have tuned in to see her erratic behavior and the media would have had a bonanza lampooning her every move. There's no way Dr. Drew could possibly think that the process would have been good for her, leading to the obvious conclusion that it is his paycheck that matters above all else.

Despite Pinsky's continual claims that he always follows the interests of the patient and abides to strict medical ethics, his history outside of television is also highly troubling. In a huge Justice Department settlement last year with the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, are details of a lucrative deal Pinsky made with the company to promote the depression drug Wellbutrin (also known as Bupropion). According to the Washington Post:

In March and April 1999, according to receipts unearthed by federal investigators, Pinsky was paid a total of $275,000 by Glaxo Wellcome, the GlaxoSmithKline precursor that manufactured Wellbutrin.

The next month, he went on a national radio program, “David Essel — Alive!” A high-fiving public relations memo memorializes how Pinsky delivered for his corporate clients. Pinsky “communicated key campaign messages” on the show, the memo reads, chief among them the notion that Wellbutrin “is recommended for people experiencing a loss of libido.” The memo, though, is nothing compared with the transcript of the radio program that the feds included in the voluminous court record.

The program’s highlight is a claim by a  34-year-old woman who says she had 60 orgasms in a single night. The show’s host asks Pinsky: “What type of a medication would increase someone’s orgasmic potential, where they go from three or four to 60?” Pinsky responds that lots of antidepressants could do the trick, but the one he advocates is Bupropion or Wellbutrin because it “may enhance or at least not suppress sexual arousal” as much as other antidepressants.

The fact is that Wellbutrin was only approved for use in treating depression, and not as a sexual enhancement drug, as the company's marketing campaign led people to believe. So it is unclear why Pinsky thought it relevant or medically ethical to make the claim - other than of course the highly lucrative financial incentive for doing so.

It is difficult to assess the overall impact of Dr. Drew when it comes to America's wellbeing. Maybe he does help the celebrities who come on his show, and his common sense advice regarding sex issues is certainly helpful to millions of teenagers who listen to him. But the fact is that Pinsky is primarily motivated by making money, so it is impossible to discern the legitimacy of his advice.

The latest celebrity death will sadly make Dr. Drew's show even more popular. How many people will now tune in to the show to see which tragic figure will be next to take their own life? It makes for compelling television regardless of the damage caused to those participating in it.

And ultimately it makes Dr. Drew a lot richer.