COMMENT: Mo Salah, Harry Kane show that star-chasing can boost mental health

Celebrity worship can be normal and fun for kids, if it’s monitored carefully by parents

Liverpool star Mohamed Salah poses for selfies with fans at the National Stadium in Singapore.
Liverpool star Mohamed Salah poses for selfies with fans at the National Stadium in Singapore. (PHOTO: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

MO Salah was smiling. He’s always smiling. He’s the Egyptian King, the man who’ll never walk alone at Liverpool, a peerless footballer and philanthropist. He walks among giants and towers over the lot.

And he was walking towards a giddy teenager, with her arm reaching over the barrier, fist clenched in expectation, waiting, hoping, for a moment that’ll mean little to him, and everything to her. A lifetime memory. A physical connection. A fist bump.

Salah quickened his stride, just as he had in a lovely display for the Reds against Bayern Munich at the National Stadium. The team bus was his reward, an air-conditioned refuge from the Singaporean heat. He had an escape route.

But he made time. For everyone. He fist-bumped them all. He fist-bumped my daughter.

She turned the colour of Liverpool’s jersey. She almost burst into tears. She declared the fist-bump to be one of the greatest moments of her life, until she got a fist-bump from Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold and then that was one of the greatest moments of her life until… you get the idea.

We indulge our kids. We chase stars for them. We queue for Mo Salah fist-bumps and Taylor Swift tickets for them. We buy the ingredients to make a One Direction anniversary cake for them (don’t ask). We are products of Andy Warhol’s disposable celebrity culture, where everyone was going to be famous for 15 minutes, until social media made it possible for everyone to obsess over the famous every minute of every day.

What an enabling, vacuous lot we’ve become as parents, allowing our pampered brats to waste their childhoods on self-involved celebrities who offer little – if anything – in return.

Yeah, not quite.

What we bring to celebrity worship colours the outcome

By all means, Google “celebrity worship syndrome” and there are no shortage of articles, lamenting the teenage wastelands brought about by the incurable addiction to all things famous. Studies on the obsessive-addictive disorder, where the individual becomes excessively focused on celebrity, highlight the serious knock-on effects, including substance abuse, fat shaming and even spending obscene amounts of money to be associated with a famous person in some way (check out those merchandise prices).

And every concern is valid. In the United States, The Today Show and collaborated on a body image survey and found that 80 per cent of teenage girls compare themselves to celebrity images. While a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study found that teens who listen to song lyrics with marijuana are more likely to use drugs than teens with less exposure to such lyrics.

And my daughter is now twice as likely to score for Liverpool after exposure to Mo Salah.

Of course she isn’t. Celebrity worship is a bit like watching Oppenheimer. What we bring to the experience is going to colour the outcome. No two experiences or outcomes are going to be the same because no two mindsets are going to be the same going in. It would be a tad patronising to assume my daughter’s response to watching the beautiful teen coming-out story Heartstopper is going to be the same as a teenager struggling with sexual orientation or gender identity. It won’t be.

But all responses are valid. Some will be positive, some negative and some will be awkward, difficult and troubling, as our children project different things onto different cultural canvases: celebrities, footballers, TV shows, books and movies. Ideally, parents will take an interest in what children might be projecting onto their idols, rather than seek to blame the idols for any unforeseen consequences.

If my daughter was stalking Mo Salah because her obsessive behaviour was a manifestation of underlying childhood neglect and she was seeking a patriarchal icon in the Egyptian King to overcompensate for disturbing "Daddy issues", I’d like to think I’d know about it.

She just wanted to fist-bump a famous footballer.

Support for teenage obsession can be a positive thing

And that’s the other thing. These things can be positive, too, often extraordinarily so. This may be the age of the perpetual trigger – we’re forever being triggered about something – but parental support for a teenage obsession, even something as seemingly hollow as celebrity worship, doesn’t necessarily lead to a life of emptiness and insecurity.

In the last week alone, we’ve waited for hours to catch a fleeting glimpse of Tottenham striker Harry Kane hurrying onto his team bus and listen to Brazil forward Richarlison conduct an interview in Portuguese. And my daughter baked a cake to celebrate the anniversary of One Direction’s former band members coming together for the first time.

What impact has this star-chasing, stargazing and star-lamenting had on her mental health?

She wants to play more team sports, learn more baking recipes and watch more football with her uncool Dad.

Recently, she queued for two hours at Kinokuniya to meet Ana Huang, the international best-selling author of contemporary romance novels. But they didn’t fist bump. They talked plot, character and the basic construction of a gripping love story for young adults. My daughter worships Ana Huang. Their celebrity encounter only indulged her love of reading.

These things are nuanced. While the Kardashians’ shrinking bodies may trigger unhealthy weight loss in teenagers – and must be challenged and addressed - Ana Huang encourages my daughter to read more. Harry Styles inspires her to sing more and treat people with kindness. And Mo Salah persuades her to play more, with others, in a team sport.

A fist-bump can do that.

Celebrity obsessions and crushes should always be handled with care and attention, but stargazing doesn’t always lead to a black hole.

Celebrity obsessions and crushes should always be handled with care and attention, but stargazing doesn’t always lead to a black hole.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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