He tries to find answers to three questions: "Why do countless Americans yearn so desperately for this sort of fame? Why do others, such as celebrity personal assistants, devote their entire lives to serving these people? And why do millions of others fall into the mindless habit of watching them from afar? In many ways, the oddest of the three sections of Fame Junkies is the first, in which Halpern takes a look at the International Modeling and Talent Association IMTA , which has become, in effect, the college-board examination for young people who want to become celebrities or whose parents are pushing them in that direction.
The IMTA regularly holds conventions in New York and Los Angeles at which celebrity wannabes strut their stuff and occasionally -- very, very occasionally -- get contracts with modeling firms or Hollywood studios. They also pony up a lot of money -- usually several thousand dollars -- for training at modeling and acting schools, many operated by one of "the oldest and most reputable," John Robert Powers, but some offering little more than the vague promise that "You could be the next big star!
As Halpern describes it -- and his description seems fair -- the IMTA convention is a glorified meat market or cattle call. But there is a good deal of evidence that young people have been lured by "celebrity-focused TV shows," celebrity magazines and especially "American Idol" into the belief, which in some cases hardens into what they perceive as an entitlement, "that they themselves will be famous someday. One reason people are encouraged to chase the chimera of fame is that with the rise of the celebrity-obsessed media, the need for celebrities has increased exponentially and apparently will continue to do so.
All those talk shows and feature writers need "a steady supply of telegenic actors, singers, cooks, talk-show hosts, and meteorologists to fill the increasing number of celebrity slots," or, as Nora Ephron wittily put it three decades ago: "The celebrity pool has expanded in order to provide names to fill the increasing number of column inches currently devoted to gossip; this is my own pet theory, and I use it to explain all sorts of things, one of whom is Halston.
However rapidly the celebrity pool may be expanding, it's scarcely big enough to fulfill the longings of all those kids who think there's a place in it for them, who may have been encouraged in this belief by "our commitment to teaching self-esteem in the schools," whether or not that self-esteem actually has been earned.
But once it dawns on them that they aren't going to be swimming in the celebrity pool, there's still a chance for some of them to achieve what apparently is perceived as an exceedingly attractive second-best: jobs as personal assistants to stars. And unlike lawyers and agents, who rub shoulders with the stars and often make millions of dollars, assistants are not paid particularly well. Into the bargain -- if "bargain" is the word for it -- they often face what one described to Halpern as "a problem with this job -- sometimes there is a loss of self.
Still, there is, as Halpern writes, "a definite quid pro quo in these relationships: Followers get a sense of belonging, security, and importance; and leaders feed off their admiration and devotion.
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Perhaps so. But there does appear to be evidence that the personal assistants, like the celebrity wannabes, are motivated to varying degrees by a desire to make up for unhappy childhoods. Ditto for the most intense, obsessive fans. One of them -- a middle-aged woman whose life is almost literally devoted to the rock musician Rod Stewart -- told Halpern: "I just had such a terrible childhood that I never wanted to have children. I guess I didn't get a whole lot of love or acknowledgment as a kid, and that's something I seek when I go to a Rod concert.
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All of which is true so far as it goes, but there's one aspect of the celebrity culture that Halpern approaches only indirectly: the extent to which ordinary Americans, unencumbered by miserable childhoods or loneliness, talk and read and think about celebrities. At the next table in a restaurant, the talk is as likely to be of Jen and Brad as of Bush and Cheney -- indeed, a lot more likely to be about Jen and Brad, even here in Washington.
Surveys that Halpern cites indicate that younger Americans would rather be a Hollywood celebrity -- or a celebrity personal assistant! According to Hawkes, the best Hadza hunters typically have the privilege of marrying the women who are most adept at gathering, and often they use their status to marry young and fertile second wives. The boys in the tribe follow the exploits of these hunters with great zeal. It's almost like these boys are following the statistics of their favorite sports stars," Hawkes told me. All of this supports her theory that the best hunters are essentially obsessed with their reputations and with showing off for the other members of the tribe.
Indeed, the stone tools and the bones of large mammals that archaeologists have found in the nearby Olduvai Gorge serve as our oldest evidence of how ancient humans lived. So the grandstanding Hadza hunters of today may offer a glimpse into the distant past, when early man vied mightily not just for survival or power but also for reputation and fame.
Of course, the notion of celebrity in the modern sense of the word didn't really take hold until the Industrial Revolution, with the advent of the telegraph, the telephone, and eventually the radio—technologies that greatly expedited the process of becoming famous.
Previously, stories about Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great had taken hundreds if not thousands of years to saturate the public consciousness, whereas suddenly someone's story could spread widely within a matter of weeks, days, or even minutes. One could argue that all the celebrity hoopla we see today is simply the inevitable result of technology, which now disseminates countless images and stories in nanoseconds. But theoretically this same technology also makes it infinitely easier to spread scientific knowledge or historical records.
