Celebrities pervade American culture and many people are obsessed with them. Magazines glamorize them. The public envies them.
Celebrities –whether it’s movie stars, professional athletes or billionaires–dominate social discourse. Never has America been so obsessed with the “celebrity” concept, or with celebrities as personalities. This spike in collective obsession has reached a point that many believe is entirely unhealthy for the fabric of American society.
We need only witness the wildfire exposure in the mainstream and social media and public conversation that describe Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock’s face, at the Academy Awards, or the daily televised civil courtroom drama between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard seemingly more important than new alarming reports regarding climate change, to see the public’s obsession with celebrities.
Celebrities have become the meat of many American conversations and social gatherings. Instead of engaging in personal interactions in discuss their own lives, feelings and thoughts on current events, they discuss the lives of famous people documented in the tabloids as if they actually know them.
Celebrity obsession has become so intense and all-consuming that people live vicariously through celebrities, sometimes at the expense of sacrificing their own lives and well-being. It’s possible now more than ever as celebrities are followed on Twitter and Instagram creating an entirely false sense of intimacy.
The obsession has gone beyond mere escapism. For many, celebrities have become role models and their advice their advice on everything, including physical and mental health issues are followed blindly. Increasingly products are marketed through endorsements and advertisements by celebrities; in some cases branding their own products and building companies around them, and people say to themselves “If________ is using it, it’s got to be the best.”
Think of all the celebrity endorsed products. Taylor Swift, Shania Twain, J Lo, Halle Berry, Justin Bieber and Madonna all have their own perfume. You can get a credit card with The Kardashians on it, Jessica Simpson has her own shoe line and Oprah has made people very rich by just mentioning their product. There is even a name for this; it is called the “O Effect.”
Why are celebrities given this God-like stature? They are put so high on a pedestal that if they fall, they fall very hard and in the spotlight. And this, of course, is more fodder for the gossip junkies. People can take pleasure in their misfortune or mistake. For some, they can feel let down personally, as if they somehow the celebrities owed it to their fans to remain perfect.
But celebrities are less harmful to adults as they are to children. Adults can make their own decisions about how to consume celebrity, making the real danger how celebrity consumption affects the new generation of consumers. Today, children often grow up constantly connected to the Internet, and learn about celebrities at an early age.
These children make up a generation that would rather be on reality television than become president of the United States. They buy their clothes based on what Miley Cyrus tells them to wear and dream of having bodies like the Kardashians. Kids will be the ultimate victims of celebrity obsession.
Prior to the 1990s, there were two major sources for celebrity news, one televised and one print: “Entertainment Tonight” and People magazine. After 2000, we saw the proliferation of weekly glossy magazines as well as a growth in televised celebrity news programming. This was followed in short succession by the rise of the Internet as a news resource, hence the onslaught of celebrity blogs.
Whether there’s an obsessions with celebrities because the supply of outlets has increased, or the number of outlets has increased because of the demand fuelled by obsession, is a moot point. The fact is, Americans today are inundated with news about famous people.
The advent of the Internet has changed entertainment news. Websites report the latest on who divorced whom; who gained weight; who was seen where; who is pregnant. People’s craving for intimacy with the famous can even be satisfied by cellphone news alerts. The most searched Internet phrases are almost always celebrity names.
Incidents in a celebrity’s life often make international news. When a highly popular actor is arrested for driving under the influence and lets loose a drunken tirade, the reports can dwarf news coverage of vastly more important world events. Other celebrities are interviewed about their opinions of the actor in question. Even politicians are queried for their opinions. Media pundits ask, “Is his career over? Will he be able to bounce back?”
Magazines will pay millions for photograph rights. For instance, Variety magazine reported that one well-known couple sold photograph rights of their newborn to a magazine for $4.1 million. These pictures are actually worth the cost to the magazine due to public demand. For example, one website hosting such photos broke a single-day traffic record, attracting 26.5 million page views!
