by John F. Schumacher
New Internationalist magazine,
A banal cult of celebrity is spreading
round the globe, and it's pushing aside political engagement in
Would you gladly die for Robbie Williams
or Anna Kournikova? Or rob a bank if asked to by Russell Crowe
or Shakira? If you won $1,000 would you buy a toilet seat once
owned by Mick Jagger or Demi Moore? Do you lose it when Jamie
Oliver twirls a pepper grinder or Jack Nicholson does that eyebrow
No? Well, there are lots that do. And
now this behaviour has a name. It's called 'celebrity worship
syndrome' (CWS), an obsessive-addictive disorder, affecting males
and females equally. And it is of growing concern to mental health
professionals. One research team, headed by psychologist John
Maltby of the University of Leicester, found that 36 per cent
of British residents are afflicted with CWS.
The worst affected inhabit a tense, joyless
world ruled by delusions and pipedreams about a celebrity who
has been distorted into an empty parody. Once possessed by their
celebrity demons, they become solitary, anti-social, impulsive
and even self-destructive. One young CWS victim, hearing that
her pop idol had become engaged, crawled into a bath and slashed
her neck, arms and legs. She survived and explained: 'She's going
to change him if he gets married and I'm not going to live with
Those with less intense CWS can still
function, but their neurotic over-involvement with 'their' celebrity
consumes lots of time, energy and income. The obsessive, delusional
nature of CWS shows through in their belief that the star harbours
a special interest in them, as well as a desire to meet them and
get their opinions and guidance.
The word 'syndrome' may not be appropriate
for the 20 per cent of people with low to moderate degrees of
CWS. Their 'worship' involves lots of reading and talking about
the celebrity, studying and creating websites, in-depth analyses
of the person's work or lifestyle, or the collection of memorabilia.
In some ways it's more like a fervent hobby or a benign fetish.
In a warning about CWS in the US, author
and former television executive Jon Katz said: 'Celebrity worship
is akin to a national religion in the United States. It's one
of the country's most invasive and dubiously valuable exports
to the world, and it is the fast-burning fuel for a relentless,
corrosive media machine that infects most every part of our culture.'
Cintra Wilson, in her book A Massive Swelling: Celebrity as a
Grotesque Crippling Disease, goes further. She blasts celebrity
mania as a type of cultural psychosis that robs us of dignity
and contaminates our motivations, goals and priorities.
Celebrity worship first emerged in the
1880s when the notion of 'cultural hero' began to shift from a
serious, duty-driven upholder of standards and virtues (scholars,
inventors, great political leaders, 'captains of industry') to
a person celebrated primarily for being well known. According
to Smithsonian Institute historian Amy Henderson, this was spurred
on by new mass communication technologies of the 1920s and 1930s
as well as by 'a staggering machine of desire' created by the
ballooning entertainment industry. All this formed part of a wider
consciousness shift from character to personality, substance to
image, and community to narcissism.
The decline of organized religion has
also played a role - as the level of religiousness decreases,
the tendency to celebrity worship increases. One 42-year-old,
born-again Barry Manilow disciple summed up her experience this
way: 'It's the same kind of thing people get out of religion.
They obviously get something from God and Barry is the same sort
of thing. He helps me get through my life.'
To the extent that CWS helps fill what
the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called the 'God-shaped
hole in our consciousness', celebrity worship can be seen as a
form of voyeuristic neo-paganism. The celebrities represent a
vast and ever-changing smorgasbord of media-dwelling gods and
goddesses. Whereas the ancients strode with heavyweights like
Hebe, Odin and Kuladar - deities of Beauty, Wisdom and Darkness,
respectively - we moderns limp by with Halle, Oprah and the Osbournes.
One hard-core worshipper crooned: 'If
a nuclear war did happen, I'd be thinking: "Is Boy George
safe?"' But such gooey testaments often mask both self-interest
and self-worship, with some devotees hungry for a slice of 'immortality
There is also a love-hate quality to CWS
with worshippers using celebrities like emotional punchbags. In
Starlust, their close-up study of fanatical fandom, Judy and Fred
Vermorel write: 'We were astonished by the degree of hostility
and aggression, spoken and unspoken, shown by fans toward their
stars. Later we realized that this was one necessary consequence
of such unconsummated, unconsumable passion.'
