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.
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."