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Celebrity obsession is turning nasty, academics warn

But today a conference of leading academics from across the world will hear how our obsession with celebrity tittle-tattle is far from a modern condition.

Ever since silent movie stars canoodled on screen, commentators have warned they were leading young people into moral danger, Dr Philip Drake, of Paisley University, in Scotland, will tell delegates. As long ago as the 1930s, society was being warned against celebrity worship because of fears about the loose moral conduct of Hollywood stars, Dr Drake will say.

Celebrity watching is a long-standing human fascination but today's audience is sometimes more "nasty" than previous generations of fans, he says.

"I think that people have always been concerned with celebrity. The people who like watching Peter Andre and Jordan are not duped by them. They enjoy watching them makes fools of themselves. There is sometimes an assumption that we have a dumbed-down audience. I think some of the fascination does have a nasty side - it is certainly voyeuristic. There's certainly a nasty aspect in seeing Vanessa Feltz break down on Celebrity Big Brother."

The three-day conference, at Ayr Racecourse in Scotland, will see eminent academics discuss what the public's celebrity obsession tells us about society.

The traditional role of the hero - famous for their achievement or great deeds - has been replaced by the celebrity who is famous sometimes just because of their appearance in the media, they will say.

David Beckham can be seen as a "post-modern religious icon" whose story can been told through themes of "redemption, resurrection and salvation", the conference will be told.

Others will call for Heat magazine to be seen as a post-feminist text because its discussion of fashion, consumerism and celebrity's bodies are apparently the same ideas being debated in contemporary feminism.

The popularity of television programmes such as I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and magazines such as Heat make it an ideal time to discuss stardom and its influence on society, say conference organisers.

But while the dons agree that the cult of celebrity has always been with us, the conference will be told that it is now more prevalent - and has much more of a malevolent edge as audiences enjoy seeing their idols fall.

Dr Drake added: "What we are seeing is an escalation of celebrity. The creation of 24-hour news coverage and the internet means there are more places for celebrities to be seen by their public. The process of becoming a celebrity has become quicker. A lot of the recent anxiety around celebrity surrounds reality TV and the idea of making celebrities out of ordinary people."

Lee Barron, from Northumbria University says Elizabeth Hurley, Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears embody a new concept of celebrity whose "status is increasingly not dependent upon any one specific talent". He says they diversify because they fear being forgotten by the public if they stick to one talent.

The conference will also examine the negative effects that fans can experience when they get too caught up in their imagined relationship with a star.