Helen Fisher, PhD

Celebrity worship at the campfire

Ever since I went to see the Beattles sing in Forest Hills, New York, with three college girlfriends (back in the Pleistocene), I have wondered why people get so worked up over celebrities.  Not because the Beattles arrived in a helicopter and sang to some 20,000 people.  But because one girlfriend fainted from exhilaration; the second peed in her jeans; the third sobbed throughout the concert.  I was, as they say, the only ‘man’ left standing.  Why do we get our knickers in a twist about Michelle’s Inauguration dress, Roman Polanski’s dabblings with a teenage girl, or Eliot Spitzer’s sexual escapades?  I have a theory.  It’s another one of my riffs on the loss of local community.  Those (millions) of us who live and work in urban areas can no longer talk to our friends about the girl next door or the boy down the street: our friends don’t know these people.   Our pals at work don’t know our neighbors, our children, even our suitors, lovers or spouses.  And those who share our home life barely know our friends from work, the gym, or other social circles.  The only people you and I are likely to know in common are people in the news–politicians, journalists and celebrities.  And here’s the catch.  As social animals, we need to exchange juicy tales about someone—to connect with one another.  For millions of years our forebears must have sat around the campfire, whispering about everyone they knew.  How Og failed to hit that buffalo.  How Ug danced with flare.  How Ig fashioned her hair or grass skirt.  With all our chatter, we built intimacy with each other by airing our views, learning from the perspectives of our friends, setting local standards, even ostracizing those we feared or loathed.  Today, particularly in our cities, we can’t share these local stories with our friends.  The only way we can connect with many of those around us is to yak about people we “know” in common.   Celebrities serve this vital human purpose.  They enable us to measure our failures against theirs, as well as emulate their better values.  But most important, as we discuss them, we reach out to friends and family, unifying our relationships with communal jokes, thoughts and feelings. Why my girlfriends were so overwhelmed at that Beattles concert, I still don’t know.  But their behavior has been the butt of many good humored jokes ever since—a bit of permanent glue among comrades in what, long ago, would have been a tight-knit little hunting/gathering band so necessary for survival.