The Year in Gossip

Farai Chideya and Maureen Orth of Vanity Fair magazine ponder how and why certain celebrities fascinated Americans in 2005.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Farai Chideya.

(Soundbite of entertainment news program)

Unidentified Man: Breaking "Insider" news. Which Hollywood couple will ring in the new year with wedding bells?

CHIDEYA: Bennifer, Brangelina and who can forget Paris and Paris. We're talking this year's top celebrity breakups, hookups and pregnancies. They've moved beyond tabloid coverage into the mainstream media. Compared to, say, in-depth foreign reporting, celebrity news is cheaper for news organizations to produce and it dazzles audiences. But the question lingers: Why do we--the audience--care so much about celebs? Joining us to survey the year in celebrity is Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth.

Welcome.

Ms. MAUREEN ORTH (Vanity Fair): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So walk us through the top three celebrity moments of 2005.

Ms. ORTH: Well, there are a lot to choose from because our definition of celebrity is so much broader today than perhaps other times, since you really don't have to do much to be a celebrity anymore, except be on TV and in the public eye. I would definitely say Brad and Jennifer, Brangelina is definitely one of the top moments. Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt were married at the beginning of this year of 2005. Now at the end of the year, they're divorced; there are rumors that he's actually re--married Angelina Jolie, who was considered to have been the person who broke up the marriage and he's now adopting her two children. So that's quite an arc in one year that we followed day by day.

I think that Michael Jackson's trial, which I attended, was another biggie. How 'bout Tom Cruise jumping on the various couches and the different interviews that he did? I would consider that kind of jumping the shark of his career.

(Soundbite of "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY: This is beyond smitten. This is gone.

Mr. TOM CRUISE: I'm standing on your couch.

Ms. WINFREY: Yeah, I know. This is gone.

CHIDEYA: Jumping the chair, jumping the shark. Now let's talk a little bit more about Tom and other people in this category. PR pros used to proclaim no publicity is bad publicity. Is that really true?

Ms. ORTH: Some people still adhere to that. For example, Michael Jackson is one of those people who was willing to dangle his baby over a balcony a few years ago because he wanted the adoration of the crowd. He's somebody who's totally deformed by his need for adulation. And if you look at somebody like Paris Hilton, obviously she never would have gotten to the point that she is today if a big sex video hadn't come out of the special time in her life. So I think for a lot of these people all publicity is what they consider good.

CHIDEYA: Is there anyone who's been slammed by some truly bad publicities, the kind that you just can't recover from?

Ms. ORTH: I think that Tom Cruise has been harmed. Once he announced that he was buying a sonogram machine to look at his developing baby's fetus, I think that really was a kind of a career breaker for a lot of people in terms of their admiration of Tom Cruise.

CHIDEYA: Well, in your book, "The Importance of Being Famous," you explore what you call the celebrity industrial complex. Now I assume that's a complex that the celebrities themselves created, but have they lost control of the machine?

Ms. ORTH: I don't think it's just that the celebrities created it. It's really very much created by these giant media companies today because there's so much more airtime that needs to be filled, and we have such a wired world, where there's this proliferation of instant messaging and blogs, and there's just so much information racing around. And so I think a lot of it is really given to the audience, almost force-fed to the audience. It's not really the celebrities themselves, but what has changed is now really the lifestyle of these well-known people is just as much a part of what they're known for as what--previously they were known for their movies or they were known for their music. Today they're known for what they wear, what clubs they go to, how they decorate their house. It's changed.

CHIDEYA: So why do we, as Americans, care so much about this kind of news if it really qualifies as news at all?

Ms. ORTH: People love to gossip. I think people love to feel superior to people who are better-looking and richer than they are, and a lot of these well-known, famous celebrities of today are really easy to feel superior to. So it gives us a secret comfort that if we're not as beautiful and we're not as rich and we're not as famous, we're surely not as stupid as they are.

CHIDEYA: Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth is the author of "The Importance of Being Famous."

Thank you for joining us.

Ms. ORTH: You're welcome.

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