In his book Fame Junkies, Jake Halpern offers a consistently well researched and at times breathtakingly Felliniesque portrait of modern American celebrity obsession. This is a madhouse society, hopelessly removed from any of its natural origins, hopelessly consumed by artifice. It is also the temple in which so many of us worship, perpetually prostrate to an ever-growing pantheon of false gods. At his best, Halpern pushes aside the velvet curtains of fame’s sacristy, where we witness its full college of lonely, petrified, self-loathing cardinals—then realize that we are staring in a mirror.

The Oz-quest begins with a look into the modern sideshow world of “American Idol”-fueled talent conventions. There is a whole circuit of them, and every now and again they do discover a real star, like gifted thespian Ashton Kutcher. Mostly they entice hopeful children from working-class families to direct thousands of dollars and hours toward the one-in-a-million dream of endless happiness and universal love. It’s rather like heaven, only you don’t need to die to be reborn.

Halpern sneaks into the largest of these conventions, the International Modeling and Talent Association, and meets hordes of children who, after only a decade on the planet, have decided that they cannot bear another moment of anonymity. “I’d like to be a celebrity,” one hopeful says. “I’d like the whole deal. I see these celebrities on TV who don’t like their picture getting taken, and I can’t understand it. I want it all. I want the money, I want the women, I want the publicity, I want people hounding me to take my picture.”

I was asked to audition for a Cheerios commercial in 1983. My parents refused me this opportunity, and on some level I have always held it against them…

Make no mistake about it, America was not always like this. Halpern suggests that the “Free to Be You and Me,” school of curriculum designers who dominated the post-Vietnam era tried to create parades of shiny, happy people but instead only outfitted legions of unabashed narcissists. It is an interesting but arguable point, and the book’s treatment of anthropology as an explanation for fame culture is its strongest analytical suit: early hunters were bred to adulate great hunters, to emulate them and learn from them. At one time, this drive was essential for the survival of the species; now it is essential only for the survival of “Survivor.” Technology is not a savior in this case but an enabler. It has been 700 years since the invention of glasses, 172 since the invention of the camera, and 116 since Edison’s popularization of the projector. Our humanistic drives have quite paradoxically birthed an inhuman world, a cold and deforming place where…

I thought someone was playing a big joke or doing performance art when I first saw those pictures of Britney shaving her head. The up-skirt shots were one thing. But everyone’s done the up-skirt thing and frankly no one has any hair down there anymore anyway, so it’s not even that jarring. But this was quite something else. The look in her eyes as she stared herself down in the mirror! Everyone else in town is getting coiffed and extended for the Oscars and this chick is just giving herself the old Marie Antoinette! Of course, the French needed the sans culottes to shave the heads of their royalty. Our royalty self-deposes. How’s that for cocktail banter? By the way, did you see her body? A knotted, used-up, functional body. And it’s not that she had kids. Anna Nicole Smith had kids and even got huge, but she got her figure back. I think our stars owe us that much. They are like our national theatre troupe. The funny fat ones ought to stay funny and fat, and the pretty nymphettes ought to stay alluring and young. As long as they do that, we’ll do out part. Has anyone read a nasty obituary for Anna Nicole? Sancto subito, eh!

Sorry, where was I? Right. Jake Halpern’s book. Well, it’s a very good book. Hang on, let me just regain my bearings. Okay. Ready. Here we go. How vile and despicable is this fame industry, which makes all of us its enablers! Everyone talks about the social contract, but who among us has actually seen any papers? We’re barraged from the start by the Academy Award winners and the Star magazine editors and every single “E! True Hollywood Story.” Halpern is right when he says that for all of our inalienable rights no modern American is allowed ignorance of Paris Hilton, and we’d be calling for her head if she wasn’t so firmly inside of ours.

