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Sunday, July 31, 2005

10 things you shouldn't buy new
Why waste money on shiny packaging and a fancy store when you can get it 'pre-owned' for a fraction of the cost? Here are your best buys.

By Liz Pulliam Weston

Few people really enjoy wasting their hard-earned money, but many of us do it every day by buying new. We could do our pocketbooks, and the environment, a big favor by opting to be the second owner of some of the stuff we buy.

Obviously, some things are best purchased new; lingerie pops to mind. But lots of other stuff depreciates quickly while still having plenty of useable life left. Here are 10 items where the cost vs. use equation strongly tilts toward buying used.

• Books, books, books
Now this is awkward, because I just wrote a book. (Warning! Shameless plug ahead . . . .) It's called, “Your Credit Score: How to Fix, Improve and Protect the 3-Digit Number that Shapes Your Financial Future,” and of course, I’d love for you to go out and purchase a new copy. (. . . End of shameless plug.)

But the reality is that most books don’t get read more than once, if that, and they’re astonishingly easy to find used at steep discounts -- if not absolutely free.

Your local library, for example, may allow you to reserve titles online and then deliver them to your nearest branch for pick-up. Used book stores abound, both in your town and online. If you’re looking for a potboiler to get you through your next cross-country flight, just stop by almost any yard sale and pick up four for $1.

Exception: Reference books you’ll use again and again. For example, I bought a deeply-discounted copy of Cheryl Mendelson’s excellent “Home Comforts." That was after checking the book out at the library and running up a small fortune in fines because I couldn’t bear to part with it.

• DVDs, CDs and videos
The list price for Quentin Tarantino's most recent film, “Kill Bill, Volume 2,” is $30, and you can get it new for about $20 from Buy from one of the retailers selling it used on the same site, though, and you’ll save at least $10. You can find similar deals online for videos and CDs (yes, Virginia, some of us dinosaurs still buy CDs). Other good hunting grounds for purchase of used items: movie rental chains like Blockbuster; used record stores; yard sales.

Exception: When you simply must have the latest release by your favorite singer/director/actor, right now. It can take a few days or weeks for the used versions to show up, and perhaps a few months for the price to get discounted enough to compensate for the greater hassle you might face trying to return a defective or unsatisfactory purchase.

• Little kids' toys
Parents know: it’s all but impossible to predict which toy will be a hit and which will lie forlorn at the bottom of the toy box. So rather than gamble at full price, cruise consignment shops and yard sales for bargains. My husband’s latest score: a plastic Push, Pedal 'N Ride Trike (retails for $28, he paid $10) that looks like new after a brief scrub.

Better than cheap, though, is free. Some parents set up regular toy-swapping meets, or you might be lucky enough to score hand-me-downs from friends and relatives.

Exception: Some parents get away with giving used toys for birthdays and holidays, but most of us (and our kids) have been fairly well brainwashed into believing that gifts should be purchased new. Try to opt, though, for classics, like sturdy wooden toys.

• Jewelry
Fat markups on most gems (100% or more is fairly common) means that you’d be lucky to get one-third of what you paid at a retail store, should you ever need to sell.

So let somebody else get socked with that depreciation. Find a pawn shop that’s been in business for awhile, get to know the owner and ask him or her for recommendations. Some readers have had good results buying via newspaper ads, but I’d want to take the piece to a jeweler for an appraisal first.

Exception: You want something custom-made. Even then, consider buying used stones and getting them reset.

• Sports equipment
We may buy everything from badminton rackets to weight sets fully intending to wear them out, but too often they wind up collecting dust. Buy someone else’s good intention and you’ll save some bucks.

Happy hunting grounds: yard sales, newspaper and online ads, resale stores like Play It Again Sports.

Exception: Shoes, baseball mitts and anything else that will mold to the wearer’s body. In addition, some people shun buying anything used if it has a motor, like a treadmill. They worry they won’t get enough use out of the piece before it dies. Given how little use most such devices get before they’re sold, though, you might want to take the chance.

• Timeshares
You could call these a notoriously lousy investment if you could call them an investment at all, but you can’t -- because what real investment is guaranteed to lose 30% to 70% right off the bat?

That is, unless you buy used. There’s a huge number of folks who caved in to three hours of hard sell and are now desperate to dump their shares. For more details, read "Get the best deal on a time share."

Exception: Some of the higher-end properties in exclusive resorts don’t lose much value, and may offer benefits like frequent-flyer miles that could be worth the extra money if you buy from the developer. Before you buy, though, check resale values online; don’t take an agent’s word for how much depreciation to expect. Also, a relatively new type of expensive time share, called a fractional interest, may actually gain in value over time. For more information, see “Vacation time shares for the ‘middling rich’.”

• Cars
The average new car loses 12.2% of its value in the first year, according to; on a $20,000 car, that’s $2,440, or more than $200 a month. Some cars depreciate even faster, depending on demand, incentives offered and other factors.

Why not let someone else take that hit? Not only will you be able to save money (or buy more car), but you’ll pay less for insurance. Cars are better-built and last longer than ever before, which means you’re less likely to get a lemon. Companies like CarFax allow you to trace a car’s history. Many late-model used cars are still under warranty, and a trusted mechanic can give your potential purchase the once-over to spot any problems. (For more, see “How to save $10,000 on your next car.”)

Exception: You can pay cash and you really, really want that new-car smell.

• Software and console games
Buy used, and you’ll pay half or less what the software cost new. Console games like those for the Xbox and Sony PS2 that list for $50 new, for instance, can often be purchased used for $20 or less a year after release.

But it’s more than just a matter of economy. Letting someone else be the early adopter also allows you to benefit from their experience. You’ll find more reviews and information on software that’s been out a year or more (and you won’t be that far behind the leading edge). The bugs will have been identified along with any workarounds, although you may have to live with some problems that are fixed in later versions.

Exception: If you do a lot of work with graphics, multimedia or image editing and you have a newer, more powerful computer, you’ll probably want the state-of-the-art version. Finally, some software restricts the number of computers on which it can be installed, which can make it difficult (but not impossible) to transfer the product license to a new owner.

• Office furniture
Built to take a beating and last a lifetime, good-quality office desks, filing cabinets and credenzas are relatively easy to find even when a recession isn’t cratering the local economy.

Exception: Some people balk at buying used chairs for the same reason they won’t buy a used catcher’s mitt -- it’s had too many hours to mold to someone else’s body.

• Hand tools
Well-made tools with few or no moving parts -- like hammers, wrenches, shovels, hoes, etc. -- can last decades with proper maintenance and are relatively easy to find at yard sales. If you’re not going to use a tool frequently, you may be able to rent it or borrow from a friend or neighbor rather than buying something else to clutter up your garage. (Some neighborhoods even run tool-sharing cooperatives.)

Exception: You’re a hard-core do-it-yourselfer and you need power tools, especially cordless versions. These have a relatively limited life span and you may not know how much time they’ve got left. If the tool is cheap enough, of course, that may not matter, but most often you’ll want to buy new if the power tool will get substantial use.

You may also want to check out M.P. Dunleavey's column, "Why first-rate folks love secondhand stuff" for her take on the joys of secondhand shopping.

10 things you should never buy used
Sometimes the financial or safety risk outweighs the savings. Do you really want to sleep on someone else's mattress -- or take a chance with your child?

By Liz Pulliam Weston

Saving money is delightful, but you can take it too far.

In my companion piece, “10 things you shouldn’t buy new,” I listed lingerie as one of the items for which you’d best pay retail. There are plenty of other examples where the cost savings don’t justify the risks of buying used:

• Laptops. You’re taking a chance when you buy any used computer, but the math really doesn’t work when you’re talking about a unit that’s as prone to abuse and problems as a laptop. They’re more likely to be dropped, banged around and spilled on, simply because they’re out in the world while a desktop computer sits (mostly) safe at home.

That’s why laptops are one of the few products where springing for an extended warranty with free tech support makes sense, in addition to the standard warranty that typically comes when you buy new. Buy used, and you’ll have neither option -- along with no idea what maltreatment your laptop has suffered or when the hard drive, optical drive or other important parts will die on you.

Exception: You’re buying a refurbished unit that comes with a warranty. Mobile technology consultant Catherine Roseberry, who writes a column for, said she’s purchased two laptops from companies that refurbished leased corporate computers, and had no problems with either. Both came with 90-day warranties. If you want even more security, buy a laptop that’s been refurbished and certified by the manufacturer.

• Car seats. A car seat that’s been in one accident may not protect your child in another. And damaged car seats aren’t uncommon; a survey commissioned by Sainsbury’s Bank in England discovered one in 10 car seats currently in use in that country had been involved in an accident. (The bank is calling for a ban on the sale of secondhand seats.)

Brand-new car seats can often be purchased for as little as $50, and safety technology tends to improve with each year, said Denise and Alan Fields, parents and authors of “Baby Bargains." That makes getting a new one pretty much a no-brainer.

Exception: You’re getting the car seat from a friend or relative whom you’d trust with your child’s life, because that’s what you’re doing. Still, check with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to make sure the model you’re getting hasn’t been recalled.

Regardless of whether you buy new or used, have an expert check your work to make sure the seat is installed correctly. The NHTSA has a list of free inspection sites at its Web site, as does DaimlerChrysler’s Fit for a Kid program, which offers free inspections, regardless of what type of car you drive.

• Plasma TVs. Here’s another of those rare cases where you want not only the warranty that comes with the television, but an extended warranty. You’ll want the coverage because if your screen dies, it can cost thousands to fix or replace -- sometimes almost as much as it would cost to buy a new TV.

While defect rates have declined from 7% in plasma TV’s early years to about 1% with some of the better models, problems with this new technology are still common enough -- and repairs expensive enough -- that an extended warranty makes sense, said Phil Connor of

Exception: If you’re getting such a screaming deal that you don’t really care if the TV blinks out shortly after you get it home.

