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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

During a recent radio interview I was asked a great question: why are Americans interested in British royalty, since they represent the antithesis of democracy?

Certainly the British are more interested in their royal family than we are, as gossip about its members get intense coverage even without an impending royal wedding. Although we claimed independence from the British 235 years ago, we still enjoy some of their pop culture like The Office, Pop Idol (or American Idol as we know it), and even Antiques Roadshow.

As I write about in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, American celebrity coverage has changed quite a bit over the last century, but one element is pretty consistent. Celebrities seem to embody proof that we can all rise to the top, become fabulously wealthy and admired. In my research of fan magazines from the 1910s to the present, that message was threaded throughout both fan magazine articles and ads.

But there are contradictions here too. While some magazines have features that insist celebrities are “just like us,” their wealth and fame make them profoundly different from everyone else.

Sure, they might be humble and down-to-earth individually, but fans sometimes presume stars have magical qualities and feel honored or even overcome with emotion to be in their presence. Something like getting to meet an actual prince or princess.

In some ways, coverage of celebrities bears much resemblance to coverage of the British royal family. We can peak behind the scenes and see how the privileged live, then bask in their problems and feel better about our status as commoners.

A royal wedding not only allows observers to vicariously bask in the mass consumption, but it represents an opening into an otherwise closed status. Marrying a prince is the ultimate fairy tale of upward mobility. Becoming a celebrity seems like the next best thing if becoming royalty is not an option.

But sometimes the illusion that anyone can make it big shatters. Rather than looking critically at the illusion, we tend to target our disappointment at celebrities themselves.

In a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, Neal Gabler argues that part of the reason Charlie Sheen received so much negative attention was because his behavior challenged the idea that celebrities are just like us:

Entertain us, and we’ll grant you fame, riches and adoration — so long as you remain one of us. Violate that contract at the peril of your career. Abide by it, like, say, Tom Hanks, and you will be rewarded with longevity. All we ask is that you be, or at least appear to be, normal.

Sheen’s openness about his life of excess reminds us that he is not everyman, Gabler notes.

And yet part of the pleasure of following celebrities—and royals’—lives is bound in their apparent ordinary extraordinariness. They are human, but at the same time deified by virtue of the public’s interest. And they serve as great characters in our never-ending real-life soap opera, excess and all.

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