Andy Warhol used to say that the day would come when every American would have his five minutes on the Tonight Show. Warhol, although he squandered his talents on films and interviews with nonentities, was still a prophet of sorts: he must have realized that nothing drives a decadent society so much as the hunger for celebrity. Whenever actors and athletes become socially acceptable (let alone prominent), it is a sure sign of a people losing confidence in itself.

We have grown so used to the prominence of celebrities, we are no longer shocked by their proliferation. Even decadent Rome was scandalized by the sight of the emperor Commodus fight ing as a gladiator. In the corrupt era of the Restoration, the actress and royal mistress Nell Gwynn was pelted with refuse by a crowd of upstanding citizens. (“But I’m the King’s Protestant Whore,” she had the presence of mind to declare.) Nell was, by all accounts, a good comedienne and a good hearted soul who had worked her way up and out of the gutter. Even so, the solid bourgeoisie were scandalized by the high jinks of aristocrats and actresses. We have come a long way in 200 years. Just how far is demonstrated by the celebrity magazines that seem to be the necessary last item purchased in supermarkets and drugstores.

Celebrity journalism ranges from the frivolous to the absurd. The best is on TV shows like Entertainment Tonight or its spin-off, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (pronounced “Loife styles of the Rich und Faymous” by its Cockney host). Go on a shopping trip with Vic Damone, see Michael Jackson mobbed by preteen Londoners, or—best of all—take a tour of Liberace’s clothes closet (it’s longer than the bar in Gilley’s).

For those who learned to read with out suffering any ill effects, there are magazines like the Midnight Star and National Enquirer in which Martian visitors and surefire cancer cures compete for space with gossip about Princess Di and Liz Taylor. No one ever admits to buying the magazines—they just happen to see them at the check out counter. It’s strange they manage to stay in business.

Slightly more reputable-because they keep out the flying saucers and the two-headed boys-are the fan magazines like Fantastic Movies, Daily TV, or TV Soap World. The excesses are easy enough to spot: “My Life as a Movie Zombie,” an insider’s description in Fantastic Movies of all the carefully contrived gore in George Romero’s latest horror; a shamelessly worshipful profile in Daily TV of a “super sexy hunk,” “a young mountain-tall, proud, angular”; or an article in Daily TV speculating on whether a romance in As the World Turns will blossom into real-life love. The monomania here is as naive and obvious as the uncritical adulation for the “candy-apple red” BMW’s their gods drive, the “European butter suedes and leathers” they wear, and the “dream houses” they live in. It’s a simple faith, compounded equally of hedonism and vanity.

More reputable but less innocent are such celebrity and entertainment magazines as People and TV Guide, which claim to be more than fan magazines. They invite noncelebrities into their pages to discuss issues of real substance. Here in People is a child psychologist from a major university holding forth on the causes of teen suicide, while there in TV Guide is a leading law professor detailing the legal fallacies in detective shows. In these pages we can find interviews with qualified authorities on science, medicine, politics, or religion. And TV Guide has performed a real service with credible exposes on Hollywood’s drug problems and CBS’s smear of General Westmoreland. But accompanying the People interview with the child psychologist is an article in which two teenage actors who played the roles of teen suicides in a recent TV special give their views on the problem. Likewise, next to an article written by an author who researched a book about a psychologically disturbed woman is Cheryl Ladd’s own attempt to explain “the yin and yang of mental problems”—she played the part of this same disturbed woman in a TV docudrama.

Ladd may demonstrate less wit than Nell Gwynn, but TV Guide and People are still convinced that she and the other “Angels” are highly intelligent women who were seduced by the system. (“It certainly wasn’t our idea,” Ladd protests.) Although they titillated their way to fame, the ex-angels are now taking on “serious” roles. Because of The Burning Bed, Farah Fawcett is now a qualified authority on wife abuse, as well as a courageous role model for single mothers. But of course, Jaclyn Smith (heroine of a British series on Florence Nightingale) also demands to be taken seriously, especially when she gives her views on mothering (“You don’t want to be away, you don’t want to miss a moment”).

But nothing tops the way TV Guide and People mix and match their religious and metaphysical experts. If readers get bored by what a prestigious rabbinical scholar has to say in People about the historical and scriptural background of the movie King David, they need only turn to actress Kelly McGillis’ exploration of the religious and moral ambiguities acquired by playing “a naive Amish widow” in a TV love scene: “I have a problem with people seeing me in, you know, the buff. I think, sure, they’ve seen me, but I haven’t seen them.” Some readers may be put off by the puritanism of an actress who told TV Guide that she refused to disrobe for a film for religious reasons, but they will quickly be consoled by the same magazine’s praise for a woman whose career play ing a stripper in one film and going “topless . . . and beyond topless” in others has not slopped her from ex pounding on her belief in God and on how God has blessed “people in this industry” by making them his “chosen people.” In a business where performers believe they’re co-stars with God and Charlton Heston, the last word belongs to Cheryl Ladd showing her home to TV Guide: “In here is my Jacuzzi. I can soak in here and see beyond LA all the way to Catalina . . . It makes me feel real to relax at home with my family. Any chance you’ve got to feel real in this town, baby, you’d better grab it.”

In a sense, these magazines are a sort of holy writ for our society, and like the deity, they are no respecters of persons. Prince Charles, Ray Charles, and Charlie’s Angels are all the same to them. For some time, our national worship of entertainers has blurred the distinction between real life and role playing. Television physicians like Alan Alda and Robert Young have been regularly invited to speak at med school graduations, and major universities invite Mike Farrell to lecture on foreign policy-presumably on the strength of his war experiences on MASH. Recently, Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek, and Jessica Lange testified as “farm wives” in the congressional de bate on agriculture policies.

Most significant of all, perhaps, was the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to John Wayne. We stand second to none in admiring Mr. Wayne, but do not seem to recollect any of his heroic exploits in the service of freedom. Even Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable were flying combat missions, while the Duke was winning the war single-handedly in Hollywood. In our inability to tell truth from fiction, the whole nation is beginning to resemble Bela Lugosi, who insisted on being buried in his Dracula cape.