• DVD players. In the previous article, I recommended buying used DVDs, since their quality tends to remain high (unless they have scratches, which are usually pretty easy to spot).

The same is not true of DVD players, however. These have lasers that will eventually wear out and cost more to replace than the unit is worth.

Whenever repairs cost that much, buying new is often advisable. Add to that the fact that prices are constantly dropping while the technology is constantly improving, and buying new becomes a slam dunk.

• Vacuum cleaners. Here’s another item that’s particularly prone to abuse and that may cost you more to fix than if you’d simply bought new. Consumer Reports says a good, basic upright can be purchased new for less than $100, and that the fancy features that push prices higher often aren’t worth the extra cost. Just make sure to buy one that you’re comfortable pushing and that has a decent filtration system to prevent dust from kicking back out into the air.

Exception: You’re handy and don’t mind teaching yourself vacuum repair.

• Camcorders. Someday they’ll build a camcorder out of rubber, so that it’ll bounce when you drop it, which is almost inevitable. The damage from a fall may not be obvious when you buy used, but it may soon require a costly repair. Camcorder motors can also wear out and may cost you a couple hundred dollars to replace.

If you want to save money on a camcorder, consider buying analog, rather than digital, or, better yet, buy last year’s model.

Exception: You’re buying a refurbished model that comes with a warranty., for example, recently advertised a Canon ZR40 MiniDV camcorder with factory warranty for $279.95 -- an impressive savings over the unit’s usual $699.95 retail price.

• Shoes. Poor-fitting shoes can cause everything from bunions to back problems, so don’t buy footwear that’s already been molded by someone else’s tootsies. This is particularly important for kids whose feet are still growing. Shop sales, buy last year’s models, but don’t give in to the temptation to save a buck now that’s going to cost you more in pain and hassles later.

Exception: You’re buying old cowboy boots to turn into lamps.

• Mattresses. Think of all the stuff you do on your mattress. Now think of sleeping in someone else’s stuff. Ewwwww.

Unfortunately, you may already be spending the night with other people’s mold, mites, bacteria and bodily fluids. Dishonest retailers sometimes ignore federal requirements that used mattresses be labeled as such, often covering a secondhand cot with new ticking to disguise it. If you want an all-new mattress, the Federal Trade Commission recommends looking for a tag that promises “all-new materials” and requiring that the retailer write the word “new” on the receipt. (That can make it easier to prove your case should you find you’ve been sold a used mattress on the sly.)

There’s also the fact that mattresses aren’t meant to last forever. Even the good ones typically have a life span of just eight to 10 years, and it’s hard to know for sure how old a used mattress may already be.

Exception: When “used” is really almost “unused,” such as a mattress from someone’s rarely visited guest room. Still, you’d really have to trust the buyer to know, and disclose, everything that’s happened on that bed, which is why you’re still probably better off buying new. You shouldn’t ever pay the list price, because haggling is expected. Consumer Reports suggests you need to spend about $800 to get a good-quality queen-size mattress and box spring set. That works out to about 25 cents a night -- a small price to pay for cleanliness and comfort.

• Wet suits. These spongy coverings tend to lose their ability to keep you warm over time. If you’re a scuba diver, the constant change in water pressure will eventually take its toll.

“As a suit is used, the neoprene compresses and become thinner, losing its thermal properties and buoyancy,” said master dive instructor Gerrard Dennis of Simply Scuba, an online scuba store based in the United Kingdom, where the need for warmth is crucial. “Also, ozone attacks neoprene suits so they become less stretchy and more likely to tear with age.”

If diving, snorkeling or other water sports are your passion, a good wet suit will set you back $100 to $200.

Exception: You’re surfing, rather than diving, exclusively in warm waters. If you’re trying to outfit a growing child and don’t want to pop for a new suit, consider renting from a reputable shop that sanitizes the suits between uses.

• Helmets. Like a car seat, a helmet is meant to protect against one accident and no more. A crash typically crushes the foam inside the helmet casing, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, so the damage may not be visible.

Since you usually can’t tell if a helmet’s ticket has already been punched, you’re smarter to buy new. Kid’s sports and bike helmets retail for about $20; you’ll pay $30 to $40 for the adult size. Motorcycle helmets usually start around $100 and climb steeply from there; you can contain the cost by resisting the fancy paint jobs.

Exception: None. Helmets aren’t that expensive compared to a funeral or a lifetime as a quadriplegic. Spend the money.

Versatile Guest Rooms
Content provided by Better Homes and Gardens

Triple Play
Hosting overnight guests, and making them feel welcome, can be simple when you have a well-appointed guest room. It's often difficult to dedicate an entire room for guests when it might be used sporadically.

To maximize the day-to-day function of your home, create a combination guest room and home office suite. And, if you have an empty corner, tuck in your favorite piece of exercise equipment. That way you'll use the room every day, year-round.

Here are some keys to a good guest room:

• Include a good bed. A pullout sleeper sofa or a futon can't compete with a full-size mattress. Whatever type of bed you choose, make sure the mattress is firm and that it's comfortable—sleep on it yourself for a night or two.

• Allow space for unpacking. Some guests prefer to live out of a suitcase. Some like to unpack. Prepare for both with an empty chest of drawers and a luggage rack. Leave enough room on bedside tables for personal items such as jewelry or books.

• Consider small appliances. An alarm clock for the nightstand prevents guests from having to rely on the host. It's also nice to include a portable fan, telephone, and TV, if you have extras.

• Stock up on samples. Think like an innkeeper and purchase inexpensive travel size toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, hand lotion, disposable razor, and hair spray. Tuck them in a basket by the sink.

• Give them privacy. A common mistake for many hosts is to think you need to spend every moment of the visit with your guest. Be the first to suggest some private time by saying you're going to take a nap or read for a bit; then arrange a time to meet.

Remodel with Guests in Mind
Accommodating extended-stay guests, such as parents visiting for the summer (or winter) or a young relative "crashing" between semesters, requires thoughtful planning to make the visit a success. Part of the plan is to allow your guest some privacy. If you're building or remodeling, you have an excellent opportunity to create a separate, welcoming space. Here are some suggestions:

• Close some doors. Strategically placed doors can help create temporary private space for guests. A main-level bathroom might have one door connecting to a guest bedroom, for example, and another to a hallway. When visitors arrive, the hallway door can be locked.

• Show guests where to park. A separate driveway can prevent confusion about where guests should park. And a private entrance can keep you from being disturbed by comings and goings.

• Clone your master suite. Duplicate your upper-level master suite on the ground level, and your guests will enjoy the same luxury and privacy you do. Also, later in life, you can switch the spaces if illness or injury prevents you from climbing the stairs.

• Give visitors their own kitchen. A small kitchenette with coffeemaker, refrigerator, and other items prevents guests from feeling uneasy about asking for a drink or sandwich. Don't forget staples such as paper plates, paper napkins, cups, silverware, and condiments. If your guest space has room for a dishwasher, add one.

• Install a small laundry. Laundry facilities are a nice addition for guests. If your space is tight, consider a stacking unit. Then tuck a hamper, laundry soap, and dryer sheets nearby.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Code of Conduct
A teen film critic issues his strict rules for considerate behavior during a movie

By Frank Paiva
Special to MSN Movies

Most people think going to the movies involves just buying a ticket, eating some popcorn, and sitting in the dark to watch a show. If only things were that simple. There are actually a huge number of unwritten social rules surrounding moviegoing that cover everything from smuggling outside food into the theater to talking during previews. The problem is that not everyone follows these rules, making the already expensive night out at the multiplex emotionally, in addition to financially, draining. And we're not talking about the content on the screen.

Here are my suggestions for basic behavior that should be expected from anyone attending a movie. It's easily split into four basic sections for convenience: Talking, Food, Children and Miscellaneous Problems. Follow them -- or meet the wrath of your fellow moviegoers.


My Golden Rule:
The only time talking is permitted during a film screening is at a midnight showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," because everyone's seen the movie a million times already and most people are too drunk/crazy to control themselves. To elaborate:

— Annoying pre-film ads and trailers are in "no talking" territory in addition to the feature itself. While this may sound harsh, consider that anyone who's spent the first 20 minutes of their theater experience talking isn't likely to stop once a Dreamworks or Warner Bros. logo comes on the screen.
— If you've seen the movie before, shut up. I don't care about your opinion. For that matter, if you haven't seen the movie, I don't care what your mother or your roommate thought of it either.
— The moment the final credits begin to roll is not the time for you to begin discussing your opinion of the movie. Wait at least until you're outside the auditorium.
— Never ever discuss the endings to other movies before the screening. I can't tell you how often this happens.
— Do not discuss the film you just saw in between stalls in the bathroom. It could spoil it for someone headed into an upcoming screening; plus no film is important enough to be loudly discussed in a public restroom.
— If there are only a few people in the theater, talk very quietly. Talking loudly will force other people to eavesdrop on your conversation in lieu of listening to that horrible theater radio network music.


My Golden Rule:
If it smells like anything or is larger than a chicken, you don't need to bring it into the movie with you.

— If you bring soda from home, at least have the decency to open it before the movie starts. I'm tired of the opening-cans chorus that occurs in the first minute of a movie, caused by sneaky people trying to cheat the system.
— If your food from home is wrapped in noisy bags or wrappers, remove it while there's still light available and the noise won't matter. This includes cough drops.
— If you drop a food item on the floor, don't eat it. That floor is disgusting. And don't try to get it back during the screening. It really doesn't matter that much.
— Napkins are key to keeping your seat and armrests from getting greasy. Be kind to the people who will come after you.


