Star Struck

The annual Academy Awards turned 84 last Sunday. While a New York Times report lamented that viewership for the show was “flat”, it was still viewed by an estimated 39.3 million Americans. That’s around 12.5% of the entire population of the US.

The show makes for some compelling viewing.  I am still flabbergasted that J Lo may have had a “wardrobe malfunction”.  I Google searched “Jennifer Lopez Wardrobe Malfunction” and was surprised to see only 893,000 hits.  Is my internet broken?  What is going on here?  There should be at least 1,000,000 hits!  And aren’t we all still talking about Ryan Seacrest being at the receiving end of a drive-by “ash-ing” from Sacha Baron Cohen?  Who was Clooney’s date and where did they go to dinner?  Did they argue about anything like how much to tip?  Finally, I’m sure you are still slapping your hand against your forehead wondering how Cameron Diaz wore a Gucci instead of a Versace.

Most of us are fascinated by celebrities. You can hang your TV Guide on the wall, blindfold yourself and throw a dart at it. I guarantee you will hit a reality show and two celebrity gossip shows. On her website,, Deborah King reports that “according to an advertising resource called the Consumer Magazine Advertising Source, entertainment publications, like the popular Entertainment Weekly and the nefarious National Enquirer, sell around five million copies on a weekly basis.” That’s a lot of celebrity voyeurism. We get to know all about their triumphs and tragedies. It’s as if we feel closer to celebrities than we do our friends and family at times.

There’s a lot to like about celebrities. They are generally easy on the eyes, and lead very interesting lives. It is not a new psychological phenomenon to be so taken with celebrity. It has always been a part of human nature. It seems that the reason this obsession is so much greater in contemporary times is the access we have to celebrities. We feel like we are friends with them and they provide us all a common interest. Cameras are everywhere. The internet and social media constantly provide important updates such as the name of Natalie Portman’s new dog or the type of pizza that Paris Hilton just ordered and didn’t eat. In addition, many celebrities are ego-centric and enjoy the attention. They will do anything, sane and productive or quite the opposite to be seen or talked about.

Ironically, celebrities often provide us more entertainment outside of their fictional roles than they do in them. We love to see them fail, such as Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen’s losing battles with substances. Perhaps this is because it reminds us that they too are actually human.  Perhaps it is because, whether or not we like to admit it, we are fascinated by metaphorical (and real) train wrecks.

Many people are bored in life and a “train wreck” is exciting.  Additionally, it may be emotional; it can remind us how things can permanently change in the blink of an eye.  Eric Wilson is a professor and author (who suffers from Bipolar Mood Disorder).  His new book, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away, addresses the question of why human beings are fascinated with death and suffering.  In the book he discusses that watching a “wreck” balances our avoidance of thinking about death with the reality that we will all die.  He asserts that this helps us better appreciate and enjoy the beauty of life and to be empathic towards each other.

Celebrities’ follies or pitfalls can be volitionally or inadvertently used to help advance a cause.  An example of the former is Christina Aguilera’s disclosure of having been exposed to domestic violence as a child. This made it easier for others to come forward and admit their history of violence and get help in dealing with the psychological fall-out.  An example of the latter is Brittany Spears.  She was admitted to a psychiatric facility with a manic episode. It made people feel differently about their own mental illness; that is ok to have because it is real and clearly can affect anybody.

At the same time we may enjoy the fall of giants; we tend to put them on pedestals. There is a term called the “halo effect” that describes how some of us view celebrities. Basically if they are incredible at one thing, we immediately assume they are great at other things. This effect, tied in with the personal feeling we have with celebrities can make us feel that we can also achieve such greatness. That is a good feeling.

Deborah King has a terrific post about this on her website. She is a woman who has forged two separate and very successful lives. Her first was as a corporate lawyer. Her second, however, came from a much greater depth.

She was diagnosed with cancer in her 20’s. She shunned the traditional Western treatments, including surgery, and sought a cure through a personal pursuit of health and well-being.  She achieved it.  She won.  She beat cancer. She developed a new perspective on life.

She asks the question, “What is it that we really covet about celebrities? What is the feeling we are trying to achieve in life?”  I agree with her line of thinking.  Why not explore the deeper meaning of our personal obsessions with celebrities to understand ourselves better?  By doing so, we may discover our own issues of envy, resentment, self-doubt, guilt, anger and fear that may be holding us back.  Plus, it takes a lot of energy to root for others to fail or to hope for bad things to happen.  Why waste energy?

Most of us would find it easier to achieve happiness in life by focusing on what we do have, what we can do, what is right in front of us than in trying to bottle up a star.  Last I checked that is as hard to do as winning the lottery.

Despite all of this, I do strongly recommend you read “People” and “Us” in the waiting room.  Let’s be honest.  That stuff is brain candy and a little bit of candy never hurt anybody.

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