Celebrity Worship — The New Religion?


I guess people have to worship something.

I certainly have seen people idolize people before.  Sometimes, to my amazement, when my parents managed to get me in the newspaper as a child for some alleged academic achievement, it was even me. Religion is something I generally avoid with patients.  I sometimes will admit that I say things like “God love you.”  As a matter of fact, I remember that my mother-in-law, Carolyn of blessed memory, said that sometimes, and I liked the feeling, and I suspect that is when I integrated it into my conversation, at least with patients who had limited time with me and wanted to discuss religion.

Mama Carolyn used it as a place-holder, when she had no relevant answer to contribute, such as:

ME: I won the Lottery!

Carolyn: God love you!


ME: I fell down and broke my arm!

Carolyn: God love you!

It’s handy to have a phrase like that when people are expecting a response. In one case, it was a necessity because I had a patient who was one of those young people I will admit I have trouble relating to.  She was 22, had blonde hair, with easily visible black roots, and she had plenty of problems — but they were not unusual problems.  Primarily, a mother whom she fought with, usually about the fate of a couple of illegitimate babies she had around the house.

She had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  Moreover, she was a face picker.  She would scratch and pick at her skin until she bled and her face was covered with scabs and scars. Additionally, almost as if she were making a deliberate attempt to distract people from her potentially drop-dead beauty — she was one of those fresh, dewy types — she had a little nose ring, with a rhinestone.

It was only the second time I had seen her. We were ramping up on a medication that could, at best, only be starting to treat her OCD.  She was angry with me that this had not yet appeared to have much of an effect of the face-picking.  I told her it took a little more time.

She started talking, instead, about Ashlee Simpson’s nose surgery, which she seemed to acknowledge was controversial, but which had obviously been a source of great interest to her. I could not get her to stop talking about it.  It took everything I had to get her out of the office.

For the OCD, in addition to the medication, I recommended the same book I had used years before when I had done some OCD groups.

“Stop Obsessing” by Edna Foa and Reid Wilson, is especially strong on rituals and I consider face-picking a ritual.

I even told the patient I knew there was another copy in the public library, as one of my patients had found it and used it, and this patient was always complaining about a lack of money (most folks did in this clinic.) I called her therapist, who had been struggling mightily and was not getting very far.  The therapist excitedly bought the book, and found it easy to use.

I usually have to be staying in a hotel to make even an attempt at watching commercials. But I was amazed, when I watched the Entertainment channel, that Ashley Simpson’s nose surgery was rated as the best plastic surgery story of several, in what must have to have been an often repeated special on plastic surgery among the stars. I watched the entirety of the show with horror, seemingly paralyzed with a remote in my hand, as I realized that many of my patients in county clinics considered this entertainment. I found nothing in the classical psychiatric literature about this celebrity obsession.  I have seen enough to consider it a real syndrome, although few patients seemed as obsessed with anything as this patient seemed to have been with Jessica Simpson’s nose surgery.

Clearly there was something going on over and above the standard OCD. They call it “celebrity worship syndrome” and although the patient’s therapist and I both agreed we did not usually see anything as flagrant as the patient described, we had seen something we thought was it. Nothing in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to cover this, other than the OCD we already knew about. This one has been a tough one to look up on the internet, but all the circumstantial evidence points to the existence of a real live syndrome, which has been researched both in the states and in the United Kingdom.

Yes, I think of them as the place that gave us Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, but they also gave us the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail and such.

I could not figure out why information on this syndrome was not available through the usual channels, like academic medical journals, until I checked out a source I tend to approach cautiously, Wikipedia, and found this article. To say characteristically that the “objectivity” of this article can be “disputed” is understatement at best, since this is probably the angriest looking entry I have seen to date in Wikipedia. Here is the truth as far as I can find it. A man named Lynn McCutcheon, PhD, seems to have been a leader in this theme of research.

He is criticized in the Wikipedia for having published in at least one journal that is not academic enough to count for “points” toward academic professorship in a University.  He seems to have been its editor for at least a while.

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry lists him as an author, and is kind enough to tell me where this man lives…and that he is currently doing some university teaching.

All this and, alas, no web page of his own.

I like that he is not in academe.  My experience with academia left me sour, for my memories include mostly trivial personalities and disagreeable internal politics.

We have to value him.  He may be the only person in the world who can figure out why anybody would want to watch a TV show about the Kardashians.

There are some very good researchers, in terms of behavioral stuff like questionnaires and their statistical analysis, who appear to have looked at this syndrome pretty nicely. Moreover, what people seem to say and think goes pretty well with my clinical observations, most of which involve people far less ill than the patient described here.

Nevertheless, the one thing that even the best researchers may miss is how this affects family members, who feel real problems in life are being ignored in favor of fantasy celebrity issues. Getting through reviews of reviews, I can make these recommendations to anyone who is or loves someone who may have Celebrity Worship Disorder.

The most susceptible may be people 14 to 16 who choose a same sex celebrity with which to identify, although I would also be concerned about anyone who leaves their TV tuned to the Entertainment Network all day.

The most diagnostic questions somebody can ask seem to be if a person truly enjoys reading more about their chosen celebrity (or celebrities) and if that person enjoys discussing the celebrity topic with friends.

People who are mildly afflicted are not necessarily terribly disturbed.  It has however been proven nicely on both sides of the pond that people who are more severely affected have a significantly higher incidence of anxiety and depression. Depression can mean a risk of suicide and yes — I have seen at least one woman who felt suicidal because she could not figure out how to live a life comparable to that of a movie star. I guess I am still working on that one.

This has been discussed as a “gateway” to mental illness, which may be an extremely useful concept. What I see and what these authors cannot discuss is how many of these people need medication or at the very least more intensive treatment. Biochemistry is just not a place that psychologists tend to go.

Some people afflicted with Celebrity Worship Syndrome may overlap with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as my patient surely did.

I see something else clinically that research psychologists may not. I see the families that live the consequences of people who may find their own lives less welcoming than celebrating Ashlee Simpson’s nose job. Over 85% of cases of anxiety and depression are treated by general practitioners. Therapists of all styles abound.

There is help and this sounds like the idea of “gateway” may be a valid one. There is little loss and much potential gain from having the seriously celebrity obsessed screened for anxiety and depression.

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