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Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction
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Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction

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by Jake Halpern

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Why do more people watch American Idol than the nightly news? What is it about Paris Hilton’s dating life that lures us so? Why do teenage girls — when given the option of “pressing a magic button and becoming either stronger, smarter, famous, or more beautiful” — predominantly opt for fame? In this entertaining and enlightening book,


Why do more people watch American Idol than the nightly news? What is it about Paris Hilton’s dating life that lures us so? Why do teenage girls — when given the option of “pressing a magic button and becoming either stronger, smarter, famous, or more beautiful” — predominantly opt for fame? In this entertaining and enlightening book, Jake Halpern explores the fascinating and often dark implications of America’s obsession with fame. He travels to a Hollywood home for aspiring child actors and enrolls in a program that trains celebrity assistants. He visits the offices of Us Weekly and a laboratory where monkeys give up food to stare at pictures of dominant members of their group. The book culminates in Halpern’s encounter with Rod Stewart’s biggest fan, a woman from Pittsburgh who nominated the singer for Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Fame Junkies reveals how psychology, technology, and even evolution conspire to make the world of red carpets and velvet ropes so enthralling to all of us on the outside looking in.

Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
Surveys that Halpern cites indicate that younger Americans would rather be a Hollywood celebrity -- or a celebrity personal assistant! -- than president of a major corporation or a high elected official. I'll pass on the opportunity to sermonize about that, but Halpern's useful book doesn't exactly leave one brimming with optimism about the American future.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Author and NPR commentator Halpern (Braving Home) takes a critical look at Americans' infatuation with fame and determines that fame is elusive, desirable-and also possibly addictive. Noting his own unglamorous background as a "parka-wearing, non-fiction writing, generally unslick guy from Buffalo," and boyhood fascination with the show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Halpern then turns his attention to fans, wannabe celebs and the army of journalists, photographers and promoters sustained by the famous. So begins a journey on which the author crashes a cattle call sponsored by the International Modeling and Talent Association, parties with professional celebrity assistants and befriends Rod Stewart's most passionate follower. What Halpern discovers, aided by media experts and psychologists, not surprisingly addresses issues of technology, social power, self-esteem and prestige. The problem is that Halpern, like many of the experts he relies upon, reasons by analogy and ends mostly with speculation. Still, sobering bits come from reading that in 2004 the three major networks' nightly news shows allotted 26 minutes to the conflict in Darfur yet spent 130 minutes covering Martha Stewart's woes. Halpern concludes this engaging study with the obvious: "our obsession with celebrities isn't about them; it's about us and our needs." (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Why we're so fascinated with everyone else's 15 minutes, from an NPR correspondent who's been reporting on fame for several years. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
NPR commentator Halpern (Braving Home, 2003) investigates the psychological and societal forces behind America's growing addiction to celebrity. Weaving personal stories about eager wannabes willing to pay any price-from parting with spouses to quitting jobs to humiliating themselves on reality TV-with disturbing statistics from university psychological studies (including his own "fame survey"), the author presents an America more interested in money, beauty and prestige than integrity, intellect and honor. Halpern's search for the motives for this preoccupation takes him across the country; he visits schools, modeling agencies and even a Los Angeles apartment complex known for its large number of aspiring child stars to find out why Americans have become so obsessed with their 15 minutes. He also interviews a host of concerned scholars and "industry insiders" (i.e., agents and managers). Halpern contends that technology, which can now disseminate countless images and stories in nanoseconds, is partly to blame, as is the abundance of celebrity-infused pop-culture magazines and TV shows. Moving into the psychological realm, he explains the "Belongingness Theory," which posits that over time, evolution has created an internal mechanism that makes us crave social acceptance. This mechanism prompts us to feel stressed when we are isolated and pleased when we interact with others. The last chapter is the most touching, as the author visits "The Fund," a cloistered enclave at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains for actors, soundmen, producers and writers who have grown too old or infirm to take care of themselves. There, Halpern finds something the current generation lacks: actual respectfor a craft, a dream that extends beyond mere spotlight and cross-promotion. An astute look at the mighty vortex of fame, which this author believes will only get more powerful. Agent: Tina Bennett/Janklow & Nesbit Associates
From the Publisher
"Jake Halpern presents a provocative exposé on the origins of celebrity worship. His in-depth look at the public’s insatiable appetite for gossip is a fascinating read."

