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Britons dump royalty & religion for celebrity overdose

London, June 29 (Reuters): Reality TV contestants want to be them, top hairdressers and chefs become them, and England soccer player David Beckham and his pop star wife Victoria are king and queen of them all.

It’s the age of celebrities in Britain, where showbiz weddings, bad hair days and fashion faux pas have become weekly fodder for glossy magazines.

The trend matches similar phenomena in the US and Europe, where it seems every move of the rich and famous is documented, photographed and lapped up by an eager public.

Heat, Now, Hello! and OK! have flown off Britain’s magazine shelves in recent years, selling on average over 500,000 copies apiece each week from July to December last year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

But is the fascination with celebrity gossip about Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue and the Beckhams — popularly known as Posh and Becks — beginning to run its course'

“In the olden days, you’d talk over your garden fence about what the vicar’s doing but now you talk about Posh and Becks,” said Louise Matthews, managing director at Emap Entertainment, which publishes Heat and Closer magazines.

“I don’t think it will continue to grow at quite the pace it has grown over the last five years,” she said of the celebrity magazine market. “But there’s no reason why that interest will wane.”

Britain’s celebrity magazine business is highly competitive with the four top titles vying for the latest showbiz scoops.

That rivalry came under the spotlight earlier this year when actors Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones sued Hello! after it printed unauthorised pictures of their wedding just days before rival OK! published official photos.

Two new magazines have started up in the last year and Closer, which was launched in September 2002, already has a circulation of 300,000 a week.

Academics say the current national fascination with the showbiz world has come about because royalty has lost its appeal. Celebrity worship also fills the gap left after the decline in strict adherence to organised religion in Britain.

“Human beings require people to look up to,” said Chris Rojek, professor of sociology and culture at Nottingham Trent University and author of a book called Celebrity. “With the contraction of organised religion, the people we look up to increasingly are celebrities.”

The mania for creating celebrities has spawned several money-spinning television programmes such as singing talent shows Pop Idol and Popstars.

“As media outlets have struggled to sell conventional material they have moved into areas like celebrity and found that there is a market for it,” said Rojek.

In turn, taking part in reality television shows such as Big Brother — which isolates a group of young people for weeks in apartment-like studios and monitors them constantly with cameras — can bring rewards.

In Britain, many have clinched lucrative magazine deals to sell their stories and some have forged television careers after appearing on the shows — creating new fodder for the media-celebrity feeding frenzy.

The current fixation with celebrities has been blamed for a dumbing-down of society, but psychologists at the University of Leicester have found that low levels of celebrity worship can have a positive influence on people’s lives.

Their study showed that people who follow celebrities for entertainment and social reasons are more outgoing, happy and optimistic, although people who show high levels of celebrity worship may be solitary and anti-social.

“It has to be remembered that celebrity worship is not necessarily a bad thing,” said John Maltby, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester. “However, over-indulgence may not always be good for you.”

Rojek said it is important not to trivialise or mock the affection that people have for celebrities. But he added that there is always a dark side. “You don’t look at it for very long without encountering the loneliness of the fan.”

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