Just Like Us

Sick and Famous

Colds and flus happen—but as pop stars, stage actors, and athletes know all too well, that’s rarely enough of a reason to call in sick. How they cope when the show must go on.

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When David Brancaccio, host of Marketplace Morning Report, was climbing in the Himalayas on assignment for NOW on PBS (Brancaccio hosted, I did the voiceover), he got slammed by the altitude. As he describes it, “I felt like I had a 103-degree fever with horrendous chills.” But, he adds, “There was no way I was going to not climb that mountain, because that’s career-defining.”

For people in the public eye—performers, broadcasters, politicians, and athletes—seeming a bit superhuman is part of the job. TV reporters enunciate stoically as gunfire explodes behind them. Pro basketball players reach over 10 feet in the air to land dunk after dunk.

But what do you do if it’s time to abseil for the camera, spar on stage, or sprint onto the court and you’re about to hurl or hack up your lungs?

Usually you go on anyway. As Brancaccio says, “I tend to be a dude who just shows up.”

There’s good reason to be a dude or lady who just shows up. For one, famous people aren’t easily replaceable. They are the brand. Lady Gaga fans don’t want to see somebody dress up in glass shards and shoot firecrackers off the tips of her eyelashes in the style of Lady Gaga. Similarly (except for the prevalence of khaki slacks), nobody would be happy about spending $4,486 for Masters tickets if every name golfer bowed out at the last minute.

If it were easy to bow out, a stadium full of fans (and anyone who later failed to suppress her schadenfreude enough to avoid the YouTube video) would not have had to see Justin Bieber fully upchuck on stage.

Provided he felt ill ahead of time, just imagine the pressure not to cancel that gig. It was the first date of his Believe Tour. The money involved in that enterprise could launch a fledgling country.

Provided he felt ill ahead of time, just imagine the pressure not to cancel that gig. It was the first date of his Believe Tour. The money involved in that enterprise could launch a fledgling country. Never mind the amount of potentially damaging press he would receive for cancelling a show. You can see why Bieber might have decided to take a gamble on the direction of his peristalsis. (Which he amazingly does up until that one fateful moment.) And he’s not alone. Gaga and Rihanna have both vomited while performing. Then there’s Marilyn Manson, who passed out and fell down during one of his shows.

Maybe it’s concern for one’s own enterprise that drives famous people to push themselves. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to disappoint their fans. And maybe they’re hoping to be one of those people who pulls through beautifully while ill, like Michael Jordan famously did in what’s come to be known as the “flu game,” despite his trainer recently saying it was food poisoning. Jordan scored 38 points, helping to lead the Chicago Bulls to a 90-88 victory in the 1997 NBA finals.

One could reasonably deduce the Bulls would have lost if he hadn’t played. Then again, had Jordan played badly on account of his illness, they might have lost anyway. Playing while ill is a bit of a catch-22.

Sometimes, though, there’s no catch at all. As jazz pianist Geri Allen puts it, “We tend to love what we do so much that we don’t want to have to cancel.” And that love is powerful. She told me about getting hit by asthma during a gig in Lima, Peru: “There was no time of day or night when I could really breathe, except when I was on the bandstand playing. I forgot about it, and the music took over.”

Some psychologists refer to the mental state Allen is describing as “flow.” In positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s book of that title, he describes flow as a “total involvement with life.” He writes that the “ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” One of flow’s characteristics is a lack of awareness of physical needs. It follows that in this state one would become less aware—if not completely unaware—of being ill.

Though it also follows that being very ill might make it harder to get into a flow state. Sometimes mind over matter doesn’t cut it. In those cases, you have to mind where you spew your matter. Broadway actor (and fellow NYU drama grad) Steve Rosen says, “If you’re puking you have to talk to the stage manager and make sure you have buckets at all the major stage entrances and exits and that everyone [in the cast] is prepared to stall for you.”

“After just a minute or so, I bolted straight upright in my seat and took a giant gasping breath. My whole body felt electric. I felt fantastic!”

Many people in the public eye have remedies they swear by. Though from neti pots to Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa syrup—Rosen’s favorite, which you can get in Chinatown or on Amazon—there seems to be no magic bullet. Before I worked on Brancaccio’s show, he went to a famous voice doctor to cure a case of laryngitis. He walked out with various supposedly excellent treatments, but it still took two weeks to recover. And later, when I was making my living as a professional talker, a speech pathologist told me to eat a lot of dried papaya. Though it was delicious, it didn’t cure my persistent rasp.

Though some mystery treatments do claim to be cure-alls. Twenty years ago my TMN colleague Kevin Guilfoile was working for a Major League Baseball team, when he suddenly got sweaty and nauseous with a high fever, so he crawled into one of the stadium seats and stuck his head between his legs. It was “one of those feelings where you don’t actually want to die, but it strikes you that death might not be the worst thing, either.”

A team trainer showed up and, after looking at him for a few seconds, reached into his bag, and handed over a pill. When Guilfoile asked what it was, the trainer said nebulously, “Just take it.”

“After just a minute or so,” Guilfoile remembers, “I bolted straight upright in my seat and took a giant gasping breath. My whole body felt electric. I felt FANTASTIC!”

When he asked what the pill was, the trainer just laughed.

That said, more mainstream medical treatments can play a useful role. When she’s feeling super rough, Allen says, “I take something like Theraflu and go for it.” Athletes can pound ibuprofen or another anti-inflammatory, though that comes with the risk of injury since you might not notice you’re pushing it too hard.

Dr. Anthony Jahn, a New York and New Jersey ENT who sees reputable opera singers, amongst other patients, recommends decongestants to open the airways, Vitamin C to help fight off the bug, and antibiotics only if the infection is bacterial. He adds, “I use cortisone, either in a pill or an inhaler form, only when the infection is also addressed with antibiotics, and the performance is essential to the singer’s career. There are many performers, particularly those on the road, who go from one cortisone prescription to the next. Although this may be a quick short term fix, it disarms many of the body’s warning and defensive mechanisms and is harmful in the longer run.” He’s right to warn against that eventuality. “If a patient has had a vocal fold hemorrhage, the treatment is absolute voice rest, otherwise there is a risk of developing a vocal fold polyp that may require surgery.”

Despite the risks, singers, actors, and broadcasters sometimes need to use their voices in a big way even when they can barely talk on the phone. Once, during a performance, Rosen transposed a whole bunch of notes on the fly since a nasty cold had shrunk his range down to almost drone proportions. Incidentally, his fever broke right at the end of the song, thus rendering him so sweaty that his on-stage love interest changed the blocking to avoid a kiss.

Though it could have been so much worse. This from David Brancaccio: “I had a kidney stone once. I flew out with a kidney stone to California [from New York] and was recording a special for PBS standing at the capitol. But every time I opened my mouth protests erupted and blew my take. So it took four hours standing up with a kidney stone.”

So even when the show must go on, sometimes it shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s best to call in sick if performing or playing could cause a long-term injury to yourself or damage to others, or if the audience notices your ailment to the point where they’re not having a good time anymore.

Basically, when it will hurt your career. Maybe it does all come down to a dogged kind of love. Geri Allen sums it up: “Why would you ever really want to stop, if you have a choice?”