Day 332: Star-Stricken – The Perils Of Celebrity Worship Syndrome

originally published November 27, 2012

Have you ever had one of those moments where you look at the state of our pop culture and think… where did it all go wrong? Why do so many people care if Jennifer Anniston ever has a baby? When was the last time I was at a grocery store checkout counter and didn’t see a Kardashian on a magazine cover? Who the hell are these people?

The sad truth is, our culture is obsessed with the individuals it claims to celebrate. Maybe we can blame the celebrities who have committed foul acts that made headline news (O.J.’s Bronco chase, the accusations against Kobe, Eddie Murphy singing). Maybe our days are just so empty, we don’t care if they get filled with information that has no bearing on our lives, like the state of Ashton and Demi’s marriage. Maybe it’s schadenfreude, the pleasure derived from watching Lindsay Lohan get arrested again.

They have a term for what’s ailing our society: Celebrity Worship Syndrome.

This is a real thing, and it ranges from the feel-good smile one might let slip upon realizing that Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn’s relationship will be 30 years old next year to the extreme cases in which someone swears they can hear Ryan Seacrest’s voice in their head, telling them to burn things.

Psychologists first began digging into this phenomenon back in 2002. Lynn McCutcheon, Rense Lange and James Houran get credit for coming up with the Celebrity Attitude Scale, a 34-point spectrum tested on 262 Floridians. Already I’m a little wary about this experiment; any attempt at discussing cultural mental health should not begin in Florida, which I believe may be the nexus of insanity in the western hemisphere.

The American researchers concluded there are two levels of celebrity worship: the people who like to read the gossip rags and watch E! to catch candid paparazzi shots of their favorite celebs (these are also the people who will refer to them as ‘celebs’) and the higher levels of worship, over-identification and obsession.

This sounds reasonable – on the one hand you’ve got the people who refer to Madonna as ‘Madge’, Paul McCartney as ‘Macca’ and Michael Jackson as ‘Jacko’, then you have the people like that lunatic jackass who shot and killed actress Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989 in order to quiet his delusions. There is, of course, a lot of spectrum-space in between those two – though I’d still keep my eyes on those Macca-Jacko-Madge people.

University of Leicester prof John Maltby hooked up with McCutcheon, Lange and Houran to dig a little deeper. They studied over 1700 men and women in the UK and came up with three classifications on the scale of celebrity worship.

First we have the Entertainment-Social dimension. I think the majority of superfans find themselves in this bracket. These are people who enjoy talking with others about their favorite celebrities. The regulars in your typical Andy Richter chat room would fit in here. If you subscribe to Pat Harrington’s “Where’s Schneider Today?” newsletter, you probably have a slight case of Celebrity Worship Syndrome at its lowest level.

Up next there’s the Intense-Personal dimension. These are fans who have compulsive feelings about the celebrity, people who feel they share a special bond with the star, or are overcome with sadness when something bad happens to the celebrity. I’m pretty sure the population of this dimension of celebrity worship has ballooned over the past few years, now that stars are tweeting and Facebooking and connecting with their fans to a greater extent.

Seriously, how well do we know these people? George Takei has reinvented his fame thanks to his brilliant use of social media. Zach Braff and Wil Wheaton have avoided the seemingly inevitable sunset that comes with the end of their successful TV series by showing off their wit and/or flaunting their inner geekdom on Twitter. Director Kevin Smith has launched a podcasting and live storytelling career based on his willingness to be candid about his life and let his fans behind the scenes.

On the one hand, this is a great thing. All those examples are – depending on one’s tastes or sense of humor – stars being funny, showing they can do more than read lines off a script, or in Smith’s case, prompt others to do so. But this leads to a sect of the population who will feel they “know” these stars. It’s good news for the stars when they put out their next product. But it’s bad news if things turn into…

…the Borderline-Pathological dimension. These people have elaborate fantasies about their favorite celebrities. And I’m not talking about hot-tub-with-Scarlett-Johansson fantasies – come on, that’s just common sense – I mean people who think about their favorite stars even when they don’t want to. People who believe that, if a gunman were to walk into the restaurant where they were dining, Hall & Oates would kick the guy’s ass and save the day.

Wait… that shit actually happened. The pop duo were dining in Melbourne in 1978 when a guy walked in with a shotgun. He was looking in a woman’s purse when the chef punched the guy, then John Oates – leading with his mustache – shoved the guy through a glass door then pinned his wrist down with his foot while police made the arrest.

Alright, if your Borderline-Pathological obsession is specifically about John Oates, you might be on to something. But otherwise, what’s going on in your head isn’t healthy.

Research has shown that Intense-Personal worship is linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety, stress and illness. People with higher degrees of celebrity worship have greater body-image issues, especially among teens.

We can probably expect more studies into this phenomenon. The public’s relationship with its celebrities has changed significantly over the past 20 years, and now that we have a growing industry of ‘reality TV stars’ and celebrities who have no great achievements under their belt to warrant their fame (keep in mind, the three sisters pictured at the top of this article are famous only because one of them made a sex tape), the problems are only going to get worse.

Sure, I was a little sad when Howard Stern’s bulldog Bianca died – he’s a celebrity I admire and I’ve got a soft spot for bulldogs. But I didn’t mourn, I didn’t light a candle, nor did I cover myself in sheep’s blood and burn a pyre in my local K-Mart (well, not for that reason). I don’t know him, and probably never will.

That said, if he’d like to book me for his radio show, I’ll be in the New York area next summer and will respond to any invitation that appears in my Inbox. I’ll even give him that sweater I knitted just for him, made from only my hair. That’s not weird, right?

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