A few weeks ago I found myself cruising down Sunset Boulevard in a rented Toyota Corolla while on vacation in Los Angeles with my boyfriend, faraway from our little apartment in Brooklyn. From the passenger seat he spotted the gigantic Scientology compound and started taking pictures on his cell phone.
“COME IN TODAY,” its huge LED screen beckoned.
A week or so before my trip I finished reading Lawrence Wright’s incredibly thorough Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief and was feeling perplexed about how an organization so full of corruption and, uh, human rights violations continued to reign powerfully in public view. It seemed nuts. However, driving past the gaudy Scientology building that day I was struck by one crucial element of L. Ron Hubbard’s foresight—he knew before most people that celebrities were soon to be the most influential beings in our culture and he sought them directly when establishing his movement. It’s true; if I’ve learned anything from watching those man-on-the-street type shows, more randos in Times Square can I.D. Kim and Kanye than Joe Biden any day.
We’ve known this for a while, but I think our awareness of celeb worship has boiled over recently. The arrival of our nation’s new baby princess North West blowing up on social media, Sofia Coppola’s film The Bling Ring, and Thought Catalog writer Ryan O’Connell’s recent e-book Sex, Drugs and $25 Salads: One Week at the Chateau Marmont together create a nice trifecta of the celeb obsession explosion and (for the most part) the emptiness of its aftermath.
O’Connell is no doubt one of Thought Catalog’s strongest voices—probably my favorite—and his new e-book recounts a recent visit of his to the infamous Chateau Marmont. With his bill paid for by an anonymous benefactor, O’Connell sets out for his weeklong stay with three goals—get laid, do drugs, and see Lindsay Lohan. After some funny passages (including an incident in which he tries to order weed from the front desk concierge) O’Connell starts to analyze why he’s so attracted to the LA celebrity lifestyle and dives into recounting his middle class upbringing in Ventura, California. And that’s when it started to get good for me. Nevermind the snobby hostesses at the Chateau, O’Connell’s recounting of his past and the escape that reading about the Olsen Twins and Lauren Conrad offered him revealed much more to me. At one point, he has a revelation. “There comes a time when you must grow up and start to appreciate your own life rather than covet the lives of others,” he writes. And his piece proves it—real people and their real thoughts will always be more interesting than some faux-celeb’s.
It seems that Sofia Coppola made The Bling Ring, based on real events, to comment on the state of celeb-worship. The film, in its depiction of five LA kids who take to robbing B-list celebs who are checked out enough to leave their lavish homes unlocked, plays like a fable and is quick to turn its protagonists into examples. (And if you’ve ever seen Pretty Wild, the reality show featuring one of the actual Bling Ring members, you’ll understand why.) What begins as an intoxicating peek into the luxurious lifestyle (Paris Hilton’s overstuffed closet! Orlando Bloom’s secret love notes!) ends with the discomfort akin to eating too many candy bars.
I was left to consider my own relationship to Hollywood culture, and honestly, it’s a toughy. I love watching movies and hearing funny celeb gossip. I love that pop culture is so ubiquitous that you can talk about it with anyone you meet from any part of the country; it’s like the great common denominator. But I’ve caught myself on certain days scrolling ten photos deep into Kim Kardashian’s Instagram feed (BTW, she has 9M followers) and having to stop myself, like ugh, why am I doing this? Time to read a damn book.
Soon enough the Scientology Center began to shrink in the rearview mirror. We turned up the radio and continued on down Sunset with that vague giddy feeling that comes from talking about cults and conspiracy theories. And every now and then I caught myself peeking into neighboring cars’ windows—not even realizing I was doing it at first—hoping to catch the glimpse of someone famous.