I could have been paying bills or writing thank-you notes about gifts for my now-15-month-old son.

But instead, I was Googling Britney Spears to find pictures of her newly shorn skull. A couple clicks later and I was staring in fascination at a slide show documenting the pop star’s sad metamorphosis into Mr. Clean:

  • An angry Britney glaring at the paparazzi, her long brown locks still intact and spilling out from the hood of a gray sweatshirt;
  • A focused Britney, electric clippers raised to her head, hair already half gone;
  • A bald, bold Britney, watching a tattoo artist tending a freshly inked black-and-pink cross on her lower torso.

But that photo fix wasn’t enough. I searched for video footage of Brit’s hair horror and stumbled upon an interview with an eyewitness to what will likely become the world’s most famous haircut.

I wasn’t alone.

That same video, broadcast on YouTube, had been viewed more than 2 million times as of one point last week.

Even more disturbing than our obsession with Brit’s bad hair day is the amount of time we’ve spent dissecting Anna Nicole Smith’s tragic life. According to Broadcasting & Cable magazine, “Entertainment Tonight,” “Extra,” “The Insider” and “Inside Edition” all experienced double-digit increases for the programs they aired the day Smith died.

Coverage of the blond bombshell’s death also helped CNN’s “The Situation Room” score a rare victory over Fox News, reported The Washington Post. The network also beat Fox in the much-sought-after 25-54 demographic that night.

But it’s not just Britney and Anna Nicole. We consume celebrity crash-and-burn stories like a sumo wrestler at a free buffet. Our fixation has given rise to dozens of gossip Web sites and a new breed of tabloid-style glossy magazines that are outpacing their more serious news counterparts in circulation growth.

So, why do we enjoy seeing stars fail? For starters, there’s a certain sense of superiority that comes from seeing someone rich and famous screw up. Who didn’t snicker a bit when Mel Gibson was arrested for drunken driving, so intoxicated he nearly urinated on the floor in his cell? We like to think that what we lack in wealth and notoriety, we make up for in better judgment.

Let’s be honest: We also have scripts we want our stars to follow. We expected Britney to remain a sweet, virginal young woman, not a tattooed single mom with an aversion to underwear.

Focusing on other people’s problems helps us escape our own. But it’s also a dangerous diversion. The more time we spend reading letters written to Lindsay Lohan by angry producers, the less we devote to understanding more pressing issues. I haven’t followed Anna Nicole’s story closely, yet I can name at least two of the baby daddies vying for custody of little Dannielynn. Ask me who the president of Iran is and I’m speechless.

As long we continue to watch tabloid TV and read Internet postings about star slip-ups, nothing will change. If we (myself included) want more coverage of Darfur, we have to change the channel when Wolf Blitzer starts talking about Anna Nicole. If we want Paris Hilton to disappear, we have to stop buying magazines with her picture on the cover.

Consider this my mea culpa.

The next time I find myself looking for a way to avoid a few chores, I’ll try picking up a book.

(Contact Erika Gonzalez of the Rocky Mountain News at

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