The English have their royalty, the Japanese have their gadgets, and here in the United States, we have celebrities. Lots and lots of celebrities.

Sports stars, actors, musicians…at some point in their careers, they become less a person and more an idea. Each and every one of them personifies a different niche; a different market segmentation.

Growing up in Missouri, I knew people who were absolutely obsessed with celebrities. They would go to church and pray and then go home to sit in front of the TV (their real place of worship) and turn on E! True Hollywood Stories or log on to Perez Hilton to read the latest about who got in a catfight with whom at which club in Los Angeles over the weekend. And what they were wearing (and how in or out of style it was).

And that’s in the Midwest, culturally and geographically hundreds of miles from the action! To really understand America’s obsession with stars, you have to live closer to the epicenter, and if celebrities are gods, Los Angeles is Mount Olympus.

Having lived in LA for the past few years, I’ve found that 1) the number of people who are obsessed with celebrities in LA is much higher than in Missouri, 2) many of these people are obsessed because they believe they will someday be (or be dating) a celebrity, and 3) they seem to have just as much chance of becoming celebrities with their $300 jeans and $200 haircuts as the Croc-wearing, McDonald’s-eating folk back in Missouri.

“But so what?” you’re likely shouting at anyone within hearing range. “Celebrities are entertainers! They’re harmless!”

The real problem that I have with celebrity is that most of the people we hold in such high regard aren’t very good role models. Oh wow, he can act! She looks good half-naked on the cover of magazines! Children, look! Imitate!

Then again, people aren’t looking for role models when they page through the latest celebrity gossip rag, they’re looking for scandal. It’s like a soap opera; one that the PR people are orchestrating and the people of America are entranced by.

Celebrity has become Soma (an escapist drug) for the American people. We’re so distracted by what Brittany is up to this week that we don’t have time to keep up with current events, politics, art, literature, etc etc etc (you know, all that non-sexy stuff).

The real shame is that celebrity in itself is not wrong; it’s just America’s approach to it that’s failing us.

If little girls were flipping out over the latest literary achievement by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing and little boys were getting excited about new findings related to entangled particles, then we probably wouldn’t be suffering through our current crises (rushing to close the technology gap with other countries, suffering under a failing educational system, enduring a horrendous economic crisis, etc).

So what can do you change a nationwide trend?

You can start by changing your own activities and influencing others by example. Any time you catch yourself turning on some mind-candy TV show or paging through People or reaching for a tabloid, redirect your attention to something productive and fulfilling. I’ll bet there are a million and one things you’ve been telling yourself you would accomplish this year that you haven’t even started on. What better way to use this reclaimed time than by investing it in those goals?

Turning off the TV can also help A LOT. I’ve been TV-less for over two years, and in that time I’ve enjoyed massive amounts of productive time that would have otherwise been drained by the boob tube.

In the end, take it from a marketing guy: all of these celebrities, at the end of the day, exist only to sell you something. They are themselves a product created to sell other products. If you approach them like you would any other commercial (that is, changing the channel to see what else is on), you’ll be doing yourself a service.

What do you think? Are you a celebriphile? Can’t stand them? Share your comments below!

Update: April 24, 2016

A few things about this post:

1. I’ve mellowed a bit in my disdain of celebrity culture. Yes, I still think that it’s largely mindless entertainment, but I also wouldn’t judge others for being more interested in celebrity gossip than, say, reading a book. Different people, different priorities, I don’t know what they get from the experience and don’t feel the need to force my biases on others.

2. I do still think it’s important that we recognize that the concept of a celebrity isn’t as straightforward as portrayed. People seldom just ‘become famous’ — they’re put in the public eye by people and groups who stand to benefit from it. Celebrity is marketing. Celebrity is about selling you something.

3. I mention that everyone in LA thinks they’ll become famous, and that still rings true. I don’t know that this is such a bad thing, though — it’s the same optimism people around the US feel about success and being recognized for something that they care about. Do some of them just want to be loved by strangers, irrespective of why or what they’re known for? Certainly. But if that’s something they think will fulfill them, who am I to tell them they’re wrong? Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t, and they’ll feel nothing but longing for it until they can see that firsthand. Either way, it’s not my responsibility or right to try and convince them otherwise.