What is the psychology behind people obsessing over celebrities?W

Why do people care? Why do we pay people to photograph them, stalk them, write about them, report about them? Has it always been this way?

Yes, it’s always been that way. Some people envy them and others like to live vicariously through them.

When we watch their movies, we begin to feel like we know them and so we want to know what’s going on in their lives.

Plus most of them are pretty nice to look at.

Stalkers are another story.

For social animals like chimpanzees, knowing the pecking order and who stands at different levels of the hierarchy is vitally important. Food, mates, personal safety, and even learned behaviors often hinge on knowing the different social relationships and, importantly, who is at the top socially. Early humans were very likely just as socially conscious – the ones who were paid attention to social cues would naturally do well and survive to pass on offspring; the ones who did not pay attention to social relationships likely did not do well. Modern humans are the product of those evolutionary pressures, so it’s not surprising that we pay so much attention to celebrities (musicians, movie stars, politicians, even celebrity scientists).

It’s always been that way… when such a phenomenon as “celebrities” was possible in the culture.

We know that certain athletes and gladiators had huge followings at certain times in Greece and Rome. Those cultures were precursors to modern western culture. They were concentrated in city-states - even the Roman empire had a multitude of regional city-states governed by Romans - with a fairly free population that could circulate through cities. Entertainments attended by multitudes were allowed, even encouraged. Literacy had made inroads into the population, and posters and signs and other devices announced matches.

What they didn’t have was public information about the lives of these celebrities. That changed with the advent of high-speed printing presses in the first half of the 19th century. That made newspapers, and later magazines and books, ubiquitous, which gradually developed the art of celebrity and therefore celebrity gossip and celebrity worship. I’d say all the basics were in place by the end of the 20th century. Something close to today’s obsession emerged along the time that silent movies began identifying actors - at the public’s demand to know the names of previously anonymous players. Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin had salaries of $10,000 a week by 1920 with cult-like status. For decades Chaplin was considered the best-known person on the planet. Essentially nothing has changed in the last century except the ease of amassing information.

Right now I’m reading One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson. In it, he pegs the 1920s as arguably the start of celebrity worship. He discusses how the rise of newspapers and tabloid media in that decade – of course there had been papers before, but he gives numbers to show how that was a really boom decade for them – coincided with movies and team sports really taking off big time. The media gave so much prominence to film and sports stars that their importance was inflated in the eyes of the public.

I haven’t read the book, and “the 1920s” gives a lot of leeway. I’d say it was there waiting when the 1920s started and you can trace it back several more years in America, especially since there was only the short year given over to the war.

But as I said, that’s the latest possible date for the modern version. Heck, baseball players were appearing on trade cards by the 1860s. Buffalo Bill was used in dozens of dime novels starting in 1869. Lillian Russell was one of a number of celebrity entertainers after 1885. All were pre-tabloid and used other mass-media of their day.

The 1920s may have perfected celebrity. But it had existed in recognizable form in America for decades.

Yes, that’s all true, but he argues that it was the rise of a real newspaper culture and the advent of tabloids that really spiked it. For baseball, he colorfully mentions that until Babe Ruth came along, parents usually saw any son becoming a professional player as barely two notches above working in a brothel as far as respectability went.

Not really arguing, but newspapers were never bigger nor more influential than in the second half of the 19th century (I don’t know about tabloids, however). So your author’s thesis seems somewhat flawed to me.

My take is that people are that way whenever they have time to be, that is, when they are not spending every waking minute trying to stay alive, scraping enough food to eat and a place to sleep. So the 20’s would have been a good time to give a boost to celebrity worship, because the war was over and people were trying to forget it, and the general prosperity gave them the time to become interested in smaller things, like celebrities.

Bryson lists the first tabloid in the US as the Illustrated Daily News, launched in New York City in June 1919 at a price of two cents. It was started by two cousins of the Chicago Tribune publishing family who liked the tabloids they saw in England while stationed there in World War I.

He details the 1920s as a Golden Age for newspapers in general and gives figures to back up his claim. One example is newspaper sales rising by about a fifth in the decade to 36 million copies a day or 1.4 newspapers for every household. NYC alone had 12 daily newspapers, and any city worthy of the moniker had at least two or three.

So, how does celebrity denigration fit into all of that? c.f. those checkout line rags like the National Enquirer which will routinely post the most unflattering pictures and stories of celebs?

Bryson probably really enjoyed watching Clive James’s Fame in the 20th Century.

Bolding mine.

Agree completely with your overall assessment.

But I bet you meant to say either “end of the 19th century” or “beginning of the 20th century”. IOW, around the year 1900. :slight_smile:

You’re probably thinking of the fuss now made about Yellow Journalism and the Hearst-Pulitzer wars. They are part of the reason why putting off celebrity culture until the 1920s is making a distinction that is hard to support.

But there is no question that the 1920s were the peak of newspapers. They were gaudier, issued more frequently, studded with pictures, and every city had a half dozen that competed every day. This was when Ben Hecht set The Front Page. Newspapers are interesting in the 1890s, but the newspaper era was the 1920s.


Normal life is boring

Celebrities have fun lives

Something new, or at least reaching new proportions, is being famous for being famous. The celebrity bar is now very low. That tells me that the concept of celebrity is tightly integrated into our social structure, and inextricably entwined with mass communication.

:dubious: Uhmmm…no more than most people, you just think they do.

Well, it seems to me that being socially astute requires not only knowing who is at the top of the social hierarchy, but also who has fallen.

No such thing as bad attention.

The question as posed is is almost tautological. Why do people pay lots of attention to celebrities? Because a celebrity is, by definition, a person who has captivated the attention of many. Sometimes due to talent or physical beauty, sometimes… just through the positive feedback loop of people talking about them.

This is partly true (Charles Leerhsen’s new biography of Ty Cobb mentions that Eddie Cantor’s grandmother around 1900 used “ballplayer” as a synonym for “lazy bum” - as in “Don’t lay around the house all day like a ballplayer”). Still, Babe Ruth was hardly the first baseball superstar. Ty Cobb himself might claim that distinction.*

*not to pick on Bryson, but his baseball accounts in that book are screwed up in other ways. For instance, he has Ruth hitting three home runs in the last game he played (for the Boston Braves). Actually he played in five more games and went hitless before retiring.

Ty Cobb had his fan base, but he was a mean and vicious son-of-a-bitch who was nowhere near as widely beloved as the Babe.