While doing research for his book Fame Junkies, Jake Halpern asked 650 middle-school students whom they’d most like to have dinner with: Jesus Christ, Albert Einstein, Shaquille O’Neal, Jennifer Lopez, 50 Cent, Paris Hilton or President Bush. Lopez came in first place; Jesus took second. Fame Junkies attempts to figure out why. Halpern interviewed aspiring child stars, famous retirees, obsessive Rod Stewart fans, celebrity personal assistants, paparazzi and tabloid editors. He also spoke to scientists whose theories about fame obsession range from the evolutionary (our monkey-brain tells us, Pay attention to Angelina Jolie if you want to survive) to neurological (thinking about celebrities releases the same chemicals as illicit drugs, hence the title). What emerges is not a definitive answer, but a portrait of a culture that sees fame as a panacea for all its problems. Nerve spoke with Halpern about the peril of American Idol and whether celebrities really are just like us. – Gwynne Watkins

What makes someone pick Jennifer Lopez over Jesus as a dinner date?

I think a lot of it has to do with loneliness. The kids who described themselves as lonely and underappreciated were more likely to pick Paris Hilton or 50 Cent. The kids who were less lonely mostly picked Jesus.

Is celebrity worship the new religion? You profile a woman in the book named Marcy who lives and dies for Rod Stewart, but is also a born-again Christian.

Right, and I argue that she has different spiritual needs that are met by Jesus and by Rod. There’s that great line where she says, “Jesus loves me just the way I am, whereas Rod loves the tall blondes.” I think that what celebrities offer is a charismatic leader you can follow. You can make pilgrimages to their houses, to their concerts – there’s a group of followers, zealots, who you can bond with. Marcy was getting a lot from Rod to fill a sort of spiritual void. The problem was that, as she pointed out, sometimes Rod didn’t acknowledge her, and she’d feel crushed, whereas God is always around.

We worship these people, and then derive just as much glee from demolishing them.

Right. On one hand, celebrities serve our need to believe that there are people who are perfect and truly happy. And yet, in some ways, it’s anathema to our democratic, egalitarian sensibilities as Americans: that people are better than us, that we’re not all created equal. Especially when celebrities have too much of a sense of entitlement, when they’re embodying a bit too much of that Marie Antoinette let-them-eat-cake arrogance, then we revel in tearing them down.

In the book, you reveal an interesting piece of trivia: In the early days of film, the actors’ names never appeared onscreen, but they still got fan letters addressed to, for instance, “The Lady in the Beautiful Dress.” Then, once their names became known, the press started out treating them as demigods, describing them with language about gladiators and Helen’s ships. And then that turned into what we have now, which is this idea that stars are totally normal people.

Yes. I see Vanity Fair as the old way: the epic view of Hollywood, the God-stuff. And Us Weekly is more “stars are just like us,” Tom and Brad, etc. And Vanity Fair‘s circulation is stagnant, and Us Weekly‘s is through the roof. I argue that Us Weekly‘s chummy tone is so appealing because we’re lonelier than we’ve ever been. These people give us the illusion of characters in our lives that we know.

Maybe it’s the popular-kid phenomenon. You know people in high school and college, they’re the prom queens and prom kings. They’re people whom we secretly admire, and maybe even envy because they seem to have it all. That’s the kind of void celebrities fill. And yet, we can relate to them. We don’t see ourselves totally as their peers, but we no longer see them as totally above us either. I was in a restaurant the other day, and I heard some people talking about Tom and Katie’s baby, and how beautiful it was, and it was like they were talking about their beautiful, glamorous friends.

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