I’ve written this article before. Or at least, I tried to. Having stumbled upon Dr. Drew Pinsky’s book, The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America, a few years back, I was stunned. How had this eye-opening book been completely passed up by the media itself?
Setting out as a naïve young graduate student, I planned to right this wrong. I located a journal, wrote a book review, and submitted it with my glowing review. It was accepted, I signed the waivers, and was thrilled to have made a contribution. At least that’s what I thought. In a last minute edit that I did not approve, the final lines of my review read, “overall, this is not a major contribution to the area of celebrity personality and its interplay with the media” (Saedi, 2010). I am unsure where the pesky word “not” in front of “a major contribution” came from.
Needless to say, I was convinced. It must be a conspiracy. In his book, Dr. Drew quite literally tells all, and the truth is far from pretty. Yet no one seems to be talking about it. And quite frankly, every time a celebrity “scandal” hits from a quickie marriage and divorce, to a young starlet with legal and substance abuse issues, I come back to Pinsky’s book. So here it goes—round two! That is, if the computer servers don’t “coincidentally” crash as I post this…
In their book, Pinsky and co-author Dr. S. Mark Young examine celebrity behavior and its undeniable impact on contemporary society. Pinsky remarks on his increasing awareness of outlandish behaviors not only in celebrities, but also youth who mimic these very acts. The authors discuss one of the first known psychological research studies of celebrities. Naturally due to restricted access, this is a population which researchers have hardly ever touched until Pinsky and Young’s investigation.
By administering the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) to 200 celebrities from across the entertainment industry and combining this with interviews and a review of entertainment press, they published their findings in the Journal of Research in Personality. Results confirmed what they had suspected all along, “narcissism is not a byproduct of celebrity, but a primary motivating force that drives people to become celebrities” (p. 13).
In their analyses, Pinsky and Young found the highest narcissism scores in reality TV personalities (19.45) followed by comedians (18.89), actors (18.54), and then musicians (16.67) (out of a total score of 40). The average score for females was 19.26, and 17.27 among males; they translate this to mean that on average women were 26% more narcissistic than men among their celebrity sample. Further, in the domains of exhibitionism, superiority and vanity, female celebrities had a score that was higher and statistically significant relative to males. There were no differences between the sexes in the areas of entitlement, authority, self-sufficiency, and exploitativeness.
Interestingly, Pinsky shares there is little surprise over many of these results stating, “reality-show producers have told us they consciously seek out contestants who are vain and controlling, because they make for more dramatic, watchable television” (p. 127). Furthermore, he discusses the fluidity of standards for mental health. While those who are in danger of harming themselves or others are likely to be screened out, “if they’re psychologically disturbed enough to create some real drama, the better. As far as reality shows are concerned, emotionally healthy, stable people just don’t make ‘good TV’” (p. 70).
Pinsky and Young also make the case for how so many stars get into trouble in four primary domains: body image; hypersexuality; substance abuse and addiction; and harmful acting out. And yet, they explain that in many circumstances, these celebrities end up in these predicaments as a result of self-loathing stemming from childhood trauma and abuse. In the book, they use a quote from William H. Macy who said, “nobody became an actor because he had a happy childhood” (p. 188).
This becomes problematic though when such behaviors start to be seen as normative and pervade the mainstream. Instead of taking on the role of the shocked and intrigued spectator witnessing the train wreck of Hollywood gossip, readers are encouraged to empathize and recognize that these behaviors stem from traumatized individuals and should not be taken as normal. This is also where the danger in emulating celebrity behavior enters and the meaning of the “mirror effect” is elucidated. Viewers see outlandish behaviors and instead of assessing them, they mirror this very thing back to society. Essentially, it “may compel previously healthy people to indulge in behavior usually exhibited by people with serious emotional disorders” (147).
Pinsky and Young take their argument even further, describing how social media exacerbates the problem. Post a picture of your latte lately? Update your status to tell your friends/followers/tweeps/fans of every menial detail of your day? Celebrities do this, so why shouldn’t you? They discuss theories on situationally-acquired narcissism and how having a cadre of fans constantly fawning on them only ups the narcissism ante.
For those intrigued not only by celebrity, but also how to protect our children and youth from harmful media messages, this book is a must-read. Not only does it come with fascinating tidbits (e.g., TMZ stands for the 30-mile zone that paparazzi roam which celebrities can choose to avoid, some Bachelor contestants are looking for acting gigs rather than love), but important historical context. From the “Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse” (Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears) to Pinsky’s own narcissism scores, much fascinating territory is covered. Until this article or the book itself “mysteriously” disappears, perusing a copy would be well-advised.