Why am I obsessed with celebrity gossip?

Instead of writing poetry, I'm checking out IMDB.

Published January 6, 2006 11:08AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Every day I find myself logging on to a variety of Web sites -- People.com, eonline.com, Salon's the Fix -- to gobble up all forms of celebrity gossip. I spend hours on imdb figuring out which celebrities were born closest to my birthday (Billy Crudup, Robert Rodriguez) or discovering that both Debra Messing and Cate Blanchett named their sons Roman. After awards shows, I go to site after site to relive the dresses, the hairstyles, the snippets of gossip from the red carpet and the after parties.

It struck me that this was a problem again last night, when I read that Laura Dern and Ben Harper got married, then proceeded to Google them to death to find photos of them doing mundane things like walking with their baby down the street. They seem like cool people, but could I possibly care about the minutiae of their lives? And what about the hours I handed over to that endeavor?

I've always been fascinated with celebrities, but the fascination was for years limited to magazine browsing in line at the grocery store. Even then, I knew it was odd that I could tell you the names of Demi Moore's daughters (Rumer, Scout and Tallulah) without a pause. But lately, fueled by the whole-house wireless my news junkie partner installed, it seems I can't get enough.

I might not worry about this if I weren't worried about other elements of my life. My stunted creativity, for example. I'm a writer, but for years I haven't finished things that weren't on a specific work-related deadline. My own writing, though I sit down to it regularly, is shrinking. I've published a book of poems, been nominated for a Pushcart, taught creativity to both kids and adults. All this is past tense. I feel I'm getting less and less creative. It's harder to tap into the free-form spill that leads me into a poem, harder to wiggle into the voice that makes a story rise above the rote. I'm in one of those jobs that is too good to leave, too bad to stay. I drive to work fantasizing about quitting. I walk into my cubicle and I slump. On my days off and in the early morning, I work on my own pieces up to a point, and then I file them away. I read about why Renée Zellweger always wears Carolina Herrera.

Is this as simple as mere avoidance, distraction? Other things in my life are good. I'm in a happy partnership, have a relatively nourishing home life. I have good friends. The sun shines a lot where I live. My garden has fresh herbs.

I turn to you because you are so gifted at seeing beyond the obvious, at teasing out the nuanced reasons for the choices we make. I know that I can unplug the Internet, talk with my therapist, go cold turkey. I'm more interested in what lies beneath. Unlocking this seems the key to changing it. What is the metaphor here? What questions should I be asking? What might I be hungering for? I just read a story about a couple who searched for a year and a half for an apartment in Brooklyn with the right fireplace, and the moment they saw it, bought a studio with a mantel tiled with undulating dogwood carvings. They fell for a fireplace. There's something noble in that hunger. An update on Kirsten Dunst's hair extensions? Not so noble.

Can you help me see my way out of this, Cary? I've got

Too Many Stars in My Eyes

Dear Too Many Stars,

I see celebrities as gods and goddesses. A strong interest in their betrothals and betrayals, their binges and fasts, their tragedies, to me indicates an interest in the world of magical characters. It is at root a spiritual quest, closely allied with our thirst for literature. The reason we are so obsessed by celebrities today, I figure, is that there is nowhere else in our culture with such rich and readily accessible tales of such magical and entrancing variety.

Just, for instance, the lead item in the Fix today, as I'm writing, is this: "Gwyneth Paltrow has enlisted a rabbi from the Kabbalah Center to exorcise the ghosts from the five-bedroom London townhouse she shares with Coldplay frontman Chris Martin and their 19-month-old daughter, Apple. 'Gwyneth believes that the dark energy that has dogged her lately is due to something dark and unexplained in her home,' a source told Daily Mail. 'Her pregnancy is not as peaceful as her last one and she has also been upset by a stalker.'"

Isn't that wild? (Note that she, as a vessel, holds our crazy beliefs so we don't have to.)

I would argue that gods and goddesses are only useful to us in our lives if they are not regarded consciously as gods and goddesses -- only if they are regarded as real. I would suggest that we cannot possibly regard the gods and goddesses of another age and culture the way members of that culture themselves regarded their gods and goddesses. I figure that the ancient Greeks and Romans regarded their gods and goddesses much as we regard our film stars. The minute we become conscious of worship, the worship dies. It loses its magical power. We become self-conscious. So the obsession with celebrities is an act of primitive cultural innocence.

We have a pantheon of amazing figures; we are swimming in it; we are living in a magical world. It is natural for us to be transfixed by these characters because we are thirsty for magic. We are not satisfied with our earthly existence, nor should we be. We are humans and humans hunger for the divine. Our religions have failed us, our philosophies have failed us, our government has failed us, and our writers have ... well, nevermind. You get what I'm saying: Embrace celebrity worship! Do not be ashamed! It is a real hunger that you are feeding!

I would suggest that you build on your interest in celebrities in several ways. For one thing, try to understand your particular responses to particular celebrities in terms of your own interests and struggles. What do your likes and dislikes of various celebrities say about you as a person, your aspirations, your secret hopes, your values? Expand on this. Perhaps you could keep a journal or a scrapbook. Perhaps you could embark on something akin to fan fiction, using the gods and goddesses of our media world as characters in tales of your own creation. Or perhaps, using readily available video software, you could create movies of your own with digital images of stars found on the Internet. If you are a writer and feel your interest is taking you away from writing, I would suggest bringing your writing to bear on your interest.

As for me, I also have a private pantheon of characters about whom I feel deeply, but they are boring and embarrassing. For instance, my secret sorrow lately has been the disappearance of Aaron Brown from CNN. I find his being supplanted by the crass young "360" man quite disappointing; while I found him at first, as I said in an e-mail to a colleague back when Brown started, a little unctuous. But after a time I came to enjoy Brown's avuncular style. Primarily what I enjoyed was his judgment -- the professional sifting and sorting of stories. This was an appreciation mostly of craft, of how someone works; but then I am a fairly work-centered person. I also liked the fact that Aaron Brown was not trying to make me feel anything (this is very telling about me). I resent the attempts of newspeople to make me feel. I do not want to be made to feel -- especially by newspeople. I feel plenty already. I am not deficient in feeling. I am deficient in understanding. I grit my teeth every time Anderson Cooper comes on the screen. I resent him. I wish he would go away. I wish him a bad fate of some sort, I'm not sure what -- perhaps that he would fall into the mud. If I were a child playing with little figures of newspeople, I think I would make Anderson Cooper fall in the mud and have to crawl around in it.

That probably says a lot about my primitive drives and fears, perhaps more than I would like to know.

What do I like on television? I like History Channel World War II stuff with bombs and fighter planes. I like stuff like "What if the moon disappeared?" Because at heart, I'm a little comic-book science boy, fascinated by strange tales of the earth! (This is a clue to my mythic life.) Frankly, all those celebrities remind me of the pain of being an outsider in high school. I feel more comfortable identifying with grim scientists.

So it's interesting for me to think about this in relation to my own life. And it's interesting to note, as I consider it, how strongly I feel about these things! Aaron Brown's departure was a genuine personal loss, about which I might have written an essay if I did not fear seeming foolish. Or, more precisely, if I did not fear parading my personal feelings without any kind of argument to back them up. It was just a personal thing.

Point being, it's interesting and instructive to ask ourselves what we like about celebrities. It tells us more about ourselves than perhaps we would like to know. So if I were you, rather than fighting your interest in celebrity lives, I would try to build on it, take it to a deeper level, make an art of it. Especially since you are a writer: Your subject is right in front of you. What is the meaning of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt? What are her special powers? What does she represent? I do not know, but you probably do.

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