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People Top 5
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PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- May 17, 1999
- Vol. 51
- No. 18
Payday or Mayday?
Sure, Rich Is Better Than Poor, but Those Who've Hit It Big Know the Dough Can Cause Problems
Winning $66 million meant that Sanderson could slip into bed alongside husband Jason, 33—a staffer at a screen-printing plant and a part-time wrestler known as the Wolfman—and sleep the deep, blissful sleep of the rich. Or so she thought. "That night I got so paranoid I couldn't speak," recalls Sanderson. "I was afraid to believe it was real and afraid to believe it wasn't." Her first night as a multimillionaire and she'd never slept worse. "I spent the whole time crying," she says, "and throwing up."
All this goes to prove what we already knew—that becoming insanely rich can drive some people over the edge. And in today's robust economy—an age of instant Internet zillionaires, bloated sports contracts, nine-figure lottery jackpots and shoot-the-moon movie star salaries—the perils of plenitude can seem even worse. "Getting rich suddenly is a phenomenon of our times, and it can be a shocking, isolating event," says author Michael Lewis, who analyzed the Wall Street wealthy in 1989's Liar's Poker, and who is working on a book about the instant moguls of Silicon Valley. "Suddenly the world treats you like you're a piñata slugging you and hoping some candy comes out."
Sure, it beats bad credit and a diet of frozen burritos, but dazzling wealth can have a precipitous downside. Health woes, family feuds, estrangement from friends, emotional distress, substance abuse—prosperity can sometimes seem like a long episode of the Jerry Springer Show. "People laugh and say, 'I wish I had those problems,' but no, actually, they don't," says Michael Naste, a 1987 New York state lottery winner who has helped other winners by offering them free advice on investing and taxes. "The reality is that it's a very stressful, high-pressure situation."
At the very least, adding zeros to one's net worth can be pretty disorienting. Take, for example, that newly minted millionaire from Boston—no, not venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli, but his former live-in nanny Maria Grasso, 54, who last month won a $197 million Big Game jackpot, the largest such prize ever awarded a single player in the U.S. As interest in her baby-wipes-to-megabucks story reached a fever pitch, the down-to-earth divorced mother of two grown children went into hiding, hiring a security firm to protect her elderly mother from the media—and from kidnappers—in her native Chile. "We're a modest family, and I want us to stay that way," Grasso said. "What happened is something wonderful, and it shouldn't turn into something bitter."
Fortunately, Grasso seems grounded enough to handle her bonanza. One of her few purchases so far was a big bouquet of flowers, which she sent to a home for children, some with cerebral palsy, where she once worked. But she has grander plans for the future—like helping to educate her many nieces and nephews, taking care of her 80-year-old mother and indulging in her favorite hobby, oil painting. "I'll be the same person I was," Grasso vowed, "only with a few more resources."
Still, an address change to easy street can be jarring—something Oprah Winfrey discovered years ago. She went from a comfortable salary as host of her own Chicago talk show in 1984 to raking in millions after the program was syndicated. "I was stunned," Winfrey told PEOPLE recently. "I was looking at the checks coming in and I was like, 'What do I do with this?' " Her initial response to the mind-boggling windfall? "Towels," she says. "I bought a lot of towels. Having money is the better-towel syndrome, where you get to buy thicker and thicker towels."
But all those towels—and a multimillion-dollar condo in Chicago—were not as fulfilling as the money she used to help others. "Things don't really define you," says Oprah, who is worth an estimated $675 million and who regularly donates a chunk of that fortune to charities. (She pledged to build 205 new houses for Habitat for Humanity, and has funded more than 100 college scholarships.) "You don't truly understand that until you get there."
