In the darkly classic To Die For, Nicole Kidman's wannabe TV reporter is so ferociously fame-crazed that she has her less-than-cooperative husband killed.
And almost 20 years later, in The Bling Ring, the real-life woman upon whom Emma Watson's predatory character, Nicki, is based is so infatuated with stars that she breaks into their homes, steals their stuff, and as a result of the ensuing notoriety lands a reality show.
The obsession with fame, it seems, never gets old. And playing someone fixated on being famous "felt like an anthropological study for me," says Watson, who has been quietly well-known since she was 11.
Watson blossomed while shooting the colossal Harry Potter franchise and came of age on the Leavesden Studios set outside London, where the series was filmed.
Wanting to be known for her work, as opposed to just being known, is one of the differences between Watson and, say, Paris Hilton, whose home was victimized in The Bling Ring. Hilton and her peers get plenty of coverage but have few projects that merit the attention they get. Stories beget stories, so we read about their pregnancies, arrests, babies and romances.
Why do we care so much? In a nutshell, they give us what we want.
In a piece for the BBC, social anthropologist Jamie Tehrani of England"s Durham University likens it to "junk food for the mind. Quick. Convenient. But not exactly nutritious. We gorge ourselves on images of wealth and success because they appeal to our appetite for prestige."
True A-list actors, the Anistons and Witherspoons and Portmans, know how to finesse the press, revealing bare-bones details about their lives. And when they don't supply the titillating information we crave, those obsessed with celebrity turn to Kim Zolciak-Biermann, who removed her IUD on her Bravo TV show Don't Be Tardy, and Kim Kardashian, who, after promising to shield her unborn baby from the press, announced her gender on national television.
"It makes people feel better about their own lives," says Bumble Ward, veteran entertainment industry publicist and the founder the PR firm the Hive Collective. "Focusing on the trivial pursuits of celebrities has become a national pastime. The more banal the information, the better because it makes us feel like we're all the same. They're just like us. People enjoy that."
Degress of celebrity
There's a disparity when Adele won't even reveal her son's name, but the Kardashians will reveal just about anything.
"People like Adele have a real talent," Ward says. "She has the most beautiful voice on the planet. She doesn't have to talk about anything else. Jennifer Aniston has paid her dues, and she has talent. She won't get anything out of telling you where she walked her dog."
Since Adele or Portman or Penelope Cruz won't share details about parenthood, we find someone less notable who will. Happily. Yes, that's Katherine Heigl posting photos of herself in a bikini with her daughter.
Most of the top-tier actors and musicians say they ignore the noise around them. "Sometimes by accident I'll see something," says Gwyneth Paltrow. "Someone will say, 'Don't listen to Starmagazine.' I'm like, 'What?'"
Some stars opt to wrest control of their images and those of their families in an effort to somehow meet the desire for photos and information on their own terms. Channing Tatum and wife Jenna Dewan-Tatum released a photo of their newborn daughter, Everly, online, free, available to anyone. The motivation behind their decision?
"I would have been happy not putting out a picture at all, but paparazzi were everywhere," Tatum says. "I had to smuggle myself out of the studio every day. We decided to do it on Father's Day and put it out ourselves. That's it. Part of me wants to take a thousand pictures and hold them up for the world to see, but I don't want her to have to deal with that."
Fat chance. A 24/7 news cycle coupled with the immediacy of Twitter and Facebook make exposure to celebrity almost as unavoidable as death and taxes.
"There is nothing about current celebrity culture that would suggest it's on the decline," says University of Southern California professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, the author of Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity. "The constant coverage says that celebrity is something worth getting worked up about. It's an easy, forgettable distraction from real-life problems."
And the glut of information is readily available, says Karen Sternheimer, the author of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobilityand a sociology instructor at the University of Southern California.
"With news organizations slashing budgets, celebrity stories are easy to come by, require little or no investigative reporting or complicated 'back story' for readers to understand, and likely draw a wider, younger audience than traditional news topics," Sternheimer says.