The Scientific Explanation for Celebrity Obsession
Celebrity worship is becoming such a problem psychologists even have a name for it, “Celebrity Worship Syndrome” or CWS, a term coined by Lynn E. McCutcheon, Diane D. Ashe, James Houran in a series of articles published primarily in the North American Journal of Psychology and a working paper series called Current Issues in Social Psychology, the Journal of Psychology and British Journal of Psychology.
There are different levels of celebrity worship intensity but a study by Dr. John Maltby and colleagues in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease entitled “A Clinical Interpretation of Attitudes and Behaviors Associated with Celebrity Worship” provide one of the best explantations of the link between adolescent body image problems and celebrity worship. A study done at the University of Liecester found that a whopping 36 percent of British citizens suffer from this disorder. Physiologist and author John F. Shumaker says “CWS is an obsessive addictive disorder in which a person becomes involved with the details of a celebrities personal life”.
James Houran and colleagues published a study in the British Journal of Psychology, in which they argue “Personality plays a role in pushing people along the path to celebrity stalker-hood. People who are egocentric or who have personality traits such as irritability, impulsivity and moodiness are more susceptible. The environment matters, too. People are more susceptible to over-the-top celebrity worship when they’re in a phase of identity adjustment. If a person is going through a divorce, loses a job or is having relationship problems, celebrity obsession may be a life raft they cling to.”
This identity factor may be why teenagers are so susceptible to worshipping Justin Bieber or their favorite sports star. Younger people, who are still establishing their identities, are more susceptible to celebrity obsession, Houran said. “Celebrity worship, at its heart, seems to fill something in a person’s life,” he said. “It gives them a sense of identity, a sense of self. It feeds a psychological need.”
“In our society, celebrities act like a drug,” said Houran, “They’re around us everywhere. They’re an easy fix.”
It’s only relatively recently in human history that people have had near-constant access to celebrity news and gossip. But celebrities themselves are nothing new. People have long looked to monarchs for social, and even fashion, cues: The now-ubiquitous white wedding dress caught on after Queen Victoria wore one in 1840.
Even hunter-gatherer societies in which material goods are relatively scarce have status hierarchies, said Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan. Other primate species also keep a close eye on the dominant individuals in their groups. “One is just learning what high-status individuals do so you might more effectively become one, and two, it’s basically political. Knowing what is going on with high-status individuals, you’d be better able to navigate the social scene.”
“There are people who really follow this stuff and find a celeb they really dig; they have Google alerts for them and they treat them like a friend or relative,” said Cooper Lawrence, an expert on celebrity culture and fame. “Then there’s a small percentage who [are] celebrity obsessed, where they really feel the celebrity is really talking to them,” said Lawrence, who is the author of The Cult of Celebrity.
Most of the time, caring about celebrities is no big deal. Even for some obsessed fans, celebrity worship can provide a social outlet they wouldn’t have otherwise had, Stuart Fischoff, an emeritus professor of media psychology at the University of California, told Live Science. For the seriously shy, celebrity fandom can act as a “psychological prosthesis,” he said. “If they weren’t going to be interacting with people otherwise, this makes them at least have a social relationship they didn’t have before,” Fischoff said. “So it’s making the best out of a bad deal, psychologically.”
When celebrity worship goes overboard, it usually starts out benign, Houran said. People enjoy the escapism of celebrity gossip and bond with others over a favorite star. Next, there’s a shift. The person starts thinking of the celebrity constantly, withdrawing from family and friends. Addictive and compulsive behaviors come into play.
Finally, a very few people reach what’s known as the “borderline pathological” stage, in which they believe they have a close relationship with their favorite celebrity and take that belief quite seriously. When asked if they’d do something illegal at the request of their favorite celebrity, these people say “yes.”
It has been proven that celebrity worship syndrome can lead to the manifestation of unhealthy tendencies such as materialism and compulsive buying, which can be supported by a study carried out by Robert. A.Reeves, Gary A. Baker and Chris S. Truluck. The results of this study link high rates of celebrity worship to high rates of materialism and compulsive buying.
