It’s an inescapable fact that we live in a celebrity-centric culture, and although it is easy for us to turn up our noses at this supposedly less than intellectual interest, we have to acknowledge that the power of celebrity to enthral us can do a lot of good.

Chances are you were unable to avoid the enormous media reaction following Angelina Jolie’s announcement of her decision to have a bilateral mastectomy, her image being resultantly splashed across online and print news sources across Britain; this alone is proof of the far-reaching power of celebrity. It is this influence which makes Jolie such a good UN goodwill ambassador; a celebrity’s genuine interest in good causes combined with a mass media following is an alchemic mix for the creation of positive results.

When a public figure develops a health problem and surrenders some of their privacy to make it public knowledge, awareness for, and interest in, this illness usually increases dramatically, such as in this case with Angelina Jolie, or reality TV star Jade Goody’s diagnosis of cervical cancer in 2008. Jade Goody’s decision to publicly announce her diagnosis is credited with a large increase in the number of women who applied to have smear tests and, according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Screening, the number of women diagnosed with cervical cancer increased by 14% around the time of her death.

Indeed, celebrity figures are arguably excellent figureheads for health awareness, in part because they are so often presented as bastions of healthy diet and exercise. If these seemingly unflappable, infallible, media-airbrushed figures can develop health problems, you as an ordinary member of the public certainly can. It creates a certain awareness of our own vulnerability. Their place in the spotlight enables them to raise awareness, garner donations for research, and otherwise help causes in a way that only one in their singular position can.

Yet, when awareness for a particular health matter is so high, and the media are unavoidably spinning human interest stories to pander to this interest, there is always a risk of misleading the public, and it could be argued that the celebrity power of good may only go so far before it becomes a hindrance. The figure of celebrity is a distant one; they are not people with whom we have a natural affinity. In fact, our relationship with them is rather voyeuristic, and so often their experiences with regards to their health prove to be quite far from our own. This is particularly true when the story becomes highly personal, focussing on the individual celebrity’s struggle and personal qualities through their ordeal, allowing for little accessibility for the general public and more of a dissociated ability to relate due to over-reported specificity.

Betty Ford, wife of president Gerald Ford, was notably one of the first celebrities to go public with her struggle with breast cancer and her decision to undergo a mastectomy in a time where this was not the norm. Ford’s openness did a great deal to raise awareness of breast cancer in 1974 and detection rates rose immediately in what became known as the ‘Betty Ford blip.’ Although the word ‘blip’ perhaps undersells the extent of the positive impact Betty Ford had in raising awareness of breast cancer, it does highlight how temporary celebrity influence can be. A blip connotes something small and fleeting, practically insignificant, in an area where large and consistent changes are needed. Celebrities do indeed raise awareness, but they are given only a small window to do so before the media spotlight moves on to the newest story of the week. Celebrity is therefore no replacement for official health authorities for more reasons than one.

This is made clear by Betty Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford, who is known for advocating that every woman should have annual mammograms from the age of 35 onwards, despite this being a strategy not supported by most cancer experts, partly because breast cancer is not uniform in either form or treatment. And this is where a line should be drawn: where helpful information becomes unqualified instruction.

The raising of awareness in the area of health is a fantastic thing, but celebrity becomes detrimental to the cause it tries to support when the health issue at the heart of the story becomes secondary to the celebrity personality involved. It is at this point that the story becomes not a public point of information where the awareness generated is helpful, general, and accessible, and instead becomes clouded by highly personal experiences, with misguided attempts to create an inspiring Hollywood story rather than one which is realistic. The interest in the matter becomes less for the sake of concern for legitimate issues of health, but rather more of the usual voyeuristic enjoyment of sordid stories of personal suffering which litter glossy magazines read for gratification rather than education.

[Emma Boyle]

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