The Cult of Celebrity Is as Old as Humanity Itself

Gary Hershorn / Reuters-Corbis

Nothing seems more modern than society's relentless obsession with reality-show stars, Hollywood tweets, and tabloid scandals. But a wildly entertaining new book by former Daily Telegraph literary editor Tom Payne suggests that our celebrity culture has rather old roots. In Fame, Payne draws provocative parallels between 21st-century stardom and the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Aztecs to explore how the fame game has evolved over the millennia.

Celebrity worship reflects a primal need that's been present since the Babylonians: to elevate people to the status of mythic heroes, only to destroy them. "It suits us when … fame comes at a price," Payne writes. Or as the Greeks put it, the only place to go from the top of Fortune's Wheel is down. Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, had to choose between a long, anonymous life or a short, glorious one. There's no middle ground: a hero must either "go out in a blaze of glory or else disappoint us."

Of course, we prefer that our famous go out while they're on top—in fact, dying young (and publicly) may be the best way to ensure mythical status. Think James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Kurt Cobain. Heath Ledger's overdose clinched him a posthumous Oscar. Naturally, Payne sees a classical parallel: early Christian martyrs, knowing they'd draw huge crowds to their executions, embraced death to gain acclaim and spread their religious message.

There's another, more gruesome precedent for the fame cycle: ritual sacrifice. Payne cleverly juxtaposes Britney Spears's head-shaving meltdown with the myth of Iphigenia, who was purportedly killed so that the Greek ships could sail to Troy (and who became very famous because of it). Both the ancient maiden and the modern pop star show that we've always wanted our celebrities to be complicit in their own destruction, he says. Audiences need to believe that the celebrity has willingly chosen such a life and accepts the inevitable tradeoffs—loss of privacy, potential public humiliation, even untimely death—that go along with it. As Spears herself once said, "You do have to sacrifice your freedom when you're in this business, but it's a small price to pay."

So what is the allure of fame? The lifestyle, for one thing. In the Faust legend, the doctor agrees to sell his soul to the Devil, but in return gets all his wishes granted for 24 years. In both ancient Albania and Mesoamerica, slaves and youth selected as human sacrifices were often first entertained in massive splendor. Nowadays, MTV allows the Jersey Shore kids to party themselves sick—with the explicit understanding that they'll pay back the network by self-destructing for the cameras.

The promise of immortality is another incentive, says Payne. As she's about to die, Iphigenia tells her mother, "You will be famous through me." It's that old dilemma of Achilles all over again. Of course, in The Odyssey, Achilles' ghost reappears and says he made the wrong choice—he should have gone for long-lived anonymity. But once fame is granted, there's no going back.