Anna Nicole Smith’s departure from earth and pop singer Britney Spears’ descent into madness riveted a good chunk of the nation.  Smith’s only real talent was in her chest, and, by all appearances, she was at least mildly retarded.  Spears, who took a room at a rehab facility after shaving her head, is probably equally dull, but she is reputed to be capable of counting to ten and doing it on key.

Both women are—or, in Smith’s case, were—perfect celebrities for our age: untalented, unintelligent, unhinged, and totally beloved and admired by legions of our countrymen.  We know this, because FOX News devoted many hours of coverage to the Smith-Spears sagas, and no news organization has a better feel for what the morons in America are clamoring for than FOX.

Certainly, some civic-minded scolds probably fired off disapproving e-mails to the cable- and network-news shows, but those news producers who call the shots know that the masses like their celebrity news.  Jake Halpern tours the world of fame-addled America and declares that many celebrities “have little of real value to teach.”  Halpern makes this rather obvious observation about halfway through his book.  It is a rare editorial comment from him, one he makes after reporting on a theory offered by two evolutionary anthropologists from Emory University.

Called Prestige Theory, it presumes to account for why people are so eager to chum up to celebrities.  As Halpern explains it, talented hunters in primitive times were revered by their fellow tribesmen.  Bad or moderately good hunters gravitated toward the skilled ones, hoping to learn from them and, thus, attract mates.  The disciples who gathered around the stars were willing to do favors for them.  Fast forward a few thousand years, and the Prestige Theory explains why even the moderately famous have posses of hangers-on, toadies willing to do anything for their celebrity.

I am not sure about Prestige Theory, or about any of the other evolutionary or psychological theories that Halpern explores on his quest to learn why Americans are so smitten with celebrities.  Some of them are interesting, such as psychological studies showing that shy, lonely people are more likely to waste hours of their lives obsessing over their favorite celebrities.

More interesting are the various stops Halpern makes in the book.  We have all seen the drooling stargazers screaming for autographs.  What many of us haven’t seen, however, is a convention with children and young adults performing for the attention of a few agents who are on hand to scout for new talent.  The performers pay enormous fees in order to participate.  Those lucky few who are plucked from the masses by agents are sent on a path that could end in stardom, but the odds are so stacked against them that they would probably be better off investing in lottery tickets.

These conventions play on the hopes of young people that they, too, can become famous.  Halpern concludes that more young people than ever are convinced that they will be famous.  They “are predisposed to having daily delusions of grandeur in which they feel as if they are playing the lead in epic movies about themselves.”

Those lucky few who find work in Hollywood are mostly destined to struggle as second- and third-class citizens.  Halpern visits a gated community outside Hollywood where actors ply their trade.  Many are children, living on site with parents or other relatives.  Some scrape by, earning enough money through commercials or bit parts in television and movies.  Others are going into debt trying to break in.  Several child actors and parents tell Halpern that they have no intention of returning to their drab lives in Middle America.  The action is in Hollywood.

People have always been enamored with celebrity, Halpern says, but the advent of television and the internet have made it much easier to keep tabs on your favorite crooner or actor.  Heck, you can do it from work.  With the World Wide Web, fan clubs have exploded in number.  Now, even third- and fourth-rate celebs have online gathering places where fans can share gossip and fantasies.

Is all of this bad?  Halpern ventures to say that we could be creating a generation of narcissists, but that’s not a novel criticism.  Halpern is a fine reporter.  His writing is by no means flashy, but he goes to interesting places, does his research, and makes some keen observations.  What he does not do in any depth, however, is try to assess what it means for a society to have a large population of people who are, at varying degrees, obsessed with fame and celebrity, either their own or somebody else’s.

It’s a harmless hobby for the vast majority of people who indulge in celebrity news.  They hold down jobs, spend time with family, pay their taxes.  It’s not as if they’re committing armed robbery to buy their next fix of People.

My guess is that people who find refuge in the world of celebrity news are typically those out of touch with their culture and history, with basic economics, with their city council or county commission.  They are the sort who, if pried away from Entertainment Tonight long enough to listen, will nod when they hear an unlearned president tell them that a certain country in the Middle East has been found to possess a propeller-driven airplane, which has been outfitted with a device that could allow it to spray chemical or biological weapons.  This airplane poses a direct threat to the world’s only superpower, and so the country in the Middle East should be dispatched with an armed invasion.

They are among the ignorant masses who thought America could invade a primitive Middle Eastern country, establish a “democracy,” and make the region safe for movie theaters.  If we’re lucky, more and more of them will become too preoccupied with their fantasies to vote.


[Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction, by Jake Halpern (New York: Houghton Mifflin) 226 pp., $23.00]