Celebrity Syndrome

Celebrity Syndrome


Last October, I stood and waited outside of Lady Gaga’s apartment in Midtown Manhattan before the sun had even come up. It was the morning of Joanne’s release and she was pausing in her penthouse for a couple of days in the midst of a press tour. I was a fresh city dweller, having arrived just two months prior to commence my college career at NYU. High off of the power of twenty-four hour public transportation, I had rushed over via subway with a couple of new friends upon hearing murmurings of her potential arrival. Naturally, much of the crowd that was forming hoped to capture the “once-in-a-lifetime” chance to witness her without the obstacle of a screen. But in front of the newcomers, the veterans were ready for battle.

Enveloping me was a pack of devotees who gathered along the block, acutely aware of what they could be on the precipice of. Like a raucous swarm of sexually fluid bees, they anxiously waited for their queen to appear, stingers at the ready, equipped to vomit out hollow platitudes of adoration and existential gratitude in her direction, hopefully in exchange for validation that they could exploit in very public ways. For years I had considered myself to be a big fan—a superfan, even. But this moment was fiercely humbling. The cult I had entered into was something else entirely. In this company, lacking a Gaga tattoo was pure heresy.

A pair of bodyguards eyed our colorful cohort from the apartment building’s lobby as two black Suburbans lingered by the curbside, just enough room between them to facilitate an extra vehicle, perhaps Gaga’s conspicuous vintage Mercedes that we’d expected she would take to her first event. As we hovered in suspense, bathed in the baby blue of the emerging day, I turned to some of the strangers around me. It couldn’t hurt to mingle. At a glance, I noticed a curiously familiar boy. He was at most seventeen, doused in gold and black glitter with a CD in one hand and a Sharpie in the other. Somehow, from somewhere, I recognized him and his pubescent beard.

Within moments of introduction, he informed me that he had met Gaga at least twenty times, forsaking eighty-five days of school to do so. I asked his name, and he told me she knew it, not realizing that that’s not what I’d asked—“It’s Michael,” he’d eventually reveal. He was proud to report that he had recently gifted her a locket with a picture of her late aunt on it.

“I just want to get to a point where she’s just like . . . hey . . . how are you? You know? I just want to be her friend. We already are friends, really. Ugh. I didn’t get a full body shot last time. This bitch better fucking do it today.”

Social media was the vessel through which I had caught glimpses of Michael’s face on so many occasions before that morning. Wherever Gaga was, you could guarantee he’d be outside. Selfies, group shots, snapchats, autographs—he’d documented it all. In the name of friendship.

His Instagram told the tale. In one picture, taken a month before our interaction, he stood arm in arm with Gaga outside of Electric Lady Studios on Eighth and Bleecker. A wide smile on his face, she was planting a kiss on his cheek, donning a black cropped shirt and a tightly pulled bleach-blonde ponytail, more stripped down than ever by her standards. The caption: “So nice to see this lady again! The love I have for her is incomparable. She showed me the album cover and a preview of the Perfect Illusion music video. All I can tell you is that it’s very raw and personal. So proud of her! Keep yourself surrounded by loved ones.” This caption could have been written by someone reuniting with a college roommate or perhaps celebrating a cousin’s promotion. It was effortless, as if she had called him over for a drink at the local bar. It was exclusive, teasing the existence of inside information. What he left out—conveniently, deliberately, deceptively—was the hours of waiting that he likely had to endure just to get through to her, let alone touch her, let alone get a picture with her. Still, his thousands of followers absorbed it with awe. “So cool!” “You buddies now?” “Again??” “How cute, say hi to her next time.” “OMG!” “Wow.” “Besties!”

One glance at his profile, riddled with flashes of blonde, and it was evident what this star meant to this fan. Michael’s identity wasn’t just linked to Gaga. Michael’s identity was Gaga.

He is not the only one who transcends the confines of the stereotypical fan-star dynamic. Of her nearly thirty million Instagram followers, thousands of accounts are run by young fans who share the same vision, dedicated solely to delineating her each and every move, and often times, placing themselves into the narrative as if it is where they truly belong. Social media has empowered a fan’s prospects; a veritable friendship between fan and star no longer seems like a lofty pipe dream, but rather, a seizable reality—at least that’s how it appears. Social media purports to bridge the gap, to bring the two figures closer together. Rupert Pupkin of 1982’s The King of Comedy would have had a much easier time kidnapping his idol if he could have tracked him on his mobile phone.

