The Cult of Celebrity

We have created a culture that, on mass, rejects spiritual belief yet deifies the famous. Our new, modern day religion is the focal point of many people's lives. A whopping 11.7 million people trawl through the celebrity gossip pages of the Mail Online every day!

Roll back the clock a few years and picture me sat in a Theology lecture. Snooze - you might think. And for a small part, I could agree with you. But sometimes you'd stumble upon a rare, unexpected gem whilst stuck in the midst of a module you found, well, seriously dry. On occasion - a one off really - you'd get one of those light bulb moments where you linked the biggest phenomenon of our time with a degree-related topic. No exaggeration. I'm talking, of course, about celebs. Celebrity is a relatively new construct in the grand scheme of our world, and it is unashamedly one that dictates and gives structure to our contemporary lives. Since the media has so hugely and rapidly expanded, so too has our means to create and consume celebrity figures. Yet this craze is rarely talked about in the way that, I believe, it should be. We idolize, pin-up, aspire to and emulate (where possible) these individuals who are - in essence - exactly the same as us. So what's going on here? German philosopher Feurbach said, quite some time ago now, that God was just the projection of our ultimate desires and I think that this is exactly what's going on in our celebrity obsessed society. We project onto a group of individuals everything that we wish ourselves to be so that they represent and become the best possible version of a human being.

This projection and creation of deified men and women is not a product of the 21st century. Oh no. It's always been with us. You can go as far back as Medieval England and you'll find this same process occurring. 'The Cult of Saints and Relics,' - this was the title of the dry and 'snoozey' lecture I mentioned at the start. In my mind however, this lofty theological terminology translates in 2014 speak to 'the love of celebs and their stuff.'

One of the biggest changes our species has ever seen is the surge and then decline of religion. Religions were, and to some still are, institutions that sat entirely at the forefront of life, of weekly and yearly calendars, thoughts, relationships and activities. If we were to time travel back to the 5th century we'd find ourselves totally obsessed with the saints (people declared as holy after their death) and their relics (physical things that belonged to them.) We'd have done anything to get our hands on a piece of fabric from the Virgin Mary's clothing, or a lock of St Paul's hair... you get my drift. We would have believed that there was something utterly separate and sacred about these individuals, something that we, and the mere mortals we came into contact with each day, simply could not compare to. Ring any bells? Just picture those 1Direction fans when they get thrown a pair of Harry Styles boxers. Life is suddenly complete! Whilst 1D may be at the extreme end of the fame scale, we're all affected by these 'projections' to some extent. Think about how you might treat Victoria Beckham were she to appear on your tube carriage during your morning commute tomorrow. A little differently to how you'll respond to the many unknown people you'll brush shoulders with instead I'm guessing. You might think, well of course, she's well known / was a Spice Girl / is beautiful (this list goes on...) but we've never really stopped to think how totally bizarre this differentiation is! After all, we're all human. We just don't seem to rationalize this or process it as fact when it comes to the all-consuming, glossy world of celebrity culture.

Russell Brand made his opinions about celebrity clear in his infamous interview with Jeremy Paxman in 2012. Their chat was filled with those pithy, outspoken nuggets that only Mr. Brand can muster. Now yes, Brand does get mixed reviews I'll admit, but on this matter I think he's bang on. He claims that fame is accessible to everyone (it was what he clung onto growing up in 'post-Industrial Essex') and as such everyone either craves it for him or herself, or is fixated by those who are already in possession of it. Brand ties together the prominence of religion in the past with our current glorification of celebrity status - famous people are our martyrs. It used to be (cast your minds back to my Cult of Saints lecture) religion that gave somebody a sense of significance, now it's fame. Brand goes on to talk about the death of the grand ideas. When religion was pushed to the fringes of society in the 1960s there were still notions and ideologies that everyone clung onto; King's dream, Lennon's imagination, women's liberation - but it seems our brains don't want to work that hard anymore. We'd much prefer a neatly packaged, branded and PR'ed display of shimmering celebrity status to excite and engage us, thank you very much. Yet Brand informs us that these individuals we hold in such high esteem are in fact just extracted icons of the individual themselves, created to splash across papers, to market and to sell. And boy, does it work. We all appreciate that celebrity endorsements push up sales...(admit it, you'd never have dreamt of cracking open a Pepsi over of a Coke before Beyonce's face was on the can!)

We have created a culture that, on mass, rejects spiritual belief yet deifies the famous. Our new, modern day religion is the focal point of many people's lives. A whopping 11.7 million people trawl through the celebrity gossip pages of the Mail Online every day! Now that we have been consuming this celebrity culture at such a fast pace for a sustained period of time, I reckon it's time for us to have an honest and open conversation about it. I truly admire Russell Brand for bringing his experience of fame to the table, he rather profoundly admits that once one become famous, nutrition is needed 'from a higher source', celebrity life in and of itself is 'utterly vacuous.' Of course this is the real shift that my generation has made and now observes with celebrity, no longer are our idols famous for actually doing something (their fame is a by-product of their work in this case) but they are actively seeking fame for fame's sake. It's the Big Brother phenomenon. I want to know why it is that our minds enjoy, crave even, engaging with this? Is it a form of escapism? Are celebrities helpful role models? Or do they create an inferiority complex for the rest of mankind? For those spell-bound by the fame factor, I want to know what the draw to believing that those entrusted with this accolade are in some way different or better than those existing without it is? Will it ever be possible for us all to wake-up from this intoxication and smell the, they're-simply-human coffee? Caitlin Moran said in an interview with The Debrief this week '[Being famous is] like believing in God, really.' Thanks to twitter et al, the likes of Caitlin are ever aware of the general public viewing, judging and passing comment on their daily comings and goings. Moran jokes 'I just spend all day doing things so I can go home and see people going like, "saw Caitlin Moran giving a homeless person £10," "saw Caitlin Moran helping someone with a buggy at Oxford Circus". But seriously, I think it's quite nice to have pressure on you to be a decent person.' So it seems fame may have the potential to 'improve' those who possess it. Or maybe this is simply Moran using her platform in a wholly unheard of and positive way? I'd love to know whether we could popularize a different idea, a different 'narrative' as Brand would call it, using the techniques of branding, endorsement and consumerism we're all so comfortable with - perhaps then we could all be better off?

Who'd have thought that the veneration our ancestors gave to semi-divine beings over 15 centuries ago would be transferred over to our glossy magazine buying, Big Brother watching, celeb-selfie craving, fame-obsessed culture? It makes me wonder, could we ever live without this objectification of celebrities/ saints /'perfect' people? Would our world feel all too bland, too vanilla, if we were to truly accept the 'human-ness' and imperfections of everybody, no exceptions, on the planet (cellulite free, face of Chanel or not?) Perhaps this veneration of a small group of people really is part of our human make-up, it has permeated itself so deeply into our society's consciousness that it may in fact be necessary for our survival. Scary huh?

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