Look who’s stalking: a new twist in the cult of celebrity

Celebrity Worship Syndrome is the latest malady to hit the West. And with one in three of us identified as sufferers, the consequences are dire, warns Iain Murray

Manufacturing may be slowing down on both sides of the Atlantic, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t being made any more. In the US, and to a lesser extent in this country, there is a thriving industry devoted to creating syndromes.

Lovingly and beautifully crafted by social scientists working in bijou clinics and laboratories, these exquisite products have, at their best, the intricacy, not to mention usefulness, of a Fabergé egg. Syndrome-smiths are remarkable in that their creativity responds to the smallest stimuli. All that is required is for some mildly self-obsessed American to walk in, lie on a couch and grumble a little and, before you can say Sigmund Freud, a syndrome is in the making.

These artefacts are turned out in their thousands, particularly along the western seaboard, where the soft breezes of the Pacific Ocean meet the still softer cerebral tissue of the native Californians, producing a self-absorption so damp that all reason is dissolved. But the westerners don’t have a monopoly. In other parts of the States, too, psycho-creativity is at work, as an especially fine specimen, hand-wrought by a partnership between Florida and Illinois, proves.

Professor Lynn McCutcheon of DeVry University, in the Sunshine State, and James Houran, a clinical psychiatrist at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, came together like Beaumont and Fletcher to produce a syndrome so remarkable that it has excited the attention of connoisseurs the world over. They call it Celebrity Worship Syndrome (CWS), and it’s what an earlier generation of Americans would have called a dilly, something so exciting and unusual that it grabs the attention and holds it in a feverish grip.

Much of its appeal lies in the cleverly constructed accessories that accompany it. An unadorned syndrome may be interesting, but one that is packaged complete with gorgeously tooled and freshly minted statistics is irresistible. Only a true craftsperson could create a syndrome such as Celebrity Worship and add, as McCutcheon and Houran have done, that it afflicts one in three. Yes, next time you get on a bus, walk down a crowded street, or play a game of golf you may reflect upon the extraordinary fact that one in every three people you see is clinically round the twist. Better still, the condition leads to depression, anxiety, psychosis and – wait for it – social dysfunction.

Ah yes, the prefix “dys”, where would social science be without it? It may cause dyssatisfaction and even dysmay among lay people with a feeling for language, but to the syndrome-smith it is a boon beyond measure, a three-lettered marvel that translates the mundane into the mystical, the trite into the true.

But what really distinguishes McCutcheon and Houran, raises them head and shoulders above lesser syndrome manufacturers, and makes them the envy even of those bronzed and bearded Californian veterans, is their invention of the Celebrity Attitude Scale, a wholly new piece of work capable of precisely measuring interest in celebrities. Not since the invention of the barometer has a device excited so much interest.

It was through subjecting 600 people to the scrutiny of the Celebrity Attitude Scale that the researchers made their astonishing discovery that one in three is on the slippery slope to social dysfunction. CWS (not to be confused with our own dear Co-operative Wholesale Society, which is about as removed from celebrity as it is possible to be while still remaining within the Earth’s gravitational pull) affects people of all ages and both sexes. Better still – another dilly – it’s on the increase. Who knows, before we have time to blink, two in every three people will be sufferers and then – could it be possible? – three in every three. Yes, the time may come when every single one of us will be so obsessed by celebrity that we shall all be socially dysfunctional.

Celebrities themselves will be among the worst sufferers, since they will be afflicted by Reflex Cognitive Celebrity Worship Syndrome, otherwise known as acute Narcissism, for which there is no cure save a prolonged dose of total obscurity in the pages of the Sunday Sport or on BBC3.

According to McCutcheon and Houran, one in five of us falls into the early “entertainment social stage” of CWS. This may appear harmless but it is addictive and may escalate into an unhealthy obsession.

The next stage is developing “intense personal” attitude towards a star, such as a belief in a special bond with the celebrity. This affects one in ten. Finally, the stage at which the men in white coats are summoned, is “borderline pathological”. This includes stalkers and affects one in 100.

The message for marketing professionals is plain and can be summed up in two words – watch out. Already blamed for inducing people to drink, eat and spend too much, in every case to their detriment, marketers may soon be accused of contributing to depression, anxiety, psychosis and dysability though excessive use of celebrities in advertising, sales promotion and sponsorship.

This column confesses to being a victim of CWS, possibly in the second, “intense personal”, stage. Why, it craves to know, have David Beckham and his wife Victoria spent more than &£5,000 on 200 pairs of his-and-hers designer underpants from Italy? There must be a clinical condition here. Acute Pudendal Decorative Syndrome, perhaps?

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