Celebrities — Why We Love and Hate Them

Whenever I’m in line at the grocery store, like everyone else I scan the tabloid headlines.  It always amazes me that so many people are fascinated by the soap opera lives of celebrities. Why, after all, does the wedding of someone we don’t even know hold such interest?  Why do we care about Brad and Angelina’s latest tiff when we’ve never met them?

I’ve noticed there’s a cycle to the stories.  First, you have the article about how Celebrity A has been spotted on dates with Celebrity B.  Then there’s the one confirming they’re an item, followed in due course by the big splashy cover story about their wedding.  Next you have rumors that there are signs of trouble in the relationship.  “Close personal friends” begin to hint at insensitivity and heartache at home, followed by reports that the couple has separated.  To complete the cycle, the tabloids run a story that details their messy divorce, full of bitterness and recriminations, with angst-ridden faces on the cover.  Of course there are many different versions of the cycle; if you’re Brangelina, you can spin out variations for years.  But in general, the cycle runs from idealizing someone’s life, followed by doubts about its goodness and concluding with its demise.

Two powerful psychological forces are at work here — idealization and envy; in my experience, they always go together.  To begin with, we want to believe that some privileged people have perfect lives, full of excitement and without the ordinary pain and frustration we face in our own lives.  On one level, we take vicarious pleasure in their glamorous existence; on another, there’s the secret hope that if those people manage to have a perfect life, it’s always possible that we could eventually have one, too.  I’ve discussed the longing for perfection elsewhere, and its relation to an underlying sense of hopelessness. The wish to transcend the human condition and forever finish with emotional turmoil seems almost universal.

As times goes on, however, we feel increasingly envious of that perfect life we don’t have. I’ll have more to say about envy another day, especially its connection to shame; but along with hatred, it’s one of the least understood emotions, another social taboo.  I’m not talking about everyday envy, what most people refer to as jealousy, as in “I’m so jealous that you’re going to Mexico!”  I’m talking about a feeling akin to hatred, where the person feeling it wants to spoil the object of envy because to feel so envious is nearly unbearable. Envy is a very destructive force and most of us feel it at one point or another.

So because we envy those celebrities with their perfect lives, we take pleasure in their downfall. “If I can’t have a perfect life then I don’t want you to have one either!” Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes speaks to unbearable desire, first of all, but also to envy.  When we want something that we can’t have, we tend to devalue it, make it undesirable so we no longer want or envy it. “Boy, I’m sure glad I’m not Angelina Jolie right now, going through that mess with Brad.  How awful!”

Actually, the idealization is often so strong many people would rather be a suffering celebrity than an ordinary person.  “Sure, celebrities may occasionally suffer, but their lives are so perfect in other ways that the pain would be easy to bear.  I’d trade places any day.”

Finding Your Own Way:

Think of a person you envy and write down all the reasons why you feel envious.  Is it because of the way he or she looks?  The money she has?  His romantic relationship, or the fact he or she has children and you don’t?  Maybe it’s about popularity.

Do you believe that this person has a “perfect” life?  I know what you’re going to say:  “Nobody has a perfect life, of course not,” and you’ll sound very reasonable.  But you might still believe that the imperfections in this person’s life are insignificant, easy to manage in light of all the other advantages he or she enjoys.  Really focus on the things/qualities that this person has and you don’t.  How does it make you feel?

I’m not trying to stir up bad feelings or shame here.  The goal is not to bring you down.  Rather, I’m trying to help you get in touch with unrealistic fantasies about what’s possible in life, and how those fantasies can stir up envy.  On a conscious level, we may believe that it’s other people who make us feel bad, but often it’s our own fantasies that are the problem.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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25 Responses to Celebrities — Why We Love and Hate Them

  1. ian says:

    In the UK we have a big problem with this. Our press is vicious and love nothing better than to build some one up then rip them apart. The celebs make huge sums of money out of it too but it must put an enormous amount of pressure on to them and how they lead their lives. If people didn’t buy the papers there would be no market. It’s hard to remember sometimes that we are all human and we all suffer regardless of our level of fame. – Nice article.

