What Are Celebrities For?

Tiger Woods’ predicament has gotten many of us to think again about why men have affairs.  Working in a highly competitive environment seems to be one of the reasons.

According to Reuters, a recent study of extra-marital affairs among London bankers provided the following explanations:  “public revulsion for bankers combined with a lack of affection in private was the top reason for having an affair, followed closely by the excitement of doing something risky, escaping boredom, feeding the ego and one-upping the boys with a trophy mistress.” (See, “Bankers Having More Affairs in Recession.”)

Obviously, Tiger Woods’ celebrity certainly did make him attractive to many women.  Perhaps he succumbed to temptation because the affirmation they provided was irresistible.  Famous athletes, rock stars, and Hollywood actors seem to have no trouble arousing such attention. Bankers, on the other hand, are used to paying for it, and even seem to enjoy using their money to get what they want.  Either way, attention is a powerful aphrodisiac.

What about the other factors, such as doing something risky?  As every tournament involves the risk of losing, it’s not likely that Tiger Woods needed more risk in his life.  But it might be true that he was used to living with risk and, perhaps, craved more than he had – and different kinds of risk as well.  This is linked to boredom, of course, as risk lends excitement to life.  Conquest and success also feed the ego, and add a thrill — together with a boost to self-esteem.

Finally, the London bankers were “one-upping” each other with their trophy catches.  That suggests they knew about each other’s affairs, in principle if not in detail;  only the wives were in the dark.

As we go down the list of reasons, it becomes more and more clear that this is essentially about competition:  craving the excitement of the chase, beating out others, getting more than your fair share of attention – and all of this in an arena with others watching.

Famous athletes lead abnormal lives, constantly performing while seeking more achievement and recognition.  In this they are like other celebrities, actors, models and politicians.  For them, what matters are the things that lead to their success and notoriety.  On the other hand, those things matter so much more than anything else.  It would take exceptional determination to resist that pull, and an unusual person to tolerate the boredom, loneliness and frustration that are essential parts of most normal lives.

The truly strange thing here, though, is not the lives they lead, but the fact that while we spur them on, relentlessly following them in the media, we also blame them if they fail to be decent citizens and role models.  We encourage this deformation of character and then celebrate their failures with a certain amount of shadenfreude.

Could it be that the complete trajectories of these careers make a kind of sense, from fame to infamy?  Perhaps what we don’t know we know is that they are supposed to suffer and fail for having enjoyed a different life, one beyond our reach.