On One Hand

January 21, 2008

Celebrity Experts

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:42 pm
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Science and Hollywood were once distinct realms with little in common. One was all substance without concern for sensation; the other all image and no substance. One was serious and thrived on professionalism, the other thrived on opening its raw contents to let them spill like a gush of waterlogged maggots on the floor. That all changed with a new social role for American celebrities, emerging in the mindless narcisism and triviality of the late 1990s and rising to a full surge in postmodern reality television. That role is of the “celebrity expert.” While casual know-it-alls such as Dear Abby and Doctor Spock have served generations past, we now have hollywood-style intellectuals rising to a new level of mass appeal. It’s not enough to just know a lot, you have to present it with the name brand of an Oprah-style authority.

These are the likes of, first and foremost, Dr. Phil, recently touched by scandal when his celebrity status drove him to cross the line and publicly reveal private details in his case with pseudo-client Britney Spears. We now also have Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew, Suze Orman, Sanjay Gupta and others.

Their roles may slightly differ from one another, but more importantly is how they differ from others in their profession; Gupta is a doctor acting as journalist for CNN, which gives him, unlike from other reporters, the authority to act as his own source without refering to an outside expert. Orman started out as a simple financial advisor and author who occasionally gave presentations for PBS; when Oprah Winfrey found her she was given the authority to enter peoples’ homes and critique their life strategies and personal relationships that involve money. Dr. Drew became famous with his radio program and MTV special entitled Loveline, where he gave sex advice to teenagers, but he now serves as an addiction specialist on Celebrity Rehab; incidentally, Dr. Drew has also starred in film, playing the father of the Olsen twins in New York Minute.

Not only do they differ from run-of-the-mill doctors and accountants, but they also contrast normal celebrities in the opacity of their personal lives; they are immune tabloid-style voyerism under a guise of thick professionalism. In order to respect them, you mustn’t hear of their drug addictions or sexual affairs; in many cases it would be impropriotous for them to so much as get divorced, so they must maintain the the stodgy caution of a politician. But they aren’t exactly just professional consultants either. They are asked to dispense advice that exceeds the boundaries of their training, and frequently cross diciplines to act more as motivational speaker or expert in generality than someone you would speak to anywhere else but on a TV show. And in many cases such as the afformentioned character role of Dr. Drew, they may also dance and sing.

The crossover of information leads one to wonder if the information celebrity experts dispense is legitimate; psychologist Phil McGraw comes out with a line of granola bars advertised to facilitate weight-loss, doubling as nutritionist. Physician Sanjay Gupta meanwhile takes on global warming in CNN’s Planet in Peril series. Dr. Drew is slated in the same mental category as shock-jock Howard Stern among teenagers for his role dispensing sexual tips on Loveline, though on Celebrity Rehab he is trusted as the informed authorative figure responsible for saving the lives and sanity of drug-addicted D-listers.

The role of celebrity expert is neither wholly good nor bad; they all seem to start off with good intentions, even when spotlight attention and loads of money lead them to cross boundaries into sensationalism. It’s good for the public to get a healthy dose of science with their entertainment, because science is one of the most misunderstood fields, defined in peoples’ minds not as a process of knowledge but as anything having to do with planets or atoms or ending in “ology.” And when celebrity experts are not scientists, they tend to contrast the “get rich easy” attitude of most self-help programs in the country which end up leading their clients on a path of destruction. But it seems that the position of celebrity expert almost always leads to some path of corruption; Dr. Phill’s guest cases are increasingly viceral, fringe or bizarre, with super-obese overeaters, popular public bashings of dirtbag dads and adulterers, and an eerie overconcentration on pedophilia or sexual vices. Suze Orman recently analyzed the contents of the living space of a woman with out-of-control spending habits, asking her sister, “doesn’t the presence of this expensive TV erode your love for your sister every time you see it?” A public that wants to be titilated and disgusted at the same time will gravitate towards programs with real-life freaks and terrors, and in a media run as a business, topics that collect the most viewers will always superceed anything else someone may deem important.

Take it for what you will; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Watched by millions of Americans each day, celebrity experts are doubtlessly changing the way we live our lives and process information.


1 Comment »

  1. I can’t believe they let Dr. Phil act like an authority on television. His license to practice psychology was revoked almost twenty years ago after he had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a barely-legal client.

    Not really a question of whether he’s legitimate or not. He’s a quack.

    Comment by erinya — January 21, 2008 @ 11:19 pm | Reply

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