Toby Young

Why our gods must die

Toby Young says the savage new religion of celebrity has displaced older cults, with which it has much in common

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Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone. For the next 24 hours I'll be glued to my television set watching the final moments of Celebrity Big Brother. Admittedly, it hasn't proved quite as compelling as the first series, but it has been pretty entertaining nevertheless. I'll be particularly interested to see who wins, because the person emerging triumphantly from the house tomorrow night could easily have been me.

I was first contacted about appearing on Celebrity Big Brother on 2 October by a woman claiming to be one of the producers. Naturally, I assumed it was a practical joke being played on me by one of my friends. It wasn't until I received a formal letter the following day that my doubts were finally laid to rest. Incredibly, the offer seemed genuine.

My first thought was why me? Forget about D-list. There aren't enough letters in the alphabet to signify the lowliness of my status. This would surely be held against me in the press. I imagined various articles complaining about the fact that such a total nonentity had been selected to take part in the programme. I would end up being ranked somewhere below Tara Palmer-Tomkinson in the micro-celebrity pecking order: I'd become famous for not being famous.

On the other hand, Tara did come second on I'm a Celebrity ...Get Me Out of Here! I've always told myself that in the event of being approached to appear in a programme like this I'd have the presence of mind to say no, but in less than 24 hours I'd convinced myself to say yes. I came up with various ways of rationalising this. As a journalist, for instance, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. It would enable me to report at first-hand on the reality TV phenomenon, one of the biggest stories of the decade.

Of course, the real reason I wanted to do it was because it offered the ultimate prize. No matter how few people had heard of me when I entered the house, by the time I emerged I'd be a household name. I've always wanted to be famous and here, at last, was my chance. I know it's dZclassZ to admit it, but so what? This is surely a fantasy I have in common with millions of others. Celebrities occupy the highest tier in our society. They live in the grandest houses, dictate the latest fashions and enjoy unlimited sexual opportunities. Who wouldn't want to be one?

Then something happened that made me pull up short. Following a front-page story in the News of the World, Angus Deayton was dropped from Have I Got News for You. In the blink of an eye, he went from being a debonair pin-up - the thinking woman's studmuffin - to a social pariah. It's become a clichZ to describe celebrities as the aristocrats of our age, but in one respect they're not like them at all: membership of the celebrity class is quite likely to be shortlived.

Another salutary lesson was provided by the publication of a new biography of Lord Byron, a figure commonly regarded as the first modern celebrity. Byron became famous at the age of 24 with the appearance of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, and, for the next three years, every door was open to him. He was a guest at all the great Whig houses of the period and lionised by London's leading hostesses. Then, almost as quickly as he rose to fame, he was brought down. 'In his sudden fall from grace Byron was a victim of the hysterical opprobrium that often succeeds extreme celebrity, a cycle wearyingly familiar to us now,' writes Fiona MacCarthy in Byron: Life and Legend.

Angus Deayton would appear to be a victim of the same 'build 'em up and knock 'em down' syndrome as the Romantic poet, and in the past year dozens of celebrities have suffered a similar fate, including Michael Barrymore, Sven-Goran Eriksson and John Leslie. Egged on by the tabloids, the public appear to have an insatiable appetite for seeing the famous toppled from their thrones.

Why is this? Is it just a straightforward case of resentment? Yes, according to Byron. It was inevitable that pre-eminence on the scale he enjoyed would eventually give way to 'envy, jealousy, and all uncharitableness'. But to see celebrities as just another privileged class, subject to the same animosities as any other well-off group, doesn't do justice to the complexity of people's feelings towards them. Clark Gable once remarked to David Niven that, when it came to the contract between a star and his public, the public had read the small print and the star hadn't. All it took was one tiny violation and the adoring crowds turned into a baying mob. 'Contained within fan worship is the potential for hatred and disdain,' says David Gritten, the author of a recently published book called Fame. 'It's binary. The switch can be flipped at any time.'

Perhaps appearing on Celebrity Big Brother wasn't such a good idea after all.

Another commonplace about the cult of celebrity is that it has a strong religious component, but surprisingly little has been written about this. Until recently, the only intellectual associated with this view was the French anthropologist Edgar Morin. In 1957 he published a book called Les Stars, in which he argued that celebrity worship had become a new religion, comparable in scope to Christianity. He believed the reason the public had such an unquenchable thirst for celebrity tittle-tattle was that they wanted to consume their new gods. 'From the cannibal repasts in which the ancestor was eaten, and the totemic feasts in which the sacred animal was devoured, down to our own religious communion and receiving of the Eucharist, every god is created to be eaten,' he wrote. According to Morin, information was the first stage of this assimilation.

