Inside The Psychology Of Our Fascination With Celebrity

Why are we so interested in people we don't know? Grazia explores our eternal love of the A-List.


by Guy Pewsey |
Updated on

What is it about people we don’t know that is so fascinating to us? Why do the exploits of film stars, musicians and fashion models appeal so much? These individuals – impossibly beautiful, enviably wealthy – are worlds away from the lives we lead. And yet where you might expect the dominant emotion to be alienation, or rejection, many of us are instead endlessly interested in the world they inhabit. In the last year more than ever, the world has looked for escapism on our televisions, in our magazines and on our favourite websites. In some ways, we have never needed celebrities more. But it is far from a new phenomenon.

‘I think our fascination with celebrities goes back a really long way,’ Laurie Santos, a Psychology Professor at the prestigious Yale University tells Grazia ahead of the launch her new project with Chanel N°5. ‘I think we have always searched for role models, whether those have been the heroes of fictional stories or real life people with these amazing lives. It goes back, at least, to Ancient Greece and our fascination with the gods on Mount Olympus: these figures that were bigger than life.’

Naturally, we have evolved into being interested in real, tangible faces over celestial beings, but that doesn’t mean it was ever thus: the primates from which we evolved even had celebrities of their own. ‘There's evidence from the scientist Michael Platt, at the University of Pennsylvania, that monkeys would be willing to “pay” to see images of higher status monkeys,’ explains Laurie.

It's an endlessly fascinating concept - the interest in people with whom we have no connection - and one that has been investigated in depth by historian Greg Jenner in his celebrity history, Dead Famous. And now, Chanel is interrogating the idea further with an insightful new series.

The project is to mark 100 years of Chanel N°5, history's most iconic scent. Instantly recognisable, by both scent and appearance, it is without doubt the A-Lister of the world of fragrance. As Chanel states, N°5 did not simply transform the world of perfumery, it also 'inspired a generation fo innovators, changemakers and disruptors. It became a cultural icon itself.'


For that reason, the house has enlisted academics, journalists and performers to explore the power of celebrity, including Oscar-winning actor Marion Cotillard, former Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter and, indeed, Laurie Santos herself. You can join their journey here.

One could suggest that the fact that these people live in mansions, walk red carpets and fly in private jets would not necessarily endear them to us mortals. But their proximity to us via their public projects means that celebrity influence is almost subliminal. ‘We tend to interact with them in very personal spaces,’ Laurie says. ‘When we listen to a celebrity on a podcast, we're literally hearing them in our eardrums. We see celebrities on the television when we're in our home, and that can trick our brains to allow us to think that celebrities are closer to us than we really think.’

Naturally, the rise of social media has increased these links tenfold. ‘We now have a 24/7 celebrity news cycle,’ Laurie points out. ‘That means we've gone from seeing celebrities for maybe an hour or so a day on TV, to inhabiting a media world that's completely saturated with celebrity. We can interact with celebrities more directly through channels like Instagram and Twitter: they have become more accessible than ever.'

There has been much talk in recent months concerning the future of celebrity, when seeing some A-Listers travel during the pandemic or others offer viral moments of solidarity from their marble-coated estates. Some wondered if the age of the celebrity was coming to an end. But the return of award ceremonies and cinemas may actually tip the scales the other way, suggests Laurie. ‘I imagine that there might be mechanisms that help us get even more obsessed with celebrities afterwards,’ she says. ‘Just because we're so excited to go back to things like movies and award shows. What's changing is the technologies through which we interact with celebrities, and the ease with which people become celebrities is going to change.’ She specifically notes TikTok as a place where anyone can become a celebrity if the time is right, the idea is strong and the stars align.

But wherever the journey through celebrity takes us, it feels like one thing is certain. As trends come and go, and figures rise and fall on the ladder of fame, the red carpets and ballrooms of the world will always be bathed in the scent of Chanel N°5.

Celebrity, By Six Inspiring Voices, Interviewed By Chanel, can be found here.

READ MORE: Chanel's Latest Show Paid Homage To The '70s, Skiwear And The Late Stella Tennant

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