My Golden Rule:
If the film doesn't feature talking animals or Hilary Duff, then it's probably not appropriate for children. Bad parenting is rampant at today's multiplex. Just remember that:

— Saying you couldn't find a babysitter and going to the movies anyway is not an excuse. You can rent a movie and watch it at home if you're really so concerned about the safety of your child.
— If the film starts after 7, it's not OK to bring your kids. I am shocked by the recent surge of children I'm seeing at movies beginning at 10 or 11 at night.
— Your child's comments during the film are not amusing. I don't care if you find them cute. Children are subject to the same non-talking rules as everyone else. All children. Not just everyone else's child. Your child is not that special.
— Bringing children to R-rated movies isn't just irresponsible, it's wrong. There's a reason films get these ratings. It's because these films contain things children shouldn't be exposed to or that they can't understand. I'll never forget seeing the Holocaust drama "The Pianist" and having the little boy in front of me remark two-thirds of the way into the movie, "Mommy, I don't understand why he's hiding." Just don't do it.

Miscellaneous Problems

My Golden Rule:
Watch out for the elderly. While this may sound ageist, I am consistently amazed by how many of my problems at the multiplex have nothing to do with the stereotypical rowdy teenager or antic child. Age may make you wiser, but that still doesn't mean I care about anything you have to say until after we leave the auditorium. Some other rules (for all ages):

— If you know the song being played in a movie, don't you dare sing along to it. When did this become OK? This includes humming.
— If you're 20 or 25 minutes late for a movie's starting time and go anyway: Shame on you. You irresponsible people are the reason I'm glad movie tickets prices are so high. It's as if you're being fined for your stupidity and for being inconsiderate. I've never understood why people will pay good money to see 70 minutes of a 90-minute movie.
— Cell phones should always be off. Not on a low ring volume. Not on vibrate. It seems so simple, but apparently it's not. I don't care if you're a doctor on call. If you're on call, you can watch a movie at home.
— If a movie is playing at a second-run theater, that doesn't make it OK to ignore any of these rules. Just because tickets were only $3 or $4.50 doesn't mean we need to lose our respect for each other.
— If you're sick, don't go to the movies. I'm sitting too close to you.

Until next time, enjoy and behave yourself at the movies.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

10 Tired TV Clichés
By Larry Carroll

When "Survivor" debuted to enormous ratings as our millennial clocks simultaneously tumbled over to mark the 21st Century, critics and fans alike pronounced the impending death of the classic television sitcom. Five years later, the beloved genre continues a rapid disintegration that finds networks desperately clinging to tired veterans like "Will & Grace" and "That '70s Show" with the knowledge that any sitcom replacement will likely suffer a quick, largely unnoticed death. If the networks hope to reinvent the sitcom, here are 10 tired clichés that they need to print out, thumb-tack to their writer's foreheads, and never, ever ask us to watch again:

The Cliché: Wonder Twin Powers, Activate!
As Seen On: "The Addams Family," "Bewitched," "Friends"
How It Works: A character meets someone who looks just like him/her, while the viewers know that it's really the famous actor playing both roles with the help of a split screen and some clever editing. Typically, the actor will wear a mustache or wig, accessorizing them with a knowing wink to the audience. A modern example would be "Friends," which shamelessly milked the joke twice, for Phoebe's sister Ursula and Ross' doppelganger Russ. Just in case anyone needed a reminder that David Schwimmer has as many dimensions as a three-panel comic strip.

The Cliché: Thinking a Sentence is Two Words Long
As Seen On: "Newhart," "Three's Company," "Frasier"
How It Works: Someone begins a sentence ("I'm dying ...") and then finishes it (" hair on Tuesday.") after an eavesdropping co-star has left the room or removed their glass from the other side of the door. A huge misunderstanding follows, causing everyone to do outrageous things and deliver dialogue that stops just short of necessitating an explanatory conversation. At the end of the episode, naturally, the truth emerges and everyone has a good laugh about it. If only we could had turned the set off two words into the show.

The Cliché: Sir, Would You Like a Tongue-Lashing With Your Beverage?
As Seen On: "Benson," "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," "Will & Grace"
How It Works: Good luck finding any real family that has a butler/live-in maid, never mind one allowed to voice his/her dissatisfaction with the caste system by firing dry-mouthed arrows of sarcasm toward their (typically unsuspecting) employers. If these people hold such resentment, it makes you wonder what they're doing to the food.

The Cliché: Double Date, Double Trouble
As Seen On: "Sister, Sister," "Boy Meets World," "Joey"
How It Works: A seemingly smooth character makes multiple dates for the same night, usually by mistake. Unable to cancel, he/she must run from one place to the other and maintain a seemingly never-ending web of deception, until the pressure becomes too much. Usually, all the dates get mad and leave the character alone, having learned his/her lesson. The canned laughter erupts, the credits roll, and we wonder where the last half-hour of our lives has gone.

The Cliché: You're Not My Kid!
As Seen On: "Roseanne," "Growing Pains," "Family Ties"
How It Works: Everybody knows that when a show needs a ratings boost, you have a baby. But what happens after those initial diaper-changing storylines get old, and the show is bogged down with a silent, comedic dead weight? Age the kid a few years, of course, and bring in a precocious kid actor while keeping the series stars the same age. "Roseanne" took the absurd plot device one step further in 1993, switching in a new actress for the teenaged Becky Conner character. Eventually, Becky was switched back, but few noticed because their televisions had been similarly switched -- to a different channel.

The Cliché: An Unexpected Delivery
As Seen On: "Welcome Back Kotter," "The Nanny," "7th Heaven"
How It Works: An elevator gets stuck between floors, and then a woman goes into labor! The baby is delivered in the most unusual of places, while our characters get a valuable refresher course in the magic of life. Makes you want to take the stairs.

The Cliché: We're Trapped - Let's Reminisce!
As Seen On: "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Mad About You," "Malcolm in the Middle"
How It Works: Stuck somewhere they don't want to be and faced with time to kill, the show's characters think back to all the good times they've had. Viewers are expected to enjoy the trip down memory lane, but if you hit "mute" on your TV you can instead listen to the collective groan of an entire nation, disappointed at having tuned in to another lame clip show.

The Cliché: I'm (Cough, Cough) Not Feeling Well
As Seen On: "The Brady Bunch," "Diff'rent Strokes"
How It Works: A little kid, wanting to get to meet his/her idol, fakes a severe illness. When the superstar actually does show up, the little tyke needs to give the performance of a lifetime. The child's parents and the superstar eventually uncover the truth, giving the youngster both a lesson in lying and an autograph to hock on eBay.

The Cliché: Now You Don't See Me, Now You ... Still Don't See Me
As Seen On: "Rhoda," "Cheers," "Home Improvement"
How It Works: A character is discussed, occasionally even heard from, but is never actually glimpsed on camera. It's a dumb old gimmick that invites the audience to play along, but can we finally put it to bed after watching Wilson awkwardly position himself behind fences for nine years of "Home Improvement"?

The Cliché: Look, I'm in a Dress! Isn't This Funny?
As Seen On: "Alf," "Perfect Strangers," "According to Jim"
How It Works: The saddest of all sitcom clichés: when writers get lazy, they go for the cheap joke of cross-dressing. Characters dress up like members of the opposite gender to sneak into gender-specific clubs, to spy on spouses, or to earn money while in Las Vegas. "Some Like it Hot" came out nearly 50 years ago; does anybody really still get a laugh out of Jim Belushi in a dress?

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The X-Factors of Success
Personality traits that make some humans superhuman.

By Psychology

The Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman is easily the best-loved scientist of the late 20th century. Part mentor, part circus ringmaster, he had an enthusiasm for the mysteries of the universe that infected anyone within earshot: "The energy made you want to study theoretical physics for the rest of your life," recalls psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, who attended a Feynman lecture years ago. "It didn't matter if you had any idea what he was talking about or not!" But you don't need to be a Nobel laureate to have this effect.

Every college campus, every elementary school, for that matter, has its Feynman: a larger-than-life personality whose essence, beyond mere brains, talent or beauty, makes him stand apart. The French call it "je ne sais quoi," or "I know not what," but the fact is, we do have words for these attributes. Charisma, chutzpah, joie de vivre and grace are four such "X-factors," enviable dispositions that defy easy definition, even as they are immediately recognizable in people we admire. Different though they are, charisma, chutzpah, exuberance and equanimity project a positive energy that radiates beyond the person who embodies it. The Eva Perons and Sidney Poitiers of the world draw attention to themselves and, by means brash or gentle, wrangle us into the present moment, outside of ourselves. Only recently have psychologists begun to articulate and study what X-factors are made of and the degree to which these complicated qualities are born or bred.

Psychologists have long relegated attributes like chutzpah and charisma to the back burner of research in part because they are difficult to define, and because one needs a context in which to watch them unfold. Plus, they quickly shade into darker qualities: For every revolutionary hero there's a tyrant who looks just as charming at first glance. Erin Brockovich elbowed her way to a legal victory (without a law degree) and to Hollywood immortality, but a neighbor who pushes to the front of the bakery line is just plain rude. Much of our response hinges on whether a person wields his power for the greater good or for his own selfish purposes. If the guy who cuts in line sheepishly smiles and explains that he must satisfy his pregnant wife's pastry craving, lest she kill him, you will be more likely to admire, not curse, his chutzpah.

These qualities alone do not guarantee success, but they're often apparent in the most successful people around us. How, then, can we make them our own? While grace requires much effort to cultivate, it is, encouragingly, the most teachable of the X-factors, forged through tough mental and emotional discipline, often via structured spiritual practice. A small percentage of people are simply born exuberant. Yet, because it's the most contagious of the X-factors, we can all enjoy its contact high. Bona-fide charisma is probably also something you have or don't -- its root word means "gift of grace." But it can be maximized. Anyone can show chutzpah, but it seems to surge through some people's veins. We can all increase our X-factors by some factor, and we can certainly appreciate their rare charms.

CHARISMA: The Spellbinders

Textbooks break presidents down along party lines, but the real divide, in the public imagination, is the chasm between charismatic maestros and bland statesmen. "Kennedy had it," says veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas of JFK. "He was inspiring and magnetic. He gave us hope. [He] radiated that onward-and-upward good feeling." Then there's Clinton. "He is so sexy, and he eats you up with his eyes," Joan Collins once swooned to a reporter. "I don't know whether it's magic, or a trick, but it is the best act I have ever seen."

