Ever flip through tabloids while you’re waiting at the nail or hair salon? You know they’re trashy, but they’re such oh-so-satisfying reads.
It’s no wonder that tabloids, which are full of pictures of the latest celebrity beauty blunders and blights, are a secret guilty pleasure. They’re unabashed about showing Mischa Barton or Tara Reid with severe cellulite (likely helped by a little Photoshop and terrible lighting) or stars’ botched plastic surgeries. And they fill their pages with Kirstie Alley, Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera packing on the pounds or Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan wasting away.
Tinsel town’s golden girls rarely occupy the tabloid’s cattiest pages, but when a star starts to fall, the tabloids are right there adding fuel to the fire.
And the worst part? We love it. We eat it right out of their hands.
“There are some celebrities that we enjoy watching take a fall,” says YouBeauty Psychology Advisor Art Markman, Ph.D. “That happens often with celebrities whose fall reveals a hypocrisy—the crusading Christian evangelist who turns out to be gay or the top model renowned for her body who puts on weight.”
Taking pleasure in another’s pain is a natural human tendency, however sadistic it might be. The Germans have a term for that feeling: “schadenfreude,” meaning “pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.” Schadenfreude is one reason why you find those stars-at-the-beach photos so embarrassingly enticing.
Tabloid gossip also feels safer since you never have to face the person on the hot seat. “If a friend gains weight, a neighbor gets arrested for drunk driving or a couple up the street divorces because one spouse was cheating, then the gossip is muted,” says Markman. “The person is part of the community.” Since celebrities are far removed from our daily lives, it’s much easier and safer to gossip about them.
But don’t think you’re above the fray if you’ve never picked up a tabloid. Sites like Facebook can create the same sense of being one step removed—and the same morbid fascination.
I’ll skewer myself here to illustrate the point: I’m Facebook friends with a girl I met briefly in college but never really knew. She was absolutely stunning, as if Barbie had come to life and walked among us. Years after she’d forgotten my name, I still followed her on Facebook (come on, who doesn’t stalk people?) and watched her travel to exotic places, living what always struck me as an exceptionally glamorous life.
Then a couple of years after college, in the span of a year, she became obese, had a baby and married a much older man. She’s still gorgeous, but the transformation was shocking and—I hate to admit—engrossing.
Seeing that transformation can humanize someone who seemed unattainably blessed. “It helps humanize the idols,” says Markman. “Celebrities are people, but we tend to treat them as icons. When they show their failures or blemishes, we get to see their human side.” It’s like imagining a world where the stars really are just like us.
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