So why have we not become a nation of obsessive science geeks or fanatical history buffs? The answer may be that technology has simply made it much easier for us to act on impulses that have been with us since the beginning—namely, the impulses to admire others and to be admired ourselves. The question then becomes, Has technology amplified these impulses, not just around the world but within each of us as well? In other words, to what extent can we blame Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or Entertainment Tonight or American Idol for turning us into fame junkies?
Robert Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, is one of the nation's foremost experts on celebrity culture. His home office is crammed full of several hundred videotapes, a nineteen-inch Trinitron television set, and five VCRs interconnected by a tangle of cables and splitters. The VCRs all operate on timers, and every evening around eight o'clock—when prime-time television begins—the wilderness of electronics in Thompson's office springs to life. His prime-time recording schedule is never exactly the same.
Each week he consults TV Guide and sets his VCRs to record the twenty-five hours of television that interest him most. Then, usually once a day, he tears open a bag of Cheetos, hits the play button, and assesses the state of American pop culture. Thompson is a tall man in his mid-forties with a florid complexion and a head of wispy brown hair.
He dresses casual— jeans and running shoes—and when he talks, he does so with an endearing and sometimes surprising informality, leaning back in his chair with one hand clamped around the back of his head, chatting about the latest episode of Survivor or the importance of Super Bowl commercials in pop culture. Thompson lives, breathes, and studies what's on TV, with a commanding sense of purpose.
A lot of what's on television in America isn't stuff that I would actually choose to watch. But some of it, like Temptation Island, I loved.
FAME JUNKIES by Jake Halpern | Kirkus Reviews
It was all Isn't this just so wonderful, and wouldn't you love to eat off these gold plates, and drink from these diamond-studded goblets, and go to these parties, and live in these houses? And the formula worked, because it allowed us to imagine ourselves in their shoes. In , for example, the best-known magazine about Hollywood celebrities was Photoplay. The cover of the October issue that year boasted, "Over , Circulation. Nowadays such magazines are supplemented by an array of celebrity-focused television shows like Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, Cribs, and virtually everything on the E!
It is quite possible, Thompson argues, that in the era before World War II, a person living in a small town could go several days without seeing the image of a single celebrity, whereas now it's doubtful that a person in that same town could pass one day without catching a glimpse of Paris Hilton. And in Thompson's view, this trend began around , with Robin Leach. That era also marked the emergence of cable television. In the number of U.
Cable made it infinitely easier for entrepreneurs to launch television networks, because they could create a whole range of programming and distribute it nationally without having to build any signal towers. Predictably, programming boomed. In the early s most television viewers had only a few channels to choose from, including the three broadcast networks, PBS, and perhaps one or two independent local stations.
By those viewers had hundreds of choices. According to a report by the U. Department of Labor, this "explosion of programming" is fueling a job growth of 31 percent in the television industry. The upshot of all this is that the networks on cable—and now satellite as well—need a steady supply of telegenic actors, singers, cooks, talk-show hosts, and meteorologists to fill the increasing number of celebrity slots—or "vacancies," as I will call them.
All of this creates a perception, and to some extent a reality, that it is now much easier to become famous. This perception is only bolstered by the emergence of reality TV, which ostensibly makes people famous for simply "being themselves. The culprit, according to the report, was the rampant growth of reality TV. Unfortunately for SAG members, this shift in the marketplace may be permanent. Basically, this is very profitable programming. As Robert Thompson puts it, "Human beings have had delusions of grandeur since the beginning of time, but now these thoughts no longer seem so delusional.
You turn on the TV and there seems to be so much fame to go around. TV can affect children powerfully and in unexpected ways.
source Perhaps the best recent example comes from September 11, This is hardly the only finding of its kind. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the typical American youth will have witnessed 40, murders and , other violent acts on television by the time he or she turns eighteen.
Admittedly, this is a scary thought. But one also has to wonder, How many viewing hours will be devoted to contests like American Idol, in which seemingly every single person in the country is lining up to become famous? That's why all this celebrity stuff is like catnip for kids.
The rise of the cable news networks has provided a great many vacancies for academics who are willing to be interviewed on a range of subjects. Hardly a week goes by when Thompson is not called upon to appear on a major television news show to talk about any issue that may be only vaguely related to the history or psychology of television. This attention has prompted Syracuse to give him one of the largest offices on campus, with a panoramic view of rolling green lawns.
And the university is in the process of building him an even bigger office, complete with a dressing room. And there are times when I'm definitely disturbed by this, and by the fact that these interviews are as important to me as they are.