Charisma is, in fact, just short of magic: It's a rare quality but common in figures who inspire devotion. "Charismatic people are essentially brilliant communicators," says Ronald Riggio, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California. One of the few researchers to have taken a hard look at this mystical quality, Riggio believes it consists of overlapping components such as expressivity, sensitivity, control, eloquence, vision and self-confidence.

"A charismatic person never plays it small," says Frank Bernieri, professor of psychology at Oregon State University. "Seeing Tony Robbins is like listening to loud music that you can't help but tap your foot to." Because we spot charisma within seconds of meeting someone who has it, some researchers argue that it's in fact beauty, confidence or mere celebrity that sets off our radar. Riggio says that loud gestures, however, are more likely what we detect. "Expressivity is the tip of the iceberg -- it's what is most visible. But there are complex behaviors underneath."

Verbal fluency is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient. "[Former Secretary of State] Warren Christopher is a great communicator, but he is not charismatic," says Riggio. Memorable leaders give speeches rich in imagery, such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream." Riggio found that presidents rated as charismatic, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln, used twice as many metaphors in their inaugural addresses as did their less riveting counterparts, such as Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover.
A charismatic leader acts as a bonding agent, allowing you to give in to the giddy togetherness of a peace rally or a line dance. You forget yourself in his company and climb into the palm of his hand. This intricate pas de deux is known as synchrony and may be the key to charisma.

Synchrony is a marker of rapport; if two people click, they unconsciously adjust their posture and speech rate to each other. Bernieri strongly suspects that charismatic people are natural "attractors" who get others to synchronize to them. An Oprah, for example, controls an audience with her keen sense of timing, repetition and rhythm. "They play the crowd like improvisational jazz."

How can you get in touch with your inner Oprah? Synchrony can't be faked through forced mimicry, says Bernieri. He maintains that, like jazz, charisma itself can't be taught. But it can be approximated through communication techniques that will ideally become second nature.

Magician Steve Cohen, author of Win the Crowd: Unlock the Secrets of Influence, Charisma and Showmanship, says he used to have great sleight of hand but no hold over his audience. "I learned to figure out what is going to be interesting to people at every moment," he says. Now he draws gasps, aahs and laughs at his weekly sold-out show in New York's posh Waldorf-Astoria hotel. "The trick itself is never important; it's having a presentational hook."

The idea of charisma may be stronger than its actual effects, though. Rakesh Khurana, associate professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, finds that when American companies look for new leaders, they seek charisma above all other qualities -- but the bottom-line results of this hiring practice are often disappointing, even disastrous. Under uncertain market conditions, charismatic CEOs are good for one thing: They temporarily boost their company's stock prices. But the improvement is usually short-lived. That's because charisma may have more to do with a person's image than with his or her innate abilities. Just as leaders in primitive societies wore masks that conferred upon them special status, Khurana says, CEOs embellish their auras with private planes and corner offices.

Steve Cohen learned this lesson when he started handing out his bio to audience members before his magic show. The biographical information mentions that he has privately entertained numerous corporate titans and TV personalities. "The audience's reaction to me was immensely better," he says. "They think, 'I better pay attention to him because these people have.'"

CHUTZPAH: Oh, The Nerve

When biologist Craig Venter was 7 years old, his hobby was racing planes on his bicycle as they took off from the San Francisco airport. Pilots shook their fists at little Craig while the passengers looked on, aghast. "Eventually they built a fence around the runway," he says. "That was my contribution to airport safety."

Venter grew up to be a bad boy of science, whose unconventional ideas attracted biotech investors even as he alienated colleagues with his brash outspokenness. In 1998, Venter announced his plan to sequence the human genome on his own, breaking from the publicly funded Human Genome Project. Venter would furiously bicycle against a behemoth again, this time using his quicker (if less accurate) method of sequencing DNA.

In May of 1998, three dozen top researchers from the Human Genome Project convened with Venter. They were irate: Venter's project might threaten their funding and compromise the quality of the most important biological endeavor of the 21st century.

Did Venter quell their concerns? No. He suggested that he would go ahead and map out the human genome while his distinguished colleagues could do a very nice job sequencing... the mouse.

Chutzpah makes our jaws drop because it openly challenges our conformist tendencies. It is a behavior that crosses a social norm, not merely to get away with something, but rather to purposefully challenge convention. Venter embodies what Solomon Snyder, director of the department of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, calls the audacity principle. Snyder believes that a person who possesses the crucial ingredients in great scientific achievement -- originality and simplicity over a bedrock of intellect -- still needs chutzpah to deliver on his or her potential. "It's about not only having an original idea, but having the insight to know it's important," Snyder explains. "This insight in turn gives you conviction to pursue your idea, even though the world punches you in the nose."

Venter says his chutzpah helped and hurt his career: "The perceived audacity of what I've done drives some of my critics to behave correspondingly badly." (To wit: For a time, founding father of the Human Genome Project James Watson referred to Venter as "Hitler.")

Chutzpah indeed elicits a mixed response. In the mid-1990s, Erin Brockovich was a scantily clad file clerk at the law firm Masry & Vititoe when she noticed a suspicious pattern in the medical records of Hinkley, California residents. When she pursued the case and took the Pacific Gas and Electric Company to the cleaners, we admired her brashness on behalf of a community subjected to environmental toxins. "I never cared about being fired," she says. "I knew I was doing the right thing." But if we perceive that someone is using chutzpah to advance her own cause, we feel either jealous of her for taking a bigger piece of life's pie or contempt for her selfish gall.

Publishing maven Judith Regan is convinced that envy motivates her critics. "I have this incredible career. I've had great love affairs. People look at me and ask, 'Why does this bitch have all this?'" she says. "I have it because I went for it, and they are afraid."

The persistently audacious are helped along by a fearless temperament. "Risk-seekers are more likely to have chutzpah," says Aaron Ben Ze'ev, psychologist and president of the University of Haifa in Israel. But people with chutzpah operate in a social arena, where they risk hurting others, not just themselves. "James Bond is risk-taking, but no one would say he has chutzpah," says Nathan Fox, professor of human development at the University of Maryland. "You can be alone and take risks. Chutzpah is arrogantly taking advantage of social knowledge."

Those who develop a chutzpah habit always walk the line between productive shake-ups and naked aggression, says Ben Ze'ev. Whereas chutzpah skirts harm's way, aggressors delight not in expanding boundaries but in completely disregarding them, gangster style.

With proper support, even a shy wallflower can muster the courage to be provocative. But people with true gumption have life experiences that force them to use their natural boldness to break boundaries. Brockovich struggled with dyslexia as a child. "I knew I wasn't dumb, but it pissed me off that I was being labeled. I always questioned what people perceived as normal, because I never thought I was normal," she says. Venter served in a hospital in Vietnam as a young man. "After being faced with death," he says, "you learn you have nothing to lose from taking risks in life."

JOIE DE VIVRE: The Day-Seizers

Opera singer Angela Brown was easily bored as a child in Indianapolis. "I would say, 'Okay, I did that. What's next?'" As a teenager, she carried her church's gospel choir. A voice coach told her she could stop right there and be the next Aretha Franklin. But to be the best Verdi soprano the world had ever seen she would have to work for at least a decade, mastering technique and foreign languages. Brown accepted the challenge. "I dread learning new music," she says with her infectious cackle. "But then as soon as I'm in it, it's like Godiva chocolate. Yeah, baby!" Brown debuted as Aida at the Metropolitan Opera last year, to resounding bravos. It wasn't just her mellifluous voice that moved the crowd -- it was her joyful spirit. "If I'm onstage, I'm actually in Verdi's music. I'm right in the staff running up and down the scale! And on top of that I'm going to get paid?!"

People with joie de vivre are like windup dolls that never run down. They are passionate explorers who view their work as play. They're a lot of fun to be around (at least in moderate doses). That's not to say they are unfailingly happy. "Yo-Yo Ma is certainly one of the most exuberantly joyful people I have ever met," says writer Mark Salzman, a friend of the legendary cellist. "But it would be a mistake to think his emotional dial got set on joy and then got stuck. Yo-Yo is so responsive to what is going on around him. If you put him in a room with people who are grieving, he will be as sad as anyone."

Positive thinking can be taught. But passionate exuberance is something you're born with. Zeal paired with emotional responsiveness can be identified in babies as young as four months old, says University of Maryland psychologist Nathan Fox. While researching temperament in infants, he noticed that about 10 percent of his tiny subjects became unusually excited by novel toys or people. He dubbed this group "exuberant" and tracked them through their seventh birthdays. Exuberance proved remarkably stable, unlike traits such as shyness that can wane with age. Fox strongly suspects these children's underlying reward systems function differently: "Positive rewards like social interaction do more for them than they do for others." As a result, they are motivated not only to meet new people but to connect well with them.

Children with an ecstatic spirit can flounder in less supportive settings, though. "When you are exuberant, you have your emotions out there on the line. Parents can make these children feel ridiculous," laments psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of Exuberance. She believes that girls are particularly vulnerable to having their natural vitality suppressed. "It's OK to be an enthusiastic tomboy as a little girl, but then at age 11 or 12 girls are taught to reel it in."

Even people who struggle to get up in the morning can catch a temporary case of exuberance. While most moods are contagious, exuberance not only spreads quickly, but also expands people's sense of possibilities. Salzman describes the effect of Ma's concerts: "You walk out feeling excited to the core. You find yourself paying more attention to the person you're with, more aware of the rain on the windshield on the ride home... You feel more grateful just to be alive."

We may find ourselves smirking at the unbridled excitement of those who plow through life. "I'm just a bubble out of a champagne bottle!" chirps fitness guru Richard Simmons. Best known for prancing about in tank tops and short shorts, Simmons effectively counsels the obese and has produced dozens of best-selling exercise videos. "When I wake up in the morning, it's like the red curtain goes up... I twirl around the room. I thank God for the day. I fluff my hair and yell, 'Go get 'em, Richard!'"