—Bonnie Fuller, VP and editorial director of Star magazine, and former editor of US Weekly, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Hooked on Fame

Several months before he became famous, seventeen-year-old Jerrell Jones
visited the Black Pearl tattoo parlor, in downtown St. Louis, and made an
unusual request: he wanted a six-inch-long bar code, complete with a minute
serial number, etched on his forearm in dark-green ink. As far as Jones was
concerned, his decision to get the tattoo was just one more step on the path
to fame. Prior to this, he had run away from his home in the suburbs and
spent several months living the life of a vagabond on the streets of St. Louis,
sleeping in abandoned cars and writing rap lyrics by the flame of a cigarette
lighter. During this time he renamed himself J-Kwon, and began to prepare for
the fame he felt was imminent. "I got the bar code because I knew that
someday I'd be a product," he told me in 2003. "I knew they were going to
sell me."

He was right.
J-Kwon eventually enlisted the help of two local rap producers,
known as the Trackboyz. Together they recorded his debut album, Hood
Hop, and sold it to Arista Records. It wasn't long before hangers-on began to
swirl around J-Kwon like debris in a cyclone. They included several personal
assistants, one of whom was a teenager known as "Versatile"—though J-
Kwon soon renamed him "Four," in homage to the rapper Nelly, who
apparently had an assistant named "Three." Another member of J-Kwon's
extended entourage was an almost-famous rapper named 40 Grand—
or "Uncle 40," as J-Kwon sometimes called him—whose primary job was to
recount his ownfailures and serve as a kind of living cautionary tale. The
dozen or so members of J-Kwon's entourage followed him around, gave him
advice, offered him protection, lavished praise on him, and did whatever they
could to seal their mutual fate and garner a one-way ticket out of obscurity.
As J-Kwon's hit song "Tipsy" began to get more airplay, the frenzy
surrounding him mounted. While visiting a Foot Locker at a St. Louis
shopping mall, he drew such a crowd that mall of- ficials closed off the store
and asked him to call ahead in the future so that they could arrange for extra
security. After a show in Birmingham, Alabama, a mob of fans grew so rowdy
that J-Kwon needed a police escort back to his hotel. In Los Angeles, which
he visited to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a woman
approached him and said that the seventeen-year- old rapper had changed
her life and that she wanted to have his baby.
In the span of just a few months I witnessed J-Kwon evolve from a
marginalized teenager into a bona fide celebrity. I chronicled much of what I
saw in an article for The New Yorker, but long after its publication the story
remained firmly embedded in my thoughts. Talk of celebrities may be
ubiquitous, but fame itself is still the rarest of commodities. And everybody—
including J-Kwon, Uncle 40, Four, the screaming hordes in Alabama, the
would-be mother to his child in Los Angeles, and me—all of us were beguiled
by it. On some fundamental, almost primal level, it seemed as if we were all
hungry for a taste of it.

I will be the first to admit that writing about fame is a stretch for me. I grew up
far from the glitz of Hollywood, in the Rust Belt city of Buffalo, New York, with
a leftist father who for years wore a massive Castro beard, and a mother who
accumulated advanced degrees but, despite my best efforts to teach her
otherwise, constantly confused Bob Marley with Barry Manilow. The closest I
got to "glamour" was donning my moon boots and polar parka to trudge
through the snow for a screening of WrestleMania at my neighbor's house.
Even years later, during my first encounter with a Hollywood agent, I asked
so many obvious and apparently naive questions that he finally
snapped, "Kid, where the hell are you from, Buffalo?"
My first real exposure to celebrity culture was in the mid- 1980s,
during my early adolescence, when my parents briefly acquiesced to my
demands for cable television. Almost immediately my show of choice
became Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which first aired in 1984. On
wintry evenings, as gale-force winds howled through the deserted streets of
North Buffalo, I cozied up to the warm glow of the TV and let the host, Robin
Leach, whisk me into a rarefied world of private yachts and gold-plated
bathroom fixtures. Perhaps needless to say, these things weren't too
common in Buffalo—especially during the 1980s, when the city was still
reeling from the loss of the steel industry.
Looking back, it seems odd to me that Lifestyles of the Rich and
Famous was so popular. In other times and places the flaunting of such
discrepancies in wealth has incited revolution, but for some reason this show
did precisely the opposite: it enthralled millions of middle-class viewers like
me. I was a ridiculously skinny, uncoordinated kid, so I avoided sports, read
way too many books, and talked pretty much continually. I must have set off
an almost Pavlovian response in schoolyard bullies. Robin Leach seemed to
provide a reprieve from all this. For thirty minutes his show allowed me to
escape from the cramped confines of our family room—with its water-stained
ceiling and buzzing radiators—and enjoy an intoxicating dose of glamour.
One of the many things that still fascinate me about Lifestyles of
the Rich and Famous is that no rich or famous people were actually on the
show. We, the viewers, saw only these people's possessions. In a way, the
whole show functioned as one continuous "point-of-view shot," which is what
facilitated the voyeurism of it all. And I'm pretty sure that's why I liked the
show so much. Once a week it allowed me to imagine that I was in Malibu,
or Beverly Hills, mingling with the glitterati, barking orders at my butler, or
receiving fan mail in my mahoganypaneled study. At the time, I was only nine
years old, but I was clearly already nursing delusions of grandeur and
beginning to fixate on the idealized notion of what it meant to be a celebrity.
My parents eventually became so annoyed with my weekly
devotion to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that they actually gave away
our television set, thus ending my obsession with Robin Leach and the world
he advertised. To fill the void they bought me a bicycle, and when the weather
permitted, I channeled my time and energy into cycling. Still, I suffered
momentary relapses. I'd go to a friend's house for a sleepover, and before I
knew it I was glancing at the television and pining for the sound of Robin
Leach's English accent.
Even today a similar urge lingers. The big difference now is the
number of "celebrity news" outlets. All you have to do is click on E!, the
twenty-four-hour celebrity-news network, or buy a copy of Us Weekly and
turn to the "Stars—They're Just Like Us!" section for news about Brad and
Angelina's latest tropical vacation. And I still get sucked in. I'll be walking
through an airport, hustling toward my gate, and the next thing I know I'm
standing beneath a television set, watching a segment on Julia Roberts's
adorable children. As I'm absorbing every last word of this pap, somewhere in
the back of my head the faintest of voices is asking, "Why on earth do you

