Head to the checkout line at a grocery store and you’ll see all the magazines, each trying to have the most salacious story on the cover to gain your attention so that you’ll spend your hard-earned dollar buying it. For many people, not a day goes by when they don’t sneak a peek at their favorite celebrity gossip website. Sites like TMZ.com and PerezHilton.com are some of the hottest websites online, garnering millions of hits a day.
great question: Are celebrities’ lives more interesting to you than your own? We spend every day planning, hoping, loving, healing, falling down and getting back up, striving to feel better, and dealing with it when we feel awful. With a cast of thousands of characters, an infinite archive of memories, a never ending dialogue of thoughts, and a range of subtle emotions so numerous they defy description, what could be more riveting to us than the individual sagas of our own lives?
Yet most of us spend at least some time every day obsessing over or comparing ourselves to the love lives and fashion choices of total strangers. Why do we do this? What is it about celebrities that make them so irresistible? Is it that they lead such different lives? Is it that they have the ability to buy whatever they want? Or is it that they seem to have such a glamorous life? Everyone has their own reason for wanting to take a look into the life of their favorite A-List celebrity, and there is no stopping the media machine. In a sense, celebrities are our new gods. We like to fantasize that our lives could become like theirs – we too could be beautiful, desirable, talented, rich. At the same time, we secretly want to see them fall so that we know that even our gods have feet have clay.
We tend to believe that our obsession with celebrities has only recently begun. The truth, however, is that fascination with those who are famous has been around for a very long time. In ancient times, celebrities may have included war heroes and religious icons. You could even look at the mythological creatures and deities of ancient storytelling traditions as an early form of famous characters. In the days before the modern media revolution, tales of heroism and villainy on such a large scale may have provided a powerful social function. The famous stood as both role models and warnings, a key element of social education that taught people how to behave in society.
Well, today’s celebrities aren’t exactly on par with the legendary heroes of old times. A reality TV star can’t hold a candle to a selfless saint who traveled the land healing the sick – yet we still elevate them to the same levels of attention and importance.
Why should evolved, spiritual people talk about contemporary stars? I use today’s celebrities as examples because they act as good reflections for us. When Larry King has a heart attack and tells his audience how it prompted him to stop smoking, he inspires. Same for Michael J. Fox for Parkinson’s and Montel Williams for MS. When Teri Hatcher reveals that her uncle sexually abused her, it makes it easier for us to admit that it happened to us as well. When Britney Spears is brought to the hospital and evaluated for bipolar disorder, we feel differently about our own depression. When another politician is caught having sex with someone not his spouse and tries to squirm out of it, we see our own reluctance to reveal our own secrets. So the impact of celebrities can be positive as well as negative.
We often relate to celebrities more easily than to our own friends and neighbors. They have become the glue of our social fabric. We no longer stop in the village square or at the communal well to connect to each other. Instead, we use celebrities to feel connected. What would we talk about around the water cooler at work if not about the latest antics of Steve Carrell in The Office? How could we carry on a conversation with our mother-in-law if not about our favorite celebrity on Dancing with the Stars?
First and foremost you must remember that celebrity itself has become an industry. From reality shows to product endorsements, celebrities – and our fascination with them – is used to generate profit. We are at a moment in our culture where a public persona is a commodity. Cultivated across social media, tv shows, and movies, our stars are in effect big brands. When you develop a “relationship” with a particular star, you are basically supporting their brand.
Do you relate more to Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston? Now that was a trick question. If you do feel loyalty, affinity, or even strong dislike of one icon over another, that’s proof that the marketing is working. We don’t know these women personally, yet we have strong opinions about their lives. These opinions are leveraged by the press to drive sales.
– Magazines: According to an advertising resource called the Consumer Magazine Advertising Source, entertainment publications, like the popular Entertainment Weekly and the nefarious National Enquirer, sell around five million copies on a weekly basis. This is a huge amount of money. As long as people buy, magazines will keep providing us with celebrity news. Paparazzi will keep chasing celebrities trying to catch them in embarrassing moments or making a general nuisance of themselves to both celebrities and non-celebrities alike. Although the truth is that many celebrities (or their people) contact the paparazzi to make sure their face will be kept in front of the public. Some paparazzi even have contracts with certain stars.
– TV: Not only are magazines popular, but reality shows have been popping up all over television to bring us visually into the lives of our favorite celebrities. One of the first to put himself and his entire family on television was Ozzie Osbourne; there he was being a husband and a father, shuffling around picking up dog poop and taking out the garbage. It was almost as if the producers of the show wanted to show that celebrities are exactly like everyone else. Except they have big houses. And a lot of cars. And a lot of other stuff.