Many worshippers judge their celebrities
with ruthless standards, inhuman expectations and deep personal
prejudice. Some feel as if they have property rights over their
celebrities - and thus get vindictive when they ignore their advice
or don't respond to requests and favours. The irony of CWS is
that the worshipper frequently ends up feeling superior to their
Economist Tyler Cowen in WhatPriceFame?
explains the CWS phenomenon largely in economic f and political
terms: 'Fame has become the ideological and intellectual fabric
of modern capitalism. Ours is an economy of fame. Our culture
is about | the commodification of the individual and the individual
image.' Beyond that, says Michael Parenti in Make-Believe Media,
the frivolous playground of fame and celebrity is now the major
staging ground for the mass manipulation of consciousness and
behaviour. As part of this: 'Silly amusement, contrived distraction
and endless hype have become the foremost means of social control.'
Celebrities have long held sway over our
tastes in things like automobiles, breakfast cereal, hairstyle,
body shape and so forth. But now it seems that Hollywood's unreality
industry has managed to penetrate deeper into our collective psyche
and to shape more-fundamental attitudes, preferences and perceptions.
Actor Ron Silver wrote in the Los Angeles
Times about the powerful geopolitical reach of celebrities in
modern society: 'As an organized force, celebrities are realizing
their potential to effect change. In our media-dominated culture,
saturated with soundbites and nanosecond attention spans, the
ability of stars to galvanize public opinion is second to none.'
Some reassurance came from a recent Fox News and Opinion Dynamics
poll in which 68 per cent of people felt celebrities should keep
their political opinions to themselves. Only-24 per cent expressed
a strong desire to know the opinions of their favourite celebrities,
with 10 per cent confessing that they allow their idol to dictate
their political positions. Even so, most politicians would kill
for something that could swing 10 or 20 per cent of the vote their
The celebrity-as-politician fills a political
void created by the current trend to reduce all social ills to
matters of individual responsibility and charity. In this vein
Chris Rojek, author of Celebrity, describes the 'Hollywoodization
of political culture'. The line between politics and entertainment
is blurring as politicians borrow all the gestures, presentation
styles and special effects that pay off in Tinseltown. 'If celebrity
is becoming a precondition for attaining political power,' adds
Rojek, 'it perhaps demonstrates the ubiquity of the celebrity
race in contemporary society.'
The inbreeding of politics with showbiz
is diluting, distorting and fictionalizing the political agenda.
It has become almost impossible to direct political energy toward
issues that do not entertain or have visible celebrity backing.
Issues without this lustre - boring old problems like poverty
and hunger, which aren't cute and rarely photograph well - stand
little chance of reaching the political limelight.
Celebrities have great appeal as political
candidates which explains why so many are weaselling into the
political picture. They have the winning political formula - name
identification, perfect teeth and big hair, wealth, media savvy
and public trust - which eclipses that of career politicians.
The recent election of Arnold 'Terminator' Schwarzenegger to California
Governor is only the latest depressing example of this trend.
Sociologist Paul Hollander writes that,
as we continue to celebrate (and elect) counterfeits and pretenders,
we are losing the ability to recognize true human greatness. In
An Undeserved Altar he concludes pessimistically: 'Celebrity worship
- and the moral-aesthetic-intellectual relativism it enshrines
- is a symptom of cultural decline and confusion; time will tell
Maybe more telling as a sign of cultural
decline is the widespread cultural malady of 'fame fever' ensuring
no shortage of celebrities - or future politicians for that matter.
The hysterical stampede for public glory is showcased in the growth
of the 'reality TV' industry.
Over 70,000 wannabe celebrities auditioned
for TV's American Idol - a fame free-for-all where karaoke, exhibitionism
and stardumbness collide in a brain-walloping tribute to sham
and mediocrity. Hundreds of thousands of hopefuls besiege the
dozens of survivor-type TV shows that are now broadcast around
the world. Swallowing raw capybara testicles or sacrificing one's
own to piranhas comes easy - as long as there's a shot at being
the chosen one. Those who didn't make the cut for American Idol
could always visit Tinseltown USA - where for $45 you can buy
the full superstar experience, down to the hyperventilating crowds,
pleas for signatures and pitiless paparazzi.
In a recent survey of British adolescents
more than S0 per cent said they wanted to be some sort of celebrity
(a film or TV star, a pop singer, a radio personality, a sports
hero or celebrity chef). Comments writer Ziauddin Sardar: 'The
urge to acquire celebrity status is the ethic on which everything
in our world now depends. Nothing moves in our universe without
the imprint of celebrity. There is no boundary that celebrity
has not transcended. The ethos of the zoo has become the new world
This celebrity-infested virtual zoo of
which Sardar speaks is one in which both the ogled and the oglers
are dulled captives of a 'caged imagination'. It is a sadly inverted
and trivialized world in which all that is unimportant becomes
important and all that is important becomes unimportant. The meaningless
becomes the meaningful. And that is the main tragedy of celebrity