I’ll start this article with a long-withheld confession: I love reading about celebrities. I gobble up Perez Hilton reports, I feed off E-News drama, and I’m like a moth to a flame whenever People Magazine comes out with a new piece on Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra. I can’t help myself–whether it’s borne out of envy or curiosity, I’m powerless to the draw of celebrity culture: their lifestyles, their triumphs, their fallouts with fellow celebrities, pregnancy rumors, business endeavors, and the like. I can describe the fissures in Beyonce and Jay Z’s marriage in chronological order; I can name all of Taylor Swift’s exes; and I definitely have one or two theories on why Meghan and Harry really left the British Royal Family. I’ll even admit to sniffing one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s INSANE candles for the bragging rights alone.
I know that celebrity culture is toxic, but, like any addiction, it’s easier to recognize than it is to cure.
The way that we, as a society, interact with celebrities has taken a dramatic shift in the last twenty years, and the way that we, as individuals, blindly subscribe to Hollywood’s flavor of the week might point to an overarching disappointment in elected officials. Celebrities like musicians, athletes, actors, and models receive more attention on social media than anyone else in the world. Selena Gomez, an American singer, has 165 million more followers than President Donald Trump. On average, television personality and brand owner Kim Kardashian West receives 24,000 more-page views on Instagram per day than Hillary Clinton. Rowan Blanchard, an eighteen-year-old associated with Disney Channel, boasts of over five million Instagram followers; Emmanuel Macron, President of France, has only two million.
Independent of our social media habits, celebrity culture influences virtually every aspect of our society–voting habits, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the names we christen our children with, the bodies we nurture with celebrity-promoted diet pills, hair strengthening gummies, and appetite suppressing lollipops–no sector of society is left untouched by celebrities’ incredible, and at times insidious and dangerously uninformed, reach. Articles that name-drop popular celebrities are pervasive throughout the Internet; even someone who is self-professed ‘immune’ to celebrity culture cannot help but bump into some semblance of it, whether it be an advertisement, endorsement, or a news article shilled on mainstream media, such as CNN or Fox News. Celebrities are everywhere. We are tragically forced to listen to, know about, and care for them. We wear what they wear, buy what they buy, go where they go. Being involved in the lives of celebrities has become as common as keeping up with the local news.
Their breakups and hookups, fights and friendships, political pursuits and business savvy become the bread and butter of a modern individual’s lunch conversation. Some even admit to experiencing genuine feelings–like disgust, anger, and fear–when their favorite celebrity does something to break their ‘trust.’ Celebrities, in the modern age, are expected to become mouthpieces for the level of ‘wokeness’ we deem appropriate, and when they fail to rise to the lofty expectations we as a society impose upon them, the negative feelings we experience in our interpersonal relationships with those around us might bubble to the surface.
Furthermore, evidence indicates that poor mental health is directly correlated with celebrity worship. A study undertaken in the United Kingdom found evidence to suggest that the intense-personal celebrity worship (described as severe preoccupation with the life of a current star) had been related to higher levels of depression and anxiety. Similarly, another study published in the British Journal of Psychology found that celebrity worship was not only related to higher levels of depression and anxiety, but also higher levels of stress, negative affect, and reports of illness.
Fatemeh Khishvand, known by her Instagram username of Sahar Tabar, is an Iranian influencer who spent millions of dollars on invasive procedures like rhinoplasty, liposuction, and botulinum toxin injections in her lips to look like Angelina Jolie. She has since been arrested in Tehran for blasphemy and is currently serving her term while suffering from Covid-19. Countless other celebrity enthusiasts–like Dana Martin, John Ford, and Mohammed Jafar–are currently behind bars for stalking their favorite stars. Jafar reportedly began stalking singer and songwriter Taylor Swift in 2016, appearing at her building multiple times, and even going so far as to make it onto her roof and buzz her door nonstop. Though he was arrested in March of 2017, as one of the most famous women in the world, Swift is no stranger to repeated stalking attempts. Swift was the victim of a man who traveled over 1,000 miles to stalk her at her L.A. home. According to The Guardian, he “was found to have ammunition, a knife, rope and gloves in his car at the time of his arrest.” Taylor Swift is now exceptionally private on her social media outlets, save for the occasional advertisement of her own music, or recurrent attempts to encourage her predominately female fanbase to vote democratically.