– Famous For Being Famous: After the Ozzie Osbourne show became a hit, other B-list celebrities began jumping on the bandwagon hoping to make themselves more popular. A recent addition includes a show that follows the rising career of Ali Lohan. She is the sister of Lindsay Lohan, who has become as famous for partying hard in Hollywood and being in and out of rehab as for her body of work. The fact that the show actually has viewers proves that celebrities, even those who are only famous by association, have become a huge obsession in our culture. And more and more, we want to get close to them by any means necessary.
– Madame Tussaud became known in 1835 when she opened her first shop to exhibit the waxwork figures she had created of the celebrities of her time. The minute the doors opened, it was a huge success. Even now, a century and a half later, you will still see a long line outside of Madame Tussaud’s locations. But what do people who travel and pay to get into Madame Tussaud’s see? Unlike going to the zoo, where we can see live creatures we cannot find in our own area, at Madame Tussaud’s you see wax figures of your favorite celebrity. There is nothing educational about the experience and nothing that ties you into history other than their clothes. The only thing we get from visiting a place such as Madam Tussaud’s is the feeling that we’ve gotten closer to our favorite celebrities, when, in reality, we have done nothing more than pay a fee to see a waxy imitation of the person we idolize. Consider the people who watched the gladiators in ancient Roman times. They not only got to see famous people, they also got to indulge in the human thirst for blood and violence. Gladiators who were successful were revered as the highest of celebrities. Those who became famous, but who were eventually killed, were almost more famous than the surviving gladiators, as fame has a way of making the dead seem more glamorous than they truly were.
Elvis Presley is a great example of that. He was beloved by millions. You can’t talk about music without mentioning Elvis Presley, who was considered by many to be the father of rock and roll. There are people who collect so much Elvis paraphernalia that they do not have room to house it all. Every year, over 600,000 people travel to Graceland, Elvis’ home, which is kept as a shrine to his memory. They get to see the much-talked about décor as well as to pretend they were living in the house when Elvis himself was walking the hallways. Some even make yearly pilgrimages to his residence no matter how strapped they are for cash or how many times they’ve seen the home before. Even now, decades after his death, people are still enamored.
Some believe we are obsessed with celebrities because we need to have an escape from the humdrum of everyday life. This makes sense in a bizarre sort of way. For instance, if you are not centered and balanced energetically, and you don’t feel so good about who you are, you are much more likely to follow your favorite celebrity and wish that you could be them. Others theorize that we mentally stalk celebrities because we are waiting for them to fail. Much like the Roman spectators waited for the gladiator to lose his battle and die, we too are waiting for celebrities to flame out and reach some sort of a bottom that makes them seem a little more human and more like us.
Dr. Charlotte De Backer of the University of Leicester, Department of Media and Communication, carried out a study to try to explain why we are so obsessed with celebrities. She discovered that the younger the participant was, the more apt they were to follow celebrity gossip, even if the gossip was about a celebrity that they had never heard of. They also said that celebrities who came from other cultures were more “prestigious” than the celebrities of their own culture. Dr. De Backer calls this the Parasocial Hypothesis.
Dr. De Backer said, “We did find in the interviews that older people do not gossip about celebrities as much because they want to learn from them or feel befriended with them, but they use celebrity gossip to bond with real life friends and acquaintances. Living in scattered societies, we often don’t know who to talk about with the many people we know, and celebrities can act as our mutual friends and acquaintances. Each person has a different reason for wanting to track the every movement of their favorite celebrity, but there comes a time when being amused by their antics transforms into becoming obsessed, and no obsession is a good thing, especially when you look at the type or role models that recent celebrities have become.”
There was a time when you could stand up and cheer for Babe Ruth. You could be proud that your son had all of his baseball cards and that he wanted nothing more than to be the Babe when he grew up. The average fan, however, didn’t know what Babe did behind closed doors. His private life was private.
Now, however, thanks in part to the internet, it is much easier to find out about everything a celebrity has ever done. You can’t avoid knowing that Winona Ryder has been arrested and convicted of shoplifting, or that Mel Gibson has a problem with alcohol. If a celebrity does something good, it takes a team of PR professionals to get it into the mainstream media. If a celebrity does something bad, or if something tragic happens, it’s all over the celebrity gossip sites in a matter of minutes.