Oprah's realization—that piling up material possessions won't necessarily lead to inner peace—is one that comes unexpectedly to many. "The myth of the American dream is that money leads to contentment, but it often has the opposite effect," says Milwaukee therapist Jessie O'Neill, whose book The Golden Ghetto deals with the alcoholism, divorce and other troubles she faced as a result of being wealthy. (Her family inherited part of the General Motors fortune.) Perhaps no one could attest to that better than figure skater Oksana Baiul. Born dirt-poor in a Ukrainian factory town, Baiul upset Nancy Kerrigan to win the gold medal at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, a victory that the wholesome 16-year-old then spun into books, a TV movie and a lucrative run on the pro skating circuit.
Yet without parents to supervise her spending (her parents split when she was a toddler, and her mother died of cancer when Oksana was 13), Baiul began to see the world as her shopping mall. She bought a Mercedes, took expensive vacations and shelled out for a huge house in Connecticut. She also started drinking heavily and hanging out with "all these so-called friends who appeared when she was wealthy," says Bob Young, the director of a skating rink who has known her for several years. In 1997 a drunken Baiul crashed her prized Mercedes on a country road. "Everything came too fast for her," says skater Ekaterina Gordeeva, a friend. "She didn't know how to handle the money."
To the young and orphaned Baiul—who recently stopped drinking and is struggling to make a comeback—lavish spending may have seemed an antidote to loneliness. "It's a false belief that money solves all of life's dilemmas," says Allen Hancock, publisher of More Than Money, a quarterly magazine that advises the wealthy on how to handle stressful situations such as friends and relatives asking for loans. "Money does solve money problems, but it doesn't solve other problems."
Indeed, being catapulted into the economic stratosphere can create its own set of problems. LeAnn Rimes was just a regular 14-year-old from a middle-class Texas town when her 1996 single "Blue" shot her to country-music stardom. A year later she earned a reported $96 million from record sales. Rimes and her mother, Belinda, moved into a four-bedroom hillside home in Sherman Oaks, Calif., complete with a kidney-shaped pool and a waterfall. "I go shopping, like, every day," Rimes told PEOPLE last fall, admitting to a particular fondness for shoes. (She has some 75 pairs.) "I am, like, a shopaholic."
Her good fortune, however, has had an ugly consequence. "Jealousy," says Rimes. "I've run into a lot of people who love you until you become successful, and then they don't like you anymore. It's the thing that I have always hated." The envy of others may sound like a small price to pay for unlimited footwear, but it can be a serious impediment to developing normal relationships—particularly for a teenager like Rimes. "People always ask whether the money changed me," says lottery winner Michael Naste. "I say it's the people around me who have changed."
Virginia entrepreneur Rajendra Singh, 44, faced his own sobering reality after striking it rich. Raised in a tiny Indian village with no running water or electricity, he moved to the United States and had only $500 in his bank account in 1981. But after the engineering prodigy set up a business that acquired cellular-phone companies—just as cell phones were taking off—Singh saw his net worth soar to nearly $1 billion. The money brought him boats, cars, houses—and some unwelcome tension in his life. Singh's high profile led to concerns about his family's safety, since they would be recognized, for example, on shopping trips. "It takes away from your freedom," he says. "You'd like to just hang out and do what you want, but you can't." Suddenly, Singh felt withdrawn around associates, and now hesitates before answering casual business questions, for fear any advice he gives might lead to litigation. "You can't ever let your guard down," he says. "You just have to develop a few really close friendships."
Choosing one's friends carefully can be key. Case in point: MC Hammer, the Oakland-born rap star who went from rags to riches, then back to rags again. At his peak in the early 1990s—when hits like "U Can't Touch This" and "2 Legit 2 Quit" earned him $33 million—Hammer was employing 200 people, most of them friends, and spending $500,000 a month on payroll. "I did things out of emotion, not good business sense," says Hammer, 36. "When it came time to cut it off, my mind said yes but my heart said no." Compounding that costly generosity was his unchecked extravagance: Hammer sank millions into a palatial spread in Fremont, Calif., and planned to stock his six-bedroom home with a beauty salon, a bowling alley and tons of Italian marble. But by 1996 his fortune was gone, and Hammer filed for bankruptcy. "Money creates freedom, but it also creates burdens," says Hammer, who just completed an album due this month. "I learned an expensive lesson."
