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Opinion: Celebrity worship in Whistler

'When you see the spectacle up close, you start to understand'
Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, slides down the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Feb. 15, 2024, as throngs of journalists and spectators look on.

Like any high-profile, world-class ski resort, Whistler loves itself a good celebrity sighting.

In the decade I have called Whistler home, we have welcomed the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jason Momoa, Justin Bieber, Bills Clinton and Gates, and Alex Ovechkin and the entire 2018-19 Washington Capitals (to name just a few).

In fact, in writing this column, I reached out to some Pique expats for input, and was blown away by the actual volume of recognizable names that have passed through in the past 10 years—and those are just the ones we heard about.

Needless to say, most towns do not attract such star power.

Growing up in small-town Saskatchewan, there was almost zero chance of ever seeing someone even remotely famous.

When I was in high school, Canadian country musician Paul Brandt’s bus broke down in the next town over—a hamlet called Holbein, with a population of fewer than 100 at that time.

People still talk about it. And a tiny part of me is still mad I wasn’t there that day to get a signed photo of the country singer man. I don’t even like country music—come to think of it, I hate it—which speaks to the psychological hold fame seems to have on us.

Turns out, there is a whole creepy, closet shrine of research on the topic of celebrity worship, and more than a few explanations for why we care so much about the rich and famous.

It can come down to a search for identity, filling a perceived gap in one’s life, or even (get this) an innate, instinctual drive.

That’s right: research published in Social Neuroscience states “a wealth of evidence indicates social hierarchies are endemic, innate, and most likely, evolved to support survival within a group-living context.”

The authors found hierarchies form “quickly and spontaneously” among “group-living animals” (their term, not mine).

And within those hierarchies, we group-living animals find all kinds of silly ways to determine dominance.

“From childhood sports competitions and spelling bees, to grade point averages and prom kings and queens, we learn early in life to view our social world in terms of who is better, smarter, or more favoured than everyone else,” the authors wrote. “Even as adults, we are quick to identify status symbols such as foreign cars, big houses, and career titles.”

So in the context of modern social hierarchies, celebrities represent the most successful and influential members of our particular strain of group-living animals—and something deep in our monkey brains compels us to respond to them.

Not everyone is fully susceptible, mind you, and like many things, celebrity worship exists on a spectrum. If Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio was walking past you on the Village Stroll, you would likely be at the very least curious, if not joining the throng of admirers trailing behind him.

But even those of us who don’t really care—or who think we don’t care—can get caught up in the hysteria by simple proxy.

And depending on what you do for a living, a celebrity’s very presence can have an outsized impact on your daily life. Take me, for example, who stood outside in the cold with dozens of other journalists at the Whistler Sliding Centre for several hours on Feb. 15 waiting to watch Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, slide down the track on a skeleton sled.

As I waited, shivering, I had ample time to contemplate the absurdity of the situation. There we were, a whole bunch of group-living animals, standing around waiting to watch another, more special animal, do a pretty normal activity many animals do all the time. I watched some of them do it a bit earlier in the day. Nobody crowded around in anticipation waiting for them to cross the finish line. What makes this one so special?

Then Prince Harry comes zooming by on his sled, and suddenly you are giddy as a schoolboy at the fact there is a real life ROYAL right over there—and yes, he will always be a Royal to me—with his famous actress wife (and did you see that? He just looked right at me when he gave that thumbs up).

The cameras click and flash on an unending loop from the second he arrives until he disappears from sight into the back of a blacked-out SUV some 15 minutes later. Photographers shout his name and ask him random questions in the off chance his gaze crosses their lens as it clicks, thereby increasing the value of their shot. It is like this everywhere he goes, forever.

A walking, talking meal-ticket for hundreds; a group-living animal reduced to a constant spectacle through no choice of his own.

Prince Harry and Meghan were the target of much ridicule when they began to denounce fame and its trappings. And of course they were. For most of us, it just doesn’t make sense: don’t these whiny rich jerks see how tough the rest of us have it? I’d be playing the fancy Prince the world’s smallest violin if I didn’t already sell it to pay my rent.

But when you see the spectacle up close, you start to understand.

When I had all I needed, I left the throngs of photographers and media still shouting and clamouring and walked back down the hill, alone.

I walked to my car, completely unbothered by anyone at all—nobody even passing me a second glance—and drove to my little apartment, where I sat in silence with my thoughts.

I basked in a newfound appreciation for my own obscurity, and toyed with unexpected empathetic thoughts for the son of a bonafide King, who may never know the peace and stillness I get to enjoy every day.

He may be one of the world’s richest, most-famous men, but I have something the Prince will never have.

The old cliché rings true—money really can’t buy everything.