In the brisk reality of New York’s fickle autumn, it was beyond clear that whatever this dynamic was in person, it was certainly not friendship. On one hand, Gaga was wrapped around Michael’s finger publicly, trapped in the unwarranted position of being his “friend,” photo proof and all, completely devoid of her narrative intervention once each pictured had been snapped. On the other hand, he was waiting outside in the cold just to catch a fleeting glimpse of her divinity in search of her approval. A semblance of his own celebrity, too, though relatively miniscule, had been borne out of her fame. Whatever this relationship was, it was not mutual. It was not friendship.

Whereas once, widely famous entertainment artists were seen as semi-unreachable entities, the immediacy of the Internet has forced them to don a different identity, one of personability, relatability, accessibility. Regardless of the nature of their art, we now expect stars to present each and every facet of their lives to us through social media with an intimacy that was once hidden behind closed doors. A star releasing a hit song is not enough for the fan—the fan craves a star’s each and every proceeding. What does the star eat for breakfast? What music does the star listen to while driving? How many hours of sleep does the star get each night? In years past, this valuable information was transmitted to the public through corporate mechanisms such as staged press interviews and carefully crafted magazine spreads. Now, stars are able to give the people what they want directly, through social portfolios that fans can seamlessly absorb with just a few swipes. This digital link is so revelatory, so quotidian—the assumption of a genuine human connection is woefully inevitable.

Social media has not necessarily created that which did not already exist, although it has given it propulsion. As outlined by journalist Zoe Fraade-Blanar in a 2017 interview with NBC News,

“Fandom is ancient—as long as there’s been culture there’s been fandom. What’s changed over the years is the level of access. Our Liszt-obsessed Victorian would have access to music whenever a touring orchestra was in town or reachable by train. Fifty years later, she might simply pull Liszt up on a phonograph. Today it takes only the click of a button. Now that the internet has reduced the energy required for acquisition to practically nothing, it takes a lot more to prove that we really care about the things we love. Anyone can listen to Liszt, but only true fans [draw] pictures of him as an anime character.”1

The Internet—and its encyclopedic disposition—generates unprecedented access. With access comes convenience. With convenience, comes complacency. Entitlement is the ultimate result of this chain. The familiarity that social media promises has catalyzed an ancient phenomenon.

Analyzed by Elon Journal contributor Janabeth Ward in 2016, “Parasocial interaction (PSI) refers to an imaginary social relationship, an imaginary friendship, an illusion of face-to-face relationship and an interpersonal interaction between the media user and the consumed media…Fans grow to know media figures through observation of their life.”2 This virtual association is the foundation of success for aspiring twenty-first century artists. In the study, Ward pinpoints Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift, two of the most influential millennials in the world with over one-hundred Instagram followers respectively. Galvanizing the potential of this interaction involves mastering the ability of presenting oneself as not just aspirational, but also accessible. The fan does not just look up to this kind of the star. The fan feels as though he or she is on the same level as the star. The fan, in a sense, feels as though they are the same as the star.

This becomes complicated when the parasocial and the genuinely social intersect. Fans like Michael are trackers not just on social media but also in real life. For him, somewhat of a beacon in the Gaga fan community by virtue of his publicized experiences with her, being a true fan no longer comes from exuding rampant fanaticism. Fandom is not only marked by how much you cry upon meeting your idol, but rather, by how much you can resist those very tears because of how very standard the interaction is. The best way to prove oneself is to go beyond the notion of being a fan entirely. To transcend fandom—and to archive this elevation publicly—is to become the ultimate superfan—or as he likes to put it, “friend.”

As the sun began to rise at Forty Central Park South, I overheard Michael exchanging conversation with a couple of other zealots.

“I really want a full body pic this time. She better not be in a rush. Why don’t we tell her that Mario’s boyfriend committed suicide or something if she doesn’t stop? You cool with that?”

When he noticed that I was listening, he quickly shot me a grimace, dismissing my concern with a There’s no way you would understand . He spoke without equivocating—he was certain Gaga owed him something.

