It was about 10 minutes before 5 p.m. on Jan. 22, and I was deep in New York City's trendy Meatpacking District at the new Helmut Lang showroom, talking to some young women in public relations about the re-launch of the nouveau hipster brand, when a symphony of techno bells and ringers began to serenade us.
"OMG!" the first woman said — and in perfect harmony, like the backup singers for a Motown group, a second gasped as a third sighed. Then they all chimed in to deliver the tragic news that at 3:35 p.m., Heath Ledger, 28, had died.
The dynamic of the room shifted. We suddenly all had to confront our own mortality in that fleeting second.
But before you could say Oscar buzz, everyone had an opinion about the poor deceased star. How he lived, who he was, and how he died. Did any of us know him? No, but as if we were his immediate family members, we were privy to the morbid news and all the details of pill bottles and erratic panicked calls to Mary-Kate Olsen (who in true celeb style dispatched her security team instead of calling 911).
Within moments of Ledger's death, the rumors and the facts began to blur. Every television station was talking about it; so was everyone. Fans and paparazzi quickly descended on the rather private actor's home in SoHo and on his ex-fiancee's apartment in Brooklyn, creating makeshift memorials and a wall of cameras to pry into the grief-stricken family's most intimate moments.
Does anyone have a modicum of decency or respect for this mourning family, or are we all so addicted to drama and gossip that we can't even behave like respectful human beings, with a touch of compassion and class? Are our own lives so empty and shallow that we must invade strangers' private lives for a little amusement? Or should we blame the Internet and cable news for making us privy to so much information that isn't really any of our business?
For months, Britney Spears' life has disintegrated in front of us like an Alka Seltzer, and we have all watched it as if it's one of our favorite soap operas. And to many of us, the drama has become our guilty pleasure. How many people can say they haven't sat around with friends and discussed what Spears should or shouldn't do?
The Bible says, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." The ever-clever Madonna turned that quote around to the Pope on one of her blasphemous concert tours, and its words are even more poignant today.
Who are we as a society and as individuals? We are so over-addicted to the chaotic and unrealistic lives of the celebs we "love to hate" that many of us have become derelict and absent from our own real lives.
And the problem is, it used to be that the grass was always greener on the more famous person's lawn. But these days, we are looking for a celebrities' weakness and pain to make our lives seem greener and less banal.
The biggest stories in the news last year were not about the hardship of millions in Darfur or the sad reality that global warming is killing our planet on a daily basis. We obsessively Googled and tuned in to the trials and tribulations of rich and famous stars who frankly don't give a damn about us, our bills or our personal traumas.
Paris Hilton did the back-and-forth to jail; Lindsay Lohan did the same with rehab and jail; Nicole Richie got pregnant and went to jail for (what seemed like) eight minutes. Trivial moments, but we obsessed.
In her untimely death last February, Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith overdosed. Even after she was no longer on this earth, we followed the paternity case of her child as if she were our sister. We have become so immersed in the ridiculous lives of the rich and famous that we have begun to create new celebrities out of the everyday Joe.
Would we have really cared about Howard K. Stern and Larry Birkhead if they weren't embroiled in Anna's tornado of trauma? Not so much.
And today, we all suddenly know Adnan Galib, the paparazzo boy-toy of Britney, who has been accused of selling out the overexposed pop star for his 15 minutes of fame.
Where does this end? It might seem like the obsession with gossip began when Angelina Jolie started home-wrecking the Pitt-Aniston household, and we watched their relationship fall apart on magazine covers. But let's face it, celeb gossip has been around since the silent movie days, when Fatty Arbuckle was molesting underage girls and Ramon Novarro was rumored to be having an affair with Valentino (the actor, not the designer — don't get your gossip twisted).
But we must find a way back to the center of our own lives. A little adoration for George Clooney or Mathew McConaughey is normal. But please, let's all realize that this Hollywood magnifying glass is dangerous and unhealthy for all of us.
Let's get a hobby or a life or a charity so we can make a difference for a stranger who could actually benefit from our time instead of Jamie Lynn Spears — she's got her own problems to worry about.