Steven Hoffman is an international lawyer specializing in global health and an assistant professor of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. He’s also totally obsessed with celebrities. Hoffman, earnest and bespectacled, has spent the past two years studying how actors, professional athletes and pop stars influence our everyday health decisions. What he’s discovered, he says, terrifies him.
“A lot of people who like celebrities are into pop culture—not so much for me. I see celebrities as serving a regulatory function, deciding what information we get about our health—and what information we don’t get.” Too often, Hoffman says, the health practices and products endorsed by celebrities are nothing more than “health-information pollution.”
“You might think that celebrities who promote things that don’t work aren’t causing much harm, but they are,” he says. “They make people aware of things that are unhelpful and wasteful and that can negatively affect their health. They also make it harder for people to figure out what they’re actually supposed to do to be healthy.”
Stars didn’t always have this sort of medical clout. Fifty years ago, we didn’t know what Audrey Hepburn ate for breakfast or whether John Wayne worked out. These days, with social media fuelling our insatiable appetite for all things celebrity, we know everything—and that knowledge alters not only how we perceive ourselves but how we live our lives. “The rise of the web has made a significant change in the production, distribution and consumption of celebrity images, especially in the last decade,” says Samita Nandy, director of the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies (CMCS), an international organization based in Toronto. “Celebrity worship has become completely pervasive in our society.” And nowhere are celebrities more influential than in the realms of health, beauty and aging.
Every month, at least a handful of people arrive at Dr. Yoni Freedhoff’s Ottawa weight-management clinic just to ask whether eating certain foods in combination—as Suzanne Somers has recommended for years—really helps with weight loss (it doesn’t) or whether they should follow the latest advice from Dr. Oz’s daily television show (the answer is almost always “Absolutely not”).
“There is no lack of evidence to suggest that celebrities influence people’s health decisions, because they do,” says Freedhoff, who is also a family physician and author of The Diet Fix. “But you can’t just tell people that what they’ve heard is stupid, or immediately discredit it as bunk, because many people want to believe these things.” One of the biggest problems, Freedhoff says, is that these days the medical advice offered by celebrities is more highly regarded than a doctor’s professional opinion.
Last year, Divergent star Shailene Woodley told Seth Meyers on his late-night talk show that she brushes her teeth with clay toothpaste, then swallows it to help her body detox. Zoë Kravitz was the next celebrity to publicly embrace clay as a detox miracle, and in January, Oprah added Juice Generation’s new line of beauty beverages (which contain charcoal and clay) to her O List of “A few things we think are just great!” Now you can order clay shots at juice bars across Canada and the United States. Freedhoff hadn’t heard of that one yet.
“I’m curious about what clay does, but it sounds super delicious,” he says, adding that there is simply no science to support the idea that people need to detox in the first place. We have internal organs that perform that function for us—and no amount of clay is going to make them more efficient at doing it.