Jamison points to envy as the reason some people trivialize joie de vivre. "No doubt, there are vapid exuberant people. But I also think it's a mistake to believe that people who are enthusiastic just haven't seen the complexity of life."

GRACE: Fierce Benevolence

When Colleen Dawson's son was a third-grader, he shared a class in South Africa with Nelson Mandela's grandson. "On parents' night, [Mandela] visited, folding his six-foot frame into his grandson's desk," says Dawson. "Normally, we would have asked about homework and other silly details, but no one spoke. So he just started talking in a quiet, authoritative way about the important job of teaching. He's like a higher power; between the president and God there is Mandela."

Mandela put the tongue-tied parents at ease in the classiest way: He shifted the emphasis onto their shared interest in the school and elevated the agenda. Wise souls like Mandela rarely become overwhelmed by their own feelings or by discomfort. Their poise and impeccable timing allow them to strike the right emotional chord.

Grace is the quietest of the X-factors, perhaps the only one in which star power never threatens to overshadow substance. Graceful types are just as passionate and driven as their X-factored peers but rarely stir up the annoyance or suspicion we may feel toward bold or highly excitable people.

While grace is too elusive to pin down in a lab, we catch glimpses of it in studies of characteristics like wisdom and benevolence. Wisdom is associated with "meaning making," a trait ascribed to people who are introspective and cut to the heart of problems. Wisdom is also associated with benevolence, and it is in warm, compassionate individuals that we often see "grace." It is the X-factor presumed to spring from hard-won life experience: Mandela's 27 years in prison cultivated his legendary resolve.

Yet sage people begin life with certain shared proclivities. When Ravenna Helson of the University of California at Berkeley tracked women for 40 years, she concluded that subjects described as open and tolerant at age 21 were higher on a measure of wisdom in middle age, especially if they pursued psychotherapeutic or spiritual careers. "You can be wise as a young person," says Helson. "But wisdom increases between the ages of 27 and 52."

Another key to grace is equanimity, the ability to accept life's inevitable slings and arrows. A calm and composed demeanor is a central tenet of Buddhists, who believe that people must not let their emotional states oscillate wildly in response to life's vicissitudes. Through meditation, one can cultivate the mindfulness and compassion associated with grace. But you don't have to meditate to achieve equanimity.

"I'm a total failure at meditation," confesses Pankaj Mishra, author of a biography of the Buddha, An End to Suffering. Yet he learned to monitor his thoughts and feelings outside of the structure of meditation, and to curb his own desires. "To see the constant changing nature of the self is to realize that desire is worthless, because the person who has got what he desired is no longer the person who was desiring," explains Mishra.

Grace is not solely the provenance of ascetics and spiritual sophisticates, as Mishra makes clear. The charm and kindness that we associate with regal beauties like Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelley are another form of grace, one that surpasses their breeding and impeccable manners.

Just as Buddhists live by ethical precepts that determine the "right" action and speech, icons like Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy were supremely conscious of the correct way to uphold their public role (Prince Harry has yet to figure this out, and Princess Stephanie never did). The princess that Hepburn plays in Roman Holiday knows she must relinquish her personal freedom to serve her subjects; off-screen the actress used her radiant presence to lead an antifamine crusade.

Graceful prominent figures transcend their privileged existence to connect with the public. Instead of succumbing to her own grief, Jackie Kennedy stoically led her young son to deliver a heartbreaking salute at JFK's funeral. This grand gesture moved Americans because it allowed them to grieve along with her. Jackie recognized the exaggerated effect her actions would have on the world's stage. People possessed of X-factors know the hold they have over us. And if they use these qualities for the common good, we gladly go under their spell.

Charm By Any Other Name

Yiddish has elbowed its way into English with "chutzpah," while the French bubble over with "joie de vivre," "elan," "savoir faire" and other high-spirited bon mots. Indeed, many languages have their own X-factored terms that describe a unique constellation of desirable traits, if not success pure and simple. Such words reveal as much about the culture that prizes them as they do about the individual who possesses them.

1. Akamai (Hawaiian): Smart, on the ball, savvy. Richard Branson is "akamai."
2. Brioso (Spanish): Fiery, spirited and charming.
3. Sabrosa (Spanish): Literally "flavorful" or "zesty," this refers to someone who is lively, complicated and may have a naughty streak.
4. Dushevnost (Russian): Soulful and deeply emotive, but also warm, open, gregarious and passionate.
5. Gemuetlich (German): Pleasant, cozy, amiable -- a person, place or experience can be gemuetlich.
6. Hyggelig (Danish): Similar to "gemuetlich," this adjective captures the easygoing Danes' desire for a relaxed atmosphere.
7. Mi ren (Chinese): Fascinating, enchanting, charming, tempting. Barack Obama is very "mi ren."
8. Okuyukashii (Japanese): Elegant and modest, usually in regard to women.
9. Shibui (Japanese): Cool, understated. Usually used in reference to an older man. He's "cool" in the sense that his taste is classy; restrained in speech and movement.
10. Sprezzatura (Italian): Deliberate nonchalance. The art of making something difficult appear effortless and beautiful.
11. Unesidima ne sithozela (Xhosa -- South African tribal language): Someone with an aura, who is well respected and held in high esteem.

The Other Side of Fame
By Psychology

For some reason, perhaps because it's far removed from the L.A.-N.Y. continuum, celebrities's siblings are drawn to Central Florida. Not only that, but they feel compelled to become journalists here.

I've sat two desks over from Jennifer Beal's brother, Greg. Been at newspaper parties with Susan Sarandon's brother, Terry Tomalin, and shared journalistic turf with Gretchen Letterman, Dave's sis.

These relationships occasionally bring the mild-mannered reporters some fall-out fame. Terry, while on a backpacking trip with his sister and her pal Julia Roberts, noticed that Roberts was listening to Lyle Lovett cassettes on her Walkman, and set the two up for their first date. Gretchen made the newspapers when her brother dropped by for a visit in St. Petersburg and had a car accident.

But mostly, they're close-mouthed about their celebrity sibs.

"It's not just that you get tired of people asking about them," says Arthur McCune, a reporter whose stepbrother, Daniel Waters, wrote Heathers and Batman Returns. "It's also that, in comparison, you feel kind of like a failure. I mean, he comes home for Christmas and has been at some exotic locale for his new movie, or just had lunch with Winona Ryder, and then it's, 'So what's new with you?'"

Celebrity and success have become synonymous in a culture that judges by how rich, seductive, and riveting the image; where the name recognition of teenage waif models rivals that of Nobel Peace Prize recipients.

"Celebrity [is] the reward of those who project a vivid or pleasing exterior or have otherwise attracted attention to themselves," Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism. "It is evanescent. . . .In our time, when success is so largely a function of youth, glamour, and novelty, glory is more fleeting than ever, and those who win the attention of the public worry incessantly about losing it."

Stars, then, have their own problems, not the least of which is contemplating their own half-lives. Some worries intrude from outside: rabid fans, gold diggers, paparazzi, critics, competition. Others gnaw from within: self-doubt, addiction, wanderlust.

Entertainers -- whether actors, artists, evangelists, writers, musicians, politicians, or athletes -- survive by peddling themselves and their talents to the masses. They're put on display, consumed, evaluated and achieve either dismissal or acclaim. Feedback is received through Gallop polls, Nielsen ratings, and box-office draw.

Like the tree-in-the-forest conundrum, this presents a philosophical puzzle: If a celebrity doesn't rivet the public's attention, does he exist?

Fame has always had a bad reputation among thinkers. Poets sung of its seductiveness, and its tendency to breed vanity and superficiality. But the worst you could say of the old kind of fame, the kind based on accomplishment, was that it clouded your vision. The new, less durable fame, the kind refracted through images, proves especially corrosive to the self.

"To be a celebrity means to have more than the usual assaults on one's ego," says Charles Figley, Ph.D., director of the Psychosocial Stress Research Program at Florida State University. "You're very vulnerable to the personal evaluations of other people. The public is ultimately in control of whether your career continues."

Figley, who is writing a book on the stresses peculiar to celebrities, conducted a survey in which 200 questionnaires were mailed out to names randomly selected from a list of the public's top-ranked celebrities in 1991. From 51 replies, he compiled a list of the primary sources of stress for celebrities and their families, as well as their reactions and solutions. Most of the questionnaires were completed by the celebrities, the rest by a spouse, friend, or adult child of the celebrity. The top 10 stressors, in order, were:

o the celebrity press

o critics

o threatening letters/calls

o the lack of privacy

o the constant monitoring of their lives

o worry about career plunges

o stalkers

o lack of security

o curious fans

o worries about their children's lives being disrupted.

The celebrities's reactions to this stress were: depression, loss of sleep, crying over nothing, bad moods, acting out and misbehavior on the part of their children, lack of concentration, stomach problems, paranoia, over-spending, lack of trust, and self-hatred.

"There's a certain amount of insecurity," Figley says. "One of the respondents said that, at any time, he expected someone to come up and tap him on the shoulder and say, 'Go back to being a waiter. What do you think you're doing here, anyway?' There's a constant need for reassurance that they deserve what they've received."

Stress-busting solutions celebrities mentioned included: talking to friends or therapists, beefing up security, having friends outside the business, protecting their kids, laughing as much as possible, finding faith and religion, getting out of L.A.

"A sense of humor was one thing that kept coming up when they were asked about coping," Figley says. "One family had fun with it, and made a game out of trying various disguises to not be recognized." But another respondent, a well-known celeb, said he vividly remembers a painful moment when his family was going out for pizza, and his youngest child asked his mother, "Does dad have to come?"

