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Fame of mind

If you find "American Idol" auditions disturbing, consider this fact from "Fame Junkies," the new book by Jake Halpern (left): A survey of tweens from Rochester, N.Y, found that 43 percent of girls aspire to be . . . celebrity personal assistants. That was three times as many as want to be a US senator and four times as many as want to be a corporate CEO. We talked to the former Boston resident about the weird lure of celebrity and why this will be his last book about Hollywood.


Q. I have to say, your book depressed me. If you want to be famous, you probably want to be loved.

A. I think people do equate fame with somehow compensating for other things in life. I got an e-mail just today from an acquaintance of mine from when I was a kid -- one of the super-popular kids who never gave me the time of day, and wrote this exuberant glowing e-mail. And I had this feeling of "Yes, my enemies have been humbled."

Q. Who were these teen star wannabes you met at the International Modeling and Talent Association convention?

A. There were needy ones who felt that this was going to make up for something in their lives. And then [the ones like] -- I think I called him Ariel -- who was already a star in his own mind. I went out there thinking I was going to see a lot of the stage-mom scenario, where the kid was being manipulated by the parents. But I was amazed by scenarios where the kid was utterly in control.

Q. Aren't these kids extreme cases -- the ones who spend thousands to go to a convention like this?

A. It's the parents that make this happen. But as the survey results indicate, there are so many kids out there who are desperate to become famous. That's why you see these enormous tryouts for "American Idol." Because that's free.

Q. You write about the chemical origins of celebrity worship, that we share our love of fame with rhesus monkeys.

A. I guess it should make you feel better, because it gets you off the hook to say, "I'm hard-wired for this sort of behavior." I think it's a combination of evolution [and] psychology. It's the fact that kids appear to have greater self-importance and narcissism, maybe bolstered by self-esteem curricula in the school. And maybe parents cater. My dad grew up in the late '40s early '50s, when it was like, children should be seen and not heard. That is a massive shift.

Q. Apart from the money, though, fame itself doesn't seem particularly pleasant.

A. No, it doesn't. All you have to do is look at the tabloids and see the Olsen twins with eating disorders and drug problems and all these divorces. There are tons of these anecdotes. But we shut them out. We need some ideal to hold up and aspire to.

Q. On the other hand, everyone seems to love a celebrity fallen from grace.

A. We're fascinated and beguiled by it. The guy who discovered Tom Cruise had the feeling, immediately, that this was the kind of guy you'd want as your best friend. Of course, Tom Cruise has blown up since then. I'm fascinated with the idea -- what are the things that become unacceptable to us? There's a point where they do certain things , and we dump them.

Q. Maybe that's your next book.

A. Yeah. Although I don't think I could write another book about Hollywood.

Q. How come?

A. When I started off writing this book, I thought it was going to be a lot of fun. But I got out there and quickly realized what you observed -- that there were a lot of sad cases. And I was going to have to stay in that place for the next two years.