  2. Betty Spence says:

    I’ve wondered about what I call “hero worship” for a long time…I guess I thought it a vicarious experience on some level….something (fantasy) that makes you feel good about yourself…The media will suck a story dry, day in day out….Omg, Anna Nicole, Michael Jackson..but obviously they have viewers that become so obsessed they can’t let it go…..They don’t seem to be able to separate the talent from the person…Is it a form of merging ???? I find it very sad and yet at the same time intriguing…..

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Betty, I do think it’s a kind of merging. You imagine there is this ideal person or life out there, and then you want to merge with it so you can be part of it, too. Stalkers are at the scary extreme, where they want to take complete possession.

  3. Carl Lange says:

    I seldom read any tabloids. Perhaps that has something to do with me being news deprivated in some extent. But, I do envy, heavily. It occurs every time I see someone being happy. Celebrities, as far as I am concerned seem to be happy in every situation. Most of their pics are ofcource taken during such an event or a moment when they shoud, ought to, have to, must or perhaps willfully do smile. Ergo, my envy has to do something with me not being happy. I have pondered this more than once and I still can not come around with it. Though I have to say that I have never understood this “hero worhip” Betty is talking about. In my oppinion, to have such an awe for sombody the target has at least to sertain extent be divine in persiver’s eyes. (this applies very well with religious groups). I guess I try to say that I am indifferent with the “celebrity” issue, but those who I meet in everyday life…oh boy, them I envy.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Thanks, Carl. I’m going to write more about envy in the next week. It’s a crucial issue, in my opinion, little understood, and one most people don’t like to talk about.

  4. Betty Spence says:

    Responding to Carl’s comment: You are envious of their perceived happiness….I can understand that…I, for one, have had much unhappiness in my life.. But I think it is really a perception…from what I hear about a lot of them alcohol dependency, drugs, serious divisions within their families…So I think they do experience a whole lot of unhappiness in their “glamorous” lives. I think the persona they project, the character they play is who we perceive them to actually be….Also, I wonder if maybe all of the “attention” they receive…non stop media chasing them from place to place….Maybe that attention they receive is what we envy….it seems sorta like validation doesn’t it ??? If their actions no matter how toxic can demand that much media attention..Wow…they must be very special people…As a young girl, I was always the outcast….and even into my teens…I would have loved for someone to think of me as special. To be able to feel special !! That is what I’m sensing about the envy thing. But it probably is many things we lacked while growing up that we perceive these “celebrities” have…Hope I didn’t go on too long….just some ideas that came to me.

  5. Carl Lange says:

    Yes Betty, it is about the perceived happines and about feeling special. Everyone wants to be special for someone.

  6. Suzanne Kramss says:

    I don’t envy others, although I am sure you would try to say I delude myself by thinking so. Rather, I admire those who have endured pain and adversity, overcome it and turned around to help others by becoming philanthropists, humanitarians, teachers, researchers and counselors. Entertainment is also a valuable skill, offering people an escape into the imagination. It is quite easy to understand how those with an appreciation for the art would admire the giftedness and skills of the more refined and talented performers. However, those who find delight in reality TV – I have no comment.

    Looks fade, money doesn’t buy happiness, and “popularity” isn’t very impressive since so much of it is superficial. Love of a life long (30 yrs) caring spouse, respect and devotion of children and a few faithful friends and the ability to grow and learn are all the treasures one needs. I have this. Am I free of want? No. Dreams are what lead to inspiration, exploration and discovery. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Dreams are the birthplace of reality if one follows their passions.

    There is no such thing as “perfection” as the human spirit is infinite in possibilities. Exploring this is the spice of life. It a shame we do not recognize the fact that we are all unique with special qualities that both connect and separate us from one and other. Everyone has something to offer. The smallest act of kindness far exceeds all the glamour and glitz Hollywood has to offer. Those who give of themselves unselfishly, without seeking something in return are the true “stars” in my eyes.

    It’s easy to believe in false idols (celebrities) when burdened by despair, and sadly, our country is mired in hard times. Most fans would not be able recognize the actual person if they met them as their perceptions are based on a face on a screen. Trust me – we walked through London chatting with Michael Caine and didn’t figure out it was him until months later. He was just a person we asked for directions, who was kind enough to walk us to our destination. He loved the fact that we didn’t recognize him and we had a chance to meet the man rather than the celebrity. I won’t have had it any other way.