It’s a little scary, but it seems that an extremely large portion of kids would rather be Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber rather than the lawyers and the accountants that manage their brands, and what’s even scarier is that many of these kids won’t just stop at dreaming of fame, some will ignore their personal responsibilities and put more realistic goals, like being a valedictorian, on the back burner.
Orville Gilbert Brim, author of Look at Me! The Fame Motive from Childhood to Death, says that today’s culture is full of people who don’t want to be famous for a particular talent, they just want to be famous so they can feel better accepted.
Brim pointed to several surveys that showed there are at least 4 million people in the United States who make becoming famous their chief goal in life, and these statistics were pulled from findings in 2009. And one would have to assume those numbers have swelled over the last four years, with even more signing competitions and reality shows being broadcast.
“These millions of people who are so strongly motivated for fame are obviously different from the rest of the population,” said Brim in a published interview with the University of Michigan. “And what has happened is the fame motive has come out of the basic human need for acceptance and approval and when this need is not fulfilled because of rejection by parents, or adolescent peer groups, or others, a basic insecurity develops and emerges as the fame motive.”
Brim also differentiates the various ways people hope to become famous, from wanting to achieve celebrity through a great accomplishment, to wanting to be associated with someone who is already famous, like a prominent family or famous actress.
But what’s most prominent in today’s culture, especially among younger people wanting to be famous, is becoming a celebrity without displaying a talent or putting in any kind of work. Simply put, these folks just want the benefits of being in front of the camera and have no desire of being away from the camera to perfect a craft.
Brim cites a study of 1,032 sixteen-year-olds, which determined that more than half had no desire to go into professions that didn’t involve being a celebrity.
Some might say this is normal and will eventually fade away, but seeing that the age of 16 is only two years from adulthood, and the age one potentially goes to college, there’s a good chance these kids and others like them will bring their fame pursuits into adulthood.
The research team also pointed out that many young people don’t know what it takes to apply a talent in order to achieve a respectable kind of notoriety, so many go the faster route and may do things they will regret later in life, like posting an inappropriate or salacious YouTube video.
In a separate study conducted by the Pew Research Center among 18- to 25-year-olds, researchers found that even getting rich is less important than becoming famous among some young people.
Many media experts say the fact that people can be themselves and don’t necessarily have to display a talent, makes it seem much less challenging to be on TV these days, so people are even further motivated to pursue fame.
What also may sound troubling to some, is the fact that the fame bug is extremely hard to stomp out, and many people will chase unrealistic pursuits their whole lives and most will live in a perpetual state of disappointment, says Brim. “The fundamental truth about the fame motive is that it’s never satisfied and people have to live with it all their lives. However hard they try to become famous, they’ll fail to get what they’re after,” he says. “This brings many defeats into their lives and later in life, when this final reality sets in, the realization one’s never going to become famous, the person must take steps to protect the self from this feeling of failure.” “Some interesting psychological processes occur, what I call ‘cognitive strategies,’ such as blaming someone else for one’s failure, finding new people to compare yourself to who are even less successful, or to the devaluation of others who may have become famous,” Brim says.
Brim also points out some interesting figures about the number of people who will be sorely disappointed in their pursuit of fame. “Out of the 4 million fame seekers, if you look at the Halls of Fame and biographies around the world, there are perhaps only 30,00 entries and of those, perhaps 10,000 are dead,” he says. “So this leaves about 20,000 slots for 4 million fame seekers, which is going to leave 3,980,000 people with no opening where they can be famous.”
Studies relating to body image have also included adolescents, and have found that among teenage females (aged 14 to 16 years) there is a relationship between intense-personal celebrity worship and body image (i.e., those teenage girls who identify with celebrities have much poorer body image compared to other groups studied). Maltby’s team’s research also seems to indicate that the most celebrity-obsessed individuals often suffer high levels of dissociation and fantasy-proneness, were more depressed, more anxious, more solitary, more impulsive, more anti-social and more troublesome.
