The Return of the Cult of Personality: How Escapism Fuels Society’s Obsession with Celebrities
There was a time when celebrity obsession seemed to be fading. Product endorsements lost their luster. Hollywood’s Golden Age died out. People became more cynical about the rich and famous. For a moment, it looked like we might stop worshipping celebrities and turn our attention to more important issues.
But the cult of celebrity has come roaring back — bigger and stronger than ever. While old school Hollywood stars may have lost their grip, a new breed of celebrity holds us in thrall — influencers, e-boys, TikTok dancers, YouTube stars, rappers, and hyper-athletes like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. K-pop groups like Blackpink have global fanbases who hang on their every move.
Devoted fans follow their every move like disciples, knowing their favorite foods, films, and what they wore to get coffee last Tuesday. Social media brings us into their inner circle, with a barrage of pouting selfies and live-streamed mundanity. We bow at the altar of Addison Rae.
Psychologists explain this obsessive fandom through “parasocial relationships.” We bond one-sidedly with celebrities, mistaking their mediated connection for real friendship. But Charli D’Amelio doesn’t know you from Adam. She’s not your girl squad.
Still, we devour celebrity content like mindless drones, confusing their lives with our own. In a way, it’s the fault of the influencer industrial complex. Instagram stars project carefully curated and edited images for the masses. YouTube celebrities share scripted glimpses into their daily lives. Their teams work nonstop to promote these pseudo-reality personas.
Today, internet gossip channels and paparazzi feed our appetite for celebrity authenticity and imperfections. A-lister divorces and influencer photoshop fails keep us hooked. We can’t look away from their train wreck lives like a 10-car pileup on the freeway.
In fact, our obsession with famous personalities seems to be making a resurgence, perhaps because people are seeking escapism from the complex problems facing society today — the pandemic, political polarization, financial crises, and constant technology-fueled change. Celebrity gossip offers a distraction, a safe haven from harsh realities. In a world of chaos, following the curated lives of the rich, famous and beautiful can provide comfort, nostalgia and a sense of community. For fans, celebrities represent hopes, dreams and an idealized version of reality.
But while escapism serves a purpose, it goes too far when we know more about Hailey Bieber’s skincare regimen than we do about reforming the healthcare system. The celebrity industry thrives on providing distraction content while huge societal issues remain unresolved. Surely our collective attention, resources and ingenuity could be better spent on solving real problems that substantively improve people’s lives, rather than obsessing over famous people’s fabricated dramas.
And when we know more about the lives of strangers than we do our own neighbors, isn’t it time to reset our priorities?