Take, for instance, the story of Heath Ledger. Heath was an actor who had received critical acclaim for some of his work, most notably on the movie Brokeback Mountain, where he played a cowboy who was trying to deal with homosexuality. The media followed Heath as more of an afterthought. You may have seen a few photos of him here and there, and sometimes the paparazzi would try to get onto one of his movie sets, but they were very undemanding of his time compared with other celebrities.
Then, on January 22, 2008, the media heard rumors that Heath Ledger had been found unconscious in his New York apartment. Minutes later, updates starting flying onto the internet. Some talked about a mysterious connection with actress Mary-Kate Olsen and his use of hard drugs like heroin; others said Heath had committed suicide. Throughout that day and the next the media and people began gathering outside of his apartment building, leaving flowers and taking video shots to put online and on television. Even a decade before, the news of this celebrity’s untimely demise would have taken at least 12 hours to be aired on television and 24 hours before it would reach print. Instead, due to the speed of the internet, people were contemplating the cause of his death only minutes after he was found and the authorities were called.
Almost two weeks later the toxins report was completed and it was said that Heath died due to an accidental overdose of prescription medications; query the reliability of that report. This, however, did not stop the mourners from visiting his apartment, and, even though little media attention had been placed on her before, his surviving daughter, Matilda Rose, was suddenly one of the most photographed children on the planet, with her face appearing on dozens of different magazines.
The sad fact is that we are more enthralled by celebrities who have bad reputations than celebrities who are excellent role models. As parents or mentors, we have to be careful what we allow children to see and listen to. Some parents seem to believe that all celebrities are worthy of being role models. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth.
Take Paris Hilton, famous for being the “it” girl in the New York City social scene. At the tender age of 20 she was seen clubbing at all the popular hot spots and began appearing in magazines. Suddenly she was the woman that little girls wanted to grow up to be. She was beautiful, glamorous, wealthy, and seemed to have it all. Then the controversies began.
It was revealed that Paris’ ex-boyfriend was selling a sex tape called One Night in Paris. This tape suddenly became one of the most sought after sex tapes of all time (second only to Pamela Anderson’s stolen sex tape filmed by her then-husband, drummer Tommy Lee). Paris was able to weather the storm until 2006 when she was caught and charged with driving under the influence. She pled no contest and her license was suspended in January of 2007. A few short weeks later, on January 15th, she was caught driving with a suspended license. In February she was again caught by police for driving with a suspended license and was clocked at doing 70 miles per hour in a 35 mile per hour zone. The judge then threw the book at her, sentencing her to 45 days in jail. As a result, another huge controversy began stirring over whether she would be allowed to serve her time at home or have to stay in jail. Parents began to realize that their daughters shouldn’t emulate Paris Hilton, and in 2007 she appeared in the Guinness World Records under the title of “World’s Most Overrated Celebrity.”
Feasting on the misfortune of famous people can be toxic. This is really no different than gossiping about people you know. If you had a friend who was constantly mocking and insulting the people they knew, always with a bad word to say, would you enjoy spending time with that friend? Probably not. Humans are delicate, energetic, vibrational creatures. Our complex emotions can soar when in the presence of positivity and upliftment. Conversely, negativity can truly bring us down. Reveling in the stories of “bad” celebrities is just such a vibrational downer. It reflects poorly on us and drags us into the muck of jealousy and insecurity that so often fuel gossip.
While this is a terrible example to set for children , we don’t just allow bad celebrities to influence children, we also allow them to influence us adults. Australian researcher Amy Willinge, working on a doctorate of clinical psychology at the University of Sydney, asked 118 university students aged between 17 and 22, who all were of normal weight, to look at photographs of celebrities at various weights. They were asked to choose which picture they believed to be the true size of the celebrities, and which ones they thought were ideal for any female of that height. The students who were dissatisfied with their own body shape chose photos of celebrities that were thinner than their actual weight, while those who were more satisfied with their body were more accurate in judging the actual size of the celebrities.
Ms. Willinge stated, “The research suggests that if people are not satisfied with their own body, it may lead them to distort their perceptions of others’ bodies, and forge unrealistic attitudes towards ideal body sizes. The finding that body satisfied and dissatisfied males identified a very thin body size as ideal for women indicates there is increasing pressure from society on women to be thin. Media presentation of thin female images is affecting males’ attitudes towards female bodies, putting increasing pressure on females to obtain the idealized body image.”
This may be one reason why scheduled liposuction and other body alteration surgeries are more sought after now than ever, and why the diet industry is raking in millions every year. But it’s not only normal and healthy women who are being pressured by celebrities, it is also pregnant women.
