The sad lives of two young women in the news recently should serve as a cautionary tale for all who aspire to celebrity - and for those who feed off its soap opera narratives.

Mal Fletcher
Mal Fletcher

The mysterious death of Anna Nicole Smith and the appearance of a new look Britney Spears, minus her golden locks, offer a reminder (if we needed one) of the vacuous and destructive nature of modern celebrity.

Ms Smith was best known for her appearances in Playboy magazine, followed by her marriage to an oil magnate 63 years her senior. When her husband died, arguments within his family about his estate captured headlines around the world.

Ms. Smith remained in the public eye through a reality TV series based around her frenetic lifestyle. The attention grew with the death of her 20-year-old son from apparent drug-related causes.

Even then, Anna Nicole was paying a high price for a celebrity.

The birth of a daughter in 2006 brought further press coverage, with speculation and legal arguments as to the identity of the father. This speculation continues today, a week after her own death in mysterious circumstances. Though authorities have ruled out foul play, it's hard not to see parallels with the untimely end of another blond sex-symbol, Marilyn Monroe.

Meanwhile, pop icon Britney Spears seems determined to continue her downward spiral of desperate behaviour, which has recently seen her indulging in a lifestyle of binges, drug parties and all-round self-destruction.

Shaving her head - and gaining the nickname Britney Shears - is just the latest in a long line of actions which must surely represent a deep cry for help.

As a society, we should think long and hard about where the culture of celebrity is leading us - and our children.

Celebrity is built on novelty. When celebrities see their star beginning to wane, they often turn to shock value to rescue them from obscurity. But when something loses its shock value, something even more alarming has to take its place - and the downward spiral begins. What may start out as a ploy to gain publicity can all too quickly become a life threatening bondage.

In a sense, celebrity is the ultimate expression of branding - instead of prominent people endorsing a product, modern celebrities become the product.

Like all products, they are then at the whim of the consuming public. When they cease to meet a perceived need, or merely scratch an itch, they're discarded like yesterday's newspapers.

Celebrity is largely about image, and image can be a dangerous thing. Julian Lennon, son of John, reportedly said: 'The only thing I ever learned from my dad was how not to be a father.' Image can ruin families. It also warps our sense of who we are. Marilyn Monroe once said, 'I seem to be a whole superstructure without a foundation.'

Celebrity also turns a person's work into their entire meaning for existence - creating a dangerous bias away from inherent self-worth, toward performance-based value.

Unless they're acting up a la Ms Spears, all we know about celebrities is what we see of them when they're functioning in the area of their greatest gift.