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Fame! I Wanna Live Forever: How Narcissism Conquered Reality

Our celebrity-centered culture plunges us into a moral void. It offers the illusion of immortality and promotes self-love over the common good.

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In celebrity culture, the object is to get as close to the celebrity as possible. Those who can touch the celebrity or own a relic of the celebrity hope for a transference of celebrity power. They hope for magic. We seek tangible artifacts of celebrity power from autographs or pictures or objects once owned by the celebrity. Celebrity items from Princess Diana's old dresses to Swatch watches once owned by Andy Warhol (that originally sold for $40) are auctioned off for thousands of dollars. Pilgrims travel to celebrity shrines. Graceland receives 750,000 visitors a year. Hard Rock Cafe has built its business around this yearning for intimacy with the famous. It ships reliquaries of stars from one restaurant to another the way the medieval church shipped the bones and other remains of saints to its cathedrals. Charlie Chaplin's corpse, like that of Evita Peron, was stolen and held for ransom. John Wayne's family, fearing grave robbers, did not mark his grave until 20 years after his death. The headstones of James Dean, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Buddy Holly and Jim Morrison have all been uprooted and carted away.

Buses wind their way through the Hollywood Hills so tourists can gawk at the walls that barricade the homes of the famous. The celebrity interview or profile, pioneered on television by Barbara Walters and now a ubiquitous part of the news and entertainment industry, gives us the illusion that we are intimately related to celebrities as well as the characters they portray. In celebrity culture, we seek to validate ourselves through these imaginary relationships with celebrities. Real life, our own life, is viewed next to the lives of celebrities as inadequate and inauthentic. Celebrities are portrayed as idealized forms of ourselves. It is we, in perverse irony, who are never fully actualized in a celebrity culture.

Soldiers and Marines speak of entering combat as if they are entering a movie, although if they try to engage in movie-style heroics they often are killed. The difference between the celebrity-inspired heroics and the reality of war, which takes less than a minute in a firefight to grasp, is jolting. Wounded Marines booed and hissed John Wayne when he visited them in a hospital in World War II. They had uncovered the manipulation and self-delusion of celebrity culture. They understood that mass culture is a form of social control, a way to influence behavior that is self-destructive. 

Neal Gabler writes in "Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality" that the power of celebrity culture means we often seek to enact the movies that play inside our heads. We become celebrities, at least privately, to ourselves. Celebrity culture is so ubiquitous that it has established perverse interior personal scripts and modes of speech through which our relationship with the world is often constructed. Gabler argues that celebrity culture is not a convergence between consumer culture and religion but instead is a hostile takeover of religion by celebrity culture. Commodities and celebrity culture alone define what it means to belong to American society, how we recognize our place in society and how we determine our spiritual life. Celebrity culture is about the denial of death. It is about the illusion of immortality. The portal to Valhalla is through the celebrity. 

Celebrity worship is dressed up in the language of the Christian right, the frenzy around political messiahs like Barack Obama or the devotional following of Oprah by millions of women. If Jesus and "The Purpose Driven Life" won't make us a celebrity, then Tony Robbins or reality television will. We are waiting for our cue to walk on stage and be admired and envied.

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