Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan
Illustration: Charles Wilkin
In 2000, famed New York Post gossip columnist Liz Smith, the Grande Dame of Dish, wrote an engrossing tell-all about a celebrity she knows intimately: herself. The introduction to Natural Blonde is chilling today, particularly following a summer of Paris in and out of jail, Lindsay in and out of rehab, Nicole's bun officially in the oven, and Perez Hilton—creator of the "celebrity juice" website PerezHilton.com—weighing in at number 16 on a recent Time reader's poll of the 100 Most Influential People, ahead of Nelson Mandela and Al Gore. In her memoir, Smith prophesied, "Should the day come when we are enduring big, black headlines about war, famine, terrorism, and natural disaster—then that kind of news will drive gossip underground and out of sight."

Seven years, 9/11, Iraq, Darfur, and far too many gloomy headlines later, the opposite has come to pass. In fact, last summer, just days before two car bombs were discovered in London and another was driven into Glasgow Airport, Smith—who's been covering celebrities for more than 40 years—said over frozen margaritas in Manhattan, "It's never been like this before. We're becoming obese with useless interest in these people."

In a tabloid-loving, YouTubing, reality-show-crazed world, hooked on TMZ.com and Access Hollywood, you do have to wonder what all this gossip is doing to us. Are we stuffing ourselves with empty cultural calories? Snacking mindlessly on famous people's dramas and distresses? Eroding our sense of decency? Or are we somehow served well by burying our noses in others' dirty (designer) laundry?

Charlotte De Backer, PhD, lecturer in the department of media and communication at the University of Leicester, believes that to be human is to gossip. De Backer claims that our passion for scoop hails from the Stone Age and is a way to learn through watching others succeed and fail—whether it's about attracting mates, maintaining a career, or surviving life-or-death situations. Liz Smith agrees that gossip can "help us decide what we think and where we would draw the line about what we would want done to us." Talking about the recent backlash against Paris Hilton, she says, "The revulsion is a commentary on what we're trying to figure out about ourselves—that maybe it's not enough to be famous for being famous. Fame used to mean something; it used to require doing something heroic."

We do seek heroes for inspiration, and many celebrities fulfill the role—a popular singer who overcomes drug abuse, a movie star who uses his fame to try to stop genocide in Africa. The mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose 1949 The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a classic text, proposed that all genuine heroes set out on a journey, struggle along the way, and then return to share the wisdom of their experience. Today Campbell's theory sounds an awful lot like the framework of an E! True Hollywood Story. The hitch, however, is that the "real life" heroes we're seeing on television, online, or spread across pages of grainy newsprint are part fiction. "These images are constructed by a whole industry," says De Backer. Smith agrees: "People forget that it's all made up—speculation, projection."

The reality-show invasion may skew things even more. Here are people presented on TV as "you and me," yet, thanks to a clever producer, their stories are just as rigged as those of the big stars. That may lead us to have exceedingly unrealistic ideas of what we can become, De Backer acknowledges, causing frustration, not inspiration.

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