Though I have been known to pick up a glossy magazine or watch a bit of the E! Channel now and then, America’s collective and nearly universal obsession with celebrity has always perplexed me. As my mother always says, “They’re just people.” What does it say about our culture and our psyches that we consider the sexploits of barely-legal, barely-there celebutantes more important than, say, voting in the presidential election? In 2004, celebrity magazines like People had revenue of $786 billion, while news magazines such as Time made a paltry $1.3 billion. What is it about the rich, famous, and undeniably fake Hollywood actors and actresses make them the most sought-after, the most listened-to, and the most emulated? How do American royalty ascend to their throne, and what does it say about their subjects?
I’ve heard various arguments as to why famous people are famous, usually some variation of the statement, “Acting is hard.” While this may be true, is it truly more difficult than the jobs of the everyday Americans who are doing real, necessary jobs? Without the audience of humble roofers and real-estate agents, there would be no audience: no one to deliver box office gold, no one to buy a Target knock-off of the latest princess’ Oscar dress. The fact that actors, who are merely sophisticated pretenders, are praised and paid in gluttonous fashion, while the less beautiful, more long-lasting regular people who make this country run are rarely praised or paid very much at all, displays that Americans value abstract, shiny inventions of people more than real, true, and therefore less sparkly people. Indeed, we are often more interested in the ‘real life’ of the actors we pay several hours’ wages too see on the silver screen than the struggles of the people sitting beside us in the movie theatre. The obsession with celebrity goings-on – from their hedonistic spending, to their invented and contrived dramas, to their blatant disregard and condescension to the masses that make their fame possible – is an extreme form of escapism. Are our lives really so stifling, so painful, so impossible that we must project our own shameful wishes onto whatever lucky starlet has us star-struck at that moment? It is true, at least to some degree, that we all want to be beautiful, rich, lucky, and feel like we matter. But celebrities don’t matter – the people we project them to be don’t even exist. Actors don’t have any more insight on life, or feeling, or truth than anyone else; in fact, they live in such a bubble that it is likely they have less. The celebsession is pathetic and sad – beauty and light do exist, but the contrived lighting of the Beautiful is absolutely the wrong place to look.
We love the famous because we ourselves want to be famous – but why? I’ve heard friends say that they want to become a celebrity because they want to matter. They want people to know their name; they want to be remembered. But what kind of lasting, real, positive affect do actors have on anyone? Perhaps a movie moves you – it was created by a writer; can you name any screenwriter who’s been on the cover of People (that wasn’t an actor first)? And as for their dramatic involvement with whatever the hip world tragedy du jour might be, they are paid more, they have more money, they can afford to donate more, and be photographed looking beautiful doing so. Though I’m obviously not interested in meeting any, I’m fairy certain that the Hollywood Hot-and-Popular are just like the rest of us – just luckier, more beautiful, and (thanks to all of us who pay our hard earned cash to see ‘candid’ photos of them doing whatever mundane task they couldn’t shame their minions into doing for free) probably raging narcissists. It is unhealthy for our youth to want to be famous: does the world really need any more Lauren Conrads? And the even more sad, more sorry fact of it is that because of the desperate yearning of millions of aspiring aristobrats, now Lauren Conrad thinks that she matters. She probably thinks she’ll be remembered. Is that really what we want to represent us, America? Is her contrived drama really any better (or worse) than our own real ones?
There is a certain shadenfreudic element to the industry of celebrity, that we find pleasure in their pain. Apparently, America delights when the latest rising star is shot down by a crack addiction, and buys all the magazines it can get its hands on when the latest leading man goes crying back to his baby mama. Does this say good things about us, either? Is it better to escape our less outlandish, less publicized humiliations by delighting in the failures of the famous? Or maybe it’s the hope of a come-back that makes us keep our home-pages on Perez Hilton: if the Hot Young Thang of the moment can be caught making out with an endangered leopard species, then pose wearing a thong made of its pelt, then win a Nobel Peace Prize for animal conservation all in one night, well, then, we can too. The comeback I hope for most is one that will take us away from the dramatic, fake lives of the Famously Fabulous and back to the caring about the person sitting next to us in the movie theatre.
Facts on magazine revenue from: o http://www.mediapost.com/publications/index.cfm?fuseaction=Articles.showArticleHomePage&art_aid=36309
Special thanks to: http://www.sparksflyup.com/archives/weblog/2008_07_01_archive.php;the posts from July 10-15, 2008