As the book develops, we see how aspirers to fame are themselves victims of a great Ponzi scheme, which produces walk-on soap opera roles and Folgers commercials but dissolves completely when asked to deliver true stardom. Fame’s cherubic choirs quickly become wounded flagellants. We meet Dean Johnson, an MBA who left his job in the healthcare sector for a new sort of American dream. Now in his late 30s, Johnson is personal assistant to Tiffani Amber Thiessen. Johnson is not alone, and there is in Hollywood a fully functioning Association of Celebrity Personal Assistants. “I’m proud of my ability to lose myself, and do whatever I have to do, even at the risk of health or sanity,” Dennis Hopper’s assistant tells Halpern. Equal parts Horatio Alger and Mark David Chapman, this small population underscores the identity-corroding effects of an artifice-obsessed society that cannot pull its eyes off the cameras, klieg lights…

Where did she get the wig? You go from Marilyn Monroe to Anna Nicole Smith to this bald lunatic in her Spencer’s Halloween wig. The genuine article begets the poor man’s article begets the lunatic’s vision. But damn if it wasn’t just beautifully scripted, right down to the babbling about how she was “sick of being touched.” The hair is going for a million dollars on eBay. I don’t think George Washington’s hair is worth that much. Then again, not too many people have entertained sex fantasies about George Washington in the past decade, have they? He wore a wig, too. But no latex. I loved the red latex catsuit from the “Oops! I Did It Again” video. She was dating Justin Timberlake then and said she was a virgin. She’s no longer a virgin. But I wonder if she still has that catsuit? That was seven years ago. That’s an eternity. How come none one else out there seems to have gotten so old, so fast?

“When I was young, I had no idea I was pretty,” the yesteryear actress Liz Fraser tells Halpern toward end of his book. He has come to visit her at The Fund, a retirement home for actors and actresses financed by the Motion Picture Association of America. A picture of Fraser’s former self hangs on a wall in the communal dining hall, but on most days she cannot bear to look at it. “It gets frightening when you see yourself back then,” she says. “I got to a certain age, and I realized: You had it—you had it all.” The Fund is filled with others like Ms. Fraser. They pause in attention when Robert Guillame of “Benson” fame enters the room. They hold out hope for a late-life Oscar. They audition for bit parts on “Star Trek” spin-offs.

It is here, at the pasture for bit players, that the book reaches its highest and fullest form. Close to death and far from exaltation, this last troupe of actors effect a play in which the reader can perhaps fathom the conscience of his own society. Here the elderly dream not of heaven but of finally making it. We marvel at how fully the latter has usurped the former. We wonder how we came to this place. What is it about the dream of universal love that…

It will take months for her hair to grow back. Either that or she’ll get extensions. But didn’t she say she was shaving off the extensions in the first place? They say she is in rehab, but rehab from what? What’s the difference between rehab and a mental hospital? And if there isn’t any, what’s the difference between rehab and a retirement home? All of this will probably be good for old Kevin Federline. That Superbowl commercial was hilarious…

“Look at yourselves, you camera-flashed fools,” this book seems to be saying. “Look at what you’ve made and what you are. Look at what you want! Eternal life and youth and beauty and love? You’ll never get them. You’re no less blind and fervent than the madrassah students, and no more likely to get what you’re after. What does it matter if their virgins live in the afterlife, and yours live in Malibu? You’ll both be torn apart in hot pursuit…”

Britney? I wouldn’t touch her, not now. I can’t get the bald pictures out of my head, and she just seems like a very different person than the latex Britney of my youth. Reese Witherspoon looked amazing at the Oscars. She’s had two kids, but she takes care of herself…

There is a gorgeously Kubrickian feel to this book, as Halpern demonstrates how the tools of fame have in some sense taken charge of their creators. It’s always and everywhere. Constant. Most of us don’t stand a chance. Most of us are bound to blindly embrace something these days…

I’m not sure why I couldn’t stop reloading the video. I shook my head and cradled the laptop and watched it again and again. There’s something about these pictures, you know? There is something about all these pictures of all these people. Something not so lonely. Something warm and familiar. 
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Dana B. Vachon writes from New York City.