Dutch music star Jett Rebel and Ziggy Stardust, both alter egos of Jelte Tuinstra and David Bowie, respectively.

Creative Madness

How music celebrities struggle with stardom, mental disorders and drug abuse

Jelte Tuinstra (23), AKA Jett Rebel, is a new music phenomenon in the Netherlands. A rising star, who sounds as funky as Prince, writes his own music and plays most of the instruments featured on his second album Hits for Kids himself. Last November the documentary Who the fuck is Jett Rebel premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) with a candid portrait of his first steps into stardom.

Just like Superman
The documentary not just conveys Jelte Tuinstra’s talents, but especially his anxieties. Though Tuinstra seems to have a very strong drive (propelled by ADHD), he also struggles with his perfectionism, insecurity and unstable mind. What really stands out is what seems a dissociative identity disorder (DID), giving Jett Rebel — his stage name — a personality quite distinctive from his own. When alone, Jelte Tuinstra is himself; a shy, insecure, self-loathing boy. But when he gets on stage, he is Jett Rebel, the star that confidently rocks the crowd. His manager describes it as the classic superhero: “just like Clark Kent becomes Superman, he becomes Jett Rebel.

And though he admires his alter ego, the switching between his two personalities visibly drives him mad

His two personalities are so different that Tuinstra can even look at Jett Rebel from a distance. And though he admires his alter ego, the switching between his two personalities visibly drives him mad. Several times he is utterly frustrated when all of a sudden he turns Jelle Tuinstra again. “How can I be craving for attention one moment and so fucking scared of everyone the next?” he desperately asks director Linda Hakeboom when he feels alone and depressed directly after a successful performance.

Ziggy Stardust
Tuinstra’s alter ego reminded me of David Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust. Especially since Jett Rebel too has a very strong androgynous look on stage, enhanced by nail polish, make-up and feminine outfits.

To learn more about Ziggy Stardust I watched the 1975-documentary Cracked Actor made by Alan Yentob for the BBC. Bowie was 28 at the time, a bit older than Tuinstra, but also a little further down the road of stardom, allowing him to look back on the period when he was Ziggy Stardust.

Bowies describes his alter ego as an archetype, “the divinity rock and roll star,” who helped him to cope with the “very frightening” experience of becoming famous very quickly

Bowie describes his alter ego as an archetype, “the divinity rock and roll star” who helped him to cope with the “very frightening” experience of becoming famous very quickly. According to Bowie it was as if he could be at two places at the same time: “One half of me is putting a concept forward, and the other half is trying to sort out my emotions.” Which sounds very much like the insecure Tuinstra, having a hard time to keep up with his new self.

Though Bowie’s alter egos — he also developed Aladdin Sane and Major Tom — might have been useful in a way, he couldn’t control himself being one or the other. Bowie: “I couldn’t decide whether I was writing the characters or whether the characters were writing me. Or whether we were all one of the same.” Bowie strongly doubted his sanity and even wanted to kill himself.

Creative achievers
Tuinstra and Bowie are just two examples of famous musicians who show (or in Bowie’s case showed) a mental disorder. There are many more. And that is no coincidence since research has revealed that real-life “creative achievers” (as opposed to those who merely have creative cognitive capacities) are significantly associated with psychoticism and hypomania. Just like Bowie and Tuinstra’s DID these symptoms come with an overactive imagination and inclination to live in a dreamworld.

To be more precise, psychoticism is characterised by an increased vulnerability to psychosis such as schizophrenia (which basically means losing touch with reality) and by strange and unpredictable thoughts and impulsive and sensation-seeking behaviour — often not making sense to others. Hypomania, the other sign of ‘creative madness,’ is a milder form of the manic side of bipolarity and characterised by distractibility, a wide range of interests, a constant flow of ideas, and not being able to channel them. Some of these symptoms also seem to trouble Tuinstra. With his ADHD he is often nervous, not able to control his thoughts and behaviour and thus “all over the place” — as he formulates it himself.

The most creative individuals are often also the most productive ones — making them ‘creative achievers’

Since every human being can be placed somewhere on a psychopathology spectrum, hypomania and psychoticism can be diagnosed in all of us. Creative minds however statistically show stronger symptoms. And though this clearly has a negative effect on the creative artist’s mental stability it is also conducive to creativity. It gives the mind associative power, a strong imagination, the inspiration and drive to engage in different creative projects, and a doer mentality. Which is why the most creative individuals are often also the most productive ones — making them ‘creative achievers.’

What makes it hard to diagnose the symptoms of creative madness is that artists also often show eccentric behaviour. It is difficult to tell where the creative ‘pose’ ends and the real madness begins — or vice versa. Or, in other words, that which superficially might comes across as mad, might just as well be conscious, deliberate eccentric behaviour. So you can attribute the feminine looks of Bowie and Tuinstra to DID, but just as well to eccentricity.

In any case, the benefit of being eccentric is that it helps artists to stand out and more easily acquire an audience, so that the audience, just as much as the mental disorder, influences the artist in his behaviour. In Defining Creativity I write:

“The downside of an audience, especially in the artistic domain, is that it would rather consume the work of an eccentric than that of a dull personality. Most journalists (…) also would rather write about someone that deviates from the norm. They thus create a culture in which the artist scores better when behaving abnormal.”

This culture of creative artists also being eccentric celebrities started in the late Renaissance and was enhanced by 18th Century Romanticism. In Defining Creativity I use a quote by Paul Cézanne to illustrate the power of the posing artist:

The most seductive thing about art is the personality of the artist himself.

The 27 Club
Another habit that comes with being a creative celebrity is drug abuse. Bowie, for instance, was using cocaine in large quantities when he was fighting his alter egos. Since cocaine is a substance that enhances the brain’s capacity to focus and process information, it helps the chaotic brain to become organized. And in the hypomanic brain it paradoxically can even have a calming effect — comparable to what Ritalin does to ADHD. It is therefore understandable that Bowie and many other creative stars got addicted to it.

Being a music star, having an unstable mind and a drug habit has proved a lethal cocktail for the infamous 27 Club

It goes without saying, however, that drugs used in large quantities and addictively are hardly ever beneficial. Cocaine, for example, also enhances some mental disorders - such as schizophrenia - and is able to trigger psychosis. Which is why being a music star, having an unstable mind and a drug habit has proved a lethal cocktail for the infamous 27 Club, consisting of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse — among others. Bowie, driven mad by his alter egos, was quite close to joining this metaphorical club. And if Tuinstra ups his alcohol consumption or intensives his soft drugs habit (suppressing his ADHD), he might be able to join the club in a few years time.

Luckily though, in a recent interview in Volkskrant Magazine, Tuinstra seems a little more stable, partly, he says, because he has a new girlfriend and is more secure of himself: “Before this career I had an incredible urge to prove myself. (…) That has passed. My insecurity has for a large part disappeared. Sometimes I worry about nothing and then think: dude, you have everything you could wish for. You’re career is on its way, you’re growing, and you have a wonderful girlfriend. Why should I be unhappy!”

Creativity sits on top of Maslow’s pyramid, as “self-actualization”

Indeed, you’d almost forget. Though being a creative mind that turns into a star overnight can be difficult, creativity generally makes people happy. Creativity sits on top of Maslow’s pyramid, as “self-actualization,” so that it forms the most sophisticated human need and motivator. In fact, from an evolutionary viewpoint, our brain rewards creativity with happiness because it helps the Homo sapiens to adjust to a changing environment and to survive. Which is why creativity is also strongly addictive in itself.