Consider it the "where were you when JFK was shot" of a new generation. I know I can tell you exactly where I was when I found out Heath Ledger died. I sat down to put on my shoes and checked my (several times) daily dose of People.com. There it was, front and center. I gasped.
I called my friend, Susan, and we commiserated over the news. "I know," she said. "I saw it on Twitter." We both talked about the sad situation--his young daughter, how Michelle Williams must have felt--then we asked the question nobody seemed to ask, "Why do we care?"
Yes, we both enjoyed his movies and found him quite handsome. We've seen pictures of his little daughter. We knew about his love life. But...when did it get to this point that we were analyzing the death of a Hollywood star?
I thought about a recent article in The New York Times, discussing Heath's move from Brooklyn to Manhattan and how many locals felt about the loss of Brooklyn's It Boy. I thought of the pictures I've seen of him and his daughter on the celebrity parenting websites, thought of an infamous pictures of him and his ex, wearing bathing suits, giving the middle finger and holding a sign that used a four letter word. Then I thought about nonstop videos of his body bag.
Once my husband arrived home, I pounced on him. "Heath Ledger died! It is so sad. I can't believe it." I figured that, perhaps, it was the spontaneity of the news that made me exclaim the story. But, several hours later, it hadn't gotten any better. I nearly fell off the elliptical trainer trying to see a TV running the Heath story across the room. The lady next to me and I discussed the situation. Then, we moved onto Britney Spears.
In fact, just two weeks earlier, I broke the ice with my husband's boss's wife regarding The Britney Situation: What did she think about it?
As hours turned into days, I'd see repeated images of Ledger's black body bag being removed from his apartment building. Every time I saw the image, I felt sick. All I could think was that "I shouldn't be seeing this. This is too private a moment for me to see." That was a real person in that bag, a father, friend, son and, yes, a handsome movie star. But...did it give me the right to know so many personal details of his untimely death?
I realized that maybe, just maybe, my interest in celebrity gossip had become too much. Should I really know everything about the current Britney saga? Do I really want to know the names of limitless Hollywood debutantes who don't do much else besides attend parties? I decided to give up all forms of celebrity gossip for a month. A one month celebrity gossip diet, if you must. I wanted to step away from the glitz and glamour of the celebrity world and find whatever sparkle my little life might have.
I wanted to figure out why I cared so much about people I really didn't know.
"It is impossible to go through a day almost without seeing Britney Spears' image somewhere," said Jake Halpern, author of the book Fame Junkies, in a phone conversation. "...Even if you want to make a conscious decision [to keep celebrity gossip out of your life], you almost have to become like Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber."
While I wasn't necessarily planning on building a log cabin out in the woods any time soon, I did find that I had to retrain myself not to care as much. First, that started with erasing my browsing history. No more People, US Weekly, Perez Hilton or Celebrity Baby Blog. I wouldn't pick up a gossip magazine at the store; in fact, I wouldn't even allow myself to look at the covers.
Then, slowly, as the month wore on, I began to realize something: I didn't miss the gossip. In fact, a couple of times, I forgot that the gossip even existed--I had to remind myself that Paris, Britney and whoever else were still out there, doing their thing. I just wasn't privy to it.
Originally, my plan was to abstain from gossip for a month and then return to my normal viewing habits. But, I soon realized I had changed. I just didn't want to know the intimate details of people I have never met. I also began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with some of the celebrity stories I saw, especially those involving children. While I've never been that big a Tom Cruise fan, the constant criticism of his 2-year-old daughter seemed too much for me.
Part of me wondered if Tom and Katie should accept this type of coverage--they're the ones, after all, with the big bucks and fabulous lives. When you're worth over $250 million, some people say that your right to privacy goes out the door, along with your original nose.
"You can't go into public life and not expect some level of being hounded by the press," Halpern said. "...There's a line to be drawn somewhere, where even people who live public lives are still entitled to some privacy and some shred of dignity."
Celebrity gossip has become more mainstream, with major news shows, desperate for profits, viewers and material, covering celebrities along with the world news. In one day, Halpern said, CNN covered Britney losing custody of her sons three times more than they covered the war in Iraq and 37 times more than the genocide in Darfur. "We know we live in a celebrity addicted culture but we don't realize the extent that those stories have grown and metastasized in a cancer-like fashion and have taken over other news media where we traditionally rely on to get our news," he said.
So, next time another young star dies, a celebrity parent files a restraining order against a photographer or another actress gets pregnant, you can count me out. Because, at the end of the day, the paparazzi may take the pictures, the media may publish them, but we're the ones who can choose whether or not to view them.
"We're devouring those images the paparazzi are taking," Halpern said. "It makes us complicit in this."