One in ten people are obsessed with a celebrity, so much that their obsession affects their daily lives. Celebrity Worship is now recognised as a psychological disorder. An estimated 1% of people have it so bad they can be classed as borderline mentally ill.
It’s natural for people to admire others who are successful, who are the centre of attention, or because they are athletic or good-looking. Celebrity worship is a hangover from our evolutionary past. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors looked up to the best hunters or the oldest and wisest. But we no longer need to hunt, and longevity is now the norm rather than the exception, so the famous have replaced the fittest as objects of our esteem. We try to emulate our modern day heroes because deep down, we also want to be successful, admired, and wealthy.
In a world dominated by TV and the Internet, there has been a catastrophic decline in family and community relationships. Celebrities have become a substitute for real family members, friends and neighbours. There was a time when everyone in a street knew everyone else, but we are now much less likely to even know the names of the people who live nearby. Living in City Centre Manchester in the 1990’s, I had no idea who my neighbours were – apart from occasionally grunting at them in the lift, I rarely even saw a single one.
In the 21st century, respect for, and interest in our fellow human beings has been substituted by an unhealthy fascination for the famous. However, any ‘relationship’ with a celebrity is by its very nature, purely imaginary – we involve ourselves in a completely one-sided relationship with someone who is unaware of our existence, and even if they were, it is unlikely they want to know us. This ‘intimacy at a distance’ is not only unrewarding, it can be destructive.
The main problem is that we cannot be selective or discerning in our choice of idols. Today’s objects of worship are not necessarily good role models. Stardom being what it is, many of them, with their addictions and their personal and public failures are very bad role models. Yet this information does not put us off…
Psychologists believe that imagined connections with celebrities are formed because individuals feel they ‘know’ the celebrity – they can directly observe the way they portray themselves on screen and the way they are portrayed in the media and in real life. The truth is that celebrities’ real personas are usually very different from the characters they play on screen and the way they are reported in the press, particularly in the tabloids. Stories are usually regurgitated word for word from press releases sent out by agents and PR companies. These unrequited relationships, where one person expends emotional energy, interest and time, in reality represent intimacy unsatisfied.
Individuals may think they know and understand the celebrity’s real personality in the same way they know and understand the personalities of their friends. One inevitable characteristic of mass media – radio, television, movies and Internet – is that they give the illusion of a face-to-face relationship with the celebrity. Easy access to information about celebrities’ personal lives on line and in glossy magazines compound this illusion.
When live theatre was the main source of entertainment any ‘confusions of identity’ were temporary. As soon as actors took their final bows and the curtain fell, their fans quickly returned to the real world, although there were exceptions. Actors had affairs with admirers, but this behaviour is not the same as celebrity worship because real intimacy was present. It was the advent of radio and television that supplied a ‘continuous interplay’.
For a lot of fans, it is difficult to understand or accept that actors are not the characters they play in films, and neither are they the same personae their agents and public relations people feed to the media – they are very different. The same can be said of rock stars, footballers and even hypnotists. It is the pretend character that people are likely to form a bond with, hence the huge influence of celebrity on fashion and behaviour! According to writer and critic Clive James, ‘The famous help us live. What they do, they do for us. Fame is what we do for them. We turn them into characters and put them in a show, a modern version of a passion play. The ones we respect burn like angels…’
The celebrity’s false persona does however offer fans a continued relationship, because their appearance is a regular and dependable event, something that can be relied on, planned for, and integrated into the routines of daily life. But again, this is still an illusion. When someone’s favourite TV show is cancelled, the individual can experience feelings similar to those of losing a real friend.
Even when viewers know their favourite TV friend is going to be written out, they anticipate negative feelings and emotions similar to those experienced after the dissolution of a real social relationship.
A more recent study, conducted by Dr John Maltby, of 3,000 people found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there are different levels of Celebrity Worship, and his findings have been published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.
Being a fan is OK, so long as it doesn’t take over your life. Many people have an interest in a particular actor or boy band member or footballer, but it doesn’t rule their lives, nor do they go out of their way to read about them, or even think about them very often.
One would think that adolescents, particularly teenage girls, would be most susceptible to celebrity worship, but that is not the case. In teenage girls aged between 14 and 16, the relationship is more likely between intense worship and body image. Girls engaged in celebrity worship had a poorer body image compared to other groups. The most celebrity obsessed among them also suffered from higher levels of dissociation and were also more prone to fantasy.
As for the rest of us, those mildly afflicted by the need to worship celebrities are likely to be extroverts who have a wide social circle, but their affliction is restricted to a habit of talking about the object of their passion, often to the irritation of their friends. They appreciate the entertainment/social dimension of the celebrity, in particular their chosen celebrity’s ability to entertain and hold the attention of others. This ability is obviously attractive to extroverts who would wish to emulate them. These subjects accounted for about 14% of the study group. They were generally happy, outgoing and optimistic people.
Conversely, 10% of those who took part in the study displayed the tell tale signs of the second kind of celebrity worship – an imagined, intense and compulsive relationship with their idol. This group had real feelings for their chosen celebrity; they were likely to be upset if the celebrity got into trouble or suffered some kind of personal trauma. They were more likely to be neurotic, tense, moody and emotional as well as more prone to anxiety, depression, stress, and poor body image.
The third kind of celebrity worship sufferers – the 1% – turned out to be solitary, impulsive, anti-social and troublesome, with unusually high levels of insensitivity. These individuals believed they had a very special and personal bond with their chosen celebrity – they believed the celebrity actually knew them and they harboured fantasies about their idol. They were prepared to do anything to get their attention, even performing acts self harm or harm to others. John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981 in an attempt to impress the object of his desire, actress Jodie Foster, is an extreme example.
Members of this third and extreme group harboured an almost overwhelming compulsion to be near their idol which unchecked could lead to uncontrollable and unreasonable behaviours. Members of this group are known to have become stalkers, even going so far as to break into celebrity’s homes. They end up with restraining orders or have even been sent to prison. Celebrities stalked by fans include Sandra Bullock, Paris Hilton, and Katie Holmes, although in Miss Holmes’ case, they were probably Scientologists.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.