Riding the tidal wave of fame

Illusions of Immortality
November 24, 2000

Social psychology seems to come in waves. In the 1950s and 1960s it was mostly about social attitudes (things such as stereotypes and prejudice). In the 1970s and 80s there was an outpouring on love and interpersonal attraction (topics previously considered too esoteric for scientific analysis). Today, it seems, the hot topic is fame. First there was my own book (with Andrew Evans), Fame: The Psychology of Superstars ; now this one by David Giles.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves if we are really interested in enlightenment or just trying to partake of the phenomenon. For the fact is that fame is at a mighty premium in the modern world - widely sought and opening every imaginable door. But the reasons why people become famous have changed in recent decades. Once it was necessary to perform great deeds, win battles, create beautiful art works or make world-shattering scientific discoveries; now it may only be necessary to streak in public, smash up a guitar, spit on a reporter, or proffer a piece of obscenity as art. All that matters is media attention. Weathermen and game-show bimbos are familiar to all and feted wherever they go; even serial killers have fan clubs. By contrast, a Nobel prize winner is generally ignored.

Giles discusses such issues and anomalies in scholarly yet lucid prose. He notes that a major dilemma faced by celebrities is that the same media that creates their fame can easily become their tormentors. The tabloids like to put people on pedestals, but equally enjoy knocking them off again. At the very least, the loss of privacy is lamented. Someone once defined a celebrity as "a person who spends the first part of their life seeking fame, and the second half wearing dark glasses to avoid being recognised". Celebrities have their problems: they easily become self-obsessed, develop delusions of grandeur and persecution and have high rates of stress, addiction and suicide. Giles also notes an ambivalence among the public. Devoted fans may turn into dangerous stalkers, and many people grovel to celebrities' faces but are scornful and resentful behind their backs. This is partly because celebrities exploit the licence to be boring and boorish. Giles relays a telling story about Chris Eubank, who was apologising for being late for a press conference. With disarming self-insight he noted that he was often late for appointments but "one day I'll lose - then I'll have to be on time".

This is an entertaining and thoughtful little book that draws much upon the author's experience as a pop-music journalist. It nicely balances history, anecdote, research and comment, and I recommend it to students of psychology, media and communications, as well as to the general reader.

Glenn D. Wilson is reader in personality, Institute of Psychiatry, University of London.

Illusions of Immortality: A Psychology of Fame and Celebrity. First edition

Author - David Giles
ISBN - 0 333 75449 2 and 75450 6
Publisher - Palgrave (formerly Macmillan Press)
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 187

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