by John F. Schumacher

New Internationalist magazine, December 2003


A banal cult of celebrity is spreading round the globe, and it's pushing aside political engagement in the process.

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 thing?

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 that.'

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 through association'.

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 idols.

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 way.

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 how serious.'

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 order.'

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 culture.

Society watch

Index of Website

Home Page