We have replaced one class system with another: instead of lords and ladies, we have layers of celebs

Heat is the hot new entertainment magazine out this week. It brings us "on the beach with Leo" (Leonardo di Caprio to you and me). It tells us what Lucy Lawless, of Xenia: Warrior Princess fame, thinks of bulimia ("I used to quite like [it]. I used to think that was fun"). And its "On or Off? The State of Celebrity Sex" column informs us that Kylie Minogue and Tim Jefferies have split and that Anthony Hopkins and Francine Kay are divorcing.

Half-naked photos of pop stars, breathless "confessions" from B-list celebs and brightly coloured film stills stuff the pages. This is Hello! for the tongue-stud generation, OK! for the kids in combats.

Emap, the magazine's publisher, wants to cash in on our obsession with what celebs say and do. It's become a universal phenomenon: no matter how young, wealthy or provincial you are, you probably know that Jennifer Aniston is dating Brad Pitt and that both Posh and Scary Spices are pregnant.

The result is a hitherto unknown degree of internationalisation - mags such as Heat function as the Eurorail pass of publishing, ignoring national boundaries and doing away with parochialism: in Paris as in Buenos Aires, what Cindy Crawford eats for breakfast is interesting to millions.

Yet if celeb culture tells the housewife in Milton Keynes what is happening on Sunset Boulevard, it also tells us what we may not want to face about ourselves: namely, that we are so irredeemably class-conscious that no sooner do we dispose of the old hierarchy than we construct a new one. The PM may argue that ours is a middle-class society. But though it may be true that the old system built on privileges and dependencies is dead, that the royals and aristocrats no longer fascinate or the landowners wield influence, our need for a pecking order survives intact. The only difference this time around is that it is based not on lineage or wealth but on emotional response.

The upper crust today must make us laugh or cry, excite us or scare us. The strength of feeling they inspire determines which rung of our new social ladder the celeb may occupy.

It seems no more absurd to base our class system on entertainment value than on genealogy. But why do we need a social hierarchy at all? When we accord a chosen few influence over our lifestyle (from hairdos to soft furnishings) and our thinking (on everything from bulimia to landmines) we surrender responsibility as clearly as if we were vassals bound to do our noble lord's bidding. What we gain is a sense of order: we know who stands above us and who below in our new class system.

We also satisfy our hunger for narrative. What we seek in the gossip about personalities is stories - the old-fashioned kind, with a beginning, a middle and an end. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, through storytelling we find not only entertainment but morality. Tales reveal not only what we do, but the reason for our actions, and their consequences. Cinderella, the myth of Icarus, or Great Expectations offered a moral matrix as well as a great yarn. Once, these kinds of stories were part of every newspaper's fodder: Dickens had his mammoth novels serialised in the press. Today, editors disdain traditional storytelling - with the exception of "Bridget Jones's Diary" (whose success is at least as much based on its old-fashoned storyspinning as on its portrayal of a nineties singleton). They focus instead on B-list celebs who churn out columns about their dates, looks, friends - or feature in articles about the same.

We trot after this trivia for want of a better tale. Hence the success of Hello! and - probably - Heat. Perhaps some clever editor will reinstate the serialised novel and the made-for-newspaper saga. This will not necessarily rid us of our new class system - but it may stop us from wanting to know what Cindy had for breakfast.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers