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Why We Love to Hate Celebrities (Interview in Superinteressante Magazine in Brazil)

Uploaded 5/30/2022, approx. 14 minute read

And that's the question, why do we love celebrities?

And then on a dime, overnight, we suddenly hate them.

What is this ambivalence? What causes this transition from infatuation, idolizing, co-towing, seeking their company by proxy, to absolute hatred, cancelling them in cancel culture or just hating them online.

The outpouring of vitriol towards Johnny Depp and Amber Hurry just goes to show, just goes to show that our relationship with celebrities are much more compounded and much more complex than we imagine.

I granted an interview to Super Integersante magazine in Brazil about this issue exactly. And I would like, with your permission and kind intelligence, I would like to read to you questions and my answers.


The first question was, fame in TV shows about celebrities usually have a huge audience. This is understandable. People like to see other successful people.

But why people like to see celebrities being humiliated? Asks the journalists.

And this is my answer. As far as their fans and followers are concerned, celebrities fulfill two emotional functions, not one.

Celebrities provide a mythical narrative, a myth, a mythology, a story that the fan can follow and can identify with. And celebrities function as blank screens, blank screens onto which the fan projects his dreams, hopes, fears, plans, values and desires.

In other words, celebrities allow us to indulge in wish fulfillment, in daydreaming, in fantasizing.

The slightest deviation from these prescribed roles provokes enormous rage and makes us want to punish, humiliate and take down the deviant celebrities.

They are there to fulfill a function. They are there to cater to our psychological needs and to support us. If they don't do this, they are dead in our eyes and we want them dead in reality.

But why?

When the human foibles, vulnerabilities, misconduct and frailties of a celebrity are exposed, they're revealed, the fan feels humiliated. The fan feels cheated, helpless, hopeless and empty.

And to reassert his self-worth, the fan must establish his or her moral superiority over the erring and sinful celebrity. The fan feels humiliated because he had loved and trusted the celebrity. He had emotionally invested in the celebrity. He had affected the celebrity and the celebrity's misbehaviour is perceived as a betrayal, as a knife in the back, as a form of mockery.

The fan must teach the celebrity a lesson and show the celebrity who is boss.

It is a primitive defense mechanism, narcissistic grandiosity, coupled with splitting. It puts the fan on equal footing with the exposed and naked celebrity.

When satisfied with my answer, the journalist pursues his line of questioning.


Second question, this taste for watching a person being humiliated has something to do with the attraction to catastrophes or tragedies.

And here is the answer of Semmelweis.

There is always a sadistic pleasure and a morbid fascination in vicarious suffering.

We like to see other people suffer because being spared the pains and tribulations that others go through makes us feel chosen, safe, secure and virtuous.

The higher the celebrity rises, the harder he or she falls. There is something gratifying in hubris, defied and hubris punished.

Having digested my answer, the intrepid journalist continues.

Do you believe that the audience put themselves in the place of the reporter when the audience asks something embarrassing or over celebrity? And do they in this way revenge themselves?

I used to be by the way a journalist and an editor and then an editor in chief. So I was heavily involved in journalism for close to 20 years.

I answer, the reporter represents the bloodthirsty public. It's like gladiator sports in the Coliseum. Gladiators were the first celebrities in Rome, belittling celebrities, demeaning them, humiliating them, watching their comeuppance in the public arena. That's the modern equivalent of the Coliseum, the gladiator ring.

Gossip used to fulfill the same function and now the mass media and social media broadcast live the slaughtering of fallen gods, their clay feet.

There is no question of revenge here. Just shoden for it. The guilty joy, the glee of witnessing your superiors penalize and cut down to size and brought to your level.

It's a question of relative positioning. There are two ways about it. You can elevate yourself to the level of a celebrity but few people are capable of this.

The other option is to bring the celebrity to your level, which most people do.

However, vicariously and unnoticeably, the reporter continues, in your country, who are the celebrities people love to hate? I'm not sure which country he refers to.

I've lived in 15 countries.

But I had assumed that he means Israel. Israelis like to watch politicians and wealthy businessmen reduced, demeaned and slighted.

In Macedonia, where I live right now, all famous people, regardless of their vocation, are subject to intense proactive and destructive envy. This love-hate relationship with their idols, this ambivalence, is attributed by psychodynamic theories of personal development to the child's emotions towards his parents.

