From Justin Bieber to Kim Kardashian, the badly behaved celebs a turn-off for our young conservatives
Published 22/05/2014 | 09:46
The novelist Catherine Aird once wrote the brilliant line: "If you can't be a good example, then you'll have to be a horrible warning."
It's a good motto to have up one's sleeve for making that moment at 2am, when ordering a large round of flaming mahikis on the company credit card, seem like not just a sexily raffish idea, but in fact a noble one.
Or when comforting a close friend through an emotional storm and the comforting turns to caressing and the caressing turns to full-frontal gymnastics.
Neither of these are terribly good ideas, but it is hoped there is a certain philanthropic value in being the lead character in an anecdote which prevents others being a terrific fool. Thankfully, research announced this week by the University of Manchester and Brunel University on the effect of celebrity "storylines" on young people seems to agree. Where once young people found moral guidance in tales of Jesus, Judas, Zeus, and others, now they find it in the pages of Heat.
Oddly, the badness of others seems to inspire them to be better behaved. Over 18 months the behaviour of 24 groups of young adults aged 14 to 17 was charted through interviews and group chats. The lives of celebrities including Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, Emma Watson and Tom Daley were followed.
Research looked specifically at Bieber who, yes, may have become a teen idol at an early age – and indeed might now be wading knee-deep in drooling women, dollar bills and sports cars – but rated a highly critical response from young people.
They had followed the stories of his arrests, his petulant behaviour, his poor timekeeping for audiences, oh, and that time he palmed a hamster off on a fan by pushing it through a fence. Kim Kardashian – celebrity derriere and money-making machine – was also, to young adult minds, in the "famous for nothing" pile.
Lead researcher Dr Heather Mendick said: "There is the idea that young people just want to get rich quick by going on reality TV or becoming a 'Wag'. But what they want to do is earn money in a way that is worthwhile, so that they feel that they deserve the money."
These results provoke, for me, mixed feelings. Personally, celebrities like Tom Daley and Emma Watson are as dull as ditchwater thanks to their wholesome, chipper attitudes and bright-eyed, bushy personas, but here young people are holding them up as examples of what is "real" and "good".
In the morality play of celebrity life, Watson and Daly were seen as hard-working, talented, aspirational figures. It's not often research about young people and their exposure to the ever-flickering torrent of nonsense which is the internet gives us anything resembling good news, so it's tempting to be joyous about this.
But I can't help thinking that when I was young, we were more in awe of hellraisers and trailblazers. As a young woman my heroes were the likes of Stevie Nicks, Paula Yates, Janet Street-Porter and Grace Jones. I knew practically nothing about these women's lives, but I knew they were largely up to no good – and I was an avid supporter.
It's interesting that celebrity culture, instead of rotting young minds, seems to be creating a rather conservative bunch of bosom-shifters and curtain-twitchers.
And it's rather fascinating that today's 14-year-olds have never known a world without Big Brother and now one of their darkest insults is: "You're famous for nothing."