Celebrities and fandom are two inseparable entities. Together, they fuel the multi-billion-dollar show business industry, creating an ecosystem that benefits artistic and commercial endeavors.
But often, this symbiosis takes a dangerous turn. Extreme celebrity worship has constantly resulted in serious repercussions like online harassment, stalking, home intrusion, and murder.
The term “fandom” describes intense adoration toward certain subjects or individuals, especially in the entertainment, media, and sports worlds. The concept has existed for at least a century, ever since Publisher's Weekly coined the term “baseball fandom” to describe the enthusiasm surrounding the sport in 1928.
The word fandom itself has its roots in the word “fanatic,” which is the other term for “crazy” or “obsessed.” The suffix “dom” denotes an area controlled by a person of that rank. Over time, the term “fanatic” was shortened into “fan,” which describes people who develop above-average devotion for a certain comic book, sports team, or celebrity. It aptly describes a group of fans forming their own territory based on a common obsession.
Celebrity fandom is perhaps the most commonly found phenomenon in today's society. Since Beatlemania in the 1960s, fandom around superstars has grown and reached cult-like status. Today, almost every major celebrity has their own fandom name: Belieber for Justin Bieber, Beyhive for Beyonce Knowles, Swifties for Taylor Swift, ARMY for BTS, and so on.
Fans would rally around celebrities to a heightened degree of loyalty. They would defend their idol from naysayers, closely monitor their lives, and critically buy whatever the star sells. Powered by her ultra-loyal Swifties, Swift's The Eras Tour is projected to break the record for the grossing tour of all time with an estimated $2.2 billion gross. And the star isn't even halfway done, with more tour dates in different continents coming up.
While fandom is good for the economy, overzealous fan obsession can sometimes invade dangerous territory. 1992 hit film The Bodyguard depicts a pop superstar – played by Whitney Houston – who must evade a psychotic stalker who sends her threatening letters, breaks into her home, and tries to harm her family. The fictional plot is unfortunately inspired by all-too-common occurrences in the celebrity world.
Stalking celebrities ranges from simply following where they go to catch a rare glimpse to a literal criminal offense. Celebrities like Billie Eilish and Selena Gomez had to issue restraining orders against obsessed fans who broke into their homes. Some are even forced to sell their houses because their addresses have been leaked online, thus compromising security.
In 2010, a group of youngsters calling themselves the Bling Ring was convicted of multiple thefts at the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. The group admitted to targeting celebrities whose personal style they found appealing, referring to the act as “going shopping.”
Celebrity obsession can also be more deceptive in the form of online harassment. Body shaming, rumor-mongering, fan war, and cancel culture have become regular parts of showbiz. The lucrativeness of celebrity gossip means the media continues flooding the internet with details of a star's life, fueling an endless consumption cycle.
Parasocial Relationships – The Psychology Behind Obsessive Fandom
How can someone feel such intense attachment toward a person they never know personally, enough to drive them to commit a reprehensible act?
The answer lies in a psychological term called parasocial relationship. Introduced by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in the 1950s, it describes a phenomenon where an individual forms an emotional bond with a complete stranger — usually a well-known public figure — to the point that they feel like a close friend or even lover. People who experience this can become involved with a star's life and project themselves into their private matters, often feeling like they must do something for their idols.
In the case of Swift, the negative effect of parasocial relationships manifested in social media harassment by her fans toward ex-boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal when, in 2021, the singer re-released All Too Well, a song allegedly about the breakdown of their romance. More recently, this savior complex also came up when Gomez's fans harassed ex-boyfriend Bieber's wife, Hailey Bieber, due to their continued fixation around their former relationship. The online trolling got so bad that both parties released a joint statement urging fans to stop.
In more severe cases, parasocial relationships even claimed lives. In 1980, John Lennon was fatally shot on the street of New York by Mark David Chapman, a Beatles fan who resented Lennon's unorthodox lifestyle. In 2016, singer Christina Grimmie was shot dead during a post-concert meet-and-greet event. Later, a police investigation found that the gunman had developed an “unrealistic infatuation” with Grimmie months before the murder.
Extreme Celebrity Devotion Harms Everybody
Unmitigated fandom culture doesn't just harm the stars; it also affects fans mentally and physically. Parasocial relationships make fans susceptible to the unattainable beauty standards set by their idols, leading many – especially teenagers – to suffer from eating disorders, dubious cosmetic procedures, and low self-esteem.
Overconsumption is also a huge problem. With the proliferation of celebrity endorsements, fans are driven to continue spending on more stuff. In South Korea, parents are criticizing the trend of designer brands hiring K-Pop idols to market their expensive goods to minors. Meanwhile, music companies are pumping the market with endless merchandise supplies to entice impressionable young buyers. There have been reports of mounting album CDs being discarded by fans who only bought them to collect bonus items.
With the advance of social media, the issue has transcended cultural barriers. Things become more intensified since connecting with people across distances is easier, spreading fandom culture even further.
How to Deal With Extreme Celebrity Devotion
Parasocial relationships and fandom culture are not, by default, toxic. In fact, it can foster an environment for arts to thrive and offer people respite from the mundanity of day-to-day life. It is toxic when fans cannot separate their attachments to the star's carefully curated image, typically the by-product of a management team. Realizing that most celebrities' social media posts, interviews, and interactions are controlled by professionals might help mitigate the parasocial bond that forms with them.
Artists' agencies often deliberately cultivate devoted fan followings for profits. In this case, companies are responsible for protecting their artists and managing fans' expectations. It might not always work that way, though. Hence, it's beneficial for fans to realize this cold, hard fact behind the myth of celebrities for their own well-being.
She started her blog, The Money Dreamer, when she realized the 9-5 job was not the lifestyle she wanted anymore. After designing for a while, she wanted a more meaningful life, which was freedom, so she decided to venture out. She took action so that she can live her dream life and decided to help people to live theirs by helping them how to save, budget, and invest.