You idolise your parents, but then you gradually begin to envy them.

Freud called it the Oedipal complex in the case of boys and the electro-complex.

Jung called it the electro-complex in the case of girls.

There's an element of envying these god-like figures who are omnipotent and omniscient and infallible, your parents.

To carry this forward, celebrities, in other words, engage in transference. They become stand-in for siblings and parents.

Indeed, we transfer and displace many negative emotions that we harbour onto celebrities, a form of projection. Totally bedazzled by my inscrutable answer, the reporter continues, barely standing on his feet. I would never dare ask some questions that the reporters from Panico, another outlet, asked the celebrities.

What are the characteristics of people like these reporters?

Well, allow me to speculate. Sadistic, ambitious, narcissistic, lacking in empathy, self-righteous, pathologically, destructively, envious, with a fluctuating sense of self-worth, possibly an inferiority complex.

In short, me.

Next question. Do you believe the actors and reporters want themselves to be as famous as the celebrities that they are teasing?

Because I think it is almost happening. They are becoming celebrities, these reporters and these actors.

My answer, the line today between influencers and reporters and their subjects, this line is becoming thinner by the day, owing to the leverage of social media, like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and so.

Newsmakers and news people are celebrities today, merely because they are public figures. And regardless of their true accomplishments, what you see is what you get.

But what you get makes you a celebrity. You appear an X amount of time on the screen. You automatically become a celebrity. The celebrity is famous for being famous.

Of course, such journalists are likely to fall prey to up and coming colleagues in an endless and self-perpetuating food chain.

The insistent reporter continues, I think that the fans' celebrity relationship gratifies both sides.

What are the advantages that the fans get? And what are the advantages the celebrities get? What do both get out of such relationships?

My answer, there is an implicit kind of hidden contract between a celebrity and his fans. The celebrity is obliged to act the part. The celebrity should fulfill the expectations of his admirers. He should not deviate from the roles that these fans and followers impose on him.

And he accents implicitly by agreeing to become a celebrity. In return to his obsequiousness, in return to his role-play, the fans shower the celebrity with adulation. They idolize the celebrity and make him or her feel omnipotent, immortal, larger-than-life, omniscient, superior and sui generis unique.

But what are the fans getting for their trouble?

This requires a sip of red wine.

I think what the fans are getting, above all, is the ability to vicariously share the celebrity's fabulous and usually partly confabulated existence. The celebrity becomes their representative in fantasily. The celebrity is an extension, a proxy, the reification and embodiment of the deepest desires and most secret and guilty dreams of the fans. In this sense, it's a narcissistic process.

The narcissist treats people around him as extensions, and the fans treat celebrities as extensions.

Many celebrities are also role models. They are father-mother figures, as I mentioned. Celebrities are proof that there is more to life than drab and routine and the mundane. Celebrities show us that beautiful people do exist and that they do lead charmed lives. There is hope yet.

This is the celebrity's message to his fans.

You can also become a celebrity one day. The celebrity's inevitable downfall and corruption is the modern-day equivalent of the medieval morality play.

This trajectory from rags to riches and fame and back to rags and worse and back to fame and back to rags, etc., this repetition compulsion, this proves that order and justice do prevail in the universe. There is cosmic justice or at least poetic justice. Hubris, vanity, grandiosity, reaching up above your level invariably gets you punished.

The celebrity is no better. Neither is he superior to his fans. His downfall proves this. It's very gratifying to watch a celebrity disintegrating and falling out of view. The discombobulated reporter is persistent, perseveres and asks why are celebrities narcissists? How is this disorder born in celebrities?

I slide seamlessly into my professor stance. Yes, I am a professor of psychology and an author of books about personality disorders, most notably malignant self-love, narcissism, or revisited. So I put on my professor mask and I respond. No one knows if pathological narcissism is the outcome of inherited traits, the sad result of abusive and traumatizing upbringing, or the confluence of both.

Often in the same family with the same set of parents in an identical emotional environment, some siblings grow to be malignant narcissists, while others are perfectly normal. And surely this indicates a genetic predisposition of some people to develop narcissism. It would seem reasonable to assume though at this stage there is not a shred of proof, mind you, but it seems reasonable to assume that the narcissist is born with a proclivity, with a propensity to develop narcissistic defenses. These are triggered by abuse or trauma during the formative years in infancy or during early adolescence. That much is true. The trigger is trauma and abuse by abuse and referring to spectrum of behaviors which objectify the child.

