What, I used to wonder, do we gain from looking at a panda? The question emerged every time I took my children to the zoo. We used to go to see the main attraction, Ching-Ching, the mega-celebrity panda. All our visits followed the same pattern. "Oohs" and "aahs" were quickly followed by a plaintive admission: "Pandas don't do much do they, Dad? Let's go see them feed the penguins."
We gaze at human celebrities rather as we gaze at zoo animals. And, like animals, human celebrities belong to a different genus, existing in an entirely different habitat from homo sapiens - an exotic world of inexplicable behaviour far beyond the realm of the ordinary. But while we look down on animals, we look up to homo celebritus. Animals remind us of what we have been. Celebrities present us with images of what we may become.
This urge to acquire celebrity status is the ethic on which everything in our world now depends. Celebrity is the main currency of our economy, the prime value in our news and the main impetus in our charitable works. It is the predominant means of giving and receiving ideas, information and entertainment. Nothing moves in our universe without the imprint of celebrity. The ethos of the zoo has become the new world order.
There are as many different kinds of celebrity as there are animals in the zoo. Some celebrities - Michael Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna - are so improbable that, like the platypus or the kiwi, they could never have been imagined by an ordinary mind. Others have become celebrities by predatory behaviour among their own kind, like sharks. Then there are celebrities who have suicidal tendencies, like the proverbial lemming; celebrities who shock, like the jellyfish; celebrities with foul mouths, like the parrot; and celebrities who, like vermin, are famous for no reason at all.
But all varieties like to be looked at. When we visit the zoo, we try to imagine what the animal's "natural" life is really like. Does the zoo's parody of its habitat contain any hint of the real thing? Is the animal as miserable in the real world as it is in the zoo?
Something similar happens when we look at celebrities in the equivalent of wildlife magazines, such as Hello!, OK!, Vogue and Tatler. We are presented with lifestyles every bit as artificial as that of any caged beast. Are those people really as happy as they appear? What does it mean to have so much fame and wealth? What are they really like underneath the plastic persona?
Celebrity lifestyles are a collective fantasy. We gaze at celebrities, as we gaze at animals in the zoo, as a form of escapism. We seek them out to recognise that other ways of being, ways beyond our mundane lives, are truly possible. Through them, we reaffirm ourselves, our deepest desires and our fondest hopes.
This is why not everyone can be a celebrity. Nobody, for example, aspires to be ugly, so we just don't, for the most part, have ugly celebrities. We don't aspire to ask difficult questions about ourselves, so philosophers and inquiring minds need not apply. Actors, on the other hand, make ideal celebrities because actors are good at pretending to be other people.
Celebrity may be regarded as a result of globalisation because modern mass communications make it possible for David Beckham to be just as much a star in Manchuria as he is Manchester. However, just being a good actor or singer or footballer is not enough to become a celebrity. Celebrity is not based on meritocracy. It has to be manufactured and, to switch metaphors, it is like an iceberg: entire industries, dedicated to the creation of celebrity, are hidden from view, and work tirelessly to support the visible part. ITV's Popstars, a show designed specifically to manufacture celebrities, cynically exploited as well as exposed this process, which started in the heyday of Hollywood studios.
Once acquired, celebrity requires serious effort to be sustained. It needs, for example, constant attention, not only because celebrities must continue to command public interest if they are to remain celebrities, but because they are sublimations of everyone's need to be needed.
Attention is a two-edged sword. The public begins to feel proprietorial rights over celebrities, so that many of them exist in as real a cage as any zoo animal. But there is another sense in which celebrities and their personalities become public property. Most people are familiar with Marshall McLuhan's dictum that "the medium is the message". But McLuhan also wrote that "the content of any medium is always another medium". This is probably an exaggeration, and nobody quite understood what McLuhan meant at the time. Now, in a media-drenched society, we can see that the format or style of a media production itself becomes another medium: think of the numerous versions of Big Brother. The same applies to the celebrity persona: John Cleese, for example, can be a medium for anything from a building society's publicity campaign to a new and supposedly scientific television series on the human face.
No wonder, then, that some celebrities come to hate the perpetual and lavish attention. The permanent gaze can sometimes be fatal, as we have seen in the cases of Lady Diana, Michael Hutchence and Paula Yates. No celeb can cut loose from the strict etiquette of celebrity lifestyle and lead a "private life". Anna Ford, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Naomi Campbell are all suing various tabloids and magazines for breach of privacy. But Greta Garbo's "I want to be alone" belongs to a more innocent age. It is now all but impossible, perhaps even for the celebrities themselves, to distinguish between public and private, image and reality. Are celebrity love affairs real love affairs or are they just dictated by publicity or career considerations? Are celebrity marriages like the aristocratic marriages of old, arranged to consolidate and extend power and status (the currency being media exposure and, through that, value to film studios, rather than land)? Are the divorces and separations the result of real unhappiness, or just the need to give a fading career a new injection of public interest?
Celebrity depends also on excess. When celebrities were merely creatures of the studio moguls, there was a sensible bargain. Celebs could live as they liked, indulge in as much excess of any variety as they liked, so long as they maintained the cosiest and most moral of public personas. Now they perform their excesses for public consumption; the very notion of moderation, balance and decorum spells death to celebrity. Hence, the Liz Hurley dress, Elton John's flowers and the astronomically disproportionate use of alcohol and drugs. The public lives vicariously through these excesses. Celebrity, as the words suggests, involves celebration. But what exactly are we celebrating here? Behaviour in which most of the rest of us would never dare to indulge.
That takes us to gossip, another essential element of celebrity. Gossip has always been with us. It was so prevalent in 18th- century England that the period became known as the age of scandal. But the traditional role of gossip was not just to allow us to talk about other people's atrocious behaviour. It was an agent of social control, a definition of standards, decency and moral ideals. The age of scandal gossiped and thereby defined the notion of propriety that became Victorian morals.
Now gossip is simply malicious talk. Value judgements are no longer in vogue and we have no language to describe what we think is good, proper or worthwhile. The function of gossip is to fuel our insatiable hunger for sordid details and trivial pursuits. We must know everything that happens in the daily lives of celebrities. It is part of being a celebrity to generate perpetual gossip, to create never-ending fictions of pain and self-pity, to produce invective about all those with whom you come into contact. This is why Esther Rantzen feels compelled, in her autobiography, to share her bitter and vengeful feelings about her late husband's first wife.
Why do they do it? Why do celebrities tolerate the public ownership of their personalities, the lack of privacy, the constant gossip, much of it inaccurate? The obvious answers are money, fame and power. What is less obvious is that, in three senses, these rewards are more richly available than ever before.
First, celebrity now transcends boundaries. Tom Hanks and the Spice Girls, for example, are global phenomena who reap macro financial rewards. Indeed, some celebrities are worth more than most small countries. But it is not just geographical boundaries that celebrity now transcends. It also transcends cultural boundaries. In newspapers, celebrity columnists give their opinions on everything from child-rearing to rocket science. Leonardo DiCaprio can interview President Clinton on prime-time US network television, and Michael Palin is the heir-apparent to inveterate travellers such as Harry St John Philby and Wilfred Thesiger. The power that once belonged to "the expert" now belongs to celebrity; archaeology, history, psychology and so on are increasingly claimed by "television personalities". Minor celebs act as agony aunts, consumer advisers, cookery experts and gardeners. There is no boundary that celebrity has not transcended.
Second, celebrity can persuade the public to suspend their critical faculties. It is not just the widespread belief that soap stars are playing themselves, or that their characters are real people, as demonstrated by the campaign to free Coronation Street's Deirdre Rachid. Nor is it just that the use of a celebrity in advertising - Gary Lineker for Walkers Crisps, Des Lynam for Miracle-Gro - will cause sales to soar. (There is ample research to show that, if a celebrity says a product is good, people genuinely believe it to be true.) It is also the growing use of celebrity endorsement in what we think of as non-commercial fields.
If you want to get any idea, project, initiative, campaign or cause started, then find a celebrity. No cause is a cause without a star. So we find that David Schwimmer supports a rape treatment centre, Anthony Edwards backs autism research, Susan Sarandon is a tireless campaigner for the abolition of the death penalty, and Geri Halliwell is a UN goodwill ambassador. For the celebrities, such causes are now as essential as agents and breast implants; the badge of altruism provides justification for a shameless existence. But there is a more sinister side to it all: the endorsement industry gives them a power that was previously reserved to monarchs.
Third, celebrity can now shape identity. In postmodern culture, identity is consciously constructed from an eclectic archive anchored by celebrity. It is not just that the young increasingly model themselves on celebrities - there is nothing really new in celebrities acting as role models.
What is new is that celebrity is now the only yardstick for aspiration. Celebrity culture has replaced all those older human sources of inspiration - oral history, epic poems, legendary myths. Even the ties of kinship that once nurtured and sustained western society have been swapped for imaginary relationships with celebrities. So celebrity occupies us day and night, drives our dreams, inspires our obeisance and reverence. Celebrities perform all those roles that were once carried out by religion, ideology and history.
The culmination of contemporary celebrity is a new kind of virtual zoo, far removed from the zoo where my children visited Ching-Ching. At the end of each visit, we would agree that zoos provided a last chance to preserve endangered species. They were the best places for pandas until we acquired the wisdom and means to enable pandas to flourish once more as pandas should, in sustainable mountain forests far from prying eyes. Old-style celebrity, the kind fuelled by gossip as moral agency, shared this panda factor. It kept endangered values locked up so they remained safe from the excesses of which humans are so capable.
In the celebrity-infested virtual zoo, both observers and observed are caged. Both are products of a caged imagination where aspiration and actuality are limited to narrowly confined spaces that lead inevitably to madness.
Celebrities and their lifestyles are like the tigers that pace dementedly back and forth, back and forth. They consume the red meat that is thrown to them only to continue their journey back and forth, back and forth. The observers, those besotted with celebrity, chase an empty parody that inevitably drains their own lives of any meaning. We ogle to diminish ourselves. What is there to celebrate in that?