Tom and Katie, Zeus and Hera?

Why are we compelled to read about celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes? Commentator Jake Halpern says it's for the same reasons that the ancient Greeks loved myths about the gods on Olympus.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Tom Cruise was in Paris today at a news conference promoting his new movie "War of the Worlds." We knew about the movie already. The real news is that he got engaged to his girlfriend, Katie Holmes, who's in Europe this week promoting her new movie "Batman Begins." For everyone who wants more details, he proposed on the Eiffel Tower, she's wearing a big rock on her left hand, they have not yet set a date. We understand this isn't the kind of story that would lead, say, the Financial Times, but plenty of people are dying to know even more about the Cruise-Holmes engagement, and commentator Jake Halpern is right there with them.

JAKE HALPERN reporting:

So there I am, standing at the checkout line, perusing the covers of People, Us Weekly, Star magazine, almost all of which feature Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the latest hyperbolically happy `it' couple. And after a brief moment of self-loathing, I'm soon flipping through the pages, scrutinizing photos of other `it' couples--Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, even Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who might not even be a couple. Somewhere in the back of my head, the faintest of voices is asking, `Why on earth do you give a damn?'

I found my answer in the annals of Greek mythology. The ancient Greek gods actually had a lot in common with our modern-day Hollywood celebrities. Both sets of characters are seemingly perfect, ageless, beautiful, powerful uberbeings who jet about having affairs, making enemies and getting into loads of trouble. The Greek gods lived on the peaks of Mt. Olympus, and Hollywood celebrities live, well, on the bluffs of Beverly Hills. The exploits of Greek gods were told in epic poems, and the exploits of Hollywood celebrities are retold in tabloids and glamour mags. The similarities are spooky. And in both cases, the central stories are just so lurid and tacky.

Long before the media became obsessed with legendary womanizers like Errol Flynn, the annals of Greek mythology were detailing the sex romps of the all-powerful Zeus, who had more than 150 documented affairs, not quite as good as Wilt Chamberlain but still impressive. The bottom line is that both Greek gods and Hollywood celebrities offer us a mythology, a common set of allegories. And even though we may worship these divine beings and as much as we may covet their superhuman qualities, I think we're deeply comforted by their foibles. We love the fact that they're so screwed up. It gets us off the hook because it sets the bar so low. If Zeus or even Tom Cruise can't hold down a stable relationship, well, it makes it easier for the little guy who may have similar issues.

And then there's the sex appeal of it all. Think of it, Zeus was a rock star, partying, having sex, changing form, whipping out lightning bolts. His life was so exciting, just as so many celebrities' lives appear to be. And that is another reason we love these stories: They offer us an escape from the humdrum nature of our own lives.

Finally, I think that we take comfort in the fact that as amazingly perfect as these uberbeings seem to be, we sense that on some deeper level, many of them are actually miserable. This is comforting because it soothes our envy and our jealousy, and it reminds us of something that we deeply hope to be true. No matter how godly our idols appear to be, they are not actually happier than we are. Admittedly, this is a pretty petty sentiment, and I'm not particularly proud to fess up to it. But I do take a certain amount of solace in knowing that long before I became a reader of People magazine, young men in Athens were sitting around in their ancient gymnasiums doing pretty much the exact same thing.

SIEGEL: Jake Halpern is writing a book about fame.

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SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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