Joel Resnick is a red-carpet dealer. On any given day he has about 3,000
yards of red carpet at his office in Flemington, New Jersey. He runs the Red
Carpet Store, one of the nation's leading suppliers of special-event carpeting.
His company's Web site notes, "Whether you are looking for a way to elevate
your private party to a 'Red Carpet' event, are catering to the Stars, or are
looking for a conversation piece for your own home, the Red Carpet Store has
got you covered." Resnick has been in the redcarpet business for only a few
years, but he has already made quite a name for himself: he did the
carpeting for the MTV Music Awards and the 2004 Summer Olympics,
among other events.
Resnick does much of the work himself—he takes the orders,
cuts the materials, binds the edges, and ships the carpets. Sometimes,
when the event is in New York City, he actually nails the carpet to the floor
on-site. He first did this for the 2003 MTV Music Awards, and what he saw
there made a huge impression on him. As he was laying the carpet, die-hard
fans begged him for scraps. Not wanting to disappoint them, Resnick tossed
over a few frayed strips of red cloth and watched in amazement as the fans
gushed with appreciation. Afterward he began selling larger (two-foot-square)
souvenir swatches on eBay for $20.00 apiece.
"Selling red carpets is a high profit margin," Resnick told me. "It is
relatively cheap material and people are willing to pay top dollar for it, and
that is a beautiful thing." When I asked him why Americans are so captivated
by red carpet, he was quick to answer: "It's like diamonds. They are not
actually that rare, but the minute kings and queens started wearing them,
everyone wanted them." It's all about the power of association, concluded
Resnick, and in this instance our obsession with celebrities has simply
carried over into the realm of fabrics.
Resnick's story isn't all that surprising. After all, we live in a
country where the ultimate competition for celebrityhood— American Idol—
has more viewers than the nightly news on the three major networks
combined. And our interest in celebrities doesn't appear to be waning. The
circulation of the major news and opinion magazines (including Time,
Newsweek, The New Yorker, and the Atlantic) increased by only 2 percent
between 2000 and 2005, while the circulation of the major entertainment and
celebrity news magazines (including People, Us Weekly, InStyle, and
Entertainment Weekly) increased by 18.7 percent. The cult of celebrity is
also making an impact on the $175 billion clothing industry. In 2002 celebrity
labels accounted for just 6 percent of this industry; by 2005 that number had
jumped to more than 10 percent. Industry analysts expect it will hit 15
percent by 2009. But perhaps the most telling statistics involve our heroes.
Ever since the early 1960s the Gallup Organization has been conducting a
poll about which man Americans most admire, and compiling a list of the top
twenty or so overall finishers. In 1963 that list included a number of political
figures—Lyndon Johnson, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Martin
Luther King Jr. among them—but not one entertainment celebrity, sports
star, or media personality. By 2005 the list included six such people: Mel
Gibson, Donald Trump, Bono, Michael Jordan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and
Rush Limbaugh.
More worrisome than any of this, however, is the effect that our
national obsession with fame and celebrities has on children— especially
girls. A survey I organized, with the generous help and guidance of
statisticians at Boston College and Babson College, yielded some interesting
findings. The survey was distributed to 653 middle school students around
Rochester, New York, a community whose demographics in many ways
reflect those of the nation as a whole. In one question students were asked
to choose from a list of famous people the one they would most like to have
dinner with. There were a range of options including "None of the above."
Among the girls who opted for the dinner, the least popular candidates were
President George W. Bush (2.7 percent) and Albert Einstein (3.7 percent).
Far ahead of them were Paris Hilton and 50 Cent (15.8 percent each), who
tied for third place. Second place went to Jesus Christ (16.8 percent), and
the winner was Jennifer Lopez (17.4 percent). Another question
asked, "When you grow up, which of the following jobs would you most like
to have?" There were five options to choose from, and among girls, 9.5
percent chose "the chief of a major company like General Motors," 9.8
percent chose "a Navy Seal," 13.6 percent chose "a United States Senator,"
23.7 percent chose "the president of a great university like Harvard or Yale,"
and 43.4 percent chose "the personal assistant to a very famous singer or
movie star."
It is commonly said that Americans are obsessed with celebrities,
but this observation raises the question, What, exactly, makes someone a
celebrity? Indeed, the word "celebrity" seems to encompass everyone from
high-profile sushi chefs to Olympic introduction xvii shot-putters to Supreme
Court justices. But for the purposes of this book I was most interested in the
quintessential entertainment celebrities—J-Kwon, Brad Pitt, Madonna, even
Paris Hilton— whom we often see parading down the red carpet. I wanted to
know, Why do countless Americans yearn so desperately for this sort of
fame? Why do others, such as celebrity personal assistants, devote their
entire lives to serving these people? And why do millions of others fall into the
mindless habit of watching them from afar?
In search of answers, I began to imagine a journey of sorts— a
plunge into the vortex of fame, where celebrity was not just a persistent
distraction but a full-blown, all-encompassing obsession. My plan was to
examine three separate subcultures: the first inhabited by aspiring
celebrities, the second by personal assistants and other entourage insiders,
and the third by die-hard fans. Each subculture is the focus of one section of
this book.
Before I went anywhere, however, I wanted to consider some of
the ideological underpinnings of fame. Admittedly, I'm not the first to grapple
with this issue: over the course of history, everyone from Virgil to Kitty Kelly
has taken a stab at understanding the workings of fame. And this is as it
should be, for the story of fame is an ancient one.
Many cultural anthropologists believe that even the hunters and
gatherers of the Stone Age—who are thought to have lived in a relatively
egalitarian fashion—had top hunters who enjoyed a special celebrity-like
status. Kristen Hawkes, of the University of Utah, has spent years studying
the Hadza, an isolated tribe of roughly a thousand hunters and gatherers who
live near Lake Eyasi, in northern Tanzania. According to Hawkes, the best
Hadza hunters typically have the privilege of marrying the women who are
most adept at gathering, and often they use their status to marry young and
fertile second wives. The boys in the tribe follow the exploits of these hunters
with great zeal. It's almost like these boys are following the statistics of their
favorite sports stars," Hawkes told me. All of this supports her theory that the
best hunters are essentially obsessed with their reputations and with
showing off for the other members of the tribe. "Hadza hunters generally pass
up chances to hunt and kill small animals that would be a welcome addition
to their families' cooking pots," she explained. "Instead they go after the big
animals—the giraffes, the buffalos, and the zebras—which carry enough
meat to feed several villages and which, when killed, generate great stories
and tremendous buzz." What makes the Hadza tribe so interesting, insists
Hawkes, is that they live in a place where people have been hunting and
gathering in the wild for almost two million years. Indeed, the stone tools and
the bones of large mammals that archaeologists have found in the nearby
Olduvai Gorge serve as our oldest evidence of how ancient humans lived. So
the grandstanding Hadza hunters of today may offer a glimpse into the
distant past, when early man vied mightily not just for survival or power but
also for reputation and fame.
Of course, the notion of celebrity in the modern sense of the word
didn't really take hold until the Industrial Revolution, with the advent of the
telegraph, the telephone, and eventually the radio—technologies that greatly
expedited the process of becoming famous. Previously, stories about
Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great had taken hundreds if not thousands of
years to saturate the public consciousness, whereas suddenly someone's
story could spread widely within a matter of weeks, days, or even minutes.
One could argue that all the celebrity hoopla we see today is
simply the inevitable result of technology, which now disseminates countless
images and stories in nanoseconds. But theoretically this same technology
also makes it infinitely easier to spread scientific knowledge or historical
records. So why have we not become a nation of obsessive science geeks or
fanatical history buffs? The answer may be that technology has simply made
it much easier for us to act on impulses that have been with us since the
beginning—namely, the impulses to admire others and to be admired
ourselves. The question then becomes, Has technology amplified these
impulses, not just around the world but within each of us as well? In other
words, to what extent can we blame Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or
Entertainment Tonight or American Idol for turning us into fame junkies?