Resisting the urge to splurge, however, is easier said than done. "The prior personality tends to play itself out," notes Eleanor Cole, a New York City psychologist specializing in the suddenly rich. "If someone was impulsive before, they'll end up squandering their wealth." Reckless spending is particularly common among lottery winners, many of whom have little education and no financial savvy. "One winner walked into a grocery store trying to cash his $200,000 check," says Michael Naste. "One guy bought ten Cadillacs, and by the third month they were all repossessed." Getting good financial advice can be a problem too. An Arizona lottery winner "had 350 financial advisers approach him," says Kathie Barnes, a Phoenix portfolio manager. "One guy climbed into his yard and held up a poster with investment ideas." A rule of thumb: "Run the other way when they approach you," says Barnes. "Good advisers don't seek you out."
Strangers aren't the only ones who can make life miserable for millionaires. Pressure also comes from friends who expect, even demand, extravagant spending. "When you go to a wedding, everyone is looking for a big gift," says Naste, who socked his own $2.5 million winnings into a trust for his children. Not that being a skinflint is the only safe way to go. The trick is to "engage in petty indulgences and extravagances," advises Rex Beaber, a Los Angeles psychologist and attorney. "For instance, take the vacation of your life for $10,000."
Or, if you're onetime struggling comedian Drew Carey, now a big star on TV, you might prefer leaving really big tips. "He's incredibly generous," marvels Diedrich Bader, who plays Oswald on The Drew Carey Show. "Once we went out for waffles and he left a $50 bill. He likes to spread the wealth around." But Carey hasn't gone to big-ticket hell by splurging on mansions or a private jet. "Drew does not spend conspicuously," says the show's co-creator Bruce Helford. "He's not a lunatic about money."
Carey isn't the only Hollywood heavyweight who's fiscally fit. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, the wunderkinds who shot from obscurity to Oscar stardom thanks to 1997's Good Will Hunting, seem more entranced by the romance of moviemaking than by the lure of cold hard cash. Just a few years ago, remembers their friend Rory Cochrane, "Ben and Matt were jumping up and down and going crazy because they won $12,000 on roulette." Now that $12,000 is chump change to them, the buddies from Boston stick close to their pre-fame pals. Instead of staying at ritzy Los Angeles hotels, for instance, "they like to come crash at my house," says Hunting producer and old friend Chris Moore. "I knew them before, and if I have to I'll tell them, 'Get your stuff out of the TV room, dudes—you're making a mess.' "
Another way the suddenly rich can keep their heads on straight is to surround themselves with family. Bill Phillips, the 34-year-old CEO of Experimental and Applied Sciences, Inc., used his $185 savings to publish a nutritional guide in 1987. That gave birth to a Colorado-based nutritional-supplements empire that made Phillips more than $150 million last year. But "there's a lot of baggage that comes with the money," he says. "You don't know who to trust." Phillips finds comfort in familiar faces: His father, mother, brother and sister all work for him, and he has eight high school pals on his payroll. On the downside, "sudden wealth can dramatically change the dynamics within a family," says Delaware financial planner Judy Lau, particularly when "one sibling is a multimillionaire and the other siblings are blue-collar workers."
It doesn't get any easier on the dating circuit either. Dineh Mohajer, 26, was an overworked premed student in 1995 when she devised a brand of uniquely colorful nail polish. Now the CEO of the hot cosmetics company Hard Candy, Mohajer sees the twinkle in some men's eyes when they recognize her from her ads. "They assume I have a big house in Beverly Hills," says Mohajer, who actually lives in a three-bedroom home in Westwood, Calif., with two friends.