Motherhood is a sacred time: one that most women are thrilled to experience. Celebrities, however, are even influencing pregnancy and motherhood. Imagine that your daughter’s favorite teen celebrity suddenly became pregnant. It can be very stressful to be a mother, but even more stressful to be a teenage mother. Statistics show that there are over 70 pregnancies for every 1,000 teen girls, and the numbers keep getting higher. In 2007, Jaime-Lynn Spears, sister to pop star Britney Spears and star of the Nickelodeon show Zoey 101, announced that she was pregnant at the age of 15. Immediately the Nickelodeon label had to decide if this celebrity’s situation was enough to pull her from the show, as the show was a hit in the young teen set. Representatives decided not to pull the actress, but the damage had already been done.
The idea of celebrities having babies isn’t the only factor involved. The way they experience pregnancy and raise their children can also influence us. For example, giving birth is a very natural process. Until 1970, only one in every 20 births were done via cesarean-section. Now, however, a quarter of all babies in the United States are being born in this way, with many c-sections scheduled in advance.
Why are so many women choosing to undergo surgery instead of going through childbirth naturally? Some critics believe that it is because women see their favorite celebrities giving birth that way. Elizabeth Hurley, Madonna, and Angelina Jolie are just a few celebrities who have undergone scheduled c-sections rather than wait to have their baby born naturally. Other women, however, say that they are choosing to schedule a c-section because they want to be able to schedule a time and date that is convenient for them.
“Simply put, I enjoyed the idea of being able to plan when my baby was going to be born. Also, my husband was due to go away on business before I was due, and I just could not imagine having to go through the whole childbirth thing without him,” says Jennifer Barnard, a mother of a fifteen month old who spoke with Babyzone.com.
Why are celebrities undergoing c-sections rather than having a natural birth? Some are doing it in order to be available for their filming schedules or promotional tours. And some are simply classified as “too posh to push.”
Not only are pregnant celebrities influencing women to have their babies in a different way, they are also coloring their ideas of how long it should take to regain your post-pregnancy shape. According to studies, 54% of women who were surveyed said that they were jealous of celebrity moms who were able to get back their pre-pregnancy shape almost immediately after surgery. Out of that same study, 47% also said that they admired celebrity women who were able to slim back down almost instantly, and 41% admitted to being skeptical about the entire pregnancy due to the mother’s ability to be able to get thin so quickly.
Celebrity moms who slim down almost instantly, such as Jennifer Garner, Demi Moore, and Reese Witherspoon, put new mothers in a tailspin. Their hormones are already making them overly sensitive to a number of things, and when a new mother turns on the television and sees a celebrity new mom already thin again, it makes her self-esteem drop even lower, potentially worsening any tendency toward post-partum depression.
I was on The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet on Fox TV in a segment about Celebrity Moms and Weight Loss that specifically addressed this question. Since I have worked with many celebrities, I know that some of the stars have c-sections along with tummy tucks so they can be almost instantly slim again. They often feel they don’t have a choice in this matter, since their bodies are their pay check. New mothers who are fortunate enough to have the time to have a natural birth and slowly regain their figures should appreciate the dilemma many female stars are in. They often have to hide their pregnancies from the camera, and they don’t always have the time to get back in shape in a more relaxed manner after the birth. Gwenyth Paltrow, a mother of two, said on the Oprah Winfrey show that she has to work out—hard!—for two hours a day, six days a week, in order to stay in shape for her work in front of the cameras.
It’s not all bad news. The flip side of all of the negativity that surrounds celebrity chatter is the potential for famous people to inspire and uplift us. Even though there are more stories about celebrities who have a negative influence on us and the decisions we make in our lives than there are positive actions, there are some celebrities who use their fame to bring about change and are good celebrity role models.
Take Bono, singer of the popular band U2. Since 1999, Bono has been campaigning for third world debt relief and helping to raise awareness of the plight of those living in Africa. He has met with many influential politicians and has taken the United States Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, on a tour of parts of Africa to show him first hand what those living in poverty are facing. He and Bobby Shriver also started Product Red, a commercial initiative to help fight against AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis around the world.
Angelina Jolie is another celebrity who, although she had a very rocky and well-known past, has come to be one of the great spokeswomen about the living conditions children in various third world countries face, and was given the title of UNHCR Goodwill ambassador in 2001.
“We cannot close ourselves off to information and ignore the fact that millions of people are out there suffering. I honestly want to help. I don’t believe I feel differently from other people. I think we all want justice and equality, a chance for life with meaning. All of us would like to believe that if we were in a bad situation, someone would help us,” Ms. Jolie said during the press conference to announce her ambassador status.
