Inside People

updated 08/14/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

FROM HOT TV SHOWS LIKE FRIENDS to blockbuster movies like Forrest Gump, pop culture shapes our images of who we are and our ideas of what we share as Americans. That's why PEOPLE was honored to accept an invitation from the Smithsonian this summer to host a series of six weekly forums at the museum in Washington. The 90-minute sessions—featuring panels of media experts, celebrities and story subjects assembled by our director of public affairs Susan Ollinick—were devoted to discussing various aspects of the mosaic of pop culture as reflected in the pages of PEOPLE.

At the session on "The Art and Science of Photographing PEOPLE," for instance, picture editor M.C. Marden grilled photographers Harry Benson, Christopher Little and Taro Yamasaki on subjects as diverse as Greg Louganis, Richard Pryor and California gray whales. Other topics: Americans' endless fascination with British royals, ordinary people who become suddenly famous (remember Donna Rice from the 1988 presidential campaign?) and celebrities who have talked openly about their personal problems, such as former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur's experience with incest. At the July 27 finale, author Neal Gabler (Winchell) and TV commentator Jeff Greenfield held a lively discussion on the impact of fame in American life with Marlo Thomas, the actress and social activist, who jokingly described herself as "Exhibit A."

The Smithsonian series may be over, but our own analysis of pop culture is ongoing. Begun this spring as a service to advertisers who want to better understand their consumers, the PEOPLE/Yankelovich Pop Monitor defines groups of Americans by their level of involvement with pop culture and will measure changes in public attitudes toward celebrities. The first wave of research has revealed there is one celebrity who is clearly the favorite among all age groups. Want to take a guess? It's Bill Cosby.

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