The celebrity illusion



\”Damn, I shouldn’t have slept so long\” is my first thought when I see the size of the line, which is already the width of a boxcar and the length of an aircraft carrier. It is early in the morning and cold. Many of my line mates have blankets and a diminishing food supply. It is clear they have been here for a very long time.

The people in the line come in three categories: teenager, young adult, and parent. The last category is, by far, the smallest. And its members are invariably attached to someone from the first category. This makes me an oddball. As far as I can tell, I am the only solo middle-aged man. I try to look confident and purposeful, as if I am here for some specific and important reason, but I am sure I look awkward and out of place.

We are waiting in line to audition for American Idol.

\”What are you doing here?\” a young woman asks me through a big friendly smile. She is dressed in an outfit that gives her the appearance of someone who just walked off the set of a Mötley Crüe video, circa 1987.

I want to say, \”Making a complete fool of myself.\” Instead I offer an ambiguous \”I’m not really sure.\”

\”What are your goals?\” I ask the woman, who goes by the not-uncool moniker Shakespeare Sunday.

\”I want to make it. And this seems a good place to start,\” she replies. \”American Idol needs a rock star!\” All the people within earshot of this last comment raise their arms and let out a loud \”Wooooooo!\” It is as if this group of strangers has rehearsed the moment, which ends in high-fives and fist bumps.

Ms. Sunday hands me her smartphone and invites me to listen to a recording of her work, which is much better than I expected — though I am not sure what I expected. Before the song finishes, Ms. Sunday (I just can’t bring myself to call her Shakespeare) notices a commotion down the line and abruptly ends our exchange. She pushes toward the edge of the line, grooming herself as she goes. Ms. Sunday has spotted a TV camera.

A man with a microphone is interviewing people in the line, asking them about their hometown, what makes them special, and, of course, if they are the next winner of American Idol. As the camera crew tracks the lineup, a wave of preening and posing moves with it. The criteria for selection as an interviewee seem straightforward: Those selected are attractive and/or have something distinctive about their appearance. My new friend, Ms. Sunday, is among the chosen.

I am not (at least currently) a singer, and I do not have any plans to become one. My voice is terrible. Fortunately, my future does not depend on it. I am a university professor who has spent the last 20 years researching and writing about the health-policy implications of things like genetics, stem-cell research, obesity, health-care reform, and personalized medicine.

So what the heck am I doing here? I want to learn more about, and get as close as I can to, the phenomenon of celebrity. And nothing represents celebrity culture better than American Idol.

During the past few decades, celebrity culture’s grip on our society has tightened. Yes, celebrities have been part of the cultural landscape for most of human history. Whether it’s Alexander the Great or Lord Byron, people have always been fascinated with the famous. But never has celebrity culture played such a dominant role in so many aspects of our lives. It has a measurable influence on individual health-care decisions, the things we do to stay healthy, how we view ourselves physically, the material goods we want to possess, and our future career aspirations. Whether we like it or not, celebrity culture has a profound impact on our world, framing how we think about important issues and even influencing how we view our place in the universe.

Celebrity culture is often blamed for dumbing down our social discourse, but less has been said about how it is a source of misinformation. Indeed, celebrities have emerged as one of the most significant and influential sources of pseudoscientific blather. It fills our cultural landscape with notions ranging from those that are patently absurd and widely mocked (such as Simon Cowell’s hiring of a psychic \”house healer\” to exorcise his home of \”negative energy\”) to those that gain substantial social traction and market appeal. The popularity of juicing, cleanses, detox diets, weird exercise routines, and a boatload of beauty and anti-aging products and practices can be linked directly to celebrity endorsements.

Looking at these health and well-being issues through the lens of celebrity culture may seem frivolous. But we should not underestimate the impact celebrities can have on our preferences and attitudes — which is, of course, why they are so frequently paid millions of dollars by advertisers to move product. Specific examples abound. Angelina Jolie’s revelation that genetic testing precipitated her decision to have a preventative mastectomy resulted in an immediate increase in demand for both genetic testing and preventative mastectomies. Ill-informed celebrity statements about the alleged risks associated with vaccines (most notably by Jenny McCarthy) have adversely impacted public dialogue about the value of vaccines.

I myself tested Gwyneth Paltrow’s Clean Cleanse — who wouldn’t want to feel \”pure and happy and much lighter\”? I managed to get through a wretched grind, for 21 days, of juices, supplements, a drastically restricted diet, and abstinence from caffeine. I didn’t feel pure afterward; I felt grumpy. I was happy only because the \”cleanse\” was over. I did feel lighter — I’d lost nine pounds in three weeks. Starvation works.

