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Celebrity worship: What it is and why we do it, according to experts

A photo illustration shows a red carpet, bordered by velvet ropes, leading toward a person's face.
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images

Taylor Swift steps out onstage each night of her "Eras" tour to an arena full of screaming fans — many of whom paid hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars for their ticket, arrived dressed in a Swift-inspired look, stood in line for the singer's tour merch and are ready for an hours-long experience of singing every lyric of their favorite singer's songs. But the stanning of Swift doesn't end there.

There are people who will then attend the singer's concert film, engage in Swiftie content online, theorize about each one of her relationships (romantic or platonic) and maybe even show up to a Kansas City Chiefs game in hopes of seeing her cheer on her boyfriend Travis Kelce.

Some might call this the nature of being a fan, while others would label it an obsession. Turns out, however, that the categorization of such isn't subjective, but rather a study of levels of celebrity worship that might tell us something about the cognitive and psychological abilities of the worshippers themselves.

What is celebrity worship?

Celebrity worship is the phenomenon of increased admiration toward a famous person, which sometimes manifests in an excessive interest in the life of a celebrity, according to psychologist Lynn McCutcheon. The editor in chief of the North American Journal of Psychology has spent more than two decades researching fan behavior and defining its different expressions, finding that it can be innocent but also potentially harmful.

Interest in the topic dates back to the 1950s when the concept of "parasocial relationships" was determined, referring to one-sided relationships that people have with celebrities and public figures. This was sparked by growing accessibility to television personalities and has evolved throughout the years as new forms of media give people the idea that they know their favorite public figures.

While celebrity worship is considered a continuum, it is measured by a questionnaire called the Celebrity Attitude Scale, co-created by McCutcheon in 2002, which breaks behaviors down into three categories.

  • Level 1 depicts interest in a celebrity for entertainment purposes. "Learning the life story of my favorite celebrity is a lot of fun" is one of the items from the questionnaire that aligns with this type of fandom.

  • Level 2 refers to a person who more deeply and personally identifies with their favorite celebrity. "I consider my favorite celebrity to be my soul mate" would be true for somebody at this level.

  • Level 3 is called "borderline-pathological" and illustrates a more severe impact on an individual's behaviors or attitudes. "If I were lucky enough to meet my favorite celebrity, and he/she asked me to do something illegal as a favor, I would probably do it" is a statement that a celebrity worshipper would agree with.

McCutcheon's scale represents the way that celebrity worship spans from simple curiosity to becoming a sort of addiction. However, Samantha Brooks, a postdoctoral researcher at King's College London who has studied celebrity worship, tells Yahoo Life that the most extreme level is also the rarest.

Why do people worship celebrities?

The nature of parasocial relationships allows individuals to feel truly connected to a celebrity that they might see or hear through their screens daily. And with the prevalence of social media, these interactions don't feel so one-sided.

"Twenty years ago, we didn't tend to know anywhere near as much about celebrities' personal lives. We might see the odd interview with them here or there, but that was about it," says Brooks. "Now many public figures post openly about their personal lives, their thoughts, feelings, opinions, their day-to-day lives, etc. on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok. They're a lot more 'accessible.'"

They might feel more relatable as a result but are still in many aspects of their life distant and aspirational to audiences.

"I think a lot of people idolize certain celebrities because they want to be like them, especially if they see certain traits of themselves in their favorite celebrity. It can be easy to think, 'They're like me, but better,'" says Brooks. "Celebrity idolization can also be a bit of escapism for people. So, obsessing over someone we think has this amazing, glamorous, easy life can take us away from our own day-to-day stresses and strains."

Manifesting a more intimate connection with that figure might also "fill a gap in a person's life," she explains. "It might be that we identify with someone who has attributes we feel are lacking in our own life, or it might be that forming an attachment to a celebrity — even a parasocial, unreciprocated one — can be a kind of compensation for lacking real-life relationships, real intimacy, real attachments, to people in our own lives."

This can be beneficial to a certain extent. "Attachments to celebrities can actually help young people to develop their sense of identity and sense of autonomy, help them realize what kind of person they want to be," says Brooks. Research shows that it can also help someone to cultivate a sense of community, which is helpful in combating loneliness.

When does celebrity worship become problematic?

Celebrity worship may become problematic when admiration becomes an obsession.

"It can be dangerous if [an attachment to a celebrity] takes on too much importance, to the point where real-life relationships and friendships suffer, or to the point where an individual becomes overly obsessed with a celebrity," says Brooks. An example of the latter can be seen in extreme cases of celebrity stalking or in the ways that fans engage with the celebrity and others on social media.

The obsession might lead to feelings of distress and encourage addictive behaviors. "Spending time or money you don't have or going into debt for a celebrity's product or recommendation, for example, is unhealthy behavior," according to therapist Nicholette Leanza via Shondaland.

But a severe obsession with celebrities might also indicate that certain psychological maladies already exist in a person, according to growing research. McCutcheon's most recent findings on the subject even suggest that there is a link between high levels of celebrity worship and low cognitive abilities.

"Celebrity obsession may hinder cognitive capacities due to the intense level of focus and attention required to maintain this one-sided emotional bond," IFLScience reports. "People with higher levels of intelligence may be less likely to worship celebrities due to a greater ability to recognize the marketing strategies behind a famous person."

Rest assured that embracing your inner fangirl likely isn't a problem, according to Brooks, so you can keep rocking out to your Swiftie playlist in peace.

"There doesn't have to be anything wrong with it," says Brooks of fandom. "Most people don't take it too far."