"The potential is there for a guy to hit on you because they think you're a millionaire, so you just have to stay aware." In general, the newly rich "can become quite paranoid," says Dr. Richard J. Edelman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist. "They worry there are people out there who want to separate them from their money. And often they're right."
It's all enough to make a millionaire long for the poor old days—not an uncommon emotion among the mega-wealthy. More Than Money publisher Allen Hancock tells the story of a man whose inheritance amounted to $1 million a year. He lived in a cramped mobile home with his wife and children while building a $300,000 country house. Facing crises like frozen pipes pulled the family together, and when they finally moved into their dream house "they found themselves not seeing each other nearly as much," says Hancock. "Some people would just love to have a large home, but others find it very isolating."
Most people would agree, of course, that having money is better than not having it. What's important is realizing how it helps and how it does not. "It sure as heck doesn't make you better than anyone else," says hotshot Houston trial lawyer Joe Jamail, best known for winning an $11 billion settlement in the 1985 Pennzoil vs. Texaco case. Jamail's cut: some $400 million, which, remarkably, "didn't change the way I live," he insists.
Jamail, 73, did buy a 14-passenger Gulfstream IV jet, but that was about it. "I'm still hanging out in the same bars, drinking the same whiskey," he says. "I don't need to own a bunch of stuff just to own it." Shunning country clubs in favor of "joints" ("The people there don't care if you got $20 or $20 billion"), Jamail has also donated more than $50 million to charities including the Texas Heart Institute. "There are no vaults in heaven or hell," he says. "What good is all this unless you can help someone?"
Therein lies the key to being rich and happy. "You must be productive with the money, not profligate," advises Boston College sociologist Paul Schervish, author of Gospels of Wealth, about the superrich. "The greatest sin is to have money without virtue." Giving to charity is one solution, but so is using your fortune to follow your bliss. Mary and Jason Sanderson, winners of a $66 million jackpot, were determined "to keep the same values we've always had," says Mary. "Remember where you came from, remember the people who are still there."
To that end, the Sandersons skipped the obligatory spending spree. "I did do something wild that first night," says Jason. "I bought Chef Boyardee SpaghettiOs instead of the generic spaghetti." Then he spent a fraction of the winnings to create his own traveling wrestling show, a low-profit circuit that draws crowds of 200 or so to pool halls and Rotary Clubs in New England. The purchase ensures that Jason can keep doing what he loves to do: body-slamming the Crusher, the Lobsterman and his other crazy middle-aged pals. "The guy really hasn't changed at all," says Jeff "the Lobsterman" Costa. "If he spends fifty bucks a day, that's good."
The Sandersons' one big indulgence: a 25-room colonial-style farmhouse on 173 acres in rural New Hampshire. Mary, an animal lover, is stocking the land with horses she is adopting and saving from slaughter overseas. "You have to do some good with the money," she says simply. "Otherwise it'll come right back and bite you."
Written by: Alex Tresniowski
Reported by: Ken Baker, Karen Bates, Meg Grant, Alexandra Hardy, Elizabeth Leonard and Paula Yoo in Los Angeles; Bob Meadows and Lee Wohlfert in New York City: Cindy Dampier and John Slania in Chicago; Gerald Burstyn in Washington, D.C.; Susan Gray in Virginia; Jennifer Lon-gley in Connecticut; Eric Francis in New Hampshire; Michelle McCalope in Houston; Vickie Bane in Denver; and Tim Vandenack in Santiago, Chile
- Ken Baker,
- Karen Bates,
- Meg Grant,
- Alexandra Hardy,
- Elizabeth Leonard,
- Paula Yoo,
- Bob Meadows,
- Lee Wohlfert,
- Cindy Dampier,
- John Slania,
- Gerald Burstyn,
- Susan Gray,
- Jennifer Longley,
- Eric Francis,
- Michelle McCalope,
- Vickie Bane,
- Tim Vandenack.
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