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March Madness: Celebrity Version!

The Baltimore Sun

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

While some people go to extremes in their adulation of celebrities, others take an unhealthy amount of glee in bashing them, which, Houran says, is not too far removed from worshiping them. "We love to love them, but we also like to watch them fall. Building people up and bringing them down is entertaining. Thank goodness we don't do it like the Romans did."

"Celebrity is the new aristocracy, and we enjoy seeing the downfall," said David Blake, associate professor of English at the College of New Jersey and author of Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity.

"Clearly, we get some sort of pleasure seeing someone taken from the heights of cultural power to the lower steps, talking about this home-run hitter under investigation for steroid use or this actor who's drunk and anti-Semitic."

Most celebrities don't hold themselves up as role models, though at one point in history they did.

At the end of the 19th century in America, Blake said, the wealthy and well-known began making a concerted effort to "elevate the taste and refinement of the multitudes. They saw [their own] celebrity as having an educational function.

"To a certain extent, we still work on that model, turning to [celebrities] for beauty tips, fashion sense. ... But, alas, oftentimes now we are turning to them and finding they're teaching us how not to behave," he said.

"We still employ celebrities as carriers of cultural meaning. But we have a lot of celebrities who just aren't that interesting. They are empty carriers - yet they are resistant to leave the public stage, and sometimes the media is resistant to them leaving as well, and that's one of the ways people get sick of certain people."

What makes a celebrity annoying? Perhaps it is best expressed in a mathematical equation: UP (Unlikability of Personality) + AE (Amount of Exposure) = DA (Degree of Annoyance)

Ah, if it were only that simple.

But unlikability of personality is a subjective judgment - as are the various factors it incorporates, including physical beauty, which, more than anything else, is what draws us to people, celebrities or not.

"We respond positively, even neurologically, to good-looking people," said GW's Bailey.

And the more we see of them, the more we grow to like them.

"The more you are exposed to stimuli - be it a noise or a person - the more you like it. It's familiar, comforting; it indicates permanence and stability. It's why we enjoy [TV] reruns even more than when we first saw them."

But just as there can be too much of a good thing, there can be too much of a beautiful one.

"When something becomes really popular, there's often a backlash," Bailey said. "It becomes fashionable to be in the opposition."

Does that mean Paris Hilton could go the way of disco and political correctness? It's possible, Bailey says, though not likely.

Rosie vs. Paris

Overexposed as Hilton is - so much so that the Associated Press wire service in mid-February decided to stop writing about her, only to cave in before the month was out - she was defeated in The Sun's most-annoying-celebrity contest by Rosie O'Donnell, the comic, actress and talk-show host whose frequent high-decibel harangues were found more offensive than Hilton's innocuous ever-presence.

As her win attests, how a celebrity is viewed depends on more than overexposure - behavior and demeanor play a role, as do political beliefs, especially when they are beliefs with which you disagree.

"One of the things people tend to get a little impatient with is when a celebrity oversteps the bounds of their celebrity," Bailey said. "When they start weighing in on politics, ... start speaking out in moralistic tone, they have violated the space in which we want them to exist."

The Sun's "March Madness: Celebrity Version!" tournament, though far from scientific, saw readers cast more than 215,000 individual votes since March 13 to narrow a field of 64 celebrities down to the most annoying two - Hilton and O'Donnell.

When online voting ended early last night, O'Donnell had won with just over 60 percent of the vote.

Tom Cruise, who came in third in the tournament, also racked up huge vote totals, seemingly because of his off-the wall behavior, which one voter characterized this way:

"His preaching of Scientology as the answer to everything is offensive. His couch jumping on Oprah was just plain weird. His control of Nicole Kidman and now Katie Holmes, in my opinion, borders on abuse," said Joan Lancos.

"It is not his job to inform a mother, Brooke Shields, who had postpartum depression, that it was all in her head," Lancos said of Cruise, who bested Mel Gibson, Angelina Jolie, Simon Cowell and Michael Jackson on his way to the "final four."

Lancos, along with her vote, e-mailed a photo of her and a wax likeness of Cruise, taken by her husband, Steve, during a visit to Madame Tussauds' wax museum in London - a trip they took not long after Cruise's criticism of Shields.

"Guests are encouraged to interact with the figures as long as they don't touch," Lancos said. So she interacted.

"I couldn't resist attempting to strangle Tom Cruise."

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

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