Countless people enjoy these magazines and the reality TV shows that provide a steady stream of willing victims, preferring them to art, theatre or literature. The snobs would have you believe our society is crumbling around our ears, with the likes of David Beckham as our idols what hope could civilised society possibly have? In truth, although the modern celebrity is a staple of our media they are not a mark of decline but instead they represent continuity, humankind's strange love/hate relationship with celebrities has almost always existed in one way or another and we have survived, so far.
In Mesoamerican culture there was a powerful god who was capable of changing the fate of people. A commonly held belief at the time stated that your destiny was laid out before you based upon the date of your birth and Tezcatlipoca was capable of changing this. Effectively freeing people from the shackles of mundane normality, allowing them to take control of their own lives. This freedom did not come easily however, the god was fickle and was not often interested in the lives of mortals.
It would seem that Tezcatlipoca and his followers were the great grandparents of modern celebrity culture, the hope that you can be elevated by a higher power and freed from a banal existence is something pervasive in our modern culture. The reality TV celebrity is living proof of this. Contestants on Big Brother and similar shows shamelessly compete to be bathed in the limelight reality TV offers and often they manage to achieve ascension. They sign magazine deals, attend the most fashionable parties and acquire a band of beautiful friends from Camden and Brighton. The question is how long will their new-found fame last?
This too is echoed in the Mesoamerican Tezcatlipoca myth. During the fifth month of the Aztec calendar the festival of Toxcatl was celebrated to honour Tezcatlipoca. The preparations for the celebration begun a year previously. A young man was selected to become the ixiptatl (impersonator) of the god. He was taught the speech and bearing of the royal court, singing and the flute. Through the year he would parade and dance in the streets and be treated with all the reverence of a god on earth.
The ixiptatl was dressed in enviable finery and enjoyed a life of leisure in the city, playing his flute and meeting with the local ruler who would ritually adorn him, showing the same respect displayed by the townspeople. When the time for sacrifice was near he would be ritually married to four beautiful maidens. Twenty days or so after the ritual wedding the ixiptatl would ascend the steps of a pyramid to be sacrificed of his own free will, breaking his flute as he went. He would then be sacrificed, his heart removed and his flesh eaten by the rich, the powerful and the next ixiptatl.
There is something eerily familiar about the festival of Toxcatl. The concept of a year of privilege, dancing and beautiful women followed by brutal public sacrifice is all to similar to modern celebrity culture if you swap the sacrifice for ridicule.
So we see that our culture is not unique, far from it. A society many would consider too be totally alien to our own shows a very similar system of elevating and destroying an individual, Mesoamerican's used this system in a religious context and so it only occurred once a year due to the fact it was regulated by and inexorably tied into the belief system of the culture. In our own culture traditional religion is in rapid decline and so perhaps it should not be considered surprising that we are turning to the cult of the celebrity in greater and greater numbers.
Just what is it we gain from joining in with the masses, why does human society always seem to seek out a way to destroy life in a very public manner. From the gladiators of ancient Rome to the public executions of the French Revolution most cultures seems to have, or have historically had, some kind of ritualised destruction of life.
No celebrity's downfall was better publicised than that of Lady Diana, an adored emissary of the British people, a real princess, a woman plucked from relative obscurity and elevated as high as one could hope to go. Although Diana was not destined to become the reviled failure many fallen celebrities become, she was fated for a far more dramatic end, one that illustrates clearly just what it is we gain in return for our allegiance to the cult of the celebrity.
Following Diana's sensational divorce from Prince Charles in 1996 the public grew hungry for more news on the life of the the phenomenally popular ex-princess. This resulted in a swarm of paparazzi following Diana and eventually this swarm would become one in a series of people, organisations and events blamed for her death in a Paris tunnel in 1997.
The publics reaction was instant and overwhelming. Grief swept across the nation. Mountains of flowers were placed in London, Great Britian publicly wept and mourners embraced strangers, many felt they had lost a member of their own family. The reaction to Diana's death was a rare example of public approval of a fallen celebrity but it clearly highlights that by banding together and sharing an enemy or a figurehead we create bonds with others around us. The celebrity creates a common element in our lives and without widespread religion it seems we are becoming more and more reliant on celebrity culture to create these sociological bonds.
In my opinion it is fair to say that the cult of the celebrity does not show the downfall of our society at all. It is merely a reaction to a massive change, without religion we instinctively search for an alternative and it seems that in the 21st century that alternative is currently the cult of celebrity, it is a necessary part of our psyche that we are compelled to obey. Finally a decent excuse to watch Big Brother.
Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer.