If you could wave a magic wand and make yourself smarter, stronger, more beautiful, or famous, which would you pick? I was surprised by how many people pick fame over everything else.
On a cold December morning in Times Square this winter, dozens of people volunteered to strip down to bathing suits and get spray-painted blue, red, green and yellow, to try to look like M&M's. It was a promotion for the candy company. When I asked these people why they'd take part in such a stunt -- especially when they were not being paid -- most told me it was because they love attention.
Fame Doesn't Melt in Your Mouth
"Everybody wants to show who they are," said one man painted head-to-toe in yellow. "Me, I just wanna be me."
I said, "You're not you, you're an M&M!"
That's when a woman (she was green) interjected, "You're here to cover us though, so obviously we're important. It's better than going to a shrink."
Maybe these M&M's should go to a shrink. That people would get painted and run around in the cold doesn't surprise Leigh Hallisey, who teaches a course on TV and Popular Culture at Boston University's College of Communication.
"It used to be enough that you got attention from your parents. You got attention from your teachers, your peers and that sort of thing, but that is no longer enough," said Hallisey. "We want attention from the worldwide media."
And the worldwide media is happy to supply it. Magazines like "Us Weekly" celebrate fame. Editor-in-chief Janice Min told ABC, "You don't even have to be so talented to be famous. You just have to be outrageous, well dressed, gorgeous, date the right person."
And why do people want to read about that?
Jake Halpern, author of the new book "Fame Junkies," theorizes that celebrity magazines like "Us Weekly," "People" and "In Touch" are so popular because people are lonely. Halpern points out that today more young people tend to marry later in life and more can afford their own living spaces, so they spend more time alone.
"So we got all of these young people that are living alone, often working alone in their cubicle and their Internet, and there's all of these imaginary friends floating out there, Brad and Jen, Angelina and Tom and Katie and Paris, and we feel as if we know them," Halpern says. "They somehow make us feel comforted, less lonely."
Scientists see something similar in rhesus monkeys. At Duke University, researchers offered the primates a choice between their favorite, cherry juice, and just looking at pictures of what you might call a "celebrity monkey," the leader of the pack.
Halpern explains, "The smaller, weaker, subordinate monkeys actually gave up food to look at pictures of the big, dominant, celebrity-like monkeys."
Anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University explains that our distant ancestors had their own form of primitive celebrity worship.
"In hunting and gathering societies they always have something called the 'big men.' And 'big men' are ones who are more charismatic. They're better hunters. They've got more power," Fisher told me. "The people around them want to be near them because they figure they will get some of that power too."
But why would people want to look at celebrities? Fisher thinks she has the answer.
The Leaders of the Pack
"When we take a look at celebrities and when monkeys take a look at the dominant animal they see where they are in the pack. They see how to behave and they probably feel a sense of community."
And it's natural, Fisher says, to want fame, "because fame brings you money. Fame brings you reproductive opportunities. Famous men get more women. Famous women get more men."
That helps explain the surprising results of a survey Halpern conducted for "Fame Junkies." He asked the middle schoolers which careers appealed to them most: President of Harvard or Yale; the CEO of a big company like General Motors; a U.S. Senator; a Navy SEAL; and an assistant to a celebrity. Not a celebrity, but an assistant.
Celebrity assistant was picked by 43 percent of the girls, more than the other professions. Boys were a little different. More put becoming a Navy SEAL as their first choice, but overall among boys and girls, celebrity assistant was in first place.
Halpern, who also interviewed many of the students, found, "there's a belief that seems to be, 'Becoming famous will make my life better.' That makes a certain amount of sense. But also just being close, just doing menial work for a celebrity is also going to somehow transform my life."
Another survey question asked: If you could push a magic button and become smarter, stronger, beautiful, or famous, which would you pick? We parents would hope they would pick smarter but that's not how it worked out. The kids preferred fame over looks and intelligence.
Halpern said that "for boys, they picked fame almost as often as intelligence, but girls clearly picked fame more than intelligence."
No Price is Too High
The drive for fame is so strong it even drives some people to confess to crimes they did not commit. Last year John Mark Karr confessed that he killed child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. DNA evidence later proved that to be false.
Karr's false confession was not unusual. It happens all the time when the famous are involved. Hundreds of people claimed they killed O.J. Simpson's wife Nicole. And 75 years ago, when aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby was kidnapped, within months, 200 people had confessed to the crime.
Saul Kassin is a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Kassin explains that "some people have a pathological need for fame or attention or recognition. In some cases, the level of mental illness is such that these people might actually believe they have committed this crime."
"There are all of these facets to celebrity obsession, but I think that they're actually all connected on a single spectrum," says Halpern. "We all covet fame, and it's how close we can get. Ideally we're right in the center of the spotlight. It's us who are famous."
When that can't happen, Halpern says, the fame junkie then tries to at least get close to it by becoming an assistant to a celebrity.
"We can get on the other side of the velvet rope, backstage where all of the action is going on. And if that's not in the cards, well, at the very least we can open a copy of a Glamour magazine and feel as if we're there and we're close and we can bask in the warmth of the illusion."
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