I have a terrible habit. At the very end of the day, when I’ve finished my busy workday at the office, done every chore at home, cooked every meal and my daughter is asleep, I crave a light entertaining escape from the daily grind. It’s usually about 10 pm, and instead of picking up a classic novel or a non-fiction book by a renowned expert, I’m reading trashy celebrity news on my phone.
It all started in the 90s when the only sources of celebrity news were People Magazine and Entertainment Tonight, the main attraction on TV at 7:30 pm each night. I have fond memories of watching Entertainment Tonight while eating take-out dinners with my mom and brother. Those were the days. Nowadays, as soon as we open the Internet, we’re inundated with news about famous people. On top of the standard news channels, there are thousands of blogs specializing in different aspects of celebrity culture, news and gossip.
I don’t actually care about these celebrities, nor do I obsess over their lives. I just find it relaxing at the end of the day. “It’s no big deal. I just do it to relax,” says the addict. I would have thought I would eventually lose interest in the vacuous lives of rich narcissists. But no.
At the end of the day, I don’t want to communicate or interact with anyone, read anything requiring intellectual brain power or contemplate anything depressing. I find the news these days disturbing, shocking, scary and sad. I keep up to date just so people don’t think I’m uninformed, even though it would be better to be blissfully ignorant. But ask me about the Beyhive, Beyoncé’s (a.k.a. Queen Bey’s) fan base, and I know a little too much.
I may think I read celebrity news as a guilty escapist pleasure but it’s probably more of an unconscious primitive instinct to collect information that could upgrade my social status. My monkey brain just can’t tell the difference between gossip about celebrities and high-status people in my actual social circle. Just because Brad Pitt is now single does not mean he will suddenly appear on my doorstep to ask me out.
It’s thought that in prehistoric societies, the latest gossip was vital to gauge opportunities to move up socially. Tracking what the highest status people in society are doing can help achieve a higher social status by adjusting our behaviours based on social dynamics. We’re also wired to care more about negative news about higher-status people of the same sex because this may give us an advantage over our biological competitors.
Why do we have a special affinity to negative news about celebrities? The downfall of Charlie Sheen, Britney Spears, Tiger Woods, Johnny Depp and others who have publicly humiliated themselves are particularly fascinating. We love watching people who are prettier, more successful and seemingly happier than us fall from grace. Why should they have all the fun?
Schadenfreude or “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others” is especially satisfying when it happens to someone you envy or when it may benefit you. Knowing that a celebrity is having drug problems and is mentally unstable will not help me get a promotion. But it does make me feel slightly less inferior and like my life sucks less than theirs at the moment. Seeing unflattering photos of celebrities (and sometimes their unfortunate mugshots) also makes realize that many of them are, like me, pretty average in the looks department.
Thankfully, I don’t fall into the category of people who are unhealthily obsessed with celebrities. Unfortunately, some see celebrities as demigods, blindly following their advice and the brands they are promoting, many of which get paid to enjoy. The toxic combination of online anonymity, social media and power in numbers can make the hoards of fans act like bullies.
For example, when Beyoncé released her visual album Lemonade, the Beyhive worked together like a wiki detective agency to figure out exactly who was “Becky with the good hair” who wronged their leader, Queen Bey. The Beyhive swarm viciously attacked the fashion designer Rachel Roy on social media who had posted a photo of herself with the caption “Good hair, don’t care” hours after the album’s debut. Roy was also rumoured to be the reason Solange, Beyoncé’s sister, attacked Jay Z (Beyoncé’s husband) in an elevator after the 2014 Met Gala.
Celebrity breakups and feuds are especially riveting, especially when they publicly drag each other through the news or on social media. There was the play-by-play analysis of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s divorce, custody and PR drama (a.k.a. World War Brange). There was Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s “conscious uncoupling” announcement, which crashed her lifestyle website “Goop”. Martha Stewart then dragged Paltrow in her magazine by posting a pie recipe titled conscious coupling, shortly after Paltrow filed for divorce from Chris Martin.
One epic feud is Kanye West’s and Taylor Swift’s drama that has been ongoing since he infamously interrupted Taylor Swift‘s acceptance speech at MTV’s Video Music Awards in 2009. The drama continued for years with various incidents. In 2016, West released the song “Famous” where he says, “I think me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that bitch famous”. The music video for the song features a naked wax figure of Swift, along with other naked wax celebs. Swift then released the song “Look what you made me do” in her album Reputation containing many thinly-veiled references to West and his wife Kim Kardashian.
The excitement and intrigue goes on and on…
The precious time I waste lazily reading celebrity gossip blogs could be better used learning something valuable and actively increasing my knowledge and skills, which would better serve to increase my social status. But I’m tired. My spirit is deadened by the long day’s work and the prospect of more of the same tomorrow.
I’m too old now to wish for sudden fame, but too young to have given up on vicariously living through celebrities and enjoying their misfortune. I’m still in that time of life where you’re expected to work as much as possible while also rearing young children. Maybe when I retire, I’ll have enough free time and feel alert enough to read a proper book (and maybe even write one!) and quit celebrity news for good.