Entitlement, the current national character flaw, has gone about asfar as it can go. The toadying to award-show presenters (those starschosen to read the names of nominees and winners from cue cards)has reached such obscene levels of lagniappe that the governmenthas stepped in and said they're going to slap a gift tax on all theswag these people are receiving in their "gift bags." Whereas youor I might take home a goody bag from a charity event (maybe at-shirt, a CD, or a little flacon of perfume), our Hollywood cousinshave been finding in their bags round-the-world airline ticketsand

$10,000 wristwatches. Manufacturers of high-end luxury goods areactually fighting to get into the bag, as it were. The loot hasbecome so valuable that, on a "Sopranos" cameo last season, LaurenBacall had her gift bag stolen by a pair of Jersey henchmen. Shewas a perfect choice of victim, I thought, for she's known to bequite close with a buck. (Years ago, when David Merrick produced aplay on Broadway in which she starred, he told everyone she wouldtake home rolls of toilet paper from her dressing room. But Idigress.)

Entitlement has spread like a societal athlete's foot into manyareas of American life, but nowhere has it achieved the sametraction as in the world of the Famous Face. I know a littlesomething about this. Though never illustrious myself, I was foryears a satellite to celebrities in two different arenas. My motherwas a famous newspaperwoman (Ann Landers), and a former husband(Ken Howard) was a Tony- and Emmy- winning actor. Both of thesepeople could lay claim to genuine prominence derived from talentand accomplishment. But, even for those with earned bona fides,there was always the dirty little secret underlying fame. It isthis: The favors, perks, and adoration accorded the celebrated areso out of whack as to be disturbing. Entitlement happens. Even whenI was the beneficiary of special handling, I always knew there wassomething unfair, if not silly, about the fawning flattery elicitedby the Famous Face. When I traveled with my mother, a SpecialServices agent always escorted her onto the plane, carrying herhand luggage. When I traveled with Mr. Howard, beginning in "TheWhite Shadow" years, more than one airline captain would walk backfrom the cockpit to say what an "honor" it was to have him onboard. Even as the smiling consort/co-beneficiary, I found thisridiculous-- just as I did being fished out of lines at movietheaters in Westwood and being invited in as "guests" of themanagement; being whisked into booked restaurants because a FamousFace was considered desirable; never being allowed to pick up acheck because "civilians" loved the connection (however tenuous)with fame.

Alas, the way celebrities are catered to in private is even worse... as in "unreal." The sky's the limit, because no one ever says"no" to them. Divas-- dating back to the Roman amphitheater nodoubt--have always made robust demands for their dressing rooms.But their wish lists couldn't possibly compare with the currentcelebs' "request" for four cases of a specified brand of mineralwater, only white flowers, just red M&Ms, scented candles, afootstool no higher than five inches, and a partridge in a peartree. The irony was not lost on me when, years ago in Chicago, Iwas out to dinner with Jonas Salk--who went totally unrecognized inthe restaurant. Just before we left, Tab Hunter appeared, and, ofcourse, he was mobbed.

There is no disputing that the public has always been awestruck bythe famous. The problem at hand, however, is that the standards forfame have gone to hell, and now everybody and his dog want to be inthe limelight simply because the perks seem like fun. B-listperformers, for example, now go everywhere with theirentourage--including, of course, bodyguards. I remember, when Ilived in West Los Angeles, seeing Cary Grant walking around doingchores- -and he was by his lonesome. Go figure.

Along with the dollar, we've experienced a regrettable devaluationof celebrity. Anyone over 30 cannot help but wonder: What the hellhappened? The news-ingesting public is bombarded with fake news ofthe faux famous, but ... who are these people? Did the mainstreammedia purposely dumb things down to offer us the current surplus ofcelebridreck? This is a chicken-and-egg debate, to be sure, tryingto figure out how a bunch of anorexic, addled, addicted nobodiesmorphed into household names. Did the press lead us down this loonypath, thinking it profitable, or did the paying customers make knowntheir yen for drivel? Could people be so depressed by national andpersonal problems that they get a media-delivered serotonin fix bykeeping tabs on people who think going to parties is a job? Mightcelebridreck be taking the place soap operas used to occupy asdiversions from dull lives--but with real people? It is a sad factthat if Monopoly were a game played with modern-day "celebrities"standing in for real estate, we would be trading a Flavor Flav fora Jessica Simpson.

There has certainly been a sea change in how you get to be acelebrity. Actions formerly disdained because they were criminal,shameful, or, at the very least, declasse, now make theirpractitioners into public figures. These days, attention is a loopykind of Alice-in-the-looking-glass reward for bad behavior--and itlasts way longer than 15 minutes. It is now possible to achievecelebrity status by assaulting employees, entering rehab, orscrewing for posterity courtesy of your video cam. Whereas awayward rich kid or round- heeled bimbo used to rate a passingmention in the public prints--maybe--now these unfortunates arecatnip for journalists. The magic carpet for the publicity hungryis now red and so heavily trafficked as to have lost all meaning.I, frankly, don't give a rat's ass about Sir Paul's maritalmistake, Paris Hilton, or the ruckus about Madonna's adoptedAfrican kid. Good celebrity gossip, like the celebrities, justain't what it used to be. Perhaps the whole situation can be summedup with this joke: A middle-aged woman was reminiscing that, whenshe and her friends were young, they all wanted to look likeElizabeth Taylor. Now they all do.

By Margo Howard; Margo Howard writes a nationally syndicated advicecolumn, which is online at Yahoo News.