But just because we read about housewives and homewreckers doesn't mean we respect them. "It's important to think of the multitudes of onlookers differently from actual fans or admirers," Sternheimer says.
It's exactly what Sofia Coppola, who seems to move easily among Hollywood's biggest and brightest (her father is Francis Ford Coppola, she's best friends with Marc Jacobs, and her husband is musician Thomas Mars), explores in Bling Ring.
The film looks at our fascination with the lives of the rich and glamorous and famous. Based on the Vanity Fairarticle by Nancy Jo Sales, the film details the exploits of a gang of pampered Los Angeles teens who break into the homes of Rachel Bilson, Hilton and Megan Fox, among others, and raid their closets. The end goal, if there is one? To live the celebrity life by helping themselves to its gaudy, expensive trappings.
Coppola found the subject area a bit amusing, a bit terrifying and very eye-opening.
"For me, it was talking about our contemporary culture. It was really relevant," says Coppola, 42. "(Watson and I) do promotion for our work, which is a lot different from self-promotion. When I was growing up, you were known for your accomplishments. This whole idea of branding yourself -- being famous for being personalities -- it's grown so quickly."
Escaping the trap
By playing Nicki, Watson got a taste of a life she could very easily live -- and she hated it.
"It was very funny to me, and then it got dark and sad. A friend of mine who didn't know what I had going on saw me and said, 'You seem really dark.' I was immersed in this world that felt so empty," she says. "Nicki aspires to be this very spiritual, very Zen, very altruistic person. That's what I loved about her. She had all these dichotomies. It wasn't liberating for me to play a bad girl. It was liberating for me to play someone so different from myself. It was liberating to leave myself behind."
Watson plans to complete her studies at Brown University this fall. She likens the Chanel and Prabal Gurung ensembles she dons on red carpets to her suits of armor, comparable perhaps to Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility.
When she was growing up, Watson says, "my father would never let me buy Barbie dolls or watch television. He made a pointed parental decision. I asked him why he didn't let me have Barbie dolls, and he said he didn't want me thinking that that was a normal body. I didn't realize he'd thought about it that much. I just thought he was strict and mean."
In fact, he was ahead of his time.
Today, celebrity behavior quickly runs the course of silly to serious: Kim Kardashian is mocked for naming her daughter North West. Alec Baldwin explodes on Twitter after his wife is accused of tweeting during James Gandolfini's funeral. Paula Deen's empire crumbles after she acknowledges using a racial slur.
"There's some part of all of us that enjoys the idea of schadenfreude," Ward says, because suddenly our lives don't seem quite as boring.
Sternheimer likens these bold-faced travails "to a new form of soap operas. We might not watch the traditional ones on television much anymore, but we can follow these melodramas through constant online chatter."
Coppola, who grew up around filmmakers whose personal lives were largely a mystery to their fans, is both puzzled and horrified by what she sees around her.
"I was struck that there was no innocence at all. You look at your kids and you want them to keep that sense of being kids and not be so grown up and exposed to so many things," says Coppola, mother of Romy, 6, and Cosima, 3. "When I was younger, you weren't inundated with thatThe values are coming from reality TV."
True, but some take the attention lavished on their relationships or hairstyles and try to redirect it toward things that matter, like Angelina Jolie with breast cancer or Michelle Obama with childhood obesity. "We take our bangs and we stand in front of important things the world needs to see. And eventually, people stop looking at the bangs, and start looking at the things we're standing in front of," Obama said during her trip to Africa.
Eventually, Ward says, the obsession with celebrity will come to a head.
"I don't think it's getting worse, but everyone will get sick of it. There's always that up-and-down shift. It's going to come to its natural conclusion. People don't want to keep clicking links where there's nothing there."
Sofia Coppola, left, directed The Bling Ring , starring former Harry Potter star Emma Watson, right, as a celebrity-obsessed burglar.
Brian Harkin for USA TODAY
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