Treat the child as an extension of the caregiver, the parent, or an instrument of gratification. Every behavior that doesn't allow the child to place boundaries, to individuate, all these behaviors are abusive.

Okay, back to celebrities. Not all celebrities are narcissists, but some of them surely are.

We all search for positive cues from people around us. These cues reinforce in us certain behavior patterns. There is nothing special in the fact that the narcissist celebrity does the same.

They also search for cues for feedback.

However, there are two major differences between the narcissistic and the normal personality.

The first difference is quantitative. The normal person is likely to welcome a moderate amount of attention, verbal attention, nonverbal attention. Healthy people want attention in the form of affirmation, approval, or even admiration.

But when healthy people are exposed to too much attention, it is perceived as onerous, difficult, and intrusive best avoided. Destructive and negative criticism is avoided by healthy people altogether.

The narcissist in contrast is the mental equivalent of an alcoholic. He is insatiable. He is a whole without a bottom. He is a bottomless pit.

The narcissist directs his entire spectrum of behaviors, the entire panoply of conduct. In fact, the narcissist directs his life to obtain these pleasurable tidbits of attention.

The narcissist embeds this narcissistic supply in a coherent, completely biased picture of himself, the grandiosity, the cognitive distortion of grandiosity.

Then the narcissist uses narcissistic supply to regulate his labile, fluctuating sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

And this is a full-time job. He needs narcissistic supply every second of every minute of every day.

To elicit constant interest, the narcissist projects on to other people, a confabulated, fictitious version of himself known as the false self.

And he tends to escalate behaviors.

As people develop tolerance to the narcissist, to his tricks and stratagems and gimmicks, to his eccentric and idiosyncratic behaviors, when they become inured and responsive to all his misconduct and all his attempts to attract attention. When they pay him no heed and they don't see him anymore, he escalates.

The false self is everything the narcissist is not. False self is omniscient, all-knowing, omnipotent, all-powerful, charming, intelligent, infallible, rich, well-connected, etc.

The narcissist actually is not. So he has to act. It's play acting. And he radicalizes his play acting to extremes.

The narcissist proceeds then to harvest reactions, not to himself, but to his projected image. All the reactions the narcissist garners is to his false self, not to his self.

That's why he needs constant reassurance. That's why he works ceaselessly, indefatigably to obtain supply from family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors, business partners, from colleagues.

If these, if the adulation, the admiration, the attention, the fear, the respect, the applause, the affirmation, if these are not forthcoming, the narcissist demands them, extorts them. Money complements a favorable critique, an appearance in the media, a social conquest, a career centered around attention.

All these are converted into the same currency in the narcissist mind, the currency we call narcissistic supply.

So the narcissist is not really interested in publicity per se. The narcissist doesn't really want to be famous or a celebrity or any of these.

He is concerned with the reactions to being famous. He is concerned with the responses to being a celebrity.

The very fact that he is a celebrity or famous or accomplished means nothing to him because there's no him, there's no self, there's nobody there. It's an emptiness, it's a void.

He feeds off, vampirically, he feeds off reactions and responses to his celebrity and fame.

He is concerned with reactions, not with appearances, not with substance. He monitors how do people watch him, how they notice him, how they gossip and talk about him, how they debate his actions.

It proves to him that he does exist through the gaze of these people.

The narcissist is a piece of collective action, is a kaleidoscope. The narcissist goes around hunting and gathering the way the expressions on people's faces change when they notice him.

He places himself at the center of attention or even as a figure of controversy, anything to garner attention.

He constantly and recurrently pesters those nearest and dearest to him in a bid to reassure himself that he is not losing his fame, his magic touch, the attention of his social milieu.

This is where celebrity comes from. It's a variant of narcissism. The celebrity is a false self, writ large, leveraged through media, show business and social media.

It's a false self, it's fake. Behind it, there's a Wizard of Oz, cowering, small child, insecure, not only of himself because he has no self, insecure of his very own existence.

To feel alive, he needs to suck on other people's attention, interminably.

