Naomi Osaka and the Power and Curse of Celebrity

Naomi Osaka is at the center of the world stage and wants to be there on her own terms.

At the end of this month, she is scheduled to be in New York for the U.S. Open, the final big tournament of the year. She will take the court after representing Japan in the Tokyo Olympics. If she plays in the Open, it will be the first time we have seen her, in professional competition, since she withdrew from the French Open and declined to play at Wimbledon.

Osaka, at age 23, is becoming a public relations and media enigma. Adored by her fans for her skill on the court, her shyness, and her seemingly naive honesty, she has learned quickly how to use her celebrity to advance causes that concern her and, as in the case of mental health, has learned to turn her mistakes into positives.

In May of this year, Osaka withdrew from the French Open after declining to take part in post match press conferences the tournament considers mandatory. At first, she willingly paid a $15,000 fine for skipping a news conference, but when it became clear the controversy was over-taking the tournament she withdrew completely.

The French Open, and the leadership of other major tournaments, made matters worse by initially criticizing her openly for failing to live up to her professional obligations. Then, when the public relations tide turned toward Osaka, the major tournaments expressed their support for her. They only took this step after Osaka revealed to all the world that she was battling mental health challenges, including depression. Tennis was on the wrong side of the issue, and worse, had publicly humiliated one of its biggest stars, potentially making her struggle that much more difficult.

From a tennis perspective, Osaka lost too, because she gave up her chance to compete in two of the biggest tournaments of the year. Tournaments she practices for as much as eight hours a day, in a sport that is understandably the center of her life. From a public relations perspective, the controversy only made Osaka more of a force for change.

In July, a three-part documentary series on Osaka debuted on Netflix. Ironically, the Osaka series was released on the same day a film on the life of Anthony Bourdain was opening in theaters. The two films offered bookends on what it is like to become a celebrity and how it can end if fame is not managed properly.

In her short public career, which has taken most of her life — outside the public eye — to achieve, Osaka has managed to emerge as a quiet spokeswoman for causes bigger than herself. First, the issue of racial equality and now mental health. She is helping to redefine how professional athletes interact with their fans.

At the root of the controversy that played out at the French Open is the question of who is charge. The tournaments and the news media, or the players? It is a co-dependent relationship, but it is hard to argue with the idea that if there are no players, there is no tournament, there are no fans, and there is no revenue. It would seem the players have the advantage.

In the last several months, Osaka has demonstrated that for those with a ready audience, talking to that audience through the daily press(in this case the tennis press) is tremendously inefficient. Sitting through a news conference, waiting for the right question from reporters with their own sense of the what the story should be, is a waste of time for someone who can reach her fans directly through social media, a three-part documentary on Netflix, or if need be, a full page opinion piece in Time magazine in which she has the room to say exactly what is on her mind unfiltered.

The most important thing to come out of the Osaka/French Open debacle is the focus on mental health. Not just for athletes but for everyone.

When children have hurt feelings there is usually someone around telling them to toughen up, it’s no big deal. The child’s response is often to say, “You don’t know how I feel.” That response itself is often seen as childish and ignored by adults and other children, but it is a response that seems so obviously true for everyone no matter what stage of life.

We think we know our celebrities, because we see them in the media all the time. They seem to be well put together. They seem to be in complete control. But that’s not necessarily so. They are often putting on a brave face for the public, or an act that is meant to sell a product. We don’t know these people at all. And the bigger message is; we don’t know each other at all. We only know of other people what they choose to share and they only know of us what we choose to share. This has always been true, but only recently have we begun — as a society — to acknowledge this truth under the heading of mental health.

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.