Robert Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular
Television at Syracuse University, is one of the nation's foremost experts on
celebrity culture. His home office is crammed full of several hundred
videotapes, a nineteen-inch Trinitron television set, and five VCRs
interconnected by a tangle of cables and splitters. The VCRs all operate on
timers, and every evening around eight o'clock—when prime-time television
begins—the wilderness of electronics in Thompson's office springs to life. His
prime-time recording schedule is never exactly the same. Each week he
consults TV Guide and sets his VCRs to record the twenty-five hours of
television that interest him most. Then, usually once a day, he tears open a
bag of Cheetos, hits the play button, and assesses the state of American
pop culture.
Thompson is a tall man in his mid-forties with a florid complexion
and a head of wispy brown hair. He dresses casual— jeans and running
shoes—and when he talks, he does so with an endearing and sometimes
surprising informality, leaning back in his chair with one hand clamped
around the back of his head, chatting about the latest episode of Survivor or
the importance of Super Bowl commercials in pop culture. Thompson lives,
breathes, and studies what's on TV, with a commanding sense of purpose. "I
watch TV during the day as part of my job, the way my father fixed faucets
and water heaters as a plumber," he told me at our first meeting,
in his spacious office on campus. "I watched every single episode of Survivor,
every Big Brother, every Bachelor, and every Bachelorettes in Alaska. A lot of
what's on television in America isn't stuff that I would actually choose to
watch. But some of it, like Temptation Island, I loved."
As it turns out, Thompson was also a fan of my favorite TV show
from childhood. "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous marked the beginning of
the television obsession with celebrity lifestyle," he said almost
nostalgically. "The show simply gushed. It was all Isn't this just so wonderful,
and wouldn't you love to eat off these gold plates, and drink from these
diamond-studded goblets, and go to these parties, and live in these houses?
And the formula worked, because it allowed us to imagine ourselves in their
During the 1920s and 1930s dozens of "fanzines" fawned over
movie stars in a similar manner, but Thompson maintains that these
publications and their readers never amounted to much more than a vibrant
yet isolated pocket of Americana. In 1923, for example, the best-known
magazine about Hollywood celebrities was Photoplay. The cover of the
October issue that year boasted, "Over 500,000 Circulation." By contrast, in
2005 People magazine's circulation was more than seven times as large:
over 3.7 million. Nowadays such magazines are supplemented by an array of
celebrity-focused television shows like Entertainment Tonight, Access
Hollywood, Cribs, and virtually everything on the E! network. It is quite
possible, Thompson argues, that in the era before World War II, a person
living in a small town could go several days without seeing the image of a
single celebrity, whereas now it's doubtful that a person in that same town
could pass one day without catching a glimpse of Paris Hilton. And in
Thompson's view, this trend began around 1984, with Robin Leach.
That era also marked the emergence of cable television. In 1983
the number of U.S. households that subscribed to cable TV totaled 31
million; by 2005 they had surpassed 73 million. Cable made it infinitely easier
for entrepreneurs to launch television networks, because they could create a
whole range of programming and distribute it nationally without having to build
any signal towers. Predictably, programming boomed. In the early 1970s
most television viewers had only a few channels to choose from, including the
three broadcast networks, PBS, and perhaps one or two independent local
stations. By 2005 those viewers had hundreds of choices. According to a
2005 report by the U.S. Department of Labor, this "explosion of programming"
is fueling a job growth of 31 percent in the television industry.
The upshot of all this is that the networks on cable—and now
satellite as well—need a steady supply of telegenic actors, singers, cooks,
talk-show hosts, and meteorologists to fill the increasing number of celebrity
slots—or "vacancies," as I will call them. All of this creates a perception, and
to some extent a reality, that it is now much easier to become famous. This
perception is only bolstered by the emergence of reality TV, which ostensibly
makes people famous for simply "being themselves." In fact, so many
celebrity vacancies are now being filled by reality- TV "stars" that in the fall of
2005 the annual Casting Data Report of the Screen Actors Guild noted a 10.2
percent decrease in the number of episodic television roles available to its
members. The culprit, according to the report, was the rampant growth of
reality TV. Unfortunately for SAG members, this shift in the marketplace may
be permanent. Mark Andrejevic, of the University of Iowa, the author of
Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, argues that reality TV is here to
stay. "You have to think of reality TV from an economic standpoint," he
says. "The casting is cheap, because the participants aren't paid much, and
the shows are easy to make, replicate, and export to other countries around
the world. Basically, this is very profitable programming." All this suggests
that fame will appear to be increasingly accessible to everyday Americans for
the immediate future. As Robert Thompson puts it, "Human beings have had
delusions of grandeur since the beginning of time, but now these thoughts no
longer seem so delusional. You turn on the TV and there seems to be so
much fame to go around."
The increase in celebrity vacancies, combined with the abundance
of celebrity-centric programming, may be making an especially strong
impression on younger viewers, who often have little perspective on what they
are watching. TV can affect children powerfully and in unexpected ways.
Perhaps the best recent example comes from September 11, 2001.
According to Jim Greenman, the author of What Happened to the World?,
footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers was
replayed so often that many children came to believe that dozens of buildings
had collapsed. This is hardly the only finding of its kind. According to the
Journal of the American Medical Association, the typical American youth will
have witnessed 40,000 murders and 200,000 other violent acts on television
by the time he or she turns eighteen. Admittedly, this is a scary thought. But
one also has to wonder, How many viewing hours will be devoted to contests
like American Idol, in which seemingly every single person in the country is
lining up to become famous?
"Any kid who is watching TV, or just paying attention to the world
around him, has got to come to the conclusion that being famous brings an
awful lot of things that can make your life better," Thompson told me. "After
all, do you really have to take the garbage out when you are a Hollywood
star? That's why all this celebrity stuff is like catnip for kids."
Apparently "this celebrity stuff" is like catnip for professors as
well. The rise of the cable news networks has provided a great many
vacancies for academics who are willing to be interviewed on a range of
subjects. Hardly a week goes by when Thompson is not called upon to
appear on a major television news show to talk about any issue that may be
only vaguely related to the history or psychology of television. This attention
has prompted Syracuse to give him one of the largest offices on campus,
with a panoramic view of rolling green lawns. And the university is in the
process of building him an even bigger office, complete with a dressing room.
"My main motivation for doing all these interviews is to extend my
classroom, reach a wider audience, and create a broader public discourse,"
Thompson told me. "But to be honest, I was also probably motivated by the
much more raw desire to be acknowledged. And there are times when I'm
definitely disturbed by this, and by the fact that these interviews are as
important to me as they are. There are times when I find myself counting the
hatch marks of how many interviews I've done. I am not someone who ever
wanted to give out my autograph or be recognized at the shopping mall—but
that doesn't mean I'm not susceptible."
Thompson seems most aware of his own craving for attention
during those dry periods when no news organizations call him. In fact, during
a subsequent phone conversation he admitted that he was in the midst of a
drought. "I haven't had a TV interview since the seventeenth of March, when I
was on Good Morning America for a taped interview," he told me. "And since
then there have been moments when I've gotten worried that my career is
over. Of course I'm being a bit hyperbolic—but this stuff is a little like heroin. I
guess once you get used to a certain degree of attention, you need more, so
you build up a tolerance, and I think there is no end to where this spiral could
go . . ."
"But the seventeenth of March was just two weeks ago," I
"No," Thompson replied gravely. "If it was just two weeks ago, I
wouldn't be worried. It was three weeks ago."