Other inspirational celebrities include Michael J. Fox, whose fight against Parkinson’s Disease raised awareness and moved the hearts of millions, and Princess Diana, whose humanitarian work was brought to the forefront of public attention after her tragic death.
Stories like these have the power to inspire powerful personal transformation in the unlikeliest of places. Even reading a small web article about the good deed of a star you relate to can bring a note of happiness into an otherwise hum-drum hour. The key, as with everything in life, is balance. Our heroes can light the way towards empowerment and positive emotion. But it’s important to always keep our own present moment front and center.
Another form of celebrity happens with politicians. The problem for politicians who reach celebrity status, however, is that everything they say and do is closely scrutinized, whether it’s a comment during a presidential debate or a comment in the men’s room.
The media machine is all too eager to turn personal shortcomings into scandals. This didn’t use to be the case. Presidents, in particular, once enjoyed a relationship with the press in which their personal life actually stayed personal. No one reported on John F. Kennedy’s reputed affairs, much unlike what happened with Bill Clinton and his fling with Monica Lewinsky. Nowadays, politicians can’t get away with much, which could be seen as a boon to expose blantant untruths, but leaves the politician no wriggle room. Because absolutely nothing is kept private, many people may have a more difficult time choosing a candidate to vote for.
Then there are the political wives who feel the need to stand by their erring husbands. When Hillary issued a public statement that she would stand by her husband, some women sympathized with her, others criticized her, but after the announcement her public approval ratings actually shot up around 70%, taking them to the highest they had ever been before. Wendy Vitter, wife of Senator Vitter, criticized Hillary for standing by her husband, stating, “I’m a lot more like Lorena Bobbit than Hillary. If [my husband] does something like that, I’m walking away with one thing, and it’s not alimony, trust me.” Yet seven years later she chose to stand by her husband, Senator David Vitter, when he came clean about being client of madam Deborah Palfrey.
But why do political wives choose to stand by their husbands? Some experts say that it is because they have got too much to lose if they leave. Many political wives have given up their own careers and, for the entire time of their marriage, have done nothing but to help their husbands get further in their careers. Psychologist Sally Porter Ross believes that political wives stay with their husbands in order to enjoy a shift in power. “From that point on, she’s in charge, she’s got the power. She is absolutely on top,” she said. Then again they are also stuck in the public eye, like so many celebrities, with their every move noted and critiqued.
I believe that women tend to believe unconsciously the lies they have inherited from generations of women that they “are nothing without a man.” They may not realize the deep untruths women carry about their value as a person. “Stand by your man, no matter what” is another cultural platitude they have unconsciously embodied.
“I’d really like to live the life of a celebrity,” many say. Then again, you might not. Celebrities, now more than ever, truly have no privacy. The celebrity obsession has led them to be hunted by paparazzi and stalked by crazed fans. Brad Pitt had to get a restraining order against a woman who broke into his home and tried on his clothes. And celebrity/reality star Adrienne Curry filed a restraining order against a woman named Shira Gellis, who started by stalking her on popular social networking site MySpace and then ferreted out her physical address and followed her around the city.
It’s time to start treating yourself like the big Hollywood star of the movie of your own life. We are a fame-obsessed culture, but then, we have always been so; technology has simply made it easier. If you spend more time finding out which of your favorite stars went to dinner last night and who they went to dinner with, you may want to reexamine your own life. Is there anything missing from your life that you could better use that time to fill? Friends? Exercise? Meditation? A good meal? A great book?
Truth heals, and the truth is that celebrities, as much fun as our fantasies of them may be, can actually serve a purpose in our lives. Which celebrities are you most enthralled by? Do you understand why? When you look in the mirror and delight in your Rachel haircut, or despair that you will never have Halle Berry’s body, what is the comparison saying to you? Does Bono’s activism inspire you, or are you more likely to want to imitate the “I don’t give a damn” attitude of many in the pages of the media? Do you feel compassion for Britney Spears as she battles her inner demons, or do you think she deserves no visitation with her kids?
Here are some great questions to ask yourself, the next time you pass by the tabloids at the supermarket checkout stand…
What are you wearing?
Who are you in love with?
What are your dream projects?
How do you want to feel about yourself?
What topics are you most passionate about?
What are your biggest questions about life?
What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you today?
What do you hope will happen to you tomorrow?
The stars are out there, big and bright. Let’s get the stars rising in ourselves.