I think it can work in that you're surrounding yourself around people who have qualities that you admire, and this can highly influence and motivate you to strive for those things as well. I don't know if I'd call it a "role model" though. I just don't like that term.
As for celebrities, I agree with what you said. I'd never use a celebrity as a "role model" because I don't know them personally. I'm only being presented with their public image, which more often than not focuses on all of the money, success, and accomplishments that they've made. But I don't know the whole story. I don't know what they did to get where they are and what type of person they are inside.
It's good to admire certain qualities in others, but I think it's best to strive to be your own role model.