Anyone who has ever been in the limelight, even for participating in a high
school musical or telling a good story at a cocktail party, can attest to the
fact that there is a rush that comes with commanding everyone's attention.
Isn't it possible that many behaviors related to fame—including becoming
famous, being near the famous, and even reading about the famous—trigger
a rush that is potentially addictive?
I eventually paid a visit to Hans Breiter at the Massachusetts
General Hospital, in Boston. Breiter is a large teddy bear of a man, well over
six feet tall, but with soft facial features and a neatly trimmed red beard. He
is one of the nation's top experts on the neurological underpinnings of
addiction, and he spends most of his days working in a laboratory equipped
with several giant MRI machines. Typically the magnetic fields generated by
MRI machines vary in strength by a measure known as a tesla, and you can
actually feel the difference among the various machines. When you approach
the lab's most powerful, seven-tesla machine, for example, you'll sense a
slight pull on your feet.
This is because the innumerable microscopic pieces of metal
embedded in your shoes are gravitating toward the machine's magnet. When
I visited the lab, Breiter was guiding a subject into a three-tesla machine.
Once the subject slid into this device, he was asked to play a "game of
chance" using a small computer screen that showed a spinning roulette
wheel. Every time the wheel stopped spinning, the monitor reported how
much money the subject had just won or lost. This was "real money," Breiter
explained, because after the experiment subjects were allowed to keep their
winnings. As this experiment continued, Breiter and his colleagues huddled
around another computer screen to see how the subject's brain was reacting
to his wins and losses.
Within the past several years Breiter has received a great deal of
attention for his research on how our brains react both to "games of chance"
and to cocaine use. (He has done another experiment similar to the one I
witnessed, in which he gives subjects intravenous infusions of cocaine while
they are inside an MRI machine.) He has demonstrated that both activities
affect an area of the brain known as the "reward-aversion system." Whenever
you feel a rush of either pleasure or pain, that feeling originated in this
system. Since the dawn of man the reward-aversion system has played a
key role in human evolution. It punishes us with pain when we harm
ourselves, and it rewards us with pleasure when we do things that help us
survive and reproduce— such as eating and having sex. In addicts this
delicate system starts to malfunction. Cocaine users tamper with it by
artificially inducing feelings of euphoria; ultimately they succeed in changing
the chemistry of their brains, so they need more and more of the drug in
order to feel good. Breiter speculated that something similar might occur with
gambling. He tested this idea in a relatively simple fashion: when his
subjects were in an MRI machine, either gambling or high on cocaine, he
asked them to rate how they were feeling. He found that identical parts of the
brain "lit up" when gamblers and cocaine users indicated that they were
feeling very good. In fact, at such times the MRI scans were so much alike
that he could not tell them apart. His studies don't prove that gambling is as
addictive as cocaine, but they do suggest that the two affect the brain's
circuitry in a remarkably similar fashion.
Although this field of research is still in its infancy, Breiter and
others have found the same results when people eat chocolate, view arousing
nude pictures, or even play video games. All these activities prompt the brain
to release a variety of chemicals or neurotransmitters, including dopamine
and endogenous opiates, which ultimately make us feel good. This has led
some scientists to observe that the brain is essentially a "giant
pharmaceutical factory that manufactures powerful, mind-altering chemicals."
Many of us find ourselves craving the activities that trigger these chemical
releases. In order to get a fix, we feel driven to eat chocolate constantly, or to
bet $1,000 on a Yankees game again and again and again. Indeed, scientists
now suspect that a whole range of activities can change the chemistry of
some people's brains over time, creating dependencies. One addict's craving
for gambling or chocolate may be physiologically as real as another's craving
for heroin or nicotine.
Of course, from time to time most of us gamble, or get drunk, or
eat too much chocolate. What scientists still don't know is why certain
people become addicted to these behaviors. According to Alan Marlatt, who
runs the Addictive Behaviors Research Center, at the University of
Washington, most addicts are looking for a way to "self-medicate." "It is rare
to find an addict who is feeling good and just wants to feel a bit better or
more euphoric," he told me. "Far more often addicts are trying to escape a
low of depression or anxiety." Many clinicians also believe that addicts are
looking to exert control over their lives. Craig Nakken, an addiction specialist,
argues in his book Addictive Personality that when happiness eludes us, and
we fall into despair, some of us resort to addictive behaviors that temporarily
get us high, change our moods, and offer us relief. The food addict might
have a fight with his spouse and then consume several cartons of ice cream.
For a moment, instead of feeling depressed and empty, he feels both
emotionally and physically full. Again, we all engage in such escapism from
time to time, but with addicts these behaviors spiral out of control. True
addicts get locked into a destructive cycle in which they come to depend on
an activity or a substance for pleasure and comfort. Gradually addicts'
priorities—or "value hierarchy"—begin to change, as the addiction becomes
more important than work, friends, or family. Eventually, even if addicts
desperately want to quit, they find it very difficult to do so.
Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute for Drug Abuse,
says that two things define addiction: whether or not a person can quit, and
how well he or she functions in society. For example, we wouldn't say that
Bill Gates is "addicted" to making money or being famous, because his
desire for these things doesn't appear to debilitate him as a CEO or as a
family man. "But if Bill Gates was compulsive about making money or getting
fame, at the cost of his integrity, his family, or his health— and he couldn't
quit despite wanting to do so—that could be described as an addiction,"
Volkow told me.
The notion that people can become addicted to a range of
substances and activities is gaining credibility not just among clinicians and
scientists but with the public as well. Over the past several decades
numerous twelve-step recovery groups have emerged, including Alcoholics
Anonymous (founded in 1935), Narcotics Anonymous (circa 1950), Gamblers
Anonymous (1957), Overeaters Anonymous (1960), Debtors Anonymous
(1968), Sex Addicts Anonymous (1977), Clutterers Anonymous (1989),
Shoplifters Anonymous (1992), and On-Line Gamers Anonymous (2002).
As far as I know, there are no support groups catering to the
celebrity-obsessed niches I explored—no Attention Seekers Anonymous,
Celebrity Sidekicks Anonymous, or Die-hard Fans Anonymous. This may
seem like a silly notion, but if some people are getting hooked on the rush of
shoplifting or playing video games, isn't it possible that others are getting
high by fawning over celebrities or, better yet, by joining their entourages and
riding with them in their limos? Isn't it even more likely that a select few are
getting high by receiving enormous amounts of attention from hordes of
cheering fans? Don't all these activities offer at least a bit of euphoria and a
certain degree of transcendence or escapism? So why couldn't they be
The final and perhaps most important issue to consider is
availability. Many health care experts, including those at the National
Institutes of Health, believe that one of the leading causes of alcoholism may
be how readily available alcohol is. Similarly, there is a growing belief that
gambling addictions are on the rise, in large part, because of the spread of
casinos. Craig Nakken writes, "The more available addictive objects and
events are, the greater the number of people who form addictive relationships
with them." Wouldn't this apply to fame? If cable television and reality TV
have helped increase the availability of fame, and if fame itself is addictive,
might this explain why so many people are pining for it? And couldn't the
same logic apply to celebrity watching? If celebrity tabloids and TV shows
are so readily available, and perhaps even mildly addictive, might this not
explain why we can never get enough of them? In the final analysis, could
many of us be suffering from a widespread and insidious addiction that no
one has ever bothered to diagnose?

