Do Americans have an unhealthy obsession with celebrity? I don't think so. We'd all be dead by now, killed by "celebrity and gossip infotainment," if that were so.
The proliferation of simulated reality TV "stars" and the instant attention of the Internet make us appear more VIP-gossip-crazed than ever. I think it's a question of quantity. (And to some, like me, it's a loss of quality; the great, long-lived and truly glamorous stars from the '50s -- now dying out --have been replaced by "inferior" celebs.)
Think of 24-hour cable news channels. Are folks really more interested in news than they used to be? No. It seems that way, maybe, for those watching Fox, MSNBC, CNN or surging websites like The Huffington Post. We are today the same kind of humans who once devoured all newspapers daily, front page to sports. Then we listened to radio, segued to TV and have now embraced the Internet.
Having made a career from benign gossip and celebrity, I find such interests cathartic, useful. Gossip relaxes you and makes you feel better, and everybody interesting does it. Some say it makes you live longer. (Can Kim Kardashian save your life?)
Gossip about celebrities or the truly famous is a big way of exchanging info, thereby getting power. There is power in telling something you know, even if you just read it in Us Weekly. (You are sure to tell somebody who hasn't read Us Weekly.)
People crave "news." Houses in early New England were built close to the road so passersby might give the latest. "Didja hear they shot Lincoln three months ago!" Gossip even makes it better -- "And I hear Mrs. Lincoln forced him to go to the theater!"
It was called "infotainment" back in the 20th century. We got used to news that entertains. We now expect a groaning buffet of excess, with serious newscasters adding: "You can follow me on Twitter!"
Oscar Wilde said history is merely gossip. He added my personal favorite: "But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality." Immorality still sells. Nobody is shocked by adultery anymore; so an inordinate ability to be on top of every detail of the adulterous scandal is now necessary.
We ate up those stories of Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn in the '40s, '50s and '60s -- and on and on. Was the audience "unhealthy?" Nah. Just curious and human.
I may bemoan the quality of current celebrities. But that's what the older generation always does: "Oh, so and so is not as great as whatshername, back in my day."
Celebrity today is far more "unhealthy" for the celebrities, in my opinion. Now, everyone with a cell phone can capture any VIP's so-called private time. With this power, they feel they "own" celebrities who, they're told, are "just like us." If cell phones and the Internet had existed decades ago, they'd have been used. Human nature stays the same.
I have a theory. Gossip and celebrity are the great luxuries of true democracy. They're the tawdry jewel in the crown of free speech and expression. Gossip about the famous or infamous is for leisure, for fun, for entertainment, for relaxation -- that has been true since the first real American celebrity, who was named Charles Lindbergh.
You don't read or see gossip in most dictatorships. Those people have more to worry about than Lindsay Lohan's lips. If we stop caring, it means really bad disastrous news has driven gossip/celebrity underground.
So, let's forgive ourselves for a daily wallow in celebrity worship or disdain. Knowledge is power. Even if that knowledge concerns the pregnancy of Snooki.
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