Dr. Drew needs an intervention, and he needs one now. Everywhere he looks, he sees screwed-up celebrities. Or MySpace wannabe superstars who model their behavior on screwed-up celebrities. In his new book, The Mirror Effect, he explains that a combination of drunken heiresses, craven scandalmongers and voyeuristic gossip consumers has created a “perfect storm” of narcissistic behavior, which has “troubling implications for our value systems and society at large.” Hold steady, Lindsay! Hold steady, Britney! Your delicate sobriety is all that stands between us and Armageddon!
According to Dr. Drew, “the behavior of today’s celebrities is much more dramatically dysfunctional than it was a decade ago.” Reporting on them has grown more “ruthless and mean-spirited.” Our appetite for such stuff has exceeded the merely gluttonous and now qualifies as pathological. In our efforts to be like the mixed-up, over-the-top celebrities over whom we obsess, Dr. Drew maintains, we’re adopting all of their worst narcissistic behaviors—exhibitionism, entitlement, vanity, exploitativeness, etc.—and hurting ourselves and our culture.
Or to put it another way: If you spend all your time hosting a syndicated radio show that features celebrity guests, and a cable reality show that features celebrity substance abusers, and another cable reality show that features horny, exhibitionistic teens, you probably don’t have a lot of time to study history. Or even to look that closely at the world around you.
Take a stroll through books like Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon or Jeannette Walls’ history of gossip journalism, Dish, and you’ll see that celebrities were just as crazy in the past as they are now, the press’ coverage was just as voyeuristic, the public’s interest just as intense. In gossip pioneer Walter Winchell’s 1940s heyday, he reached 50 million readers and listeners a week, or roughly one out of three Americans, a ratio no current scandalmonger comes close to matching. The infamous tabloid Confidential, whose tagline was “Uncensored and Off the Record,” published stories in the 1950s that would look right at home at TMZ.com today: “Exclusive photos! How Rita Hayworth’s children were neglected.” “Psst! Vic Mature: Remember that cute trick you dated? ‘She’ was a he!”
Which is not to say that nothing has changed. There are a lot more celebrities to keep track of, and more powerful and efficient tools with which to monitor them. Confidential was published just six times a year; TMZ updates its site throughout the day. Ultimately, though, the proliferation of celebrity gossip is just part of the much greater proliferation of media and entertainment. Sure, you can spend every waking moment looking at celebrity nipple-slips now—but you can also spend every waking moment watching YouTube videos by anonymous nobodies, playing video games, recording and distributing your own songs, reading political commentary from armchair pundits. In 2009, celebrities are less powerful and influential than they’ve been in decades; like home improvement and genealogy, they’re just another domain around which to order niche-market programming.
They recognize this too, no doubt, and that’s why the savvier ones, like Lindsay and Britney and Paris, act like they do. They want to keep our attention, and they know that’s a tall order. But it’s not they who are undermining us with their narcissistic shenanigans; it’s we who are corrupting them. Long before the Osbournes discovered how lucrative it could be to throw tantrums on MTV, Puck was blazing that trail on The Real World. Long before Lindsay and Britney were afflicted with panties amnesia, legions of drunken co-eds were exposing themselves to Joe Francis and his Girls Gone Wild cameras. The new era of carefully mediated exhibitionism and outrageousness was created from the bottom up, by pioneer gonzo pornographers like John Stagliano; by already-forgotten tell-all web diarists like Jennifer Ringley of JenniCam and Justin Hall of Links.net; by the naked fat guy on Survivor’s first season. If every one of today’s celebrities were as discreet as Greta Garbo in her I-want-to-be-alone phase, we would still have the same show-off culture we have now.
Or, rather, the same show-off subculture. If you spend all day refreshing Gawker.com and PerezHilton.com for updates, celebrity narcissism may seem to have reached epidemic levels. Look beyond that insular realm, however, and it turns out there are billions of people who have no idea how Miley Cyrus spent her weekend, billions more who’ve never posted a suggestive photo of themselves on MySpace and at least a solid one or two million who harbor no illusions about becoming the next American Idol. Society at large will survive this new subculture of show-offs, and so will Dr. Drew—as long as he remembers to pay as much attention to the real world as he does to The Real World.