What Do an Evangelist and a Pop Star Have In Common?

Aimee Semple McPherson by Albert Witzel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Britney Spears documentary “Framing Britney” has ignited a discussion of the way famous women are treated by the media and society at large. The unrealistic standards of expected behavior and the outrageous intrusions into their private lives make both normal development (in younger women) and personal relationships (in older women) impossible. But none of this is new, and it goes beyond the music and movie industries.

Canadian Aimee Semple McPherson became an evangelical minister in 1915. She rapidly mastered the art of promotion. By annually touring America in her car, leading tent meetings as she traveled, she became nationally famous by 1920. A year later, she had over ten thousand congregants, her own denomination — the Foursquare Gospel — and her own megachurch in Los Angeles, the Angelus Temple. She advertised it as the largest Christian congregation in the world. According to biographer Daniel Mark Epstein, by 1930 her company’s payroll was $7000 a week (about $110,000 today, or $5.75 million annually — roughly half what Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church spent on administrative costs in 2018).

She was world-renowned for her faith healing abilities. A team of physicians investigated her performances in 1921 and could find no medical explanation for her success, describing it in their report as “genuine, beneficial and wonderful.”

McPherson was a media pioneer. She started her own magazine called “Bridal Call” in 1917; later, she published another called “Foursquare Crusader.” She extended her reach with radio station KFSG in 1924, with which she could reach several hundred thousand listeners in the greater LA region. In the evening, when AM radiowaves traveled further, her signal became international.

Worship service at Angelus Temple during 14-hour Holy Ghost service led by Aimee Semple McPherson, Los Angeles, Calif., 1942 (main file). By Los Angeles Times — http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz0002v4pn, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30584488

Divorced from Harold McPherson in 1921, Sister Aimee had no real friends. Her mother and daughter assisted her in running the Temple, although by the mid-1930s she was estranged from them as well. A single, attractive woman in her 30s, she was unable to date or have close relationships without causing a scandal. As Epstein recounts in his excellent biography, “Sister Aimee,”

“By 1925 Sister Aimee had become a religious idol to several hundred thousand people. Within the working family of the Temple she was adored, was the focus of petty jealousies among those who jostled for her attention, and the object of impossible expectations.”

Any friendship between her and an employee or member of the Temple would be seen as favoritism.

In May 1926, McPherson disappeared from a California beach where she had been bathing. She did not reappear for a month, during which one search party member died of exposure and one of her followers drowned herself. On her reappearance, she claimed she had been abducted by kidnappers and held for ransom in a Mexican hut. She had finally escaped and walked miles through the desert to return home safely.

California police believed McPherson had gone into hiding with a lover — rumors had swirled for months of an affair between McPherson and a former KFSG employee, who had been reported missing by his estranged wife around the same time — but were unable to prove it.

McPherson’s preposterous story had newspapers offering bounties for evidence of a lie. As described by Epstein,

“Aimee did not look as if she had been through the ordeal she described. …when she appeared out of the desert, her shoes were not scuffed or worn. There were grass stains on the insteps. She was not convincingly dehydrated or sunburned. Her dress showed no sign of perspiration. She was wearing a watch…which she had not taken with her to the beach.”

If a 35 year old woman with an established career and fully developed personality can’t handle the magnifying lens hovering over her every action, how is a teenage girl supposed to?

Is it possible that the pressure of childhood fame alters psychological development to cause later mental illness in child stars?

The teen years are when humans typically develop their identities. Similarly, the twenties are when humans learn how to maintain relationships. And if the groundwork hasn’t been done in the teen years,

“Studies have demonstrated that those with a poor sense of self tend to have less committed relationships and are more likely to struggle with emotional isolation, loneliness, and depression.”

There’s a generation of starlets who have suffered mental illness and addiction issues as they hit their twenties. They’ve been deprived of a private life where they can safely explore their personalities, adventure and make mistakes. Eighteen year old Britney Spears was asked on national TV whether or not she was a virgin. She was interrogated on what she did to cause her breakup with Justin Timberlake, like the end of the teenage romance was entirely her fault.

Like other child stars, such as Demi Lovato — who recently divulged that her 2018 heroin overdose left her with brain damage — Carrie Fisher, Patty Duke, Amanda Bynes, and Selena Gomez, Britney has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Is it possible that the pressure of childhood fame alters psychological development to cause later mental illness in child stars?

After three marriages, two of which ended in divorce, McPherson died alone in 1944 at the age of 53 of an accidental barbiturate overdose.

“She had not seen her daughter or her mother in seven years,” Epstein reported.



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