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Why are we so obsessed with celebrities?

If you open any social media app, you’re likely to come across a celebrity of some kind. From musicians and athletes to popular public figures and social media influencers, our feeds are awash with well-known faces.  

Dr Paul Harrison from Deakin University’s Faculty of Business and Law is an expert in consumer behavior and culture. Dr Harrison believes our obsession and interest in celebrities is driven by our human instinct to ‘follow’ or ‘look up to’ an authority figure. 

‘What celebrities have done is replace authority figures like kings and queens or religious leaders,’ he says.   

The proliferation and fragmentation of media is largely responsible for the cult of celebrity; think gossip magazines and websites like The Daily Mail and OK, TV shows such as Big Brother and Love Island, and social media such as Instagram and TikTok — the kinds of media that can change the way celebrities are viewed depending on how their story is portrayed.  

Social media has expanded the scope of what constitutes a celebrity. It has allowed us to peak behind the curtain and get up-close to celebrities and their everyday lives, which has only served to exacerbate our obsession with celebrities. 

So, why are we so obsessed with celebrities? Dr Harrison explains.  

The celebrity obsession: celebrity obsession disorder 

Dr Harrison believes we monitor and follow celebrities so closely because as humans we are constantly searching to understand how to improve our lives so that we won’t be ignored.

‘Everything is about seeking a better life and a desperate desire not to be ignored or forgotten, so we look to celebrities to help guide us on how to achieve something akin to their lives. We know that we’re not the same, but we also have to believe that what they have achieved is only just out of our reach.”   

‘In other words,’ he says, ‘it’s all about fitting in, perhaps being a bit better. We believe that if we follow those with success, some form of authority or a sense of power, we set ourselves on the right path.’ 

‘Humans need something to help them work out how to fit into the world. Once religion became less prominent as an underlying guide in the secular world, we looked elsewhere. This is why celebrity is so prominent.’     

‘Whether it’s Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, Barrack Obama, the Kardashians or the cast of Married at First Sight, all of these people feed into how we think we should (and shouldn’t) behave to achieve something that verges on a “good life”. The problem is, we are only seeing a proportion of their lives. 

Dr Harrison believes it’s the cult following we are drawn to. 

‘Belonging is really important. Cult theory tells us that it provides people with a sense of belonging. Wherever people are heavily invested, the basic psychological principles of how cults form tend to take place.‘  

What is celebrity worship syndrome? 

Celebrity worship syndrome is a disorder that occurs when admiration of a celebrity shifts into an obsessive fascination. While it’s not a clinically recognised condition, it’s been described as an obsessive-addictive disorder. 

There’s no known reason as to why someone experiences celebrity worship syndrome, but it is believed certain mental health conditions may contribute to the development of the disorder. 

Celebrity worship syndrome can impact relationships and personal well-being. For example, someone may put the celebrity before important people in their personal lives and begin avoiding in-person social events, so they don’t miss celebrity-orientated posts, streams, and updates online.  

It may also impact intimate relationships if the celebrity obsession leads the person to compare their favourite celebrity with their actual partner. 

Some people with celebrity worship syndrome begin to undergo body modifications to look like their favourite celebrity. Self-esteem is generally lowered in people suffering from celebrity worship syndrome.  

It is believed almost seven million Australians will undergo cosmetic surgery over the next ten years. 

Such procedures aren’t without risk, common risks of cosmetic surgery include problems relating to anaesthesia and the surgery itself, excessive bleeding, infection, scarring and failure to heal.  

How the social media algorithm works  

Social media algorithms are beasts; the social media platforms we use tend to fill our feeds with exactly what we want. The algorithm works out exactly what we are interested in. If someone is obsession with a particular celebrity, the algorithm will bevery quick to pick up on that. 

‘To some degree, social media does create avenues of knowledge; the algorithm basically suggests new things it thinks you are interested in based on past behavior. The problem is it categorises, it counts, it relies on numbers – in fact, it simply describes what, but doesn’t know why we choose what we do. And so, it is unlikely to give you novelty or the creative links that the human brain is capable of.’    

Dr Harrison explains that one of the key issues that has arisen due to social media algorithms is that society has become more divisive and polarised than ever before.  We are continually fed the same kinds of content repeatedly, meaning we end up living in an echo chamber.  

But algorithms didn’t start with social media. Dr Harrison suggests we have always followed algorithms in our day-to-day lives. 

‘An algorithm is simply a set of basic rules and tests we follow to get to an end point.  

In social media, it’s about getting you to stay on the app (and, of course, expose you to advertising), but in medicine, they use algorithms to diagnose illness. Algorithms don’t think – they find the most efficient way to achieve a goal. So, in a way, what we ask an algorithm to do for us can mean that it simply has built in biases.’ he says.   

Why do we care about celebrities? 

Most of us have experienced, at the least, low-level celebrity obsession. Most people have at one point, or another found themselves enthralled in a celebrity’s life, obsessed with what they’re doing, who they’re dating and how they’re living.  

The problem is that this can then impact choices we make in our own lives without us even realising. 

‘We want the world to be simple, but everyone has complicated lives. there was a time where we would love to watch the Queen because we thought she lived fairytale life, but as they responded to external forces and had to invite the media into their lives, we soon realized they’re just as dodgy and dysfunctional as our families. Yet, we still want to believe in the fairytale – that’s why the Netflix series, The Crown, is so successful.’   

We watch celebrities through social media and, often, this glossy version of their lives looks perfect.  Many people fall into the trap of trying to emulate this perfection in their own lives, but it’s simply impossible. We’re only seeing the highlights of their story; the showreel. After all, ordinary doesn’t sell.   

It’s important to remind ourselves that we experience parasocial relationships with celebrities — not real relationships.  

In a nutshell, a parasocial relationship isa one-sided relationship where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time and the other person is completely unaware of this person’s existence.  

‘The human condition is based around relationships. When we look at the way other people form relationships that helps us work out how ours should go. However, as a result of this we don’t get access to the complexity and the fights and sadness that come with it.’   

Why We’re So Obsessed with Celebrities: Keeping Our Interest In-Check  

When it comes to keeping celebrity obsession in-check, the odds are stacked up against us; we’re contending with algorithms that are designed to feed us more celebrity content, and as humans, we’re geared to idolise those who appear to have accumulated significant success. 

But now that we know why we’re obsessed with celebrities, we can take steps to keep this at bay. The first step is to recognise when we’re falling into unhealthy behaviours, like excessive social media use, avoiding real-life events and comparing our lives and bodies to celebrities.  

Sometimes, it’s as simple as setting your phone down and engaging in something you love to do, like heading out for a run, grabbing a coffee with a loved one or reading a book.  

However, for some people, celebrity obsession can be more challenging to overcome. If you feel your interest in celebrities is interfering with your ability to enjoy your life, consider seeking support from a mental health professional. They will be able to provide you with tools and strategies to feel present in your life again.  

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Dr Paul Harrison
Dr Paul Harrison

Senior Lecturer,

Faculty of Business and Law,

Deakin University

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