"There tends to be a wide variation among the children," Figley says. "Some don't mind the attention, or even look forward to it. Others hate it." Gilda Radner spoke about dealing with fame in her autobiography, It's Always Something. "With fame, and the constant display of my image on television, came anorexia. I became almost afraid to eat," she said. But New York streets are filled with tempting kiosks. "During the second year of 'Saturday Night Live,' I taught myself to throw up. I became bulimic before medical science had given it that name."

After her hair fell out from chemotherapy, Radner could go out in public and not be recognized. But with that freedom came the loss of her sense of self. "I started introducing myself by saying, 'I used to be Gilda Radner.' That was how I felt. I used to be her, but now I was someone else." Radner finally broke through the desolation and joined a cancer support group, where she established friendships and made people laugh. "Finding that part of myself again," she said, "was wonderful."


English actor Gary Oldman seems to take pride in finding the oddest roles imaginable; he's played Count Dracula, Beethoven, Sid Vicious, and Lee Harvey Oswald. "Acting comes too easy for Gary. He's a genius at the craft. It bores him," says Douglas Urbanski, Oldman's agent.

The nemesis Oldman is struggling to conquer is more challenging than a difficult screen persona. "He's 61 days sober as of today," Urbanski told me in early February. "Isabella (Rossellini), Gary, and I have been on the most incredible journey together. The work he has done on himself is awesome."

Oldman, 36, is the son of an alcoholic welder who abandoned his family when Gary was seven. While Oldman was gliding to the top of the film industry, his personal life was in shambles, with two broken marriages. "Sometimes acting gets in the way of living life," Oldman has said. "It's very consuming,"

After five weeks of rehab, Oldman now plays his Steinway to relieve stress, attends AA meetings, and stays grounded by establishing a routine in his life. "He's got children, dogs, nannies, housekeepers, a whole menagerie up there [at his home]," Urbanski said. "But this is the first time he's experienced it all from a point of sobriety."

"People are naive about chemical dependence," Oldman now tells reporters, "about how destructive, powerful, and overwhelming it is."

David Wellisch, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at UCLA's medical school, says Oldman may well have two of the factors associated with alcohol abuse -- a genetic predisposition and an environmental influence from childhood, with at least one parent modeling addictive behaviors.

But because of his talent, Oldman, like many celebs, had a third risk factor -- one that Wellisch calls a "crisis of mobility," in which his fame transported him from one world to another. "He knew how to act when he was the son of a welder, but then he became a stranger in a strange land. His life had, at some level, lost its bearings. Drugs can be a stabilizer, at least temporarily, providing anxiety reduction, feelings of omnipotence and power, or a soothing, deep peace otherwise unattainable," Wellisch says.

For celebrities, especially in the entertainment field, the pressure is always on to turn in a perfect performance, to be better than before, to constantly hit the mark. At the same time, artists tend to be sensitive souls, in touch with naked emotions they mine for our perusal.

"Artists are the lenses through which life is transmitted. They show us what we think and feel in a way that is profound, intense, and highly emotional," Wellisch says. "They experience life more dearly than the rest of us." Drugs are a way to mute these feelings, which threaten to overwhelm.

And with the riches that accompany their fame, drugs are an escape route celebrities can afford at least for a while. The list of celebrity deaths from drugs is long, and continually updated -- Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Scott Newman, David Kennedy, John Belushi, River Phoenix.

"I think it has to be remembered that he was 23 and he made the choice," said Judy Davis, who was set to star opposite Phoenix in his next movie. "There's something about stardom and the way it empowers people -- he thought he was immune." Fame, therapists agree, can draw stars into a kind of magical thinking, wherein the laws of humankind are suspended.

Or, perhaps, River Phoenix felt he was unworthy. "There's embarrassment and guilt among those who become superstars quickly," Figley says. "They may have a self-destructive streak."

Jib Fowles, professor of media studies at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and author of Star Stuck: Celebrity Performers and the American Public (Smithsonian Institute Press), found in a study of 100 stars from all fields -- Hollywood entertainers, sports stars, musicians -- that celebrities are almost four times more likely to kill themselves than the average American.

"It's an enormously stressful profession," Fowles says. "There is unrelenting pressure coupled with diminishing private lives. They have to be on every time they step out their front door."

In fact, Fowles found that the average age of death for celebrities, overall, was 58, compared to an average of 72 years old for other Americans.

Celebrities, he believes, are the sacrificial victims of our adoration.

"Never in a society has the individual been anywhere near as important as in contemporary America:' Fowles says. And, as old heroic figures -- military, political, and religious leaders -- have fallen by the wayside, entertainers have taken their place. "They are delivered to us as perfect human beings. We look to them as ideals, and that gives us orientation. But the burden falls heavily on them. There's an argument to be made that stars aren't paid nearly enough for the cultural service they provide."

"You have to wonder if anyone set limits for these people, if anyone said, 'You're nuts, you're going to the hospital," Wellisch says. "Take if from me, I've seen celebrities who are household names, and it's tough to tell them things. Everyone else is telling them what magnificent, otherworldly creatures they are, and you have to tell them they have all these problems they need to deal with..."

Show business, like police work and medicine, is a high-risk profession, says Wellisch. "You experience too much, you see too much."

Some of the celebrities who have kicked drugs and come through to the other side attribute the change to settling down and having children. Actor Dennis Quaid battled drugs and alcohol for years, finally checking into rehab to kick a cocaine addiction before marrying Meg Ryan in 1991 and having their son, Jack.

Children can pull their parents, famous or not, outside themselves. There is no longer the luxury of complete self-indulgence, if one takes parenting seriously. And, perhaps for the first time, there is someone more important, someone more deserving. For celebrities, who are at the center of so many orbits, it's especially important to have a little Copernicus around.

"As soon as Sam was born," said proud papa Michael J. Fox, "I knew that I would throw myself in front of a truck for him."


Sharon Stone, who's had a reputation for being outspoken and forthright in interviews, recently switched tacks. "My new policy is this: I have a life of my own. Just a little, tiny one, but it's mine," she told the "Entertainment Tonight" crew when they asked about her latest love interest.

Celebrities understandably become more protective when they achieve the level of fame where fans begin to swarm, track, or target them obsessively, says therapist Coe, whose office is across from the entrance to Warner Bros. Studios. "They'll buy burglar alarms, cars with tinted windows, guard dogs, body guards. Some of them even border on paranoia, like the stars who have four bodyguards with them at all times, even on a movie set, and change clothes five times a day. It's a fine line.

"You've got the up side, where celebrities have the freedom and opportunities to go places and do things that bring them wonderment and joy. But their boundaries are constantly being pushed back, physically and mentally. Also, their trust level is down. They don't trust a lot of people."

Through their prominence and visibility, celebrities become living Rorschach tests, valued by their adoring public not for who they are, but for who their fans want them to be. With the casual fan, this could mean confusing actors with the roles they play, or feeling a sense of false intimacy with someone they've never actually met. For the lunatic, it could mean that the celebrity becomes the fantasy half of a dangerous delusion. Take the woman who, after breaking into David Letterman's home, took to driving his cars and referring to herself as "Mrs. Letterman."

Michelle Pfeiffer has said that she acts for free -- but charges for the inconvenience of being a celebrity. She tells about one day on the set of The Age of Innocence, when people were gathered around her trailer. "I kept trying to find a place where they couldn't see in. So I find myself in the back of the trailer and they can't see me, but I can hear them. Now, these are people who are usually like, 'Michelle, Michelle, we love you.' And I hear somebody say, 'Hey, man, I saw her and she looks old,'" Pfeiffer recounted, laughing. "I'm not worried about age. But I'm very aware that this is my window of time."

Moving away from fans to "get away from it all" might work too effectively, however. Garrison Keillor, radio host from the banks of Lake Wobegon, left St. Paul for Denmark, homeland of his Scandinavian wife. He claimed he wanted anonymity, the freedom to "live the life of a shy person." Six years ago, he moved back to Minneapolis and resumed broadcasting live. Nothing's worse than adulation, till it's gone.


Celebrity parents may produce celebrity progeny: Janet Leigh begat Jamie Lee Curtis, Debbie Reynolds begat Carrie Fisher, Kirk Douglas begat Michael, Lloyd Bridges begat Beau and Jeff, Martin Sheen begat Charlie and Emilio, Henry Fonda begat Jane and Peter, who begat Bridget.

But for the most part, celebrities have ordinary moms, dads, dogs, and siblings back in the great American heartland who serve as touchstones in their lives. Families and old friends, say the stars, counteract the dizzying seduction of a world in which you can endlessly reinvent yourself, losing track of who you are and where you came from.

Sarah Jessica Parker says she takes "self-appointed sabbaticals" from the demands of filming to "see my family, go to the market, and cook every day." Heather Locklear told Barbara Walters that her parents live nearby, visit often, and keep her sane.

When your parents are the ones who are famous, though, it can be a tough act to follow. It is the children who often pay the price of parental celebrity. The insecurity in the household, the tension, the career and mood ups and downs, the errant, hectic schedules, and the long absences all coalesce to shift a great deal of the emotional burden to the kids.

"I feel so for the kids," says Coe. "You're always dealing with having that name, or that face." No surprise, then, that the children of celebrities, like the prodigal minister's daughter, often act out in effective and embarrassing ways.

Alison Eastwood, now a model, grew up in Carmel as not only the daughter of actor Clint, but also as the rebellious child of the town's mayor. "I was feeling my oats," she said in a recent interview. "I dyed my hair orange and drove around fast with my stereo blaring. I was one of the big noise-makers in town. I bet people were happy to see me go to college."

The trappings of fame frequent travel, drug use, affairs -- can estrange celebrity parents from their children, preventing a normal relationship during their formative years. Actress Liv Tyler, 17, is the daughter of model Bebe Buell and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. Raised in Maine, Liv was nine before she learned that Tyler was her father. Her mother blocked Tyler from his daughter's life due to his drug and alcohol abuse. "He was a screwed-up mess, and I chose not to have him in her life until he chose sobriety," Buell says.

