- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

Tens of millions of viewers — even those who haven’t seen a single nominated film — will watch the Oscars tonight just to catch the latest glam and gossip about some of America’s favorite celebrities. Will Keira Knightly wear something risque? Will George Clooney bring an old or new flame? Will any of the giddy winners deliver a juicy, indecent, politically incorrect acceptance speech?

Our appetite for celebrity news — both damning and flattering — is insatiable. Several cable and network television shows, including “Access Hollywood” and “Entertainment Tonight,” and at least a half-dozen publications, including People magazine and Us Weekly, feed us daily and weekly doses of actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, singers Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey and singer-turned-reckless-mom Britney Spears et al.

“Twenty-eight years ago, People magazine was alone. Now, there’s a half a dozen magazines, innumerable Internet sites and television shows devoted to celebrity news,” says Larry Hackett, managing editor of People. “I would argue that the market’s been underserved for a long time, which helps explain the recent growth.”

People’s own sale numbers, despite increased competition, have been going up by about 1 percent to nearly 6 percent annually in the past few years. In 2005, almost 3.78 million people bought People magazine; most of them were subscribers. That number is dwarfed by the number of people estimated to read the magazine each week, more than 40 million.

“In print media, the only one that’s a growth industry is the celebrity magazines,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

“And you can’t avoid them. You see them at the checkout line in the grocery store, you see them [as you’re] filling up gas in your car. So, even if you have no prior interest, you’re still finding out that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston broke up,” says pop-culture professor Thompson. “It is completely unavoidable.”

Celebrity news indeed is everywhere, which begs the question: Why are we so crazy about celebrities?

“Celebrities help fulfill our fantasies about a life less mundane, a life where we don’t have to clock in and clock out or commute an hour to work,” says Peter Howe, author of “Paparazzi” and former picture editor of the New York Times Magazine. “These people have unlimited shopping [ability], they’re beautiful, they’re rich. … We want to identify with them.”

In order to sustain celebrity, it’s not enough to have money

and be pretty. A good story is a crucial ingredient. Take Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, for example.

“They’ve held our interest for more than a year. First it was the question of infidelity; then it was “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” which did great at the box office; then he adopted her kids; she continues to do a great job for her causes; and now she’s pregnant with his child,” says Johanna Blakley, assistant director of the Norman Lear Center. “You can’t beat that story line.”

The Norman Lear Center is based at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and is devoted to policy and research on entertainment, commerce and society. Ms. Blakley does research on celebrity culture.

The interest in the Pitt-Jolie unborn child has been so huge that stories have been done with geneticists theorizing about how the child might look. Whoever gets the first glimpse and picture of the progeny will make serious money, Mr. Howe says.

“If it’s an exclusive photo, it will be worth well north of one million dollars,” Mr. Howe says.

This obsession with celebrities — even unborn ones — is nothing new, though.

“The Greeks told myths about gods who were beautiful and powerful,” Mr. Hackett says. “The myths had many of the same ingredients and narrative arcs as today’s celebrity news.”

One change, over time, however, is how the stories are delivered. In the early to mid-20th century, stars would appear on the big screen, much more godlike than today’s often not-so-flattering pictures in the tabloids and certain television shows.

“Television really altered our relationship to celebrities. They went from goddesses on the big screen to our friends and next-door neighbors,” Mr. Howe says. “Celebrities became domesticated.”

This “domestication” makes us feel as if we know the celebrities much better than we really do and that they’re like us except they have a lot more money and generally are luckier. It’s a sense of false intimacy, Ms. Blakley says.

“You feel connected to these people, but at the same time, you’re at a safe distance,” she says. “It’s easier than really getting to know your son because you never have to give [the celebrities] anything. It’s safe and easy.”

Watching celebrities on television or reading about them in magazines also doesn’t require much in terms of concentration or intellectual output, which is very appealing to the exhausted worker bee in today’s busy society, says Gemma Puglisi, assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University.

“Our lives are so crazy,” Ms. Puglisi says. “We work long hours, we commute, and when we get home, we just want to escape. … Our celebrity obsession is an escapism thing.”

The increasing number of outlets also means that certain celebrities get more exposure than their counterparts of just a couple of decades ago.

“Britney Spears and Paris Hilton practically get coverage in real time,” Mr. Hackett says. “We know more about them than we did about Cher 25 years ago, and that’s hard to believe.”

Our culture is so celebrity-fixated that even fashion magazines often turn to celebrities instead of models for their covers.

“It’s about fantasy,” Mr. Howe says. “You don’t want to be a model. You want to be a celebrity.”

In the world of celebrity news, “young and beautiful” generally sell better than “old and not-so-beautiful,” but even so, today’s stars can sustain their celebrity beyond “15 minutes” — particularly if they don’t care about the quality — with reality television shows and the like, Mr. Thompson says.

Kirstie Alley is an example. A once-established television and movie star, she most recently did a self-mocking series on Showtime about being a fat actress in Hollywood.

Won’t we feel oversaturated with this stuff now that we can get it 24/7?

“The opportunity to indulge is much greater now than ever before,” Mr. Thompson says. “There would have to be a peak at some point. But we’re supporting more than I ever thought possible. So, I don’t know when that will happen.”

Mr. Howe doesn’t see any lessening in society’s interest in celebrity.

“Our celebrity obsession just keeps growing,” he says. “Each new piece of information is like the next installment of a soap opera.”

On that note, let’s turn our eyes and ears back to tonight’s big celebrity event, the red carpet and the hundreds of stars who will be decked out in Vera Wang, Oscar de la Renta and Versace.

“It’s the ultimate fantasy,” Ms. Blakley says. “We look at them and think, what would it be like to be a princess for a day?”

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