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A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically and a writer who's profiled celebrities for Esquire magazine, worries about people "looking at things that are not real and trying to extract something real from them"—a sort of modern-day idol worship. While trying to follow the good book's precepts for 365 days, Jacobs went on a celebrity gossip fast. The Bible not only issues injunctions against idolatry (there goes the American Idol habit) but warns repeatedly against spreading nastiness about people. An ancient Jewish biblical commentary even equates gossiping with murder, according to Jacobs. "Having your reputation and your character ruined is just as important as your arm being broken," he says, "and can hurt a lot more."

As for being a consumer of negative gossip, learning about the failures of the rich and famous may indeed contain valuable information for those who'd rather not repeat their mistakes. But a celebrity gossip diet that's heavy on Schadenfreude—a German word for deriving pleasure from others' troubles—might be a sign that you're trying to escape difficult realities in your own life. "We are all celebrity junkies to some extent," says Smith, "because we can't bear the serious issues."

On the flip side, keeping up with your favorite stars can ease loneliness and provide a sense of community, says De Backer. Based on the way our brains work, simply recognizing a face makes us feel as if we know the person. So while we may never schmooze with Jennifer Aniston over coffee or get a call from George Clooney for cocktails, seeing their images gives us a sense of home, of belonging.

Where does this leave inquiring minds? Gossip can be valuable if you consume it wisely. "You have to evaluate what you're reading, exercise your intelligence and your humanity," says Smith. Remember that celebrities are still people—not objects. And when you get engrossed in a Hollywood exposé, ask yourself: What am I doing here? What holes am I trying to fill? What knowledge am I hoping to gain? Can I use my fascination with someone in the limelight to become the hero of my own life? And how dependable are the sources? De Backer stresses that reliability is key in letting celebrities serve as our teachers. Is the information coming straight from the star's mouth, for example, or attributed to "sources close to" him or her?

And then, like enjoying the occasional chocolate, let yourself indulge. At the end of the day, escaping dire headlines for the antics of the paparazzi-worthy can offer some well-deserved stress relief. As Smith says, "A person can only take so much bad news."

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