And perhaps she did. Perhaps she owed him for years of steadfast devotion. Untold hours of missed school and work to line up for her concerts. Copious amounts of money spent on merchandise and cab rides into the city. Hours spent propelling her fame through his own online promotional efforts. Michael, and other fans like him with social media presences of their own, have more than just a personal stake in their idols, but furthermore, a professional one.

For many of these fans, such as @xkatyperry (593k followers) and @zayn.malik (1.5m followers), these ad-supported, monetized accounts have become full-time careers. By their own volition, they have entangled themselves in the corporate web of the pop music industry, financially and otherwise. This dedication, to them, warrants something in return. They deem their idols responsible for reciprocating this unsolicited ambassadorship.

Some call this phenomenon Celebrity Worship Syndrome. But this is a misnomer. Celebrity Investment Syndrome, in today’s day and age, would be a more apt designation. Let me love you is no longer enough for the fan. Let me love you . . . and you sure as hell better love me back is the new baseline.

Fraade-Blanar elaborates that “Fandom is inherently conservative — it’s literally an institution set up to preserve something. Fans have internalized the meaning of a fan object and made it part of their lives, and any updates to that meaning is deeply personal.”3 It may be true that these stars, with corporate forces behind them, have only themselves to blame for fostering such a dynamic. Aaron M. Glazer, a colleague of Fraade-Blanar’s, emphasizes in the same interview that “anyone hoping to attract superfans needs to set up the conditions to let it happen and, in the parlance, love bomb the firestarters—meaning, once you have early fans on board, provide them with the support and appreciation they need and deserve, and then get out of the way and let them build a community.”4 In his eyes, building a fanbase of this nature is a conscious decision; the fanbase is configured, then harvested. In the early years of her career, Gaga publicly conveyed her hopes to create a culture that incorporated fanaticism, inspired by the likes of David Bowie, Madonna, and Britney Spears. Lauded by business professionals for her clever use of the digital sphere during her rise, many cite Gaga as being the first star to use social media to generate an active subculture. In 2012, she reigned as the most-followed person on Twitter before launching her own social media website: LittleMonsters.com. In many ways, she encouraged this manner of attention.

Now, however, she sings a different tune. In a 2016 interview with NBC, she reflects on her sadness:

“I miss people. I miss, you know, going anywhere and meeting a random person and saying, ‘Hi,’ and having a conversation about life . . . I love people . . . I’m very acutely aware that once I cross that property line, I’m not free anymore. As soon as I go out in the world, I belong, in a way, to everyone else . . . It’s legal to follow me, it’s legal to stalk me on the beach, I can’t call the police or ask them to leave . . . I can’t be free out there.”5

The fan’s growing semblance of attachment leaves the star more detached than ever. Effectively, the star is robbed of the opportunity for genuine introduction; the fan already feels as though they already have a perfect comprehension of who the star is, trapped in the illusion of complete transparency. Furthermore, the fan is robbed of the chance of equality; the hierarchy is embedded in the relationship, impossible to dismantle.

This type of fandom dehumanizes both the fan and the star. The paradox of social media is that it pretends to facilitate the exact opposite outcome. In this dehumanization, fandom renders both the fan and the star reliant on one another. Who would Michael be without Gaga? Who would Gaga be without Michael? They both succeed and they both struggle—because of one another.

After hours of waiting, at 8:15 a.m., Gaga finally walked out of her apartment building, wrapped in a shawl as rosy pink as the hat on her album cover. Paparazzi flashes commenced within moments of her emergence and the crowd erupted into a frenzy. As she glided across the walkway, she turned to acknowledge a handful of fans on either side of her. When she heard Michael’s persistent chimes from the left, a tinge of recognition flashed across the visible parts of her face, most of it hidden behind massive sunglasses which masked her green eyes. I wondered if she was happy to see him. I wondered if her heart had dropped. Regardless, she walked over and hurriedly signed his copy of Joanne before taking a quick full body picture, satiating the boy’s request politely, hurriedly. Before she had even shut the door to her car, Michael had already left the crowd and walked away. He had no reason to stay, for he’d gotten what he’d wanted. Gaga would be somewhere else soon enough, and at least for now, his work was done.

  1. Lisa Tolin, “Obsessed: How Superfans Took Over the World.” Better, NBC News, March 21, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/better/money/obsessed-