Tyler's daughters now accept and acknowledge their rock-legend dad, although his 16-year-old daughter Mia says he does embarrass her sometimes while on stage. "I mean, he stands there and he's groping himself and he is 46 years old and he should not be doing that," she told "A Current Affair" in an interview. "It disgusts me."
Celebrities' children, like the children of the very wealthy, also run the risk of wasted lives due to dysgradia, a syndrome where there is a complete lack of connection between doing and getting. "This is extremely amotivational," says Wellisch. "You know that no matter what you do, everything's still going to be there."

In addition to blood relations, celebs often have extended "families" nearby, made up of friends, employees, and other stars. Celebrities often work out of their homes, scheduling appointments, reading scripts, conducting meetings, and having networking parties. "The household is filled with people always coming and going. There's quite a bit of entertainment. It's rather chaotic. Managers and agents who have been with them for a long time become close friends, and like aunts and uncles to their children," Figley says.

With a support staff comes a payroll, employees and associates who depend on the celebrity for their own livelihood. "That puts a celebrity under constant pressure to be famous," Figley says. "So if an actor is in a movie that gets bad reviews or does poorly, he is inclined to self-blame, which leads to depression."

And, as always when there's a lot of money involved, there's the potential for corruption, for a trust violated. Indeed, celebrities are usually inundated by people who want to work for them. It can be difficult to scrutinize who to hire, never knowing what anyone really wants of you.


Hardest of all, perhaps, is the stress that fame can place on a celebrity's marriage.

Temptations are abundant. Legends of the Fall star Aidan Quinn, who has a wife, Elizabeth Bracco, and a five-year-old daughter, has women slipping notes to him even while he's getting his teeth cleaned at the dentist. "One time," he recounts, "I was out with my wife at dinner, and this woman walks up to the table and puts down a card with her name and number. She just laid it down and she walked away. I had to almost physically restrain my wife. Pretty fucking ballsy."

Without a separate, strong commitment to a career or other interests, it is particularly difficult for a celebrity's partner to maintain a clear sense of identity in a relationship. The attainment of celebrity almost automatically shifts the power balance. The spouse of a celebrity may live in constant fear of abandonment. What's more, the frequent absences of the celebrity mean the partner winds up with the extra burden of domestic responsibility. And the unpredictability of employment puts constant tension on the relationship.

But the biggest stress on relationships may come from the celebrity's own psyche. Does a star give up the role at home? The shift is almost always difficult for celebrities, therapists say. After a day in front of the camera, being catered to by teams of workers, not to mention sought out by hordes of fans, a request to take out the garbage can feel extremely claustrophobic.

Jennifer Sils, a Santa Monica therapist wed to comedy magician Mac King, says being in a relationship with an entertainer provides as many benefits as drawbacks to the spouse. Sils interviewed in depth eight women married to or living with men in the performing arts. Erratic schedules, long hours, unpredictable income, and periods of unemployment can make living with performers difficult, they admitted.

The financial ups and downs add a profound level of unpredictability in scheduling important life events, such as when to have children. There are difficulties in establishing a personal identity when married to a performer, who is often a strong personality. Parties and other social events supply more stress, because they tend to make the spouse feel unimportant. The frequent long absences of their mates require adjustments on leaving and reentry.

But, Sils found, most of the women said their relationships gave them opportunities they might not have otherwise experienced, like travel and rubbing shoulders with other stars. For the most part, said the women, their lives were exciting, filled with creativity, and seldom boring.

For celebrity spouses anchored by children, homes, and careers, however, home can be a long way from the latest movie set.

And then there are those celebrities who feel destined to stay single due to their star status. Joan Lunden, co-host of "Good Morning America," recently bemoaned her lack of romantic companionship, three years after her divorce. "Since then, I've only had a few dates -- and believe me, that hasn't been my choice. I can't understand why men are so intimidated. There must be someone wonderful out there. But I'm certainly finding him hard to find."


Ah, the press. The Fourth Estate, defender of the First Amendment, the No. 1 source of celebrity stress.

The tabloids, both print and TV, lead the pack, certainly. But even the mainstream press has incredible leeway when it comes to reporting on public figures. Where a private person must prove only negligence to claim libel, public figures (such as celebrities, politicians, and others who have sought the spotlight) must claim actual malice or knowledge that the statement is false.

The creative-expression defense goes a long way with courts intent on upholding the freedom of the press. When Hustler magazine discussed Jerry Falwell having sex with his mother in an outhouse, the Supreme Court ruled it satire.

But those on the receiving end say the press can be relentless in trying to capture, then condemn, their celebrity prey.

"I was walking down the street to go and get a newspaper and I was followed by this van, and this man with a video camera was filming me," Julia Roberts said in a recent interview. "This popped up on TV a few days later. I mean, I'm going to get the paper, and it's early in the morning and I have my hair pulled back and I have on some little dress or whatever. This woman on the television had the nerve to be completely obsessed by how I looked.

"Now, I don't have a clue what she looks like when she's going to get the paper." Roberts continued, "but I doubt it is the same as she does on television. She was saying, 'Julia, I have the name of a great hairdresser.' I thought, well, why should I do my hair to go and get a paper on the off-chance that somebody is going to videotape it and put it on TV?"

Being constantly judged and evaluated by their appearance, whether attending the Academy Awards or stepping out to get a newspaper, denies celebrities any part of their life that is truly and exclusively their own. Therein lies madness . . . or, at least, resentment. Does buying a movie ticket, owning a television, or subscribing to a magazine give us automatic rights to 24-hour surveillance?

We build 'em up, just to knock 'em down.


The late Tony Perkins, said his wife, Berry, never gloried in his cinematic successes. "He was very strong, and very intelligent, but I don't think he thought he really contributed a hell of a lot to this world, which is really sad."

"I've always felt ... that it was a very exposable myth that I was somebody," Perkins told the Saturday Evening Post in 1960. "I've felt this was an absurd dishonesty and that if I were close to people, it would be instantly evident and that they would say, 'Well, gee, he's nothing at all. What do we want to see him for?"'

Many celebrities suffer from this "impostor phenomenon," says Harway, and attribute their successes to good luck rather than hard work.

Just as we have created celebrities, we have created the hall of mirrors in which they so precariously exist. For the famous today, said Lasch, self-approval depends on public recognition and acclaim.

"The good opinion of friends and neighbors, which formerly informed a man that he had lived a useful life, rested on appreciation of his accomplishments.

"Today, men seek the kind of approval that applauds not their actions, but their personal attributes," Lasch continued. "They wish to be not so much esteemed as admired. They crave not fame, but the glamour and excitement of celebrity. They want to be envied rather than respected. Pride and acquisitiveness . . . have given way to vanity."

Seeing by Starlight: Celebrity Obsession
What we learn from celebrities may surprise you.

By Psychology

A few years ago, Britney Spears and her entourage swept through my boss’s office. As she sashayed past, I blushed and stammered and leaned over my desk to shake her hand. She looked right into my eyes and smiled her pageant smile, and I confess, I felt dizzy. I immediately rang up friends to report my celebrity encounter, saying: “She had on a gorgeous, floor-length white fur coat! Her skin was blotchy!” I’ve never been much of a Britney fan, so why the contact high? Why should I care? For that matter, why should any of us? Celebrities are fascinating because they live in a parallel universe—one that looks and feels just like ours yet is light-years beyond our reach. Stars cry to Diane Sawyer about their problems—failed marriages, hardscrabble upbringings, bad career decisions—and we can relate. The paparazzi catch them in wet hair and a stained T-shirt, and we’re thrilled. They’re ordinary folks, just like us. And yet…

Stars live in another world entirely, one that makes our lives seem woefully dull by comparison. The teary chat with Diane quickly turns to the subject of a recent $10 million film fee and honorary United Nations ambassadorship. The magazines that specialize in gotcha snapshots of schleppy-looking celebs also feature Cameron Diaz wrapped in a $15,000 couture gown and glowing with youth, money and star power. We’re left hanging—and we want more.

It’s easy to blame the media for this cognitive whiplash. But the real celebrity spinmeister is our own mind, which tricks us into believing the stars are our lovers and our social intimates. Celebrity culture plays to all of our innate tendencies: We’re built to view anyone we recognize as an acquaintance ripe for gossip or for romance, hence our powerful interest in Anna Kournikova’s sex life. Since catching sight of a beautiful face bathes the brain in pleasing chemicals, George Clooney’s killer smile is impossible to ignore. But when celebrities are both our intimate daily companions and as distant as the heavens above, it’s hard to know just how to think of them. Reality TV further confuses the picture by transforming ordinary folk into bold-faced names without warning. Even celebrities themselves are not immune to celebrity watching: Magazines print pictures of Demi Moore and “Bachelorette” Trista Rehn reading the very same gossip magazines that stalk them. “Most pushers are users, don’t you think?” says top Hollywood publicist Michael Levine. “And, by the way, it’s not the worst thing in the world to do.”

Celebrities tap into powerful motivational systems designed to foster romantic love and to urge us to find a mate. Stars summon our most human yearnings: to love, admire, copy and, of course, to gossip and to jeer. It’s only natural that we get pulled into their gravitational field.

Exclusive: Fan's brain transformed by celebrity power!

John Lennon infuriated the faithful when he said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, but he wasn’t the first to suggest that celebrity culture was taking the place of religion. With its myths, its rituals (the red carpet walk, the Super Bowl ring, the handprints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater) and its ability to immortalize, it fills a similar cultural niche. In a secular society our need for ritualized idol worship can be displaced onto stars, speculates psychologist James Houran, formerly of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and now director of psychological studies for True Beginnings dating service. Nonreligious people tend to be more interested in celebrity culture, he’s found, and Houran speculates that for them, celebrity fills some of the same roles the church fills for believers, like the desire to admire the powerful and the drive to fit into a community of people with shared values. Leo Braudy, author of The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History, suggests that celebrities are more like Christian calendar saints than like spiritual authorities (Tiger Woods, patron saint of arriviste golfers; or Jimmy Carter, protector of down-home liberal farmers?). “Celebrities have their aura—a debased version of charisma” that stems from their all-powerful captivating presence, Braudy says.

