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Anno Domini: A crank's look at the cult of celebrity
August 04, 2011 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis
As far back as I can remember, kindergartners have sung “Frere Jacques” at some point during the school year. But the words have been replaced for today’s audiences. They now sing: “I am special, I am special. Look at me. Look at me.”

At the end of the school year, the kindergartners even make their own paper mortarboards and march into the gym to receive official diplomas for graduating from kindergarten.
But before diplomas are handed out, their teacher will gush to proud parents that “They’ve taught me so much more than I’ve taught them.” And a question pops into my mind. “So why are we paying you?”

Welcome to the cult of celebrity, where everyone wants to be in the spotlight, even if it’s only for the 15 minutes that Andy Warhol mentioned. Everyone is angling for that special something that lands them a “movie and a book deal.”

On Oct. 15, 2009, a hoax monger from Ft. Collins, name of Richard Heene, tried for his moment in the spotlight. In the process, his six-year-old son Falcon became known as the “balloon boy.”
The entire nation sat riveted to the news as a balloon floated away into the atmosphere, headed toward Denver. Resembling a half-popped pan of Jiffy Pop, the balloon covered three counties, traveling more than 50 miles in about an hour.

Everyone was watching because Heene said his son was in the balloon, which was reaching heights of 7,000 feet. Denver International Airport was closed down as National Guard helicopters pursued the craft.

When it did land, no one was on board. Authorities staged a manhunt of the entire area, raising fears the boy had fallen from the balloon.

It was later discovered the boy had been hiding in the attic of the family’s house the whole time. When the family showed up on national television, Falcon slipped up and said his father had told him the whole thing was a publicity stunt. As for Richard Heene, he was forced to pay $36,000 in restitution in addition to jail time.

The balloon boy incident may have been outrageous, but I wonder how many others would be willing to do something just as ridiculous for their shot at joining the cult of celebrity.
Not only do people idolize celebrities, they want to BE them. Of course that’s not a big challenge, given that people with absolutely no talent are famous for merely being famous. Take the Kardashians … please.

One of my favorite television characters is Fr. Frank Dowling, parish priest at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Chicago.

In one episode of the Father Dowling Mysteries, a television crew arrived at St. Michael’s to shoot a television movie. One of the fellow priests was enamored about the possibility of having a small part in the show. And Fr. Dowling wisely observed, “This may come as a shock to you, but many people live happy and fruitful lives without ever once appearing on TV.”

That’s something I sure can agree with. Most celebrities’ lives are about as dysfunctional as they come. Still, we never seem to get enough of celebrities behaving badly – the more outrageous the behavior, the better.

It’s a sad testament that few people are surprised when some of these celebrities die from their outrageous habits and behaviors.

About six years ago, Joseph Epstein wrote a rather lengthy essay on the culture of celebrity. One line that caught my attention: “Many of our current-day celebrities float upon ‘hype,’ which is really a publicist’s gas used to pump up and set aloft something that doesn’t really quite exist.” (Maybe that’s where Richard Heene got his idea.)

Epstein added that because so much of the tabloid press covers “how the mighty have fallen,” a good generic title for them would be “National Schadenfreude.”

I’m not sure if there’s any precedent in other civilizations for this cult of celebrity. No one can remember the names of any of the A-list actors from ancient Rome or Greece. I wonder if it was because their actors weren’t considered that important.

Same here. Until we became enamored with the cult of celebrity, about the only American actor of historic note was John Wilkes Booth.

I really don’t think the cult of celebrity is all that people want it to be. People want power. They want fame. Maybe a movie star or a music star – an exciting life. Well, celebrities are only as good as their last record, their last film. Eventually, their names become fodder for trivia games under the category “Whatever happened to …?”

Sure, they may make a fortune while their star rockets across the firmament, but what happens when they’re gone? Relatives fight over the estate.

There’s nothing wrong with having a “great big wish,” but we all need to look at the price tag attached to those dreams. Sometimes, the price is just too much.

I’ve never been the extravagant type, so my great big wish is more modest than most – one that’s already been granted. It’s simply to “… dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

That’s good enough for me.
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