March Madness: Celebrity Version!

Rosie O'Donnell beat out Paris Hilton for most irksome celebrity in our contest, but love or hate them, stars remain an obsession

April 03, 2007|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN REPORTER

Why are we drawn to celebrity?

Our attraction probably dates to prehistoric times and it's probably in our DNA, experts say - a combination of our instinctual needs for (a) something to worship and (b) something to gossip about.

When cavemen sitting around a fire first singled out another caveman for discussion - perhaps "Grok," maybe because he could throw a rock farther than anyone else - they found both a common bond and the kind of vicarious thrill that their descendants would continue to relish thousands of years later, as they dissected American Idol contestants around the office water cooler.

And just as many today secretly delight in the latest celebrity drunken-driving arrest or foray into rehab, cave dwellers - while they took inspiration in Grok's achievements - probably were quick to find that his lapses and blunders made for even juicier fodder.

Celebrities - love them, hate them, or love to hate them - have always been around, and always will be; the difference between now and Grok's time is: With the Internet and other advances in media technology, celebrities in the 21st century have become all but inescapable.

"Celebrities are like a drug, and it's the easiest drug to get in America," said James Houran, a clinical psychologist, former college professor and co-author of Celebrity Worshipers: Inside the Minds of Stargazers.

Celebrities, like royalty, have always existed in a sort of parallel universe, with a nearly untouchable status; but now they seem closer than ever before - and not just because of our new large-screen TVs.

Information about them is always at our fingertips. And reality TV, a format that creates new celebrities overnight, instills in us the notion that we, too, could become one.

"The distance between fan and celebrity is decreasing," Houran said. "I can go on the Internet and find any information on any celebrity at any time. People tend to confuse having a lot of information about a person with intimacy and attachment. It's fueling the illusion."

"We don't have to wait for the next People magazine to come out anymore," said James Bailey, Tucker professor of leadership at George Washington University's School of Business. "We can just go right online and become even more infatuated with a celebrity. That kind of contributes to the devotion you see in today's fan."

Whether we want to see what our favorite star is wearing or take private glee in a big name's downfall (some aspect of which was likely caught on videotape), the payoff today is instant.

There are still those celebrities we love to love - usually the ones we perceive as nice and normal and maybe even a little bit like us: Tom Hanks, for instance, who was No. 1 on last year's Forbes magazine list of "Most-Trusted Celebrities." (Others included Rachael Ray, Morgan Freeman, Michael J. Fox, Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon.)

There are a lot more we hold in disdain. We tend to dislike the ones who are just too beautiful (Angelina Jolie), just too outspoken (Rosie O'Donnell, winner of The Sun's most-annoying celebrity tournament) or just too rich (Paris Hilton, who lost to O'Donnell in the finals of The Sun's contest), especially when we perceive their wealth as not having been earned.

But love 'em or hate 'em, they still reel us in - even, Houran says, those of us who consider ourselves "above" following celebrity news.

"Everybody has that `aha' moment," he said. "Maybe it's looking at the magazines in the grocery line. Maybe it's when the TV is on and there's a show about Iraq on one station, and a show on global warming on another, and a show about Anna Nicole [Smith] on another, and you decide, I'm gonna watch Anna Nicole."

"Why do we choose celebrities over every other topic? Maybe some of it is due to the state the world is in - political crises, environmental crises, terrorism. More than ever people want an escape," he said.

Celebrity-watching can be a healthy pastime, Houran and other psychologists believe.

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"It's temporary escapism, and serves to reduce the stress in your life and bring people together," Houran said.

"People seem hard-wired to worship something. Back in the early days, we looked up to the best hunter, the best gatherer, the best athlete. We never lost that instinct. We still like to look up to people. There has always been celebrity worship, but I feel it has gotten stronger - frankly, out of control - because of technology and modern media."

Houran thinks it's more possible than ever to fall into unhealthy levels of celebrity worship, signs of which include collecting souvenirs, building shrines and, at its most intense level, stalking.

Gleeful bashing

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