In the past few years, such outlandish views have become more respectable in the academy. In 2000, a senior lecturer at the University of Coventry called David Giles published a book called Illusions of Immortality, in which he argued that the devout attitudes of fans towards stars is a form of religious worship. Among other things, he cited the fans' belief that their idol will live for ever in the pantheon of the immortals.

More recently, a team of psychologists from Sheffield Hallam University and Southern Illinois University decided to test this hypothesis by subjecting a group of 307 British people to a battery of questions. They found that the lower a person's religious conviction, the more likely he is to revere a particular celebrity - even, in some cases, behaving in ways he believes his hero would approve of. In an article in the influential psychology journal Personality and Individual Differences, they concluded that celebrity worship does indeed play the same role as religion in many people's lives.

In this light, perhaps the best place to seek an explanation for why fans have a tendency to destroy their idols is The Golden Bough, J.G. Frazer's comparative study of magic and religion. In Books II and III, entitled 'Killing the God' and 'The Scapegoat', he discusses various primitive religions in which individuals who are believed to be the living embodiment of divine beings are first worshipped then put to death by their followers. Among the most savage of these religions is that of the Aztecs, the Mexican civilisation that was destroyed by Spanish colonialists in the 16th century. There is now an exhibition devoted to the Aztecs at the Royal Academy in which you can see life-size figures of goddesses like Teteo Innan, the 'mother of our deities'. In the 11th month of the Aztec calendar, a slave girl was made to dress up as this goddess and, for eight days, was treated as if she were the divine being herself. After this, she was led through the streets to the goddess's temple, where she was decapitated and then flayed by a couple of knife-wielding priests.

According to Frazer, human sacrifices such as this were designed to strengthen and revitalise the god or goddess that the victim was impersonating. The savages who performed the se rituals weren't actually trying to kill their gods; rather, by murdering their human proxies they were seeking to preserve the immortality of their deities. Indeed, Frazer maintained that the Easter celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ had its origin in these primitive rituals.

Can we draw any lessons from this about the 'build 'em up and knock 'em down' lifecycle of celebrities? Obviously, the fans who prostrate themselves at the altar of celebrity don't believe their idols are the human embodiments of actual gods and goddesses. But if we substitute heroic archetypes for divine beings, Frazer's analysis begins to look quite promising.

Take Pierce Brosnan, for instance. To the fans squeezed behind the barriers at the premiere of Die Another Day, he may appear to possess some magical qualities, but it's only because he's the current incarnation of a mythical figure called James Bond. At one point, Frazer describes a province in southern India in which an individual was chosen to embody a particular deity for a fixed term, after which he was done away with. The latter-day equivalent is surely the ruthless way in which the makers of the Bond films select a particular actor to play the character, wait until he begins to show signs of infirmity, and then replace him with a younger, fitter model. The fact that five different actors have taken it in turns to play the British secret agent doesn't in any way threaten the longevity of the character. On the contrary, it guarantees his immortality.

The same goes for Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe. The reason why their fans worship them isn't that they are regarded as heroes in their own right; it's that they play such heroic characters on screen. Indeed, many Hollywood film-makers go to considerable lengths to ensure that the protagonists in their movies possess a wide array of archetypal traits and pride themselves on having studied books such as The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell's classic work on mythology. Presumably, the movie-going public will eventually tire of the current generation of action heroes, just as they've lost interest in Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford. In Frazer's terms, they'll kill the god in order to preserve the deity.

In conclusion, then, whether the famous person in question is a pop star like Madonna or a sportsman like David Beckham, the reason they have such extraordinary power over our imaginations is because they embody certain archetypes. As soon as their behaviour fails to live up to these exalted standards - as soon as they violate the small print - the public will turn on them, terrified that if they're allowed to remain on Mount Olympus a moment longer, they'll pollute the rarefied atmosphere.

So what did I decide to do about Celebrity Big Brother? Unsurprisingly, I haven't been cured of my desire for fame - not even a visit to the Aztec exhibition managed that. Nevertheless, I did come across a passage in The Golden Bough that gave me pause for thought. According to Frazer, some divine kings managed to avoid being killed by their followers by nominating a proxy to be put to death in their stead. The princes of Malabar, for instance, delegated supreme power to one of their subjects, allowed him to lord it over them for five years, then sat back and watched as the man's head was chopped off. Clearly, the celebrities created by reality television programmes are the modern versions of these chumps. Nonentities like me are plucked from the hoi polloi, allowed to enjoy the privileges of fame for a few precious months, and then ritually sacrificed in the tabloids. In this way, the public's bloodlust is satisfied and proper celebrities are able to hang on to their own privileged status for a little bit longer.

I called back the producer and left a message telling her I'd made up my mind. Needless to say, she still hasn't returned my call.