Jake Halpern,
Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006)

In his debut book, Braving Home, journalist Jake Halpern examined the motivations and eccentricities of people who live under extreme circumstances (in active lava flows, in an abandoned, flooded town and in a canyon fire zone, for example). His second effort focuses that same personal curiosity and research skill on American's "fame junkies," those obsessed with the celebrity culture and with their chance at being discovered and becoming the center of attention.

Halpern takes the reader to children's talent conventions (complete with a $1,000-plus admission fee for the children and parents), to the world of Celebrity Personal Assistants (CPAs) and members of the celebrity entourage, and finally to the average American's obsession with all things celebrity, from the tabloid newsweeklies to the tour books for finding celebrity homes.

Halpern's skill lies in his ability to connect with his subjects, in his compassion for others, and he portrays the majority of his interview subjects as generally likeable, regular folks with ambitions that not all of us share.

The highlight of the book, The Rochester Survey, appears early on. Halpern co-authored a study to determine what priority teenage girls place on celebrity vs. other forms of satisfaction or potential career placement, and the results are disturbing. The chapter on talent conventions inevitably contains research data on the effect of decades of self-esteem boosting in America's schools and the higher tendency towards narcissistic thought among the current generation.

His most important observation is woven throughout the entire narrative. Even those who study popular culture in academia or who have the power to scout talent and select wannabe actors for chances at fame are guilty of fame-obsession themselves. They thrive on being important, being recognized and getting their time in the spotlight, just as they judge the actions of others who do the same.

While Halpern's research is thorough and his personal stories are engaging, this is no end-all study on the modern fame culture, and it fails to be as compelling as his debut work, if only because the personal connections he made with fame wannabes fail to be as breathtaking as those he made with people living in extreme environments. This is an above-average read, but I hope Halpern finds more magical subject matter for his next book.

review by
Jessica Lux-Baumann

8 August 2009

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