America's celebrity obsession: Can't live with it or without it

Blame the media or blame ourselves for our current celebrity obsession. Either way, it is causing people to go to absurd lengths to grab a piece of fame.

The Heene family is pictured in this undated publicity photograph from the ABC reality series 'Wife Swap.'

A supportive reader recently applauded the Monitor for its “low celebrity factor.” Thanks. It would be nice to be celebrity-free. It would be an affirmation of the “not who but what” ideal of America, of merit over notoriety; achievement over personality; real news and solid citizenship over fluff, flamboyance, and scandal.

Nice – but probably not possible.

Fascination with fame permeates the media and occupies the daydreams of millions. So in that sense it is news, although gossip and celebrity do seem to be building into a bubble of irrational exuberance. How else to explain the incessant output of “Entertainment Tonight,” Perez Hilton, TMZ, Gawker, Nikki Finke, Page Six of the New York Post, and a thousand other celebrity news outlets?

What other than the yearning for fame drove Richard Heene, who had a minor star turn in a forgotten reality show and went on to concoct the October “balloon boy” hoax in an apparent attempt to secure another 15 minutes in the media spotlight? Or Levi Johnston, the wayward father of Sarah Palin’s daughter’s baby (still following?) who, as Ms. Palin told Barbara Walters recently, went all “Ricky Hollywood” right during Palin’s “Going Rogue” book tour and who seems not to have yet made a significant mark in life other than in high school hockey? Or Tareq and Michaele Salahi, who breached White House security and attended a Nov. 24 state dinner for the Indian prime minister. Or the many women who are now going public and saying they had a relationship with golfer Tiger Woods?

Whew. If there’s a sonnet or a patent or an economic treatise that has been produced by one of these media hounds, it has not yet surfaced. Fame-seeking is like buying a lottery ticket, an illusion of winning easy money without doing the hard, everyday work of building a life and a career. My nephew caught the spirit many years ago when asked to write about contributing to society when he grows up. “I will work in the community as a rock star,” he wrote. “The people will go wild.”

As a species, we have always been interested in the talented, beautiful, and successful, whether they were real people like Alexander the Great and Marie Antoinette or fictional creatures like Apollo and Paul Bunyan. Stories about their exploits, love affairs, and flaws have provided thrills and tut-tuts for working Joes and Janes throughout history.

While royals have been celebrities from time immemorial, the Romantic era allowed a dashing libertine like Lord Byron and a clotheshorse like Beau Brummell to become objects of public fascination. Soul stars such as Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, too, won legions of swooning (mostly female) fans.

Leave it to America, however, to supercharge fame. In the early days of the republic, there were few native heroes to work with, so mythmaking quickly centered on George Washington. That he was a good man and an honest leader wasn’t enough. Parson Weems’s biography taught generations of children of young George’s apocryphal exploits: hurling a silver dollar across the Rappahannoc River and fessing up about the cherry tree.

American idolatry had begun. Throughout the 19th century, most celebrities of young America were war heroes and frontier legends. Eventually, showmen like Buffalo Bill and wags like Mark Twain replaced them. That was just a warm-up. Twentieth-century mass media coupled with the entertainment industry pushed the fame machinery into hyperdrive. Welcome Brad and Angelina, the reigning Apollo and Daphne.

Tales of the famous can be newsworthy modern parables. Was Balloon Boy a rump Icarus? Is Levi Johnston Oedipus; former governor Palin Diana the Huntress? Inquiring minds want to know.

Or not so much. We can't ignore celebrity altogether. But rest assured, dear reader, we’re sticking with the low celebrity factor in our corner of the media.

John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor.

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