Feature Archive

The Celebrity Factor: Lights, Camera, Reaction

No. 4 of WebMD's Top 10 Stories of 2004: The illnesses of famous people often put a spotlight on the disease. But does this have a domino effect?

By Heather Hatfield
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

When former President Bill Clinton underwent heart bypass surgery to repair blocked arteries earlier in 2004, it was covered on countless news programs, printed in hundreds of newspapers, and talked about on radio stations nationwide. As a result, thousands of men around the U.S. called their doctor asking for appointments to have their own hearts checked out.

The deaths of Ronald Reagan from Alzheimer's disease and Christopher Reeve from a complication of paralysis brought the spotlight back on stem cell research. When Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer after finding a lump during a self-exam, many waited to hear how she was doing. And then Chief Justice William Rehnquist brought a lot of attention to a little-known cancer -- thyroid cancer.

The illnesses of celebrities both pique our voyeuristic urges, and spur us to action. What is it about seeing our favorite celebrity dealing with difficult illnesses that triggers us to go to the doctor?

Experts explain why we're so fascinated by the plight of the rich and famous, and how it ultimately ends up helping the masses.

Our Infatuation With Celebrities

"The word celebrity is Latin for celebratus, meaning people whose position in society is magical, special, and closer to divinity," says James B. Twitchell, PhD, a professor of English and Advertising at the University of Florida.

As magical and special beings, celebrities should be invincible -- but they're not. So when they get sick, it has extra impact on the common man.

"If a celebrity gets sick with a disease, whatever it is, it must be important," says Twitchell, an expert in commercial culture. "That they have it and they are doing something about it is very powerful in terms of our motivations. It shows that human beings before anything else are social animals, and pecking order is crucial to us."

By pecking order, Twitchell means that when someone higher up on the totem pole behaves in a certain way, those below usually follow suit.

"After watching a TV show or reading a magazine article about a celebrity who is battling an illness, I am sure there is a large percentage of people that do pick up the phone and call their doctor," says Twitchell. "It's kind of a viral marketing -- once you know a disease is out there, you can associate yourself with it. And, if you see someone who is an aspiration to you dealing with it, the connections are not hard to make."

Why is it we are so fascinated with the health of celebrities?

"We all have the curiosity to be in other people's lives and careers -- especially the lives of celebrities, and their health isn't special," says Robert C. Hornik, PhD, a professor of communications in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "The media is in the business of attracting eyeballs, and celebrity health is a popular topic."

The Clinton Effect

Former President of the United States Bill Clinton was at the epicenter of celebrity health in 2004 after undergoing quadruple heart bypass surgery to repair blocked arteries. Because of his high profile in the media, and the countless number of news stories that covered his health before, during and after the procedure, his surgery resulted in the "Clinton effect" -- spurring thousands of men around the U.S. to go in for their own checkups.

"For me and for a good chunk of my generation, the Bill Clinton business was really one of those moments in which you have a sense of mortality," says Robert J. Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. "Here is a young, vibrant baby boomer and all of a sudden he's faced with a life-threatening illness."

That sense of mortality sent men rushing to hospitals, heart centers, and doctors' offices requesting appointments for heart-related reasons. While in most cases the checkups were likely preventive measures, in some, lives were probably saved.

"Every now and again, a news story or a TV show that is done to move magazines off the stand or to get people to tune in can also have good benefits," says Thompson. "While they're not done as a public service -- they're being done to get people to watch the program -- nevertheless, people say, 'After I saw the episode, I went to get checked out and it saved my life.'"

When a Celebrity's Health Goes Bad