From selling products to selling a gingerly-engineered and manipulated lifestyle, celebrities are the touchstone of luxury, success, and envy for many in our current society, and the constant bombardment of petty gossip on their behalf causes us to feel an attachment to them, as we would a life-partner or friend, making the distinction between celebrity and confidante ever more nebulous. The availability and pervasive nature of social media allows us to draw nearer to our favorite household names, comment on their posts like we were sorority sisters, search through their dating history and their current residences with a fine-tooth comb like we were fast friends. In the age of the internet, disconnection from celebrities and the culture they wield is the only thing that will save us from complete and utter mystification.
Following, liking, reading, watching and subscribing to their accounts, their opinions, their trials and tribulations only makes it that more likely for Internet algorithms to swamp our feed with reports of their lives. For the sweeping majority of us, we’re closer to being homeless than we are to being in Jeff Bezos’ tax-bracket, and we need to understand that the glorification of the lifestyle he (and various other Hollywood icons) leads gets us no closer to cultivating a lifestyle that is marketable and accessible for the average American. Idolizing anti-vax celebrities like Jessica Biel, celebrities with racist pasts like Jeffree Star and Camila Cabello, and stars who are committed to perpetuating stigmas surrounding mental health like Tom Cruise will only continue to amplify voices that have no place in the upheaval and reform that must take place in our upcoming election cycle. With the 2020 elections drawing ever nearer, it is no surprise that celebrities are utilizing their extensive platforms to promote their personal and largely ignorant views, to which increasing numbers of people flock in order to formulate their own opinions.
What began as a mere confession as to my involvement in the perpetuation of celebrity worship has lent itself to a broader examination of necessary distractions in a time of uncertainty, fear, and disillusion, and should end in a critical evaluation of the amplification of celebrity voices, and the extent to which we are willing to replace elected officials, professionals, and “rightful” leaders with the opinions of athletes, artists, actresses, etc. When our minds are consumed hours on end by the viewing of our favorite TV shows, listening to our favorite podcasts, and following our favorite social media starlets, the extent to which the public is hijacked by celebrity appearances is virtually limitless, because our consumption of their work and their personal exploits does not end when we turn off our phones, our computers, or our televisions. Their reach delves into, again, virtually every sector of society; healthcare, food, fashion, entertainment, and, most notably, public policy.
Infamously, many of the celebrities we’ve followed throughout the decades have made the leap from celebutante to politician; Ronald Reagan, Shirley Temple, Donald Trump, and Kanye West are one of many who have occupied honored–at times disparaged–positions in both Hollywood and D.C. With the enormous platform activist celebrities like Karli Kloss, Dwayne Johnson, and Mark Wahlberg have amassed, their ability to enact change, and influence susceptible minds, becomes magnified. Our brain soaks it up like bread to oil, because the mass overconsumption of celebrity lives allows us to form an, at times, personal attachment to the celebrity in question; encouraging us to purchase their products, subscribe to their newsletters, sport their favorite brands, and yes–sometimes–even vote like they vote. The “Oprah Effect” is a well known byproduct of this, referring to the boost in sales that followed an endorsement on The Oprah Winfrey Show. A glowing recommendation from Oprah, the undisputed queen of daytime television for over twenty-five years, turned various fashion and lifestyle products into multimillion-dollar companies. Taylor Swift’s endorsement of Phil Bredesen, the former Governor of Tennessee, is reported to have engendered a 65,000-strong spike in voter registrations in the 24-hour period after the singer posted her seal of approval for the Tennessee Democrat on Instagram.
The way celebrity culture not only influences but dominates our life is easily witnessed and might be simple, like a cancerous tumor, to diagnose, but harder to treat. Dissecting the malignancy is no easy task in a day and age where trust is hard won for politicians and hard to come by even for experts, forcing the American populace to rely on the “trusted” voices who have brought us songs like Last Friday Night, television shows like Grey’s Anatomy, and movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In the end, however, these weightless endorsements of paper-thin ‘wokeness’, the eternalizing of ‘white feminism’ (a term coined to refer to celebrities and feminist efforts concerned with the non-intersectional struggles of predominately white women without addressing the oppression faced in communities of color), and mere topical support for politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and climate change activist and senator Marina Silva will not serve us in the long run, and will dissolve into trifle, or harden into ammunition for our opposition, in the upcoming election cycle.
With 2020 elections fast approaching, we have to evaluate our own celebrity-hungry habits and learn to stop fostering all our hopes and dreams into a celebrities’ willingness to speak out and vote in favor of the politician who we deem most ‘palatable.’ In 2020, we need to start looking at, pitching in, and joining forces with local community efforts to enact the progressive agenda that oppressed communities have waited long enough for. Because, at the end of the day, if celebrities really wanted to help, they would.