Much like spiritual guidance, celebrity-watching can be inspiring, or at least help us muster the will to tackle our own problems. “Celebrities motivate us to make it,” says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Oprah Winfrey suffered through poverty, sexual abuse and racial discrimination to become the wealthiest woman in media. Lance Armstrong survived advanced testicular cancer and went on to win the Tour de France multiple times. Star-watching can also simply point the way to a grander, more dramatic way of living, publicist Levine says. “We live lives more dedicated to safety or quiet desperation, and we transcend this by connecting with bigger lives—those of the stars,” he says. “We’re afraid to eat that fatty muffin, but Ozzy Osborne isn’t.”

Why do we act like we know them?

Don’t I know you?! Celebrities are also common currency in our socially fractured world. Depressed college coeds and laid-off factory workers both spend hours watching Anna Nicole Smith on late night television; Mexican villagers trade theories with hometown friends about who killed rapper Tupac Shakur; and Liberian and German businessmen critique David Beckham’s plays before hammering out deals. My friend Britney Spears was, in fact, last year’s top international Internet search.

In our global village, the best targets for gossip are the faces we all know. We are born to dish dirt, evolutionary psychologists agree; it’s the most efficient way to navigate society and to determine who is trustworthy. They also point out that when our brains evolved, anybody with a familiar face was an “in-group” member, a person whose alliances and enmities were important to keep track of.

Things have changed somewhat since life in the Pleistocene era, but our neural hardwiring hasn’t, so on some deeper level, we may think NBC’s Friends really are our friends. Many of us have had the celebrity-sighting mishap of mistaking a minor star—a local weatherman, say, or a bit-part soap opera actor—for an acquaintance or former schoolmate. Braudy’s favorite example of this mistake: In one episode of the cartoon show King of the Hill, a character meets former Texas Governor Ann Richards. “You probably know me,” he says. “I’ve seen you on TV.” That’s also why we don’t get bored by star gossip, says Bonnie Fuller, editorial director of American Media, which publishes Star and The Enquirer: “That would be like getting bored with information about family and friends!”

The brain simply doesn’t realize that it’s being fooled by TV and movies, says sociologist Satoshi Kanazawa, lecturer at the London School of Economics. “Hundreds of thousands of years ago, it was impossible for someone not to know you if you knew them. And if they didn’t kill you, they were probably your friend.” Kanazawa’s research has shown that this feeling of friendship has other repercussions: People who watch more TV are more satisfied with their friendships, just as if they had more friends and socialized more frequently. Another study found that teens who keep up to date on celebrity gossip are popular, with strong social networks—the interest in pop culture indicates a healthy drive for independence from parents.

The penchant for gossiping about the stars also plays into our species’ obsession with status. Humans naturally copy techniques from high-status individuals, says Francisco Gil-White, professor of psychology at University of Pennsylvania. It’s an attempt to get the same rewards, whether that’s “attention, favors, gifts, [or] laudatory exclamations.” Stars get all kinds of perks and pampering: Sarah Jessica Parker was allowed to keep each of her Sex in the City character’s extravagant getups; Halle Berry borrowed a $3 million diamond ring to wear to the Oscars. Understandably, we look to get in on the game.

The impulse to copy is behind the popularity of celebrity magazines, says Fuller. Regular women can see what the stars are wearing, often with tips on how to buy cheap knockoffs of their outfits. Taken to extremes—which television is only too happy to do—the urge to copy produces spectacles like the MTV reality show I Want a Famous Face. By dint of extensive plastic surgery, ordinary people are made to look more like their famous heroes. In one episode, two gangly 20-year-old twin brothers are molded into Brad Pitt look-alikes. The brothers want to be stars, and they’ve decided that looking more like Pitt is the fastest road to fame. No wonder makeover shows are so popular, points out Joshua Gamson, an associate professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco. These shows offer drab nobodies a double whammy: simultaneous beauty and celebrity. The most fascinating measure of status is, of course, sex. “We want to know who is mating with whom,” says Douglas Kenrick, professor of psychology at Arizona State University. He speculates that we look to stars to evaluate our own sexual behavior and ethics, and mistake them unconsciously for members of our prospective mating pool. Given this me-too drive to imitate and adore, why are celebrity flame-outs and meltdowns so fascinating? Even though we love to hear about the lavish rewards of fame—remember Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?—we’re quick to judge when stars behave too outrageously or live too extravagantly. We suspect some stars are enjoying society’s highest rewards without really deserving them, says University of Liverpool anthropologist Robin Dunbar, so we monitor their behavior. “We need to keep an eye on the great-and-the-good because they create a sense of community for us, but also because we need to make sure that they are holding to their side of the bargain.”

Diva alert: Beauty isn’t everything (being nice helps!)

The beauty bias is well-known. We all pay more attention to good-looking people. Kenrick’s eye-tracking research has shown that both men and women spend more time looking at beautiful women than at less attractive women. Babies as young as 8-months-old will stare at an attractive female face of any race longer than they will at an average-looking or unattractive female face. Certain human traits are universally recognized as beautiful: symmetry, regularity in the shape and size of the features, smooth skin, big eyes and thick lips, and an hourglass figure that indicates fertility. Men interpret these features as evidence of health and reproductive fitness. Women’s responses are more complex, says psychologist and Harvard Medical School instructor Nancy Etcoff, author of Survival of the Prettiest. Women stare at beautiful female faces out of aesthetic appreciation, to look for potential tips—and because a beautiful woman could be a rival worth monitoring.

Why celebrities can be too much of a good thing ...

It’s not surprising that gorgeous people wind up famous. What’s less obvious is that famous people often wind up gorgeous: The more we see a certain face, the more our brain likes it, whether or not it’s actually beautiful. Thanks to what is known as “the exposure effect,” says James Bailey, a psychologist at George Washington University, the pleasurable biological cascade that is set off when we see a certain celebrity “begins to wear a neurochemical groove,” making her image easier for our brains to process. It begins to explain why Jennifer Aniston—not exactly a classic cover girl—was again named one of People magazine’s 50 “most beautiful” in the world this year.

On the flip side, celebrity overload—let’s call it the J.Lo effect—can leave us all thoroughly sick of even the most beautiful celeb. With the constant deluge of celebrity coverage, says Etcoff, “they at first become more appealing because they are familiar, but then the ubiquity becomes tedious. That is why the stars who reign the longest—Madonna is the best example—are always changing their appearance.” Every time Madonna reconfigures her look, she resets our responses back to when her face was recognizable but still surprising.

Just as in pageants, personality plays a part in the beauty contest, too. State University of New York at Binghamton psychology professors Kevin Kniffin and David Sloan Wilson have found that people’s perceptions of physical appeal are strongly influenced by familiarity and likability. “Almost all of the beauty research is based on subjects looking at strangers in photos or computer-generated images—but we don’t live in a world of strangers!” Kniffin points out.

In one of Kniffin’s experiments, students worked on an archeological dig together toward a shared goal. Those who were deemed cooperative and likable were rated as more attractive after the project was finished than they were at the outset. Conversely, students who were not as hardworking were rated as less attractive after the chore was done.

Kniffin believes this same mechanism is at work in our feelings toward celebrities, who rank somewhere between strangers and intimates. Athletes are an obvious example: Team spirit gives even ugly guys a boost. NBA great Wilt Chamberlain might have been a bit goofy-looking, but his astonishing abilities to propel his team to victory meant that he was a hero, surrounded with adoring—and amorous—fans. Kniffin points to William Hung, the talent-free and homely also-ran on the contest show American Idol, as evidence of his theory at work. In part because of his enthusiasm and his good-natured willingness to put up with ridicule, Hung became a bigger star after he was kicked off the show: His album, Inspiration, sold more than 37,000 copies in its first week. “William doesn’t display the traits of universal attractiveness, but people who have seen the show would probably rate him as more attractive because of nonphysical traits of likability and courage. He’s even received some marriage proposals.” Kniffin’s theory also explains why models are less compelling objects of fascination than actresses or pop stars. They’re beautiful, but they’re enigmatic: We rarely get any sense of their personalities.

Saved from oblivion!

What’s the result of our simultaneous yearning to be more like celebrities and our desire to be wowed by their unattainable perfection? We’ve been watching it for the past decade. Reality television is an express train to fame, unpredictably turning nobodies into somebodies. Reality TV now gives us the ability to get inside the star factory and watch the transition to fame in real time.

“The appeal of reality stars is that they were possibly once just like you, sitting on the couch watching a reality TV program, until they leaped to celebrity,” says Andy Denhart, blogger and reality TV junkie. “With the number of reality shows out there, it’s inexcusable to not be famous if you want to be!” In the past, ambitious young men who idolized a famous actor might take acting lessons or learn to dance. Now, they get plastic surgery and learn to tell their life stories for the camera. In fact, says editor Fuller, the newly minted stars of reality TV are better at the celebrity game than many of the movie and television stars: “They are more accessible, more cooperative. They enjoy publicity. They will open up and offer insight, often more than a ‘traditional’ celeb, because they want the attention, whereas an actress might have ambivalent feelings about fame and how it is tied in with her ‘craft.’” At the same time, shows like The Simple Life and The Newlyweds (and amateur videotapes like Paris Hilton’s) let us gawk at the silly things that stars do in the privacy of their own home. As a result, the distance between celebrity stratosphere and living room couch dwindles even further.

Yet there’s still something about that magic dust. A celebrity sighting is not just about seeing a star, author Braudy points out, but is about being seen by a star: “There is a sense that celebrities are more real than we are; people feel more real in the presence of a celebrity.” It wasn’t just that I saw Britney, it was that Britney saw me.