Magazine article New Internationalist

Star Struck: A Banal Cult of Celebrity Is Spreading Round the Globe, Argues John F Schumaker. and It's Pushing Aside Political Engagement in the Process

Magazine article New Internationalist

Star Struck: A Banal Cult of Celebrity Is Spreading Round the Globe, Argues John F Schumaker. and It's Pushing Aside Political Engagement in the Process

Article excerpt

Would you gladly die for Robbie Williams or Anna Kournikova? Or rob a bank if asked to by Russell Crowe or Shakira? If you won $1,000 would you buy a toilet seat once owned by Mick Jagger or Demi Moore? Do you lose it when Jamie Oliver twirls a pepper grinder or Jack Nicholson does that eyebrow thing?

No? Well, there are lots that do. And now this behaviour has a name. It's called 'celebrity worship syndrome' (CWS), an obsessive-addictive disorder, affecting males and females equally. And it is of growing concern to mental health professionals. One research team, headed by psychologist John Maltby of the University of Leicester, found that 36 per cent of British residents are afflicted with CWS.

The worst affected inhabit a tense, joyless world ruled by delusions and pipedreams about a celebrity who has been distorted into an empty parody. Once possessed by their celebrity demons, they become solitary, anti-social, impulsive and even self-destructive. One young CWS victim, hearing that her pop idol had become engaged, crawled into a bath and slashed her neck, arms and legs. She survived and explained: 'She's going to change him if he gets married and I'm not going to live with that.'

Those with less intense CWS can still function, but their neurotic over-involvement with 'their' celebrity consumes lots of time, energy and income. The obsessive, delusional nature of CWS shows through in their belief that the star harbours a special interest in them, as well as a desire to meet them and get their opinions and guidance.

The word 'syndrome' may not be appropriate for the 20 per cent of people with low to moderate degrees of CWS. Their 'worship' involves lots of reading and talking about the celebrity, studying and creating websites, in-depth analyses of the person's work or lifestyle, or the collection of memorabilia. In some ways it's more like a fervent hobby or a benign fetish.

In a warning about CWS in the US, author and former television executive Jon Katz said: 'Celebrity worship is akin to a national religion in the United States. It's one of the country's most invasive and dubiously valuable exports to the world, and it is the fast-burning fuel for a relentless, corrosive media machine that infects most every part of our culture.' Cintra Wilson, in her book A Massive Swelling: Celebrity as a Grotesque Crippling Disease, goes further. She blasts celebrity mania as a type of cultural psychosis that robs us of dignity and contaminates our motivations, goals and priorities.

Celebrity worship first emerged in the 1880s when the notion of 'cultural hero' began to shift from a serious, duty-driven upholder of standards and virtues (scholars, inventors, great political leaders, 'captains of industry') to a person celebrated primarily for being well known. According to Smithsonian Institute historian Amy Henderson, this was spurred on by new mass communication technologies of the 1920s and 1930s as well as by 'a staggering machine of desire' created by the ballooning entertainment industry. All this formed part of a wider consciousness shift from character to personality, substance to image, and community to narcissism.

The decline of organized religion has also played a role - as the level of religiousness decreases, the tendency to celebrity worship increases. One 42-year-old, born-again Barry Manilow disciple summed up her experience this way: 'It's the same kind of thing people get out of religion. They obviously get something from God and Barry is the same sort of thing. He helps me get through my life.'

To the extent that CWS helps fill what the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called the 'God-shaped hole in our consciousness', celebrity worship can be seen as a form of voyeuristic neo-paganism. The celebrities represent a vast and ever-changing smorgasbord of media-dwelling gods and goddesses. Whereas the ancients strode with heavyweights like Hebe, Odin and Kuladar - deities of Beauty, Wisdom and Darkness, respectively - we moderns limp by with Halle, Oprah and the Osbournes. …

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