Of course, one has to wonder whether other factors, too—including parenting,
neurobiology, education, technology, and even evolution—are shaping the
way we think about fame and famous people. Perhaps the juggernaut of
celebrity is really a combination of many forces, converging like disparate
weather systems to form a single, massive storm. This book is a study of
that storm—both in terms of how it comes together and how it plays out
within the three niches I've identified.
As I set out to write this book, my most immediate concern was
my own objectivity. I quickly realized that writing about fame makes it nearly
impossible to remain clear-eyed and grounded. To begin with, whatever you
say is bound to rev up the very machine you are "objectively" trying to
investigate. You can critique or observe celebrity all you want, but in the end
you are just adding to the frenzy. And you have to question your own motives
every step of the way, because the mere act of observing and commenting on
fame can turn into a vehicle for making yourself famous. While I was writing
my first book, much of which focused on poor and middle-class people living
in such dangerous places as flood plains and fire corridors, my phone never
rang. But in the early stages of this book I did a very brief commentary for
National Public Radio in which I talked about Michael Jackson. The next day
my phone was ringing off the hook. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this on
some level. In fact, I'd be lying if I told you that I didn't consider doing another
commentary on Michael Jackson. Robert Thompson was right: there is
something addictive about this stuff. The poet Rainer Rilke was quite
prescient when he observed that anyone who investigates the "thousands of
fame-wheels and fame-belts" of the fame industry is "ultimately also pressed
into service and soon contributes to the machine's monstrous actions and
berserk roaring." I tried to acknowledge these two things and bear them in
mind throughout the writing of this book.
Another pitfall for me was my background. I quickly realized that
who I was—namely, a non-television-watching, parka-wearing, nonfiction-
writing, generally unslick guy from Buffalo, New York—was a bit of a
disadvantage. That said, I also think my role as an outsider helped me. The
fact that I wrote books—rather than screenplays or television shows or
snippets for TV Guide—often put people at ease. "I usually don't do
interviews," one high-powered Hollywood manager told me. "But no one reads
books anymore, so I suppose it can't hurt talking to you."
Finally, it's worth noting that it was my status as Buffalonian,
oddly enough, that opened the door to my first niche, the world of aspiring
celebrities. One day, while I was leafing through the Sports Illustrated
swimsuit issue, something other than the scantily clad beauties caught my
eye. It was a single word: the name of my beloved hometown, to be precise.
Alongside models hailing from Brazil, Argentina, and Nigeria was a Buffalo
girl named Jessica White. I was surprised for several reasons, starting with
the fact that I couldn't recall a single memory of a woman in a string bikini
during my eighteen years of growing up in Buffalo. But seeing Jessica White
in these pages was no fluke. This was her third year posing for Sports
Illustrated, and she was, by all accounts, well on her way to becoming a
Curious to learn more about her, I visited the Sports Illustrated
Web site, which said, "At fourteen Jessica thumbed through Buffalo's Yellow
Pages looking for modeling schools. Less than twelve months later she
signed with the prestigious IMG Models of New York City." I was intrigued.
How exactly did one go from the Buffalo Yellow Pages to stardom in less
than a year? Such a path seemed both improbable and random. But as I
soon discovered, it was neither.

Copyright © 2007 by Jake Halpern. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

Jake Halpern is the author of Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction, and Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Locales, hailed by Bill Bryson as “a splendid and engaging account of stubbornness in Modern America." Halpern has written for the New York Times, The New Yorker, LA Weekly, and many other publications. He is also a commentator and freelance producer for NPR’s All Things Considered. He lives in Connecticut.

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