Naomi Watts: ‘People don’t like it if you succeed, it makes them feel bad’

Naomi Watts is promoting her new movie, The Book of Henry, in which she plays a single mom to a genius son. The trailer makes it look like a Lifetime movie and I won’t give away the twist but you can watch the trailer here if you want. She’s trudging along and promoting her films and projects, she’s also in the Twin Peaks remake on Showtime, and in the Netflix series Gypsy, which is out at the end of this month. I’m looking forward to this one.  I’m going to quote primarily from her Parade cover interview this week, but she had also a Jess Cagle interview that didn’t get interesting until the end. Naomi  is very good at conducting decent interviews without being highly quotable. I’m sure that’s by design, because before she announced a split with Liev Schreiber she dropped some hints that they were having problems. She’s otherwise very noncontroversial.

Parade: On her relationship with Liev Schreiber
We are in a good place. We’re very close friends, and we’re raising two beautiful boys.

Parade: on her friendship with Nicole Kidman
We’ve kind of known each other for 30 years now. We still always check in and spend as much time together as we can when we’re in the same city, and we just take off where we left off.

Parade: on her career plans
The big thing I wanna do is theater, although I’ve heard, you know, it’s much scarier in New York. I’d love to do London. I am terrified. I’m not good in front of live audiences.

Parade: on TV roles for women
I love that there’s all this room for female-driven stories. t’s a great time for women—all the fantastically complicated women. TV’s not afraid of it.

Jess Cagle asked about the “tall poppy syndrome,” which she’s said is endemic to Australia
People don’t like it if you succeed too much. It makes them feel bad. I’m not living there all the time [now], but I do remember experiencing it. I remember some friends, we were rooming together. I was dressed up for an audition. I remember them going ‘wow, you’re really dressed up, you like really glamorous.’ You’re not supposed to try hard or have any ambition. You can of stand out if you are slightly ambitious or goal-oriented. I got over it.

[From Parade and video]

I only heard of this “tall poppy syndrome” when Rebel Wilson cited it as a reason she got called out for fibbing about her age, so the term is at least somewhat specific to Australia. I mean I’m sure it’s a phenomenon that happens all over, but I do think that ambition is generally appreciated in America, although that may vary by region. Again Naomi doesn’t say much about her personal life and what she does say is general and positive. She’ll talk about her career but she has her personal life on lockdown. She’s not trying to control the narrative so much as trying to ensure that people aren’t that interested in it.

Naomi Watts during an appearance on NBC's 'Late Night with Seth Meyers.'

Naomi Watts out and about with her children

2017 Tribeca Film Festival Chuck

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54 Responses to “Naomi Watts: ‘People don’t like it if you succeed, it makes them feel bad’”

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  1. D says:

    People want you to do well, but never better than them.

    • Joy says:

      This. I recently got promoted and my old boss was real cool with it until he realised I would have more $ and a higher classification grade. Then he was petty Betty.

    • Ghost says:

      But that’s just human nature. I know we should all pretend we’re happy for others all the time, but that’s a hard thing to do.

    • Giddy says:

      My Dad said to never expect others to be happy when I had good fortune. I’m so glad he told me because it softened the blow when it happened to me.

    • nair waldorf says:

      not all people. southern people with spirituality aren’t like that. maybe they can lose it to something that personally gets under their skin but I know someone special and I’d bet much on it :)

  2. SoulSPA says:

    The tall poppy syndrome exists in the Western culture (that I know as European) especially in Scandinavia (Law of Jante’s or Janteloven) though it appears in some form in Japan or other community-oriented cultures.
    I have some sort of a personal struggle with it – especially at the workplace. On the one hand we are expected to achieve and overachieve yet we are so played down sometimes. Then bullying and mobbing happens. There are so many examples I could give – it’s happened to me and to people close to me and I keep reading about it in articles about job performance, etc. Sometimes the struggle is so real.

    • INeedANap says:

      If there’s one thing I appreciate about being American is the respect and encouragement of hustle (although the rules are different for women, and I have figured out how to be aggressive without scaring weaker men). Australia has a reputation for being very chill and laid-back but clearly that is enforced through cultural pressure.

