Landon Jones is a founder and former editor of People magazine. In 2015, he received the Henry R. Luce Award for Lifetime Achievement from Time Inc.
Below, Landon shares five key insights from his new book, Celebrity Nation: How America Evolved into a Culture of Fans and Followers. Listen to the audio version—read by Landon himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Celebrities are at war with heroes.
Like many of you, I used to think that celebrity culture was an amusing diversion, superficial, intriguing, sometimes silly, but not harmful. But that was before it morphed into a profit-generating enterprise and what is the celebrity-industrial complex. Celebrity has become a weapon of mass distraction that affects all of us. The sideshow was moved into the center room. The “a-ha” moment for me was at a focus group when the participants of the focus group were asked who their heroes were. They couldn’t think of any.
They had no heroes. How could that have happened? Societies need heroes and have sought them out. Heroes are our founders and builders. A hero is a person of any agenda of great deeds and great dreams. But they’re gone now and celebrities have taken over the space once occupied by heroes.
A celebrity can be defined as a person who is famous. We may never ask a hero to do what celebrities do, to sing, dance, act, and crowd into the spotlight. This observed contest between celebrity and heroics is a central difference to keep in mind. The hero is sacrificing. The celebrity is selfish.
2. Celebrity culture depends on evolving new technologies.
Scholars agree that the first famous person was Alexander the Great. Why? Because he was the first mortal to have his face placed upon a coin, and the coin was a new technology. This continued with illustrated books. Suddenly, when a person’s face was in a book, we had leaders like Napoleon. Then radio and teletype gave us Lindbergh and Einstein.
“The hero is sacrificing. The celebrity is selfish.”
The golden age of movies gave us Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and then came the stars of television. Since then, more than a hundred reality shows have been created. Following, of course, has been smart media. Smart media has become the dominant technology behind celebrities today, particularly for celebrities who have no real accomplishments.
3. People who worship celebrities are at risk.
Research shows that people who worship celebrities have a problematic relationship with them, especially with social media influencers. These risks include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and spending well beyond one’s means. The biggest worry is in regard to children. When children are surveyed, especially in the U.S. and Britain, and asked to reveal their Christmas wish list, the desire to be famous or to be a celebrity is at the top of the list.
The worst part is that celebrity removes them from their communities. Studies have shown a similar rise in the value assigned to fame and a decline in the value of community. The hunger for fame is not about we—it’s about me.
Celebrity worship is an individualistic value, while the values of community, family, and tradition have diminished. Research shows that people most interested in celebrity are least engaged in politics, least likely to protest, and least likely to vote.
4. Celebrities themselves are at risk.
Today’s celebrities may suffer from the very real diagnosis of what is known as acquired situational narcissism. There is no pill for that. Acquired situational narcissism is a condition that besets those that have positions of power, such as movie stars, politicians and professional athletes.
It self-selects for males with a ravenous need for public attention. For them, life becomes a performance. How do they escape from the pressure? Many use drugs. The list of celebrity deaths from suicide and drugs is long. Perhaps surprisingly, given their relative wealth, the life expectancy of celebrities is 13 years shorter than that of people who do not have to cope with the slings and arrows of fame. Even more disturbing is that female celebrities fare worse, dying 21 years earlier than the average American woman.
“The hunger for fame is not about we—it’s about me.”
Also, celebrities could take refuge in defiance. People who defy the normal standards can get ahead. That includes people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, as well as others like Calamity Jane, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, and even Malcolm X. But the difference now is that the newer celebrities owe their visibility to publicity, not ability or talent. Today, as we well know, virtually anyone can become famous with enough patience and social media followers.
5. Communities themselves are at risk.
What have we learned through all of this? First, that celebrity politicians have replaced community organizations. They can go right from zero public service to high office. The prime example is the former president. We’ve also seen it with celebrity politicians who emerge from the woodwork come election time. The voters, people who used to be bowling or working for their voting leagues are now at home watching TV or hunched over their smartphones or on social media.
Celebrities have stepped into the space vacated by civic engagement. To put it in one sentence, celebrity worship promotes individualism and narcissism at the cost of community and democracy. These days, some could be largely unassailable because of all the organizations and businesses that have a stake in them. Certain celebrities, it seems, are too big to fail.
What it comes down to is that celebrity is ultimately the core of an ecosystem that empowers social media, nightlife, entertainment, fashion, publishing, and television. If we can negotiate this thicket carefully and gain the self-confidence to approach celebrities naturally and honestly, perhaps we have a chance. We need to find hope in the younger people like Greta Thunberg and Maria Ressa, the Nobel laureate, who are concerning themselves with helping others. With them, there is hope.
To listen to the audio version read by author Landon Jones, download the Next Big Idea App today: