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Stars in their eyes: Another look at Celebrity Worship Syndrome

Last week I did a number of media interviews about Celebrity Worship Syndrome (CWS) including the Metro newspaper (‘From Beyonce to Elvis, here’s the ugly truth about why we worship celebrities’) and the International Business Times (‘Crazy about Kylie Jenner? Professor of Behavioural Addiction explains celebrity obsession’). I also wrote an article for the Huffington Post. The ‘hook’ for all these stories was the DVD release of the film Kill The King (also known by the title Shangri La Suite) which tells the story of two 20-year old damaged lovers – Jack and Karen (played by Luke Grimes and Emily Browning) – who head to Los Angeles to kill rock ‘n’ roll legend Elvis Presley in the summer of 1974. While Jack’s obsession with Elvis is somewhat extreme, over the last two decades there has been an increasing amount of research into CWS.

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CWS has been described as an obsessiveaddictive disorder where an individual becomes overly involved and interested (in short, completely obsessed) with the details of the personal life of a celebrity. Any person who is ‘in the public eye’ can be the object of a person’s obsession (e.g., authors, politicians, journalists), but research and criminal prosecutions suggest they are more likely to be someone from the world of television, film and/or pop music. Research suggests that CWS exists and that according to Dr. John Maltby and his colleagues (see ‘Further reading’ below) there are three independent dimensions of celebrity worship. These are on a continuum and named (i) entertainment-social, (ii) intense-personal, and (iii) borderline pathological.

  • The entertainment-social dimension relates to attitudes where individuals are attracted to a celebrity because of their perceived ability to entertain and to become a social focus of conversation with likeminded others.
  • The intense-personal dimension relates to individuals that have intensive and compulsive feelings about a celebrity.
  • The borderline-pathological dimension relates to individuals who display uncontrollable behaviours and fantasies relating to a celebrity.

Among adults, their research has shown that there is a correlation between the pathological aspects of CWS and poor mental health such as high anxiety, more depression, high stress levels, increased illness, and poorer body image. Among teenage females there is a relationship between intense-personal celebrity worship and body image (basically, teenage girls who identify with celebrities have much poorer body image compared to other groups). In addition, most celebrity-obsessed individuals often suffer high levels of dissociation and fantasy-proneness. Maltby’s research suggests about 1% of his participants have obsessional tendencies towards celebrities.

Research has also shown that worshipping celebrities can have both positive and negative consequences. People who worship celebrities for entertainment and social reasons have been found to be more optimistic, outgoing, and happy. Those who worship celebrities for personal reasons have been found to be more obsessive, more depressed, more anxious, more solitary, more impulsive, more anti-social and more troublesome. My own thoughts on CWS and celebrity culture are provided below and are from the interviews I did with the Metro and the International Business Times (IBT).

IBT: In a world filled with Kardashians, social media and vast consumerism, why do you think people are more obsessed with celebrities than ever?

MG: The first thing I would say is that most people are not obsessed with celebrities but there are probably a lot more people who are obsessed compared to a couple of decades ago (although this is speculation on my part as no research has ever examined the prevalence of celebrity obsession among a nationally representative sample). One study did estimate about 1% of their sample being obsessed with celebrities but there is no comparative study prior to that. However, I do think that the numbers of people who have celebrity obsessions has increased over the last 20 years and much of this is most likely due to the rise of celebrities using social media (and the fact that celebrities can now interact – if they want – hour by hour with their fan base) and the increase in general media coverage surrounding celebrity and celebrity lives (including a large increase in reality TV starring celebrities and an increase in the number of celebrity gossip magazines). These types of media and social media can give rise to what we psychologists call parasocial relationships. With respect to celebrities, parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, where fans express interest, time, money, and/or emotion in and/or on the celebrity (while the celebrity is totally unaware of the fan in any singular or specific sense).

IBT: Do you know what happens in the mind when we form an obsession or infatuation with some things? 

MG: Celebrity infatuations are nothing to particularly worry about because they tend to be intense but relatively short-lived admiration for the person. Celebrity obsessions can be of a lot more concern. At their simplest level, a celebrity obsession is when someone constantly thinks about a particular celebrity in a way that most people would describe as abnormal. This can be to the point where the obsession conflicts with most other things in the individual’s life including job or education, other relationships, and other hobbies. A person’s whole life can revolve around the celebrity and such individuals can end up spending way beyond their disposable income by buying their merchandise (CDs, DVDs, books, perfumes, clothing lines, etc.) and/or seeing them live on stage (singing, acting, etc.). There is no single explanation as to why someone might develop a celebrity obsession but many appear to start with a sexual attraction to the celebrity in question and have fantasies of what they would do if they met the object of their desire. Research has shown that there is a correlation between the pathological aspects of celebrity worship and poor mental health such as high anxiety, more depression, high stress levels, increased illness, and poorer body image. Among teenage females there is a relationship between intense-personal celebrity worship and body image (basically, teenage girls who identify with celebrities have much poorer body image compared to other groups). In addition, most celebrity-obsessed individuals often suffer high levels of dissociation and fantasy-proneness.

IBT: What does it have to take about a ‘celebrity’ for people to become obsessed?

MG: At a micro-level, any person who is ‘in the public eye’ can be the object of a person’s obsession (e.g., authors, politicians, journalists), but research and criminal prosecutions suggest they are more likely to be someone from the world of television, film and/or pop music. This is most likely because such celebrities tend to be more popular and have bigger followings in the public eye in media and on social media. At a micro-level, we are all individuals it could be something very idiosyncratic but given that the little research carried out tends to report that celebrity worshippers are sexually attracted to their celebrity of choice, then being good looking (at least in the eyes of the beholder) appears to be a common denominator.

IBT: How do you think today’s modern obsession with celebrity influenced and resounded throughout Kill the King?

MG: One of Jack’s reasons for being sent to a rehab centre – in addition to a drug addiction problem – is because of his “increasingly abnormal obsession” with Elvis Presley. While Jack’s obsession with Elvis is somewhat extreme and arguably a type of ‘Celebrity Worship Syndrome’, his character doesn’t seem to overlap too much with modern day celebrity worshippers. Jack’s character is more akin to celebrity stalkers or celebrity assassins (like John Lennon’s killer Mark Chapman) than the archetypal young female totally obsessed and besotted with their favourite pop star or actor. Given that Kill The King was set in 1974 and celebrity obsession (and Celebrity Worship Syndrome) is a more modern day phenomenon, I wouldn’t have expected that much overlap anyway.

Metro: Should we be worried about this kind of social media ‘bond’, seeing as icons like John Lennon were assassinated by fans who became obsessed with them?

MG: The chances of those things happening are few and far between. If someone is absolutely hooked on the idea of killing a celebrity, they’ll go and do it. I don’t think it’s to do with the rise of the mass media or anything like that. Most research says fandom is actually good for people. It gives them a hobby. Fans talk to other fans. It brings us together, and it can be life-affirming. I’m a massive, massive David Bowie fan. I’m a record collector, too and I’m probably more on the obsessive side than most people. But I don’t think I’m a worse person for that.

Metro: So what’s the difference between you and someone who spends thousands and thousands of pounds on plastic surgery to look more like their idol?

MG: Those are the real extreme cases. The good news is that recent research has shown that less than one per cent of people are really unhealthily obsessed with stars. And of those people, most are not going to do things that have negative effects on their life. In my opinion, the difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an unhealthy obsession is that enthusiasm adds to life, and addictions or obsessions take away from it. For most people, even those who have a compulsive element to their fandom like myself, it doesn’t have a negative effect on their quality of life. It’s probably better to buy records and memorabilia than designer handbags. Sometimes it’s not just about money, it’s about the time you spend as well. For one person, an obsession can be fine, and for another it can be very problematic. If a fan works in Tesco and they’re following their hero around the country, watching them night after night on tour and buying merchandise, they just don’t have the disposable income to do it. I could do that, thanks to my salary, but I can’t afford the time.

Metro: Is there a link between someone’s social background and their preference for celebrity culture?

MG: I don’t know the scientific link there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the lower the socio-economic class you’re in the more likely you are to be involved and like celebrity culture. ‘Gogglebox’ stars, for instance. The middle class, well-to-do people like current affairs, news and politics and those who are less well-off are probably more interested in EastEnders and things like that.

Metro: Are there any psychological issues that lead to celebrity worship?

MG: Those with celebrity worship syndrome tend to have worse mental health. They’re more likely to be anxious, depressed, to have high stress levels, increased bouts of illness and a poor body image. But it’s a case of the chicken or the egg, because these people might self-medicate through these parasocial relationships with celebs they’ll never even meet. 

Metro: What are the effects of celebrity culture? Particularly for young people?

MG: We know that young people are not as engaged with politics. They just don’t trust politicians, and it’s linked to the rise of social media. Celebrities have more pull, and followers, than [British Prime Minister] Theresa May or [leader of the Labour Party] Jeremy Corbyn will ever have. I’m not in a position to say whether people should be more interested in X or Y. Certain things in life make people feel good. As humans we seek out things that get us high, aroused, excited –  or we seek out things which tranquilise and numb us. Celebrities tend to give us a thrill. 

Metro: Are celebrities vulnerable themselves?

MG: I certainly wouldn’t like to be in a position where cameras are waiting outside my house. Stardom can bring positive things, but also a lot of unexpected negatives too. We have to remember at the end of the day that celebrities are just human beings, with all the same emotional foibles and weaknesses we have – and sometimes they’re magnified times a hundred because of the pressure and stress of the spotlight. And the internet, too. It’s no wonder some of them fall prey to serious addictions. 

Metro: People like Amy Winehouse? She’s the most recent example I can think of.

MG: Before she died, Amy Winehouse had got to that stage where she was very famous, and she was earning a lot of money. And that meant she was surrounded by sycophants and ‘yes’ people. Those kinds of people say things they think you want to hear, and they’re not necessarily looking out for you. Amy was surrounded by people thinking about their own wages and careers. No, it’s not a surprise when these things happen, and people could see it coming. Like with Kurt Cobain’s death. Amy didn’t get the help she needed. We can say that in hindsight.’

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

BBC News (2003). Worshipping celebrities ‘brings success. August 13. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3147343.stm

Chapman, J. (2003). Do you worship the celebs? Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-176598/Do-worship-celebs.html

Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Does ‘Celebrity Worship Syndrome’ really exist? Huffington Post, November 18. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dr-mark-griffiths/does-celebrity-worship-sy_b_13012170.html

McCutcheon, L.E., Lange, R., & Houran, J. (2002). Conceptualization and measurement of celebrity worship. British Journal of Psychology, 93, 67-87.

Maltby, J., Houran, M.A., & McCutcheon, L.E. (2003). A Clinical Interpretation of Attitudes and Behaviors Associated with Celebrity Worship. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 191, 25-29.

Maltby, J., Houran, J., Ashe, D., & McCutcheon, L.E. (2001). The self-reported psychological well-being of celebrity worshippers. North American Journal of Psychology, 3, 441-452.

Maltby, J., Day, L., McCutcheon, L.E., Gillett, R., Houran, J., & Ashe, D. (2004). Celebrity Worship using an adaptational-continuum model of personality and coping. British Journal of Psychology. 95, 411-428.

Maltby, J., Giles, D., Barber, L. & McCutcheon, L.E. (2005). Intense-personal Celebrity Worship and Body Image: Evidence of a link among female adolescents. British Journal of Health Psychology, 10, 17-32.

Maltby, J., Day, L., McCutcheon, L.E,. Gilett, R., Houran, J. & Ashe, D.D. (2004), ‘Personality and Coping: A Context for Examining Celebrity Worship and Mental Health. British Journal of Psychology, 95, 411-428.

Maltby, J., Day, L., McCutcheon, L.E., Houran, J. & Ashe, D. (2006). Extreme celebrity worship, fantasy proneness and dissociation: Developing the measurement and understanding of celebrity worship within a clinical personality context. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 273-283.

Wikipedia (2012). Celebrity Worship Syndrome. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celebrity_Worship_Syndrome

Fame in desire: A brief look at celebriphilia

In a previous blogs I have examined both Celebrity Worship Syndrome and whether fame can be addictive. Another behaviour allied to both of these is celebriphilia. There has been no scientific research on celebriphilia and I have only come across a few passing references to it in academic texts. In his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices, Dr Anil Aggrawal describes it as a sexual paraphilia where apathological desire to have sex with a celebrity”. The online Medical Dictionary is slightly different and defines celebriphilia as “an intense desire to have a romantic relationship with a celebrity” (and is therefore slightly different is the focus on this second definition is romance rather than sex, although there is an implicit assumption that having romantic relationship would involve sex). Finally, the only other definition that I have come across is in the online Nation Master encyclopedia that was a bit more padded out and claimed that:

“Celebriphilia is the sexual fetishism and obsession with sex with a celebrity or famous person. Celebriphiliacs may stalk these celebrities and either observe them for sexual pleasure voyeuristically or try and approach them and have sex with them. Some may simply masturbate to images of them”

Despite this more in-depth definition, it actually complicates matters as it brings in other behaviours such as voyeurism and stalking that are separate entities in and of themselves. As far as I can tell, the first reference to ‘celebriphilia’ appeared in an article written by journalists Benjamin Svetkey and Allison Hope Weiner for Entertainment Weekly. Their article was about Bonnie Lee Bakley, the wife of American actor Robert Blake (star of shows like Baretta and films such as In Cold Blood), who was shot in 2001 (May 4) while sitting outside a Los Angeles restaurant in Blake’s car. (Blake was eventually charged with his wife’s murder but was found not guilty. The murder remains officially unsolved although Bakley’s grown-up children from previous relationships took out a civil suit on Blake and was later found guilty of wrongful death).

The focus of the article by Svetkey and Weiner was Bakley’s celebriphilia and her ‘celebrity obsession’ (more specifically, her long-term history of pursuing relationships with celebrities). Bakley’s close friends all stated that her aim in life was to marry someone famous and all of her actions were geared around achieving this goal. Bakley was quoted as saying “being around celebrities makes you feel better than other people”. Her pursuing of celebrities began in 1990 when she became obsessed with wanting to marry rock ‘n’ roll singer Jerry Lee Lewis. She even moved to Memphis where Lewis was living, met him, and befriended Lewis’ sister as a way of getting closer to him. Bakley may have had a brief sexual relationship with Lewis, and in 1993 she gave birth to a daughter and claimed Lewis was the father (and even went as far as to name the baby Jeri Lee). Paternity tests later proved that Lewis was not the father of Bakley’s daughter. Following a move from Memphis to California, she continued her celebrity obsession by pursuing many different celebrities including actor Gary Busey, singer-songwriter and guitarist Chuck Berry, singer Frankie Valli, actor Robert De Niro, singer-songwriter Lou Christie, publisher Larry Flynt, entertainer Dean Martin, and musician Prince, before having a relationship with Marlon Brando’s son, Christian (following his release from prison in 1996).

It was in 1999, that Bakley met American actor Robert Blake while still dating Brando. She became pregnant again (telling both Blake and Brando that they were the father of the baby). She believed Brando was the father of the daughter she gave birth to (naming the child Christian Shannon Brando). However, later paternity tests showed it was Blake who was the father (and the baby was then re-named Rose). In November 2000, Bakley and Blake married (and Blake became Bakley’s tenth [!!!] husband). When I first read about Bakley’s attempts to have a relationship with someone famous, the first words that sprang to mind was ‘groupie’ and ‘stalker’. However, the article by Svetkey and Weiner specifically stated that:

“People who attempt to make themselves ”feel better” by romantically pursuing the famous [are] not groupies: Groupies are merely overzealous, oversexed fans. They’re not stalkers, either. Bakley’s relationship with Blake wasn’t imaginary…nor is she known to have ever threatened him with physical harm. And although her past was hardly squeaky-clean…she wasn’t simply a grifter. What Bakley pursued with meticulous and methodical precision wasn’t so much cash as cachet, the reflected glory of being with a star. Any star would do — even one like Blake, who hasn’t shone for the better part of a decade. Unlike stalkers and groupies, people like Bakley generally don’t develop crushes on the stars they pursue — it’s fame itself that flames their desires, regardless of whom it’s attached to. Sometimes they don’t even seem to like those they’re chasing. While Bakley was attempting a relationship with Blake, for instance, she was also apparently involved with Marlon Brando’s son Christian”.

