They toil not, neither do they spin, but boy, are they ever arrayed in glory.
Mostly what they make is noise. Their real contributions are few, their rewards many, their esteem beyond reason. They’re white elephants, revered and expensive. They’re hothouse orchids, splendid and persnickety. They’re shiny constructs of ego and opportunity, ambition and drama personified, and they’re our own fault.
It’s not that celebrities are necessarily bad people. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being well known. What’s wrong with the, um, celebrated is the way we, er, celebrate them.
Be they actor or athlete, singer or scientist, painter or politician, hero or heavy, most celebrities have a talent of some kind. But then so does everyone else. What sets the Jet Set apart from its Adoring Public is its knack for staying more or less constantly up in our grill. And, for some reason, we love them for it.
That reason could be a flaw in the construction of our brains. Developed in the dark ages BTV (before television), a core function of the human brain is to recognize faces and classify them friend or foe. It’s a useful ability, but one that hasn’t caught up to the modern media machine. Our instinctive minds make no distinction between the friendly face in front of us and the one on the silver screen. You may consciously remind yourself that you’ve never actually met Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, that he doesn’t know you from Adam or care one fig about you, but your subconscious mind will still believe that you and the Rock are BFFs. In a perverse but powerful way, you really think of celebrities—at least the ones you like—as your friends.
The reason could also be a curious quirk in our social proclivities. Insecure creatures that we are, most of us crave association with people we perceive to be in some way superior to ourselves. Whether we think someone is smarter, stronger, richer or better looking than we are, we’re drawn to them like Pelias to the Oracle. Celebrities, ever in the public eye and often tended to by image-savvy advisors, take considerable pains to present themselves as smarter, stronger, richer and better looking than you. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but that’s how they’re packaged, and most people are willing to accept the tale as told.
Maybe it’s a problem with life as we know it. Whatever they do on their own time, in front of the camera, celebrities appear to lead exciting, glamorous, spectacularly fulfilling lives. Obsessing over champagne wishes and caviar dreams can provide we humble wage earners psychological relief from glitz-less reality. And nobody ever went broke peddling secondhand fantasy to routine-weary proletarians. More than 4.6 million starstruck Americans pore over People each week, making it the nation’s most-read magazine and the leader of a very large personality pack that includes popular VIP birdcage liners like Star Weekly, Us Weekly, Globe Weekly and In Touch.
Going koo-koo for Kardashians is not asingularly American affliction. According to a study by the University of Leicester, about 36 percent of the British population suffers from some degree of “celebrity worship syndrome” (CWS), which psychologists describe as “an obsessive addictive disorder in which a person becomes involved with the details of a celebrity’s personal life.” CWS can range from mild mania to borderline pathology, and with networks like E!, ESPN and C-Span running ’round the clock, it’s a safe bet that their American cousins are no less gaga for glitterati.
Although fundamentally irrational, fixating on the famous would be a harmless indulgence if so many people didn’t allow their public infatuations to drive their personal behaviors. For a whole lot of folks, the professionally conspicuous aren’t merely objects of interest, but examples to be emulated, leaders to be followed. “It’s always tempting to impute/unlikely virtues to the cute,” warned poet Ogden Nash. He was referring to the very strong human impulse to believe that people who look good must be good in every other way. Psychologists call it the “Halo effect,” and point out that it works just as well for the acclaimed as for the attractive. The prominent, by the simple virtue of their prominence, must also be brilliant, wise, trustworthy and obeyed.
Ever wonder what Pepsi got for the $50 million it paid Beyonce? Business analysts calculate that a solid celebrity endorsement increases a company’s earnings by an average of 4 percent, which for heavy hitters like Nike and L’Oreal translates into billions. When Oprah announced she was giving up hamburgers, cattle futures plunged 10 percent overnight, and political analysts estimate that her 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama was worth a cool million votes.
In the real world, of course, selling a million records doesn’t make you an expert on civil rights any more than running really fast makes you an authority on global economics or getting elected to high office makes you an honest keeper of the public trust. Woody Harrelson may style himself the Flaming Scourge of factory farming, but unless he picked up an AgBiz degree somewhere that nobody else knows about, his opinions on modern animal husbandry are just that, and they’re no more valid than your own.
Consider the curious case of Greta Thunberg. An otherwise unremarkable child, Greta’s youthful ardor for the planet has catapulted her to such dizzying heights of celebrity that millions of people around the world now greet her every scolding utterance as the last word on climate change. Indeed many, if not most, famous people attained their acclaim through laser-focused devotion to a single goal. While a ruthlessly circumscribed pathway to the stars may have lifted them into the social stratosphere, it may also have left them with a considerably narrower range of life experience than that earned by less ambitious persons of more diverse interests. That’s not to say that celebrity opinions don’t matter, only that none of them matter more than thine or mine, and some of them may arguably matter less.
But we mustn’t harsh on the haute monde. Celebrities provide us with soul stirring art, thrilling competition and, every now and then, good governance. They are like unto the lilies of the field, wondrous to behold but of limited practical value. Love them if you like, but remember that glory is not goodness, eminence is not intelligence, and status is always ours to bestow, or not.