And this is what celebrity is all about. No wonder it's easy to hate celebrities. There is something alien inhuman about the whole phenomenon.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like the following:

Narcissist's Routines

Narcissists have a series of routines that are developed through rote learning and repetitive patterns of experience. These routines are used to reduce anxiety and transform the world into a manageable and controllable one. The narcissist is a creature of habit and finds change unsettling. The narcissist's routines are often broken down when they are breached or can no longer be defended, leading to a narcissistic injury.


Old-age Narcissist

Narcissists age without grace, unable to accept their fallibility and mortality. They suffer from mental progeria, aging prematurely and finding themselves in a time warp. The longer they live, the more average they become, and the wider the gulf between their pretensions and accomplishments. Few narcissists save for rainy days, and those who succeed in their vocation end up bitterly alone, having squandered the love of family, offspring, and mates.


Narcissist: Your Pain is his Healing, Your Crucifixion - His Resurrection

Narcissists need their victims to suffer to regulate their own emotions and feel a sense of control. They keep a mental ledger of positive and negative behaviors, with negative behaviors weighing more heavily. Narcissists need counterfactual statements to maintain their delusion of being special and superior. The grandiosity gap is the major vulnerability of the narcissist, and they are often in denial about their limitations and failures.


Narcissist’s Losses Are His Life

Loss is a crucial aspect of the narcissist's life, serving as an organizing principle and a means of transformation. The narcissist's self-destructive behavior and manipulation of external objects are driven by the need to induce change in their internal environment. Losses are both intentional and evoked by the narcissist, who uses them to engender victimhood and manipulate others. The narcissist's fear of losses leads them to preemptively bring them on, ultimately sacrificing reality for the appearance of life.


Narcissist's Language as Weapon

Narcissists use language as a weapon of self-defense, to obscure, not to communicate, and to obtain narcissistic supply. They talk at others or lecture them, exchange subtexts, and spawn private languages, prejudices, superstitions, conspiracy theories, rumors, phobias, and hysterias. The rules that govern the narcissist universe are loopholeed, incomprehensible, open to interpretation so wide and so self-contradictory that it renders them meaningless. The narcissist, in this respect, is a great social menace, undermining language itself.


When the Narcissist's Parents Die

The death of a narcissist's parents can be a complicated experience. The narcissist has a mixed reaction to their passing, feeling both elation and grief. The parents are often the source of the narcissist's trauma and continue to haunt them long after they die. The death of the parents also represents a loss of a reliable source of narcissistic supply, which can lead to severe depression. Additionally, the narcissist's unfinished business with their parents can lead to unresolved conflicts and pressure that deforms their personality.


Narcissist: No Sense of Humor

The narcissist has a sense of humor, but it is rarely self-deprecating. The narcissist's sense of humor is deployed in the pursuit of narcissistic supply, and to obtain this, one must be taken seriously. The narcissist firmly believes that he is unique and has a mission to fulfill, and his biography is part of mankind's legacy. The narcissist is a volatile person, not merely mercurial, but fluctuating, histrionic, unreliable, and disproportional.


Narcissist: Confabulations, Lies

Confabulation is a common human trait, but the distinction between reality and fantasy is never lost. However, the narcissist's very self is a piece of fiction, concocted to fend off hurt and pain and to nurture the narcissist's grandiosity. The narcissist fails in his reality test and is unable to distinguish the actual from the imagined, the real from the fantasized. The narcissist's countenance, no disagreement, no alternative points of view, no criticism. To him, his confabulation is reality.


Narcissist: The Impulse to Be Perfect (Fear of Failure and Success)

Narcissists fear failure and therefore opt for mediocrity, as success means they have more to lose and more ways to fail. Deliberately not succeeding also supports the narcissist's sense of omnipotence and grandiose conviction that they are perfect. Many narcissistic defenses, traits, and behaviors revolve around this compulsive need to sustain a grandiose self-image of perfection, colloquially known as perfectionism. Deficient impulse control helps achieve this crucial goal, as impulsive actions and addictive behaviors render failure impossible.


Cyber (Internet) Narcissists and Psychopaths

The internet is a paradise for narcissists, as it provides an endless supply of attention and false identities. Narcissists are prone to internet addiction as it fulfills their emotional needs, but they are not interested in expanding their horizons or fostering true relationships. The internet is an egalitarian medium, which discomforts the narcissist as it lacks a clear hierarchy. However, the internet may also be the closest that the narcissist gets to psychodynamic therapy, as it allows them to project their experiences, fears, hopes, and prejudices onto others.

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