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.
You describe “para-social relationships,” which are relationships with television characters or people we don’t actually know. What are the ramifications of millions of people making connections like this?
The idea of para-social relationships was coined back in the ’50s when television was first coming out, and people had the sensation that they knew these people who they were seeing on a daily basis. The original description of these para-social relationships was a relationship with a fictional persona, and one thing that’s changed now is that we’re much more likely to have a para-social relationship with Jennifer Aniston than with Rachel Green, who she played on Friends. I think ultimately, it enhances your loneliness, because when you’re done reading about Jennifer Aniston and you put the magazine down, do you really feel any less lonely than you did at the start, as opposed to if you spent that time with a friend?
Another thing is that our interest in these people eclipses real news stories. When the Martha Stewart scandal was happening, the three major nightly news anchors devoted 130 minutes to Martha Stewart and just twenty-six to Darfur. People are always going to seek out entertainment, particularly in hard times, like the Shirley Temple phenomenon during the Depression. I think the problem now is that these stories have taken over mainstream news media.
You mention one advantage to everyone gossiping about the same celebrities, and that’s the way the gossip creates its own social tool, and people who don’t have anything in common can talk about Britney Spears.
I interviewed Bonnie Fuller, and she makes the argument that celebrities bring us together because they serve as this conversation-starter, kind of a better version of “how’s the weather?” That’s true to a point. Pop culture does bring us together. To some extent, it’s the glue of what makes us Americans. My first book, Braving Home, was about people living in dangerous places, and I was spending a lot of time with this seventy-five-year-old sharecropper in South Carolina, this elderly black guy, and I’m this young white guy from up north, and it seemed like we wouldn’t have a lot in common. But he loved Seinfeld. He’s was like “I love Kramer!” And I, of course, love Seinfeld too, and we would watch Seinfeld every night, and we would talk about Kramer, and in a way that stuff does bring us together. I think that the key is moderation, and hopefully the question of Kramer stops, and me and this guy start talking and a friendship emerges. The problem is, I think often the conversation about Kramer doesn’t stop.
I’m remembering early reality TV, like the first season of The Real World, where the characters seemed like normal people doing normal things. That opportunity disappeared quickly.
My dad told me that when he was a young man in the ’60s, there was a play running in Greenwich Village, and there was just a stage and a guy who was living there. You would go in, get a seat and just watch this guy go about his life, making phone calls and stuff. It was basically a very early version of The Real World. It takes a certain kind of exhibitionist to want to do that, but at first it wasn’t necessarily a venue for becoming famous.
The way you describe American Idol makes it sound like it’s something new, this delusion that kids are destined to be famous if the right person would just discover them. But isn’t that just Lana Turner at Schwab’s? Isn’t that something kids have always thought would happen?
It’s the same hope, but it creates a vast infrastructure by which this can happen. You don’t need to go to Hollywood, because American Idol comes to a town near you. All you have to do is show up and wait on line, and you’re guaranteed your shot. Whereas with the Lana Turner thing, it’s almost entirely serendipity. She was at the right place at the right time. If she hadn’t been in that drug store, she wouldn’t have been seen. American Idol is more like, everyone will get seen.
A lot of the kids you surveyed assume they’re going to be famous, because they feel they’re a person of value, and that value isn’t recognized by the world around them. When I was a kid, I felt that same way too. But then I became an adult and realized that’s just silly. Why is this idea so firmly lodged in their heads today?
I talk in the book about the idea of “celebrity vacancies.” In the ’70s, there were just five channels on TV. Now there are five hundred, and it seems like there’s so much fame to go around. It seems doable, and it doesn’t seem so delusional to think you’ll be famous. I think that in order to become a star, the most important ingredient is that you have to believe that you’re truly special, that you really stand out, and that everyone else thinks you’re important. And I think kids believe that to a much greater extent now than they did in the past. There’s that great item from the multi-personality test where they asked kids, “Yes or no: I am an important person,” and in the ’50s only 12% said yes, and by the late ’80s that number had risen to eighty percent. Part of it is the way we raise kids nowadays. You walk into a house and there’s toys all over the living room, the weekend is the parents taking their kids from one little-league event to another, and on vacation, you go to Disney World. You’re almost like a celebrity in the context of your family, and your parents are like personal assistants. Kids feel important, that they deserve the attention. These things come together to create a situation where you have a kid who says, “I really think I ought to be, and will be, famous.”