      • Who ARE These People? says:

        Ditto for Canada, there’s a lot of subtle community pressure, positive and negative to behave in certain ways – sometimes it seems as if even the nonconformity fits within a certain range. If you go with it, it makes life a lot easier — less vibrant, but easier.

      • What the what?! America is king of tearing people down once they’re successful. They do talk about admiring hustle but they are envious of success. Look at every celebrity. Every single one. None escapes the tear down. And it goes for non celebs as well. Michelle Obama was torn apart. MLK was as well, with people coming out of the woodwork to talk about womanizing. Lord I can’t think of anyone who escapes the tear down. America will allow you to get big, but not too big. Sinatra-mobster. Liz Taylor pill popper. Elvis- fat. Streisand-controlling. Brando-warped. Goop-conceited. People are attacked and ridiculed after they attain success. I think it’s a western thing alright.

      • tealily says:

        I feel like so much emphasis is put on the hustle in the U.S. that having the chops to backup whatever you’re hustling falls by the wayside. We’re expected to hustle whether or not we should.

  3. minx says:

    Love that jacket she’s wearing in the picture with her sons.

  4. Bitsy says:

    Most will never admit it, but all over the world success breeds contempt. Americans for the most part will forgive your ambitions if you make a big show of “keeping it real” and “never forgetting your roots”, aka using poor grammar and paying everyone way. I feel for women, especially, that other women can be very cruel if you’re too thin, put-together, and successful. Goop wasn’t totally off base on her assumption.

    • L84Tea says:

      It goes the other way too though in terms of weight. Some women love to make fun of overweight women or put them down for being so “lazy”, but the minute those women start running 5k’s and start looking great and feel confident and want to post side-by-side photos of themselves on instagram, the wolves come out, as if to say how dare you do something to better yourself–get back on that lower wrung where you belong, where you weren’t shining a spotlight on the fact that you did something that many think isn’t possible. It goes all kinds of ways.

      • Cherise says:

        Yes, whenever a large girl in the body positivity movement loses weight, the others lose their sh*t for some reason. They get called frauds, sellouts and indoctrinated just for finally taking their doctors advice to reduce their calories and hit the treadmill.

      • kibbles says:

        I have told this story on Celebitchy some years ago but I will tell it again. I had a colleague tell me once that I’d be beautiful if I lost weight. She said this at a Thanksgiving dinner of all places right before we ate. At some point the following year I went to the gym and ate healthier. I lost a good amount of pounds and it was obvious she was jealous of me. She kept mentioning my weight and eyeing me at the gym. She was also jealous of my many vacations and eventually finding better jobs. It’s true that people for the most part are petty, even if they are polite enough not to show it. Some even revel in other’s misery, bully them, then hold them in contempt if those people do better for themselves either in terms of career growth, financial wealth, or personal improvement such as weight loss or finding love.

  5. detritus says:

    It’s talked a lot about in psychology circles because it’s a big cultural difference, frequently between east and west. I usually see it I reference to Asian cultures.

    In the west, we tend to value independence, drive, ambition versus the Easts vision of communal growth, humbleness and cooperation.

    The interesting part is the focus on certain traits creates unique psychologies, certain disorders show in larger proportions, or not at all, based on location.

    For example, because of the focus on ambition and success, we select or encourage these traits. As such we end up with more narcissists and psychopaths, the unhealthy extreme of these traits.

    • Sixer says:

      And also a difference between more capitalist/individualist societies and social-democratic/communitarian societies. Hence Janteloven being mentioned above. I very much tend to the communitarian naturally so am often a fish out of water in relatively individualist Britain. For example, whenever I hear a celeb moaning about tall poppy syndrome, I think “Oh, stop trying to silence any criticism of yourself by the peasants, you annoying twit. You’re not perfect. Like the rest of us.”

      I remember someone once saying that there are no poor people in (white? working class?) America, only “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”. Made me laugh, but it goes a long way to explaining the seemingly inexplicable fact that Trump has a support base. Flaunting is admirable to some?

      But always hard to talk about this stuff without generalising to the extent that you insult a lot of people.

      • Pumpkin Pie says:

        In my experience I was targeted by ‘envy’ – I don’t have another word for this, in individualistic and community oriented societies. It occured at several stages in my life so far, and I got to the point where I almost subconsciously sold myself short and now I feel that I sabotaged myself at times in terms of my own potential so I did not offend other people. But that is over. I believe in progress and improvement and I do not allow any kind of internal or external obstacles in my evolution.

      • Who ARE These People? says:

        Sixer, the US has a culture of aspiration, with the longstanding mythology that anyone can achieve if only they work hard enough. The data (and racism, sexism etc.) show it’s not true but the mythology remains strong and many (more privileged) Americans are perpetually optimistic and sometimes mildly delusional about their place in the social system. I think it got worse the past few decades, when it was no longer good enough to be solidly middle class. Relentless marketing left so many people with the desire to be “gold card elite.” And in fact, it got harder and harder to be middle class – it was no longer a solid situation and people would do anything to feel they scrambled out of it.

        My sense having lived in Canada for many years is that people are more comfortable in the middle class here because the middle class has been better-supported for a longer period than it was in the USA. Health care and higher education were both accessible and affordable. Both now need some attention but it’s in the range of normal issues to address.

        There is creeping income inequality, CEOs (of our few cartels) are overpaid, and we have social problems (including a mammoth housing bubble fueled by debt) but it’s not nearly as severe as in the USA. My hope is that the bedrock Canadian sense of fairness will kick in and mitigate these problems…but the power of marketing and illusion of “the good life” are very persuasive.

      • detritus says:

        @ Pumpkin, me too.
        And it took me a long time to deal, because why would someone be upset at me don’t no the job really well and taking care of things until they came back, I just wanted to make them, and myself, proud.
        What i forgot is that people suck. Instead of dealing with the cognitive dissonance of ‘I’m not the only leader’, they decided they’d just rather make sure there were no other leaders.
        I always viewed Tall Poppy as a community level event, whereas the type of jealousy and pettiness we are talking about is often a by product of the competition women often feel like they are in with other women.

        @Who, we seem to be sitting at a balance right now, but I can’t forget Harper, and how close he came to removing LGBT rights, women’s rights, and how hard he fought against immigrants.
        There’s still a large conservative pull yourself up by your bootstrap community in Canada, it’s just not quite as large as the American one. I truly hope we can educate more people and have less of that and more communal support.

        Alberta ran a trial called Mincome, all citizens of a town received a minimum income, regardless of their work hours, or if they had any. Conservatives cancelled the project, buried the data, and twenty years later a female epidemiologist received permission to look at it all. The data showed only positive results, including fewer emergency responses needed (people took time off to take care of themselves), kids spending more time at school, and general increase in health factors.

    • detritus says:

      Sixer, yes exactly.
      Thats was I was rambling about, its collectivistic vs individualistic.
      Its fascinating when you think of the dimensions of personality, and how the macro level culture can impact the micro level individual. Even slight cultural shifts, think moving the norm up or down one standard deviation, can create huge population level changes.

      I think of the pushes to reduce drunk driving (drink driving there yes?), to reduce smoking, etc. These cultural shifts have produced huge change, in my dreams I imagine something similar for mental and emotional health.

      I feel similarly to you, I grew up very capitalist, very boot straps, but my education slowly peeled all of that away. Showing with statistics, with peer reviewed experts, that so much of what makes us ‘us’ is not under our control. So many health impacts, so many outcomes, even our personalities are based on what hand of cards you were dealt.

      I think especially among women, who are not expected to be assertive, competitive and powerful, when someone shows these traits there will be loud critics. The more paternalistic and conservative the culture, the farther from the trend a person is, the more pushback they will recieve.

      IMO Naomi is speaking of jealousy here, not Tall Poppy Syndrome. The issue of women being competitive with other women is a different , but definitely a real problem.

      • Sixer says:

        Yes to all that.

        I like the sociological concept of habitus to describe it.

        I just read White Working Class by Joan C Williams in an effort to understand better what’s going on stateside. Very informative on values/cultural mores – she calls them “folk pathways”.

      • detritus says:

        Oh I’m going to have to check that out. folk pathways sounds very jungian, and I’m currently very interested in social contagion, and how coping and other social mechanisms are passed through families and social units, so that is perfect.

