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Fame for nothing and clicks for free

Television is full of them, people famous for being famous. They do nothing of consequence, say things left better unsaid and still make a career out of providing grist for shows and chatter on popular media, including online message boards, writes Sanchita Sharma.

health and fitness Updated: Jun 27, 2009 22:10 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Television is full of them, people famous for being famous. They do nothing of consequence, say things left better unsaid and still make a career out of providing grist for shows and chatter on popular media, including online message boards.

Earlier this week, musician Yanni dedicated a song to actress-turned-twitterer Mallika Sherawat at a concert at LA. It made news and I wondered why. At best, Yanni is a mediocre musician and Mallika, a veteran struggling actress. So why does anyone want to know what’s up with either of them?

Then we have Ash and Abhishek, who are now more in the news for their family rituals and red-carpet appearances than their feature films. When did either deliver a hit film? Frankly, I’m sure even they can’t recall. Of course, the unrivalled princess of the kingdom of useless celebs is Paris Hilton is still far more entertaining than Yanni concerts and forgettable Abhishek films. My current favourite Paris Hilton gaffe is...

Paparazzo: Have you heard of the Swine Flu?

Paris: (Shakes head, no)

Paparazzo: It’s a new flu that’s killing a lot of people in Mexico and everything. Are you concerned about that?

Paris: (Shakes head, no) I don’t eat that.

Sure, neither does the rest of the world, but the exchange is a huge hit on youtube. Makes you wonder, though, whether Paris is a lot smarter than she lets out.

But gaffes aside, what makes us — and I speak for journalists too — pay attention to people famous for nothing? A new psychology study in the medical journal, Psychological Science, helps explain why some people are famous for just that — being famous.

Researcher Nathanael Fast of Stanford University in California reports that good-for-nothings make news because people need something to talk about. Simply put, famous people stay popular because they serve as conversational fodder, which in turn drives more media coverage.

If one’s talking to a stranger at a party, it’s natural to pick up a safe and uncontroversial topic that everyone — irrespective of interests, personality or job — knows about. It’s this human desire to find common ground in conversation that pushes people to discuss celebs in the news. And with sex and scandal being the lowest common denominator across countries, gossip column staples win hands down compared to, say, nobel laureates whose tryst with fame rarely lasts longer than a week.

In the case of page 3 fixtures, fame becomes self-perpetuating, even when the person is doing anything fame-worthy anymore. “Take Paris Hilton, somehow or other she became well known and now people are more likely to talk about her,” said Fast. No one remembers how she first made news. The celeb obsession does not limit to gossip column celebrities, but also professional players. In his study, Fast used stats and performance data to show that obscure baseball players performed just as well or even better than the popular players. Maybe, that is why Saurav Ganguly always makes headlines.