    People don’t understand that celebrities have relatively little privacy and cannot enjoy the simple joys that life has to offer due to the paparazzi and overzealous fans, some who are quite dangerous. Stars have a closet full of skeletons just like the rest of us. The people we see tabloids are in essence images manufactured by the media and managers. Only their closest friends and family know what really goes on when the spotlight fades.

    I feel so deeply for those in the limelight when faced with mental illness, disease or addiction or difficult relationships. Many are prevented from getting the help they need due to management/publicity contracts and they are judged and scorned by previously adoring fans who do not give them the courtesy of being human.

    Hollywood marriages have far less chance of success due to competitive careers, the fast life and temptations that could break the strongest individual. I’ve met several who would give their right arm to be “an average Joe” for just a day. True, they have chosen their vocation, but many do not anticipate the burdens they will be faced with. For others, it is the painful price they pay for following their dream.

    Fans believe hype because they know no better and are bitter when their fantasy man/woman doesn’t live up to an idealized vision or falls off the pedestal they’ve been placed on. Society can be so unforgiving. I think of poor Mel Gibson, a man obviously suffering from the male version of Borderline Personality Disorder, a very serious and painful condition. His life has been destroyed publically. Stigma and ignorance abounds. Yet how many people would readily walk in a celebrity’s shoes in times of trouble, with every intimate detail of a major illness, mental breakdown, even their dying days judged by unknowing eyes and minds and hung out on the clothesline for all to see. They contend with lies, and are publicly humiliated for every mistake they make. I see them as people with a different career path trying to find their way through life; a life owned by the public. The smart ones, separate themselves from Sin City, opting for private lives. They are the rare exceptions. Newman (RIP) and Redford come to mind. Both have given far more to society than they they ever earned.

    While envy and jealousy of the stars may be related to shame, anger and guilt, they are also products of an undereducated populace. Ignorance leaves people vulnerable to falsehoods designed to sell a product and childish naivety allows them to believe it. Findings show that older people and those with lower incomes and education levels are more likely to read the tabloids as “news” and a commentary on society as a whole. Lack of better outlets, escape, hopes of interpersonal communication and diversion drives them. The richest (studio CEOs and media moguels for instance ) among society prey on the weaknesses of those of lower status. That, my friends is the reality of show business. Sorry to burst the bubble.

    • Kathir says:

      WOW! that’s too close of a thought I had in my mind for very long time and wanted someone to hear it.. I’m glad I read you even if it’s almost more than a year since you wrote it.. straight from your heart!

  7. I see too an element in “being right” about celebrities, there’s a lot of endlessly predicting breakups, for example, in the tabloids, that eventually come true. (Possibly because they were so relentlessly predicted perhaps?) Then the regular people can feel like, “I knew it all along” and like they are superior in that way.
    Suzanne, I think you have good insight into the unique burden of celebrity. Though I enjoy being in the public to a certain degree, I cannot imagine my life being hounded like theirs. It’s not worth it. I do think we need more compassion and understanding for those celebrities that struggle with mental illness. Their world is chaos…why would they not?
    Great article Dr. Burgo! Thanks!

  8. bc says:

    Because of my work I am always around famous people. They are human beings just like everyone else. Maybe that’s why the average person’s fascination with- and detailed knowledge of famous people fascinates me.

    But when you bring up “Brangelina”, it reminds me of how this can be a two-way street. The spin on Pitt’s divorce from Jennifer Aniston (from Aniston’s publicists, no doubt) is that she was the “jilted woman” and Jolie was the “evil homewrecker”. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was an amicable split. They were both tired of each other.

    Another example is the Sandra Bullock breakup. This was another damage control moment for Bullock’s publicists. And they did a brilliant job of making her look like the innocent victim- because they knew how the (envious, jealous) public would react.

    So you have the envy and jealousy factor, but you also have the celebrity’s publicists feeding that monster.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Yes, this manipulation by the celebrity’s publicist is interesting. I’ve always thought the Pitt/Anniston/Jolie triangle was an entire fiction, concocted by all three parties for the notoriety and the benefit to their careers. It’s amazing how long they’ve been able to keep it going. The cynical manipulation by publicists, “feeding the monster,” as you say, is grotesque but understandable. Thanks for the inside dope.