Evolutionary biologists say it is natural for humans to look up to individuals who receive attention because they have succeeded in a society. In prehistoric times, this would have meant respecting good hunters and elders. But as hunting is not now an essential skill and longevity is more widely achievable, these qualities are no longer revered. Instead, we look to celebrities, whose fame and fortune we want to emulate. Evolutionary anthropologist Francesco Gill-White from the University of Pennsylvania told the publication New Scientist: “It makes sense for you to rank individuals according to how successful they are at the behaviors you are trying to copy, because whoever is getting more of what everybody wants is probably using above-average methods”.
Many years ago former music writer, now Winchester University senior psychology lecturer, David Giles decided to conduct research on the parasocial aspects of celebrity relationships after observing the lifestyle of musicians he interviewed. While he was attending a concert in Switzerland to interview “a very minor pop band who were never going to make it big,” he reports realizing that “all bands in the music business were surrounded by sycophants.” Most celebrities are.
A sycophant, as described by the Merriam Webster dictionary is “a person who praises powerful people in order to get their approval.” And charismatic celebrities can make sycophants from even the most grounded of us, who will throw away all self-respect and exhibit “fawning” behavior when in the presence of a famous person. The problem begins when fans over identify with celebrities. Film director Martin Scorsese describes the mind-hijacking dynamic of parasocial adoration in The King of Comedy, his meditation on the sublime absurdity of the fan-star relationship in which abject allegiance to a fantasy figure is played out in real life. In the movie, out of a sense of fame-lust, a couple of obsessed fans (Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard) kidnap their favorite TV star (Jerry Lewis).
Celebrities, rather than being authentic and freely expressing human beings, are actually images that are framed, groomed, packaged and highly produced solely for the purpose of dissemination through mass media onto our living room television sets, and through the Internet to our device screens. As audience members, we are spoon fed these images, more or less helpless to what we see, hear, and feel. For example, in 2000, researchers Philip J. Auter and P. Palmgreen found that “there was a positive relationship between television viewing level and parasocial interaction in adolescents.” While the level was less than they thought, the researchers believe the more a person views a celebrity, the more invested in a parasocial relationship the fan may become.
In the place of role models and examples of altruistic heroism, we search for solutions to our problems by living through forms of media escapism, and the celebrities who rise up from it. Even as far back as 1983, author Barbara Goldsmith wrote in a New York Times Magazine piece titled, “The Meaning of Celebrity” that:
“Image is essential to the celebrity because the public judges him by what it sees–his public posture as distinguished from his private person. Entertainers are particularly adept at perfecting their images, learning to refine the nuances of personality. Indeed, the words “celebrity” and “personality” have become interchangeable in our language.”
As a result, she described a society that: “…encourages us to manufacture our fantasies while simultaneously destroying our former role models and ripping away the guideposts of the past. The result is that we have created synthetic celebrities whom we worship, however briefly, because they vicariously act out our noblest or basest desires.”
Lives of the Rich and Super-Rich
We can now add to the list of celebrity status that of the super-rich, the billionaires. Media feed us a daily diet of what billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates did, thought, believe and own, with many people assigning them a status and importance to society considerably greater than that of just being wealthy.
Has the Pandemic and Academy Awards Damaged Celebrity Status?
In an article in the New York Times, Amanda Hess wrote “Among the social impacts of the coronavirus is its swift dismantling of the cult of celebrity. The famous are ambassadors of the meritocracy; they represent the American pursuit of wealth through talent, charm and hard work. But the dream of class mobility dissipates when society locks down, the economy stalls, the death count mounts and everyone’s future is frozen inside their own crowded apartment or palatial mansion.”
Celebrity obsession is unlikely to go away anytime soon, particularly in the U.S. where pop culture is strongest. While for some it is a distraction no different than your favorite movie star, athlete or author, for many, it’s becoming a psychologically unhealthy addiction, particularly for impressionable young people.