        For understanding what’s going on stateside, there’s the individual psychology – locus of control, self labelling, social norms the nationalistic buy in to anti social mores (freedom at all costs and glorification of ignorance and toxic masculinity as backlash.
        It’s such a mess, but honestly I think the major difference between Canada and the States is our mottos and national identity. The right to certain freedoms shapes some Americans in a very selfish way.

  6. Pumpkin Pie says:

    She is right.

    I first learnt about the tall poppy syndrome in an article about Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.

    • Craven says:

      I see it in the comments sections all the time. It seems to be a thing aimed at women by men and other women except that the women are especially blatant about it.

  7. Jeesie says:

    My (obviously very generalised) experience of America is that people will be very supportive of extremely lofty goals and major ambitions…until you’re actually doing it and succeeding and talking about it. Then people go looking for something to attack. I studied in America and people were super supportive of my very bold career goals when it sounded like a crazy pipe dream. Like almost weirdly enthusiastic about something that had very little chance of working out. But when I actually put the hours in and started surpassing other people the knives came out. Again, speaking generally, Americans like to think they personally can do anything, and someone actually doing it can piss them off if it serves to show them that they actually don’t have what it takes.

    In my country talking yourself up before you’ve actually proven you’re up to the challenge is seen as sort of tacky and misguided, but if you do actually succeed you’ll be lauded.

    • Ghost says:

      An American guy I know who lives here said that in America, people will encourage you, but won’t help you, but here, people will tell you you will fail every step of the way, but will do everything in their power to help you. That is of course his view, it may or may not be true.
      The talking yourself up before you did something is weird.

      Speaking personally, I have to say that being happy for others when I was in a bad place was hard. I was envious. I was resentful. I just was. Does that make me a bad person? Maybe. Now that I’m doing okay it’s easier.

      • SoulSPA says:

        Glad you are doing ok!!!! Being envious or resentful is not necessarily bad. You were in a bad place and it’s kind of natural to feel resentment etc. Now talking just in general and not aiming at you at all, feeling resentment or envy is one thing, acting upon in is different. I’ve been there and I know it. Had very hard times and felt a lot of negativity towards other people but I just pretended to be ok with things and did not act against those people in a better place. Wish you the best!

      • Ghost says:

        Aaw, thank you, you’re so nice.
        I guess youre right. It’s the action that counts. I never did anything apart from feeling bad about myself.

      • mee says:

        its tough. even though americans support ambition theoretically, in practicality, with people you know and relationships it can create feelings of envy and hostility. the whole keeping up w/the joneses thing. i have felt a little of that myself when i wasn’t doing well and then when i was doing better, not caring. right now i struggle with feelings of being ok even though i’m not doing as well financially as some of my counterparts and friends.

  8. Neelyo says:

    Watts was in the business a long time before she achieved any level of success. People like that are usually much cannier about how they handle their PR.

    • CynicalAnn says:

      I also think that gives them a much better perspective about fame and “celebrity” and their actual place in the world vs thinking that they are the center of the universe.

  9. Who ARE These People? says:

    Tall poppy syndrome is I think known in Canada too. It’s a fairly conformist, more communal culture. “Do well but don’t stand out,” basically. Success seems to be something that reflects the community creating something good rather than something reflecting individual exceptionality. The school system doesn’t revolve around superstars.

  10. Lady D says:

    If someone like Taylor Swift or Kate Hudson said, people don’t like it if you succeed, it makes them feel bad, they would be trashed 16 ways from Sunday for their arrogance. I neither like nor dislike Naomi and am not familiar with her work, but how come it’s okay for her to say something like this?

    • Who ARE These People? says:

      She’s saying in the context of the Australian culture. The headline pulled the quote out of context. She probably did experience greater and more openly expressed jealousy at home in Australia and may be a bit relieved to live her talented, somewhat exceptional life in New York City. It would be interested to compare her thoughts with those of Cate Blanchett, who I think still keeps her primary home in Australia and is at least as successful.