  9. I once saw a specific word that defines, hatred of celebrity. However I repeatedly fail to find this word and there isn’t a thesaurus for definitions. Can you provide the word that I am looking for?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      No, I’ve never heard of such a word, but I will look around. Let me know if you ever find it and I’ll do the same.

  10. Andy Hull says:

    I am looking for an essay by a French writer, maybe Voltaire, in which he addresses the public’s fascination with the failure/downfall/pain of the celebrity/famous. Can anyone point me to it?

    Joseph, thanks to you for this topic.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I have a friend who used to teach French literature at Duke; I’m going to send her an email to see if she knows which essay you mean.

      • Andy Hull says:

        Joe, thank you. Proves the adage applicable to any calling: when you are stumped call for an expert. I’ll listen. -Andy

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          Andy, here is the somewhat snotty academic reply I received:

          “I am afraid the query is so vague as to be unsearchable. Célébre is ok but might very well be replaced by any number of other terms. Not to mention that the observation itself hardly represents astounding insight… I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

          If you have any further information, I’ll try again. I’m sorry for the somewhat dismissive tone of that reply!

  11. Anne says:

    I can understand this because I am going through it right now. I feel like a horrible person, but I (almost compulsively) bash celebrities on various websites. Actually, they are not even celebrities, just successful actors and actresses whom I actually like. I like these people, but I blow off steam by saying horrible comments about them that I don’t even believe at all. I get some sort of thrill out of it. I am very bitter because I am a lover of the performing arts and of cinema. The problem is is that I have no talent and I have terrible stagefright. This is how I deal with my anger and I figure it’s harmless. If I was successful, I wouldn’t give a crap what some jealous, faceless loser said about me on the internet. The first time I ever bashed an actress online, I felt terrible. But now I bash various people all the time and, I’m ashamed to say this, but it feels good. I think there is something wrong with me.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You’re not doing any real damage to those people, since it’s unlikely they’ll ever read what you’ve written, but you probably need to pay attention to your shame about it. Do you think it’s envy that drives you or what?

      • Anne says:

        Yes, it is envy. I know this makes me no better than a cyberbully but I make it okay to myself by thinking just what you said “They will never see these comments nor care about them. So what’s the problem?”

  12. Hermes says:

    Anyone or anything is a “celeb” nowadays. What constitutes a celebrity? A footballer’s wife?
    And, what is there to envy? I ask. Many so-called celebs are deeply unhappy people (the bear-trap smile in the pics are no indication of happiness), suffering deep psychological problems, undergoing constant “nips and tucks”, with serious image issues.

    Hermes

  13. Mark says:

    What I find really great about your blog, Joseph, is that you provide clearly written explanations to such important issues and topics from our everyday life. Seeing why we or other people feel or do certain things brings tremendous satisfaction and relief. For me at least. And even if your insights aren’t perfect and aren’t necessarily 100% correct, they still make a lot of sense to me. And what’s also especially great is the fascinating manner in which you do it, i.e., your writing style and just overall reading experience that I can’t quite explain that your provide, the examples and the real life stories. It’s not boring, it’s rather exciting. Thanks.

  14. Joe M says:

    Celebs don’t live the perfect life. There is no such thing. Life was no created to revolve around man’s particular wants. If you study your history you will see that everywhere there is man’s desire, there is destruction. Such as when men invaded North America because of greed.

    Famous people believe they work hard. And maybe they do. But what work do they do and who does it serve? Themselves. They spend their life catering to their own wants and to hell with all the forsaken people in this world. There are far too many people going through life, missing the whole point of why we’re here in the first place. Self fulfillment has never been the point.

    The reaason we see so many people “worship” celebrities is because of discontent and selfishness. People aren’t satisfied with their lives and they soak up fantasies of how they “want” their lives to be. This reflects the wealth of the rich celebs. Thus, the popular goal is measured by the size of a bank account, which itself reflects freedom from struggle.

    It seems as if we have turned our backs on thousands of years worth of wisdom that tells us how to live. Modern generations have a short term memory. The present and the future now own wisdom. Yet, the past is where true wisdom always resides. The famous have always been known for their dysfunctional lifestyle.

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