By Anastacia Mott Austin
Come on, admit it. Unless you've been pushing up daisies for the last several months, you know all about what has been happening with Paris Hilton. It's nothing to be ashamed of―in fact, coverage of the trials and tribulations of Ms. Hilton have been inescapable. One literally cannot get away from the coverage of her life, seen in American news outlets as the most important news of the day, trumping trade relations, looming nuclear tensions between countries, political drama, you name it.
And while you'll find no shortage of folks bemoaning that very fact, the truth is that whenever celebrity 'news' is broadcast, there are far more viewers or readers than for any other topic. Approximately 7 million celebrity gossip magazines are sold weekly. Why? What is it about the bigger-than-life actions of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or Lindsay Lohan or Nicole Richie, et al., that make it so compelling for Americans to drop everything and tune in?
First of all, they're always there. With our ever-increasing access by virtual means into the lives of just about anyone, celebrities' every move is recorded and broadcast into our homes as if we were right there with them. Privacy isn't what it used to be, so it's easy to feel that we know all about the lives of Nick and Jessica, Kate and Tom, Posh and Becks. "There is a sense of entitlement to celebrity lives," said Marc Lamont Hill, assistant professor of Urban Education at Temple University, to reporters. "That all feeds the celebrity frenzy."
They're just like us―only better. They're richer, shinier, more beautiful versions of ourselves. With all the fancy dress-up occasions and flashbulbs popping like crazy on the red carpet, it's like the prom every day. The overwhelming media attention given them informs us that they are what we want to be.
Media moguls will tell you that they are only responding to public demand, though it's a chicken-and-egg argument. Are we watching because the rich and famous are always in front of us, or are they followed because the public demands information about them?
With all of our instant access and supposed need for more and more 'stuff' of the this-minute variety, we're suffering from a low-level cultural depression. If we buy this or that product, maybe it will turn us into someone special. "The notoriety of the entertainer and the almost religious fervor of their most dedicated adherents is a symptom of self-imposed dissatisfaction with one's own predicament," writes Makena Walsh, runner-up of the Textbookx.com's fall 2006 essay contest about celebrity obsession. "Star-worship is a religion of self-deception, one requiring its participants to continually deceive themselves into believing the next product they purchase will be the capstone on their hodgepodge of useless materials, enabling them to finally start living a meaningful existence."
Star-gazing as a quest for the meaning of life? Maybe. It seems like a stretch, but experts on generational social trends say that the young people coming of age now―Generation Y (or is it Z by now?)―feel that fame is the most important thing in life, like, ever.
"Kids see fame as a cure-all for problems," said Jake Halpern to reporters. Halpern is the author of the book, Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction. "Fame is an attractive fix-it."
And whereas previous generations may have been interested in the so-called fabulous life of celebrities, the difference is that kids today believe fame is achievable. With reality shows and YouTube showcasing the lives of the mundane masses and creating instant fame for those who have no reason to be famous, there is the belief that someday soon, they could actually join the ranks of Brangelina and TomKat. Celebrities are the new in-crowd, and we want to be with the popular kids. The line between reality and fantasy has been blurred to the point that the sometimes unrealistic thinking of teenagers is validated: yes, you can actually enter the television show or video or movie and become real friends with the likes of the famous.
But if we're so attracted to celebrities because they are supposedly better versions of ourselves, why the rabid rubbernecking when one of them inevitably train-wrecks into rehab? Apparently, that only makes them more accessible to us. "People can relate to their mistakes..." said Janice Min, editor of US Weekly, to reporters. Everyone wants to be sure their gods have clay feet, or they seem less like real humans. Total perfection is worse than off-putting; it's boring.
An ironic twist to celebrity obsession is that the motivation for following the lives of the famous―boredom, dissatisfaction, or loneliness in one's non-virtual, real life―often leads to increased isolation from the real world. To some, the troubles of Anna Nicole Smith seem more real to them than their own mundane lives, and by becoming overly involved with the lives of the famous, they lose touch with their actual community. "We know everything about these phantom friends―Britney and Nicole and American Idol rejects―at the expense of archiving our own personal history," said writer Jancee Dunn on Salon.com.
Agrees Harvey Levin, from TMZ.com, the know-everything spot for celebrity information on the web. In an interview with Dateline in February of this year, Levin decried the fascination with celebrity lives, even while admitting that he makes his living reporting on it.
"Now, we get everything we always wanted to know...and so much more. And all of it's a sad, painful, and sometimes embarrassing lesson about our stars, ourselves, and the vapor trail of celebrity."