America’s fascination with celebrity for its own sake has become, in recent years, not only something of a preoccupation but also what many may call an obsession.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s my paternal grandmother read with great zeal the tabloids, like The National Enquirer, which Grandma knew was only a gossip sheet filled with outrageous stories like, “Elvis Is Living in My Basement.” Other features included bizarre snippets like, “Woman Mistakes Glue stick for Deodorant: Can’t Take off Dress for Ten Days.” I’m not sure that many readers believed the stories were real “news,” but the entertainment value was not unlike that from Mad Magazine or Cracked for us kids. No one expected such reading to be on a level of The New York Times or The Washington Post.
Today’s entertainment industry and news about famous people seem to have merged into one massive and somewhat frightening glob of silliness that many people take seriously. There is an endless number of fan magazines, as well as television programs about people like the Kardashians, who are famous mostly for being famous. Fame for its own sake has become enough in our culture to merit not only attention but also some cultish form of adoration. In addition to more fan magazines and television programs with all their gossipy tidbits and ads, we now have Twitter, Facebook, and electronic social networks through cellphones and computers spreading tittle-tattle that would have given our great grandparents cardiac arrest.
At the gym yesterday, while on a treadmill, I was a captive audience watching on a large television screen a program called The Wendy Williams Show, which besides giving advice on such matters as dating, focuses on “news” about celebrities from television, sports, and film in the show’s segment called “Celebrity Fan Out.” Ms. Williams, a sumptuous diva with breasts the size of beach balls, sits, as though upon a throne, dispensing the latest tidings about the rich and famous, as the audience sits enraptured by often mundane details about what the celebs are up to. Cameras zoom in on faces in the crowd, faces that nod knowingly about the smallest trivia of the rich and powerful, even about the new way someone is parting his hair or how high a movie star’s heels are.
All this, at least for me, creates an almost creepy form of fake and unwarranted intimacy that leads one to believe that there are people who live vicariously through celebrities they have never even met and that knowing what kind of face soap a well-known (or infamous) national or international personality uses somehow elevates the fan’s life to a new level of quality or glamor. This is, of course, the basis for using celebrities to endorse almost everything the rest of us buy, from cars to toothpaste. In fact, I don’t really give a damn what kind of cough drops a famous quarterback uses or the brand of life insurance purchased by a celebrated singer, but the power of such advertising is often subliminal. It has nothing whatever to do with rational thinking. It is where fantasy and reality merge as they do for children, who demand a certain brand of breakfast cereal recommended by a favorite cartoon character. In that respect, most celebrities are part fantasy anyway, manufactured by publicity experts, the media, and by fans themselves. That fine line between what is real and what is imagined is hopelessly blurred for many gullible worshipers.
I sometimes wonder what, if any, repercussions there are for people whose thoughts hover almost incessantly over the remote, sometimes fantastic or mythical creatures of Hollywood and sports whom they will never even meet, while relationships with friends and family come second. It is unlikely that any real epiphany is in sight for those folks mesmerized by celebrity, mainly because, however impersonal and distant the artificially constructed influence of the rich and famous, that influence is big business.