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So you want to be famous

Story Highlights

• Book "Fame Junkies" met with a media frenzy
• Author says he missed the attention after book tour
• People spend thousands at talent conventions
• "Fame is an equal-opportunity tantalizer," author says
By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- Jake Halpern has had a taste of fame. He found it fascinating -- and a little scary.

Halpern, the author of "Fame Junkies" (Houghton Mifflin), discovered the mere topic of his book invited strong interest. Entertainment Weekly ran an excerpt; "20/20" did an extensive segment on it. And Halpern came along for the ride.

The process was mind-boggling, he says in an interview from his home in New Mexico.

"I'd written a previous book, 'Leaving Home,' and it was well reviewed and earned polite applause, but that was it," he says. "But this book -- it was a frenzy, it was crazy. One week I did 50 interviews. When I went on the tour for my first book, I sometimes stayed on friends' couches. This time I was put up at the Waldorf."

The book was published January 10, and by earlier this month, the frenzied book tour ended and Halpern found, much to his surprise, that he was in no hurry to get off the fame train.

"We live in rural New Mexico, and my wife's a doctor who does work with the Navajo. I came home from the whirlwind to a house where tumbleweed literally blows across the street, and I felt a sense of -- almost -- withdrawal," he says. "It passed, but the irony was not lost on me."

Which was one reason he was intrigued by the subject in the first place. The pursuit of fame has become an all-encompassing drive for many people, and Halpern wanted to see why. (And what about Anna Nicole Smith?)

His book mainly concerns people on the fringes -- children attending a "talent convention," hoping for a big break; youngsters and their parents in a Hollywood apartment complex, trying to gain a foothold in show business; celebrity assistants, living in the reflected glow of their clients; hardcore fans, hoping for a brush with greatness; and the residents of a Los Angeles-area senior community, remembering their younger days -- and not quite ready to leave the business.

But in another sense, that covers just about everybody. Though Halpern says he didn't meet many fame-pursuers from Manhattan or Los Angeles -- "maybe they're less susceptible, or maybe they think there's got to be another way" -- the people he did meet crossed all demographic lines.

"It's something that doesn't discriminate," he says. "Fame is an equal-opportunity tantalizer."

'We all desire attention'

Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University pop culture professor (and one of Halpern's sources), wasn't surprised by Halpern's conclusions.

"We tend to talk about people obsessing over fame as somehow defective, when the very people who make the analysis have their own byline," he says. "I think this desire [for fame] is very human. We all desire attention."

In "Fame Junkies" Halpern cites studies that suggest fame is a factor in other animal groups as well. In one study rhesus monkeys were willing to give up their food simply to stare at a dominant monkey.

Perhaps, Halpern concludes, there is something hard-wired within us to follow celebrity.

"It makes you feel better about the whole thing -- 'I'm not really to blame for my fascination with Tom Cruise,' " he says. "To a certain extent, that's true."

Illusion and disillusion

Perhaps the most troubling section of Halpern's book is a portion in which he attends a talent convention in Los Angeles. It's far from free -- it costs thousands for the attendance fee and travel arrangements -- and students have likely invested thousands more training at modeling outposts across the country. The pursuit of the fame dream is a lottery ticket that goes for $5,000, $10,000 or more, with no guarantees.

"If I told you [someone in] your family gambled away $10,000, you'd say they have a serious problem. But to become famous, that's kind of an equally unhealthy thing that's going on, and it's compounded by the fact that you know [most of] these kids are going nowhere," Halpern said.

Genetics may show us that a certain fascination with fame is natural and healthy, but why do we as a culture seem to be spending so much time on it?

A greater focus on the fame of celebrities in our culture, rather than their talents or accomplishments, may be one answer. It is no longer necessary to have something of value to offer in order to be famous. Reality shows like "Survivor" confer celebrity status on people simply for becoming known. On these shows, fame becomes the central point, instead of a side effect of accomplishment.

"It doesn't matter what you're on for -- talent, humiliation -- a certain status is conferred on you," says Halpern.

Put these wildly popular shows in the context of an individualistic youth culture with an increasing sense of personal entitlement, and fame almost becomes a birthright. In fact, results of high school and college student personality studies indicate both narcissism and a sense of entitlement have risen in recent years -- a psychology with "serious implications," says Halpern.

"Because fame seems accessible, delusions of fame don't seem delusional," he says. "And when you grow up and join the workplace, you don't want to do drudge work, and you feel disillusioned when that doesn't happen."

Thompson isn't quite so concerned about that -- "you'll have people unhappy when the real world [intrudes], but what else is new" -- but he is bothered by "the disconnect from reality" the fame game has created.

"We were so successful in ... solving the self-esteem problem that, in many ways, we created a monster," he says.

For those who believe the culture of celebrity has gotten out of hand, there do not appear to be easy answers for bringing people back to earth.

In Halpern's case, he found "Fame Junkies" ended up feeding the beast it sought to describe.

"There's such a huge interest in the subject matter, but the message I'd put together was lost," Halpern says. "I was making points on a talk show and I realized they were showing one long video of Paris Hilton.

"As much as I want to criticize and critique fame, maybe I've just added to the roar of the machine."


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