Most of the famous people that she pursued most actively (i.e., Blake, Brando, Lewis) had careers that were on the wane. She chose people that wanted validation that they were still famous. Both Bakley and the ‘stars’ she chased appeared to be yearning validation, attention and wanting to be perceived as special. An American psychotherapist – Donald Fleming – was interviewed for the article by Svetkey and Weiner. He speculated about celebriphiles:

”Often these people have serious identity problems. They lack a centered sense of self. They’re usually people that have not developed any particular skills or abilities in life. They never developed out of their grandiose childhood wishes and fantasies to be important. The only way they can feel important or special or unique is through famous people being part of their life…People who follow stars often have the obsessive-compulsive trait. They can fool almost anybody. They become so acute at reading how to meet another person’s needs that they can pick up on their vulnerabilities and play them like a violin”.

Dr. David Giles who wrote one of the best books on the psychology of fame – Illusions of Immortality: A Psychology of Fame and Celebrity – explains the relationships that people have with celebrities as a parasocial interaction:

”One of the things about fame is how incredibly new it is to human experience. It started with mass communication, which is only about 100 years old. And the speed with which it’s developed – radio and then TV – has been astonishing. In an evolutionary sense, we may not have caught up with the phenomenon of fame as a species”.

Celebrity (and therefore celebriphilia) is as Dr. Giles would argue a completely modern, man-made phenomenon. In typical journalese, Svetkey and Weiner wrote that celebrity has “been injected into the cultural bloodstream like an untested drug – with a similar rush of disorienting results”. They also speculate about other people that display celebriphilia:

Courtney Love may have once suffered a touch of it. (‘Become friends with Michael Stipe’, Kurt Cobain’s widow supposedly jotted in a journal years ago, mapping her road to fame)…And certainly Whitney Walton – known around Hollywood as the mysterious ‘Miranda’ – has something like it. She became infamous for charming her way into telephone friendships with Billy Joel, Warren Beatty, Quincy Jones, Richard Gere, and…other celebrities [including] Robert De Niro”.

As noted above, there has been no empirical research on celebriphilia unless you include the small amount of research on ‘celebrity stalking’ (although very few academics who have written on the topic use the word ‘celebriphilia’). However, there are a few exceptions. For instance, Dr. Brian Spitzberg and Dr. Michelle Cadiz wrote a paper on the media construction of stalking stereotypes and described one of the types as ‘stalking as celebriphilia’ in a 2002 issue of the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture (although the authors didn’t actually define what celebriphilia was in this context). In a 2006 book (Constructing Crime: Perspectives on Making News and Social Problems) edited by Dr. Victor Kappeler and Dr. Gary Potter, the authors briefly noted (in what seems a follow on from the paper by Spitzberg and Cadiz) that “media reports eventually moved away from a dominant image of stalkers as exclusively experiencing ‘celebriphilia’”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Giles, D. (2000). Illusions of Immortality: A Psychology of Fame and Celebrity. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kappeler, V.E. & Gary W. Potter, G.W. (2006). Constructing Crime: Perspectives on Making News and Social Problems. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

King, G. (2011). Who murdered Bonny Lee Bakley? (part 7: Bony the celebriphiliac). Crime Library, Located at: http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/family/bakley/7.html

Medical Dictionary (2012). Celebriphilia. Located at: http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Celebriphilia

Nation Master (2012). Celebriphilia. Located at: http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Celebriphilia

Spitsberg, B.H. & Cadiz, M. (2002). The media construction of stalking stereotypes. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 9(3), 128-149.

Svetkey, B. & Weiner, A.H. (2001). Dangerous game. Entertainment Weekly, June 22. Located at: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,256019,00.html

Wiktionary (2012). Citations: Celebriphilia. Located at: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Citations:celebriphilia