tvSmarter – Life in a TV Nation

Fame Junkies and TV


Thanks to Chris for recommending this fascinating book.


Why are American’s so obsessed with Fame and celebrities? Jake Halpern, in his book Fame Junkies does an excellent job explaining this mystery. To do so, he gets to know a number of people who are either obsessed with becoming famous or are obsessed with celebrities.


It would be easy to be scornful of obsessed fans and celebrity slaves, but Halpern is instead very sympathetic. As a child he was obsessed with the TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”. To the point where his parents became so alarmed that they threw out the TV. He continues to be non TV-watching, which he feels, gives him a useful outsider perspective.



Along with his fascinating portraits, Halpern also delves deeply into the scientific literature.  Peppered throughout the book are studies and theories to explain the sometimes strange behavior of his sources.


For example, Belongingness Theory, which posits that the need to belong (as in have friends and loved ones) is a basic human need.


Another example is Parasocial interaction.  Before the advent of mass-communication, people made friends and formed relationships with actual real-life people. But now, especially with TV and movies (because they are so life-like), people are forming para-social relationships.  That is, one-sided friendships with either TV characters who don’t even exist, or with celebrities who are barely aware that the fan exists.


Halpern also points to a number of studies showing that the more lonely and shy someone is the more likely they are to obsessed over celebrities. For example:


The combination of loneliness and our innate desire to belong may be fueling our interest in celebrities and our tendency to form para-social relationships with them… McCutcheon and Ashe compared results from 150 subjects who had taken three personality tests – one measuring shyness, one measuring loneliness, and one measuring celebrity obsession, on something called the Celebrity Attitude Scale, or CAS. The CAS asks subjects to rate the veracity of statements such as “I am obsessed by details of my favorite celebrity’s life” and “If I were lucky enough to meet my favorite celebrity, and he/she asked me to do something illegal as a favor, I would probably do it.” McCutcheon and Ashe found a correlation among scores on loneliness, shyness, and the CAS. Their results led McCutcheon to observe in a subsequent paper, “Perhaps one of the ways [we] cope with shyness and loneliness is to cultivate a ‘safe,’ non-threatening relationship with a celebrity.”



Para-social relationships are a huge benefit to the celebrities. All those fans watching their shows, buying their clothing lines, etc make the celebrities rich. Meanwhile, the fans don’t get anything tangible in return. Because the para-relationship is purely one-way, the fan still feels lonely. As for getting the celebrity to help with a move, advice or last-minute babysitting, forget it! 



Update:  WordPress added an automatically generated link to a Time Magazine article “Celebrity Worship: Good for Your Health?” that argues that while extreme Celebrity Worship is unhealthy, that it (in moderate amounts) can be a positive influence. Namely that “the act of celebrity worship may be a boon to some people’s self-esteem”.


Happiness research has become a whole industry. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that people doing things that they enjoy, is important to their happiness level. But they’ve also found that doing some things that are enjoyable can actually lead to less happiness.


For example, an alcoholic would find drinking enjoyable, but all that alcohol would actually make them less happy in the long-run.


Another example is TV watching:


IF YOU really want to be happy, throw away your television set. That’s the bizarre finding of new economic research completely at odds with traditional assumptions. It has traditionally been assumed that people who choose to do a lot of something must enjoy it. And we certainly choose to watch a lot of TV.


TV watching is very much intertwined with celebrity worship. TV shows & movies add to a celebrity’s glamour, while popular celebrities boost ticket sales / viewership.


Unfortunately celebrities worship, and TV watching, and other addictions don’t lead to long-term happiness and a satisfying life.


2 thoughts on “Fame Junkies and TV

  1. Thank you for this great write up, and insight into this issue. This Para-social interaction sort of sounds like what has happened in religion, and what obsessed people will do for their invisible celebrity deities… but of course, the new modern deities are television characters.


  2. Hi Chris

    Yes, I think you’re right about celebrity worship taking over, and intermingling with religion.

    Halpern also writes about this, and also about the parallels between celebrity worship and cults (such as Scientology).


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