Celebrity used to be a by-product of fame, which itself was a consequence of achievement. Nowadays you barely have to do anything at all to become a celebrity.
From hair to eternity, we're all buying into the fame game
The fashion for collecting relics is alive and well; at least that's what a forthcoming auction in London suggests.
A lock of hair snipped from the head of pop icon Mick Jagger is being put up for sale at Bonham's, the auctioneers. The sample was obtained back in 1965 by his then-girlfriend. Now, with Jagger approaching his 70th birthday, it's expected to fetch between £1,500 (Dh8,500) and £2,000.
Lest you think this to be an isolated case, it appears to be an indication of a burgeoning market. A face tissue used by Scarlett Johansson recently sold at auction for $5,300 (Dh19,500), while a jar of "expelled breath" from the lungs of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie fetched $530 on eBay.
Happily, the funds generated by these transactions usually end up being passed on to deserving charities. But what do the purchasers expect to do with their acquisitions, and how do they expect to ever recoup their outlay? The answer is that celebrity is all the rage, and everyone wants a piece of it.
The two most popular programmes vying for prime-time Saturday-night viewing here in the UK during the summer months are Britain's Got Talent and The Voice.
The former, part talent contest and part freak show, allows anyone to enter, from contortionists to vocalists, comedians and eccentric dancers. As long as you are sufficiently outrageous or original, there's always the chance you can charm the judges and get through to the final.
In The Voice, however, being able to deliver a song is advertised as the basic requirement. On both programmes, the reward for those who prevail is the same: instant fame and celebrity.
Just how much it all matters to the contestants is frequently mirrored in their behaviour. "It's all I've ever wanted," they invariably reply (often through tears) when asked the inevitable question of how much victory might mean to them.
I thought this gaudy ritual was a purely British phenomenon but while holidaying in Europe recently, I found myself watching virtually the identical scenario being played out on television in any number of countries. There they were, in Germany, Austria, Italy and beyond: the same basic show, the same format, the same tears, the same look of savage desperation on the faces of the participants, and the same glittering promise of fame and fortune always dangling just out of reach. Only the languages varied.
How times change. When I was growing up, celebrity was a by-product of fame, which itself was a consequence of achievement. In other words, to become famous, you first had to do something: scale Everest, run a four-minute mile, win an Oscar or accomplish something.
Nowadays you barely have to do anything at all, just as long as it's sufficiently daft or distinctive to get you noticed - at least until the next candidate comes along and knocks you off the front page.
The extent to which the obsession with celebrity has taken hold in the young was indicated during a talk I recently gave at a secondary school. Having been introduced to the class of teenagers as an "actor and author", I launched into some of my best stories about showbiz, involving some of the most brilliant performers I've worked with during my 30 years in the acting profession.
Yet the reaction on the faces of my audience was one of bewilderment. None of them had heard of anyone I'd mentioned, and even the name Meryl Streep left them seemingly unmoved.
Eventually one brave young soul put up her hand. "Have you ever met Rihanna?" she asked sheepishly.
I tried to break the news as gently as I could, that sadly, the pop singer Rihanna and I had never found ourselves together on the same stage. There was no disguising the look of disappointment on the student's face, or the faces around her.
Yet while I'm sure Rihanna is a wonderful performer - indeed, she was recently listed in Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, along with Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin - it seemed to me a pity that she seemed to be the limit of these students' cultural co-ordinates.
It was Oprah Winfrey, perhaps, who best summed up the dangers of prizing celebrity above all else: "If you come to fame not knowing who you are," she said, "it will define you." And us, apparently.
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London