      • Ange says:

        To me tall poppy, while at times destructive, isn’t openly about jealousy it’s more about getting to the top but not thinking you’re above anyone. Like, the public will be there to remind you that you’re no better than anyone else at every turn. Taken in small doses it’s probably good for actors especially.

  11. Giddy says:

    I have worked very hard on my diet and exercise plan and have lost over 60 pounds. Nine out of ten people immediately ask what kind of weight loss surgery I’ve had. When I reply that it’s just been a good diet and exercise, I get this wink, wink, you don’t want to talk about it attitude. Fine! I’ll continue with my happy dance and they can continue thinking that I couldn’t do this by myself.

    • Pandy says:

      Wow, that’s a weird response that they instantly assume you didn’t do it yourself. I bet that’s annoying!
      I’m not sure her example of people noticing she dressed up for an interview is tall poppy syndrome? TPS is just envy basically, right?

    • SoulSPA says:

      @Giddy YOU GO!!! Happy dance!!! Keep going strong, healthy and most importantly happy!!! I’m so glad when I hear/read success stories like yours. And from here, please only go better!! Yay!

  12. Joannie says:

    I agree with her and have had it happen to me. It’s more of a small town mentality which was my experience. I dated a very wealthy man at one point in my life and he told me never to drive a nice brand new car otherwise people think you make too much money and wont want to do business with you.

  13. brincalhona says:

    Going back to @Sixer’s comment: For example, whenever I hear a celeb moaning about tall poppy syndrome, I think “Oh, stop trying to silence any criticism of yourself by the peasants, you annoying twit. You’re not perfect. Like the rest of us.”
    Naomi flouncing out of an interview rather than defend that terrible Diana film needs that exact response.
    On a more general note, decide if you’re an actor or movie star. The former should be able to justify the artistic merit of their work even if it bombs, the latter should only be concerned with the box office.

    • Sarah says:

      I agree. Maybe Naomi is just a vain prima donna and that is why people don’t cheer her success. Not jealousy.

      • G says:

        This is my thought too. Nothing against Naomi, but whenever I hear people complain of tall poppy syndrome it’s a certain kind of person — someone who is successful, yes, but generally also at least a little arrogant and prone to self-promotion and/or crowing about their achievements. At the very least, they expect others to be as thrilled by their success as they are.

        For what it’s worth I live in Australia, have had my share of success, and have never felt like a victim because of it. I also don’t expect anyone except my family and very close friends to care about anything I do.

  14. Barb says:

    I find it that relatives are the worst. My grandchild has been a golden child her whole life. I find it very odd she never gets a happy for you from cousins and aunts and uncles. They show their attitude by completely ignoring her, never mention her at all. She has been in TV productions, is a model and has her own side business. Plus being a drop dead beauty, she is very humble and unassuming. I always hope she never becomes aware of their feelings.

    • Olivia says:

      I bet those relatives and cousins are very jealous of her success. Just tell her to ignore them!

  15. elle says:

    I don’t see how her quote illustrates what she’s trying to say. She was dressed up, and her friends commented that she was dressed up and looked glamorous… because she did. Sounds more like they were complimenting her than taking her down a peg.

    • G says:

      Very true. They may have said it in a snarky way, but even then it could have just been friendly teasing. Entirely possible that she misinterpreted it as envy, which would be mildly infuriating if you were the friend in question.

    • tealily says:

      Yeah, that was a weird comment reading it, but I’m thinking the meaning must have been in the inflection or something.

  16. elimaeby says:

    When I got signed to write for a major theater in the U.S., my friends in my old city ACTED happy for me. Once I had moved out here, I started seeing all these articles on Facebook. Basically any time anything remotely negative was written about this theater, at least one of my industry friends shared it.

    My boyfriend likens them to crabs in a bucket. I got out of the bucket and they’re upset they couldn’t pull me back down. I’m guilty of it, too. Especially in such a competitive industry as entertainment.

    • tealily says:

      Don’t sweat it. When I moved abroad to pursue my dreams and had some success, when I would have conversations with my friends back home about how things were going and what I was up to, the number one response was always, “So when are you moving back?” I don’t think I ever said it aloud, but my response in my head was always, “Never, if can help it!” Be proud of yourself! You should be!