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 respect for 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.