A New Age Of Celebrity Worship

In this photo provided by Twentieth Century Fox, As John Smith (Brad Pitt) and Jane Smith (Angelina Jolie) do a sexy tango, more of their secrets are uncovered in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox

Brad and Angelina, Tom and Katie, Nick and Jessica - it seems people can't get enough of hearing about the gritty details of celebrities' lives.

It's called being "star struck," and it's a phenomenon that is not only bigger than life - it's bigger than ever.

"You have a confluence of forces coming together in technology and the media to make it happen and it's worldwide and it's multiplying like lice," says Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., spokesman for the American Psychological Association and professor emeritus of media psychology at the California State University at Los Angeles.

Indeed, from the international mania of the New York Post's Page Six, to increasing circulation of celebrity-driven publications like People, US, OK, and In Style, to the cult star status of gossip reporters like Entertainment Tonight's Mary Hart and the New York Daily News' Rush & Malloy, there is no question that all-things-celebrity have captured - and are keeping - our attention like never before.

But what drives our endless fascination with celebrity worship? And more important, can its enticing seduction ever be harmful to our health?

The answer, it seems, depends a lot on who is doing the worshipping - and the reasons why.

"Like most things there's a dimensional approach here; there are some people who are fascinated by celebrities lives, but also involved in meaningful activities and relationships in their own lives, and for these people star watching is usually a harmless diversion," says Eric Hollander, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Compulsive, Impulsive and Anxiety Disorders program at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

For others, however, things don't go quite that way.

Hollander says there are an increasing number of us for whom the fascination with celebrities is a substitution for real life - with the focus on a celebrity replacing the focus that should be on our own lives. And that, he says, is the point at which some folks begin to get into trouble.

Depression, anxiety, and a decrease in self-esteem are just some of the documented problems that can result when we take the focus off our own lives and instead focus all our energy on the life of a celebrity.

The Science of Hero Worship

The theory behind how and why we come to worship celebrities (and why some of us are more affected than others) is a pop-culture question almost as old as pop culture itself.

In fact, experts say that as long as there have been those who pull ahead of the crowd in fame or fortune, there has been a curious crowd wanting to follow.

Fischoff, who has academically studied the cult of celebrity, says the very need to find an idol and follow him is programmed into our DNA.

"What's in our DNA, as a social animal, is the interest in looking at alpha males and females; the ones who are important in the pack," says Fischoff. We are sociologically preprogrammed to "follow the leader," he says, and notes that we are biochemical sitting ducks for the Hollywood star system; even the stars themselves get caught up in the mystique.

"I know celebrities that are star struck by other celebrities - even major politicians are more likely to sit up and take notice of an issue when a celebrity is doing the talking. So this is clearly something that really is in our DNA," says Fischoff.

However, the real issue may be that some of us clearly handle the impact of that DNA better than others. That's precisely the finding of several studies that helped establish the idea of "Celebrity Worship" as a recognizable mental health problem for some.

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