But there is no evidence that the products and diets sold by the cleansing industry do anything to help clear toxins, parasites, or bad karma in a manner beneficial to your health. I even had my gut material (feces) tested during and after my cleanse. The Gwyneth cleanse did not change the makeup of the bacteria in my colon, \”which is a good thing,\” concluded Karen Madsen, a professor of gastroenterology at the University of Alberta.

Of course, the impact of celebrity culture reaches well beyond the areas of health and beauty. Increasingly, people see becoming a celebrity or obtaining a celebrity lifestyle as a reasonable and obtainable life goal. Even Barack Obama has commented on the trend. In a 2013 interview he suggested that the constant exposure to \”the lifestyles of the rich and famous\” has caused \”a shift in culture.\” In the past \”kids weren’t monitoring every day what Kim Kardashian was wearing, or where Kanye West was going on vacation, and thinking that somehow that was the mark of success,\” Obama said.

Celebrities have the capacity to cast a spell on us all. Shows like American Idol leverage this fascination; indeed, the promise of becoming a celebrity is the unspoken reward for appearing on the show — hence my attempt to snag an audition.

Eventually a headset-wearing Idol employee taps me on the shoulder. \”Excuse me,\” she says, \”but you don’t belong here.\”

Celebrity culture is more than just an interest in celebrities. It is a reflection of our collective values and a manifestation of the complex interplay between social expectations and socioeconomic realities. As the sociologist Karen Sternheimer writes in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream (Routledge, 2011), \”Rather than simple superficial distractions, celebrity and fame are unique manifestations of our sense of American social mobility: They provide the illusion that material wealth is possible for anyone. … Celebrities seem to provide proof that the American Dream of going from rags to riches is real and attainable.\”

This is more than mere academic musing. A belief in the celebrity illusion can have a tangible impact on life choices. A 2002 study of U.S. college football players, for example, found that 84 percent of the African-American players had an \”expectation of a career in professional athletics\” and that 40 percent believed sports was the best route to economic success. The researchers also found that those players who held these kinds of beliefs were also more likely to have \”been placed on academic probation and suspension,\” among other less-than-ideal behaviors.

Findings like these are far from surprising, but they remain no less disheartening. The chance of making it big in any kind of celebrity-oriented career hovers near zero. And even if an individual makes it big, the attainment of the goal is unlikely to provide the promised long-term wealth or, more important, the desired happiness and well-being. So what is going on here? Why do we invest so much in the idea of fame?

The countries that seem the most obsessed with celebrity culture (the United States, Britain, and South Korea) do not score particularly high in rankings of population happiness. According to the 2013 World Happiness Report, a study prepared for the United Nations, the happiest countries in the world are Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland.

Canada ranks sixth. The United States and Britain, two countries that both produce and consume a great deal of celebrity culture, rank 17th and 22nd, respectively. These same celebrity-loving countries also have a terrible record when it comes to social mobility. Britain ranks last among the 34 nations in the Convention on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the United States is third from last. In other words, in these countries, moving up the socioeconomic ladder is nearly impossible. If you are born into poverty, you are likely to stay there. If you are a middle-class kid, chances are you will be a middle-class adult. Ditto your kids. (Incidentally, the country that has the highest degree of social mobility? Happy Denmark.)

What is the best way to ensure improved social mobility? Education. A 2012 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, \”Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations,\” found that \”a four-year college degree promotes upward mobility from the bottom and prevents downward mobility from the middle and top.\” Erin Currier, the project director for Pew’s Economic Mobility Project and a co-author of the study, asserts that education \”leads not only to more mobility but better jobs.\” Several studies, such as the OECD’s regular Programme for International Student Assessment, have consistently found that the American and British education systems do not rank particularly well in comparison to those of other developed nations.

Is it a coincidence that countries that fare relatively poorly with respect to social mobility, happiness, and education also embrace celebrity culture and a reach-for-the-stars mentality? Perhaps. It seems hard to deny that a convergence of socioeconomic (e.g., poor social mobility) and technological (e.g., social media) trends with psychological and social predispositions and biases has created the perfect conditions for celebrity culture to thrive.

I run this theory by Stephen Duncombe, an associate professor of media studies at New York University and author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (New Press, 2007). \”This certainly seems plausible,\” he says. \”Celebrity is so tied to democracy and succeeding, especially now. People like Kim Kardashian seem real. They act like us. They come from places that we come from. This isn’t Grace Kelly. Celebrity culture makes social mobility look like magic.\”

Indeed, it is often sold as magic: a life-changing process that is now — or so the celebrity myth goes — increasingly available to all.

Joshua Gamson, a professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco’s College of Arts and Sciences, tells me something similar. \”In a society with tremendous income inequality, with many avenues [to success] effectively closed, here you have a way to … a get-rich-quick fantasy. You can understand why people want to keep the dream alive,\” he says. \”The shortcut to mobility is very appealing.\”

Currier, from Pew, agrees with the take presented by Gamson and Duncombe: \”It is possible that, given the barriers to social mobility, for some, they see celebrity as the only viable option.\” To support this view, Currier tells me of a 2006 study that found 38 percent of those with annual incomes of less than $25,000 think that winning the lottery represents the most practical way for them to accumulate wealth. Given this kind of thinking, which, as Currier noted, is very likely a manifestation of a perceived lack of options, is it any surprise that so many believe that making it celebrity-big is a viable goal?

We could certainly quibble about the degree to which the rise in celebrity culture is a contributing cause or a byproduct of existing social realities. But no matter how tenuous the connection or complex the direction of the relationship, it seems difficult to deny that our current fascination with celebrity has the potential to lead to more unhappiness — about our bodies, faces, clothes, careers, homes, virtually everything.

More important, this societal obsession does little to elevate or prioritize activities that will promote true social mobility and well-being. The power of celebrity culture to distract happens at the level of both the individual (for example, decisions about education paths, the way we think about and define success, the use of individual and family resources, and so on) and society (how the public engages with broader social issues).

A study published in 2007 in the International Journal of Cultural Studies found that those who \”follow celebrity culture are the least engaged in politics and least likely to use their social networks to involve themselves in action or discussion about public-type issues.\” There is, of course, a causation issue with this kind of data. (Perhaps those who aren’t interested in social issues are attracted to celebrity culture?) Still, it shows that, at a minimum, celebrity culture does little to help or, as the authors note, the data challenges \”suggestions of how popular culture might contribute to effective democracy.\”

On a more fundamental level, research suggests that celebrity culture has contributed to the rise of a more narcissistic society. Few have done as much work on this point as Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University and co-author of the 2009 book The Narcissism Epidemic (Atria Books). In a 2013 paper, she writes, \”The overwhelming majority of the evidence shows that more recent generations of young people have more positive self-views, endorse more narcissistic personality traits, and are more self-focused.\” This attitude is a result of a number of factors, including our society’s embrace of the reach-for-the-stars mentality and, as Twenge told me during a discussion about her work, \”a celebrity world that showcases narcissism.\” Indeed, Twenge thinks that popular culture has crossed the line and that such narcissistic traits now are viewed and portrayed as a good thing.

To be fair, not everyone agrees about the degree to which narcissism is actually increasing. But, regardless of the magnitude of the phenomenon — and I believe that the data, while still evolving, are pretty darn convincing — the implications could be significant. There is, for example, evidence that young people now are more entitled and less interested in community and social engagements. More than previous generations, they crave extrinsic rewards, such as fame, wealth, looks, and material possessions, and they are less interested in intrinsic rewards. Yet many studies tell us that a focus on intrinsic goals (such as community, personal growth, and relationships) is positively associated with indicators of psychological well-being and that an orientation toward extrinsic life goals is associated with a decreased sense of well-being.

All that said, we must not place too much blame on the attractive shoulders of celebrities. We have bigger problems to solve, such as the growing economic disparity found throughout the world. Celebrity culture is a systemic phenomenon. Gwyneth may be a kook, but she didn’t create the social and psychological conditions that give celebrity culture its considerable influence.

It seems that we are caught in a self-perpetuating celebrity-fueled cycle that goes something like this: Declining social mobility and diminishing life options lead to increasing dreams of celebrity fame and fortune. This, in turn, enhances the power and allure of celebrity, which causes a focus (perhaps with an ever-increasing narcissistic resolve) on extrinsic aspirations that lead to less happiness and distract us (and society more generally) from actions that might enhance social mobility, such as education and advocacy for social change.

Both the interest in celebrities and their influence seem to be intensifying. We need to gain a greater appreciation of the long-term implications of that trend and, most important, to strive collectively to put celebrity culture in its proper and entirely worthy place: an entertaining diversion.

Author Bio: Timothy Caulfield is a professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. This essay is adapted from Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty, and Happiness, forthcoming in May from Beacon Press.