A few years ago, Britney Spears and her entourage swept through my boss’s office. As she sashayed past, I blushed and stammered and leaned over my desk to shake her hand. She looked right into my eyes and smiled her pageant smile, and I confess, I felt dizzy. I immediately rang up friends to report my celebrity encounter, saying: “She had on a gorgeous, floor-length white fur coat! Her skin was blotchy!” I’ve never been much of a Britney fan, so why the contact high? Why should I care? For that matter, why should any of us? Celebrities are fascinating because they live in a parallel universe—one that looks and feels just like ours yet is light-years beyond our reach. Stars cry to Diane Sawyer about their problems—failed marriages, hardscrabble upbringings, bad career decisions—and we can relate. The paparazzi catch them in wet hair and a stained T-shirt, and we’re thrilled. They’re ordinary folks, just like us. And yet… Stars live in another world entirely, one that makes our lives seem woefully dull by comparison. The teary chat with Diane quickly turns to the subject of a recent $10 million film fee and honorary United Nations ambassadorship. The magazines that specialize in gotcha snapshots of schleppy-looking celebs also feature Cameron Diaz wrapped in a $15,000 couture gown and glowing with youth, money and star power.
We’re left hanging—and we want more. It’s easy to blame the media for this cognitive whiplash. But the real celebrity spinmeister is our own mind, which tricks us into believing the stars are our lovers and our social intimates. Celebrity culture plays to all of our innate tendencies: We’re built to view anyone we recognize as an acquaintance ripe for gossip or for romance, hence our powerful interest in Anna Kournikova’s sex life. Since catching sight of a beautiful face bathes the brain in pleasing chemicals, George Clooney’s killer smile is impossible to ignore. But when celebrities are both our intimate daily companions and as distant as the heavens above, it’s hard to know just how to think of them. Reality TV further confuses the picture by transforming ordinary folk into bold-faced names without warning.
Even celebrities themselves are not immune to celebrity watching: Magazines print pictures of Demi Moore and “Bachelorette” Trista Rehn reading the very same gossip magazines that stalk them. “Most pushers are users, don’t you think?” says top Hollywood publicist Michael Levine. “And, by the way, it’s not the worst thing in the world to do.” Celebrities tap into powerful motivational systems designed to foster romantic love and to urge us to find a mate. Stars summon our most human yearnings: to love, admire, copy and, of course, to gossip and to jeer. It’s only natural that we get pulled into their gravitational field. Exclusive: Fan’s brain transformed by celebrity power!
John Lennon infuriated the faithful when he said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, but he wasn’t the first to suggest that celebrity culture was taking the place of religion. With its myths, its rituals (the red carpet walk, the Super Bowl ring, the handprints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater) and its ability to immortalize, it fills a similar cultural niche. In a secular society our need for ritualized idol worship can be displaced onto stars, speculates psychologist James Houran, formerly of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and now director of psychological studies for True Beginnings dating service. Nonreligious people tend to be more interested in celebrity culture, he’s found, and Houran speculates that for them, celebrity fills some of the same roles the church fills for believers, like the desire to admire the powerful and the drive to fit into a community of people with shared values. Leo Braudy, author of The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History, suggests that celebrities are more like Christian calendar saints than like spiritual authorities (Tiger Woods, patron saint of arriviste golfers; or Jimmy Carter, protector of down-home liberal farmers?). “Celebrities have their aura—a debased version of charisma” that stems from their all-powerful captivating presence, Braudy says.
Much like spiritual guidance, celebrity-watching can be inspiring, or at least help us muster the will to tackle our own problems. “Celebrities motivate us to make it,” says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Oprah Winfrey suffered through poverty, sexual abuse and racial discrimination to become the wealthiest woman in media. Lance Armstrong survived advanced testicular cancer and went on to win the Tour de France five times. Star-watching can also simply point the way to a grander, more dramatic way of living, publicist Levine says. “We live lives more dedicated to safety or quiet desperation, and we transcend this by connecting with bigger lives—those of the stars,” he says. “We’re afraid to eat that fatty muffin, but Ozzy Osborne isn’t.” Don’t I know you?! Celebrities are also common currency in our socially fractured world.
Depressed college coeds and laid-off factory workers both spend hours watching Anna Nicole Smith on late night television; Mexican villagers trade theories with hometown friends about who killed rapper Tupac Shakur; and Liberian and German businessmen critique David Beckham’s plays before hammering out deals. My friend Britney Spears was, in fact, the top international Internet search of 2003. In our global village, the best targets for gossip are the faces we all know. We are born to dish dirt, evolutionary psychologists agree; it’s the most efficient way to navigate society and to determine who is trustworthy. They also point out that when our brains evolved, anybody with a familiar face was an “in-group” member, a person whose alliances and enmities were important to keep track of.