Are celebrities bigger than religion?

17:00, Sep 10 2009
Chris Rojek
CONTROVERSIAL CLAIM: Sociologist Chris Rojek believes celebrities are becoming bigger than organised religion and are replacing many facets of our lives.

Paris Hilton is a saint and Michael Jackson was a god, according to an eminent UK sociology professor here to deliver a lecture on celebrity culture. David Gadd talks to Chris Rojek.

Celebrity is increasingly supplanting religion in our modern lives, according to sociologist Chris Rojek.

He specialises in celebrity and culture as Head of Department and Professor of Sociology and Culture at the UK's Brunel University and is here to deliver two public lectures as a visiting Hood Fellow at The University of Auckland.

nelson mandela
GOOD SAINT: Nelson Mendela is one of the world's best celebrities, according to visiting sociologist Chris Rojek.

"We too readily dismiss the whole business as simply trivia. It actually is something that goes very deep into our culture," he told Stuff.co.nz.

"The collapse of organised religion, the absence of having saints or a God to look up to, for many people in western societies is being filled by celebrity culture - they are the new saints," he said.

Celebrities provided morality tales for us, Rojek said.

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Robert Mugabe is one of visiting sociologist Chris Rojek's top celebrity sinners.
BAD BOY: Robert Mugabe is one of visiting sociologist Chris Rojek's top celebrity sinners.

"We always need someone to look up to. If we don't believe in a god, who else is there to look up to except celebrities? Politicians are so mired in bad press, in letting the people down and every five years we get rid of them. Our business leaders have lead to the current collapse in the western banking system.

"The celebrities offer us hope for a better future and even when they are not doing that, they are showing us how not to be, how not to get involved with drugs and alcohol and wild women. Celebrities give us that constant message," said Rojek.

"And maybe society needs people like that. We need people to make us feel better because if we don't have those people, we're reliant on nothing really," he said.

"When you look at Michael Jackson's life you can see certain aspects of his life that you would want to emulate and certain aspects that you would feel are not good to copy and celebrities in general, I think, do that for us. They are role models; they give us standards of behaviour."

He pointed out more parallels between religion and celebrities.

There is the trade in autographs and paraphernalia once owned by stars - just last week Nelson jeweller Glen Tomlinson bought a Paris Hilton boarding pass auctioned on Trade Me for $710 saying it was an investment, to be framed on his wall until he decided to sell it on.

"Why should it be of any value?" asked Rojek.

"You can sell a golf ball owned by Sean Connery for $2000, a golf ball you can buy in the shop for 10 cents. Why do we need these things? Simply because they (celebrities) have touched them, because they have been in their grasp. There is an aura like ectoplasm about celebrities.

"It is almost like looking for some kind of spiritual element that isn't present in ordinary life, that they, the celebrities, have that they are radiating all the time."

Indeed, in extreme cases some fans could deify their favoured celebrity.

"The only relationship that you have in life where you will give your private thoughts to someone you have never met, project your hopes and fears onto is a god. There is a kind of holy connection between [fans and] some celebrities and the only parallel I can see is a god."

Rojek said we also looked to celebrities to learn how to behave and how to become more "credible, competent and relevant".

"I think its more important now to make an impact in what ever group you work in. You've got to project, you've got to push you've got to stand out in some way or you don't get ahead.

And we look to celebrities to guide us in this quest for social acceptability.

"They become the role models, they become the figures of attraction for most of us and we try and learn from them what works for them in terms of how they hold their faces, how they interact with people, the kinds of things they are interested in like save the world or save children in Africa and that becomes an agenda for us because in doing that we look cool - we look competent, credible and relevant."

Through history there have been "ascribed celebrities" - those who were famous by virtue of their birth, such as royals and nobles. The first celebrity is generally regarded to be Alexander the Great, who deliberately created a cult around him, mythologizing himself.

Post industrialisation we saw the rise of "achieved celebrity", where you became famous because of what you did. The Beatles are a classic example.

Now we have the third age of celebrity - the Celetoid, a celebrity created by the tabloid media. "For 10 seconds they are everywhere and then forgotten. There is no work ethic at all."

UK reality TV star Jade Goody is an example of the celetoid and the modern morality tale.

"Here we have someone who was a nothing, she didn't look good, she didn't have anything to say, she wasn't in anyway extraordinary. She was famous for being a racist. In the end she suffered a horrible death, there was a sort of atonement with the public people began to see there was something good about her."

So do we all want to be celebrities?

"Being ordinary, particularly for young people, is not really what they want. They want to stand out in some way. They want to be cool, to count in some way."

Is this desire to be a celebrity good?

"It all depends on how they behave when they do stand out in a particular way."

Is it abnormal to be a shrinking violet these days?

"I think it's much more important now to make an impact in what ever group you work in. You've got to project, you've got to push you've got to stand out in some way or you don't get ahead."

What about the Kiwi tall poppy syndrome - we seem to dislike home grown celebrities.

"I don't think that's any bad thing, it shows a realism, but you haven't avoided the illness, the illness is world wide."

But "many new Zealanders find it hard to actually by pushy. NZ character is very modest."

The circus of celebrity is a creation of the media. While being condescending about celebrities, pages and screens are filled with them. So the media is mired in hypocrisy?

"Yes."

So does an obsession with vacuous celebrity mean we are getting dumber as a society?

On the contrary. We are becoming discerning, we can see through celebrities - "but our appetite for celebrity isn't being fulfilled we're always wanting something new, there is a constant hunger for some new phenomenon in celebrity culture".

Alongside the vacuous and vapid celebrities there are those who perhaps provide greater proof to Rojek's view.

He pointed to Nelson Mandela who he said had become father of a utopian view of the world where all people would come together and there was no racial injustice.

"Now that might be mythical, but actually to have someone embody that is important. I think people can't just live by written ideals, they need a body to represent those ideals and celebrities perform that function for us."

* Professor Chris Rojek will deliver the lecture Understanding Celebrity Culture on September 22 and What Does Free Time Mean in the 21st Century? on 24 September at Auckland University. Both lectures are free and open to the public.

Chris Rojek's top five global celebrity saints:
Nelson Mandela
Edmund Hillary
John Lennon
Bono
Barrack Obama

Chris Rojek's worst global celebrity sinners:
Bernie Madoff
Adolf Hitler
Robert Mugabe
Charles Manson
Pol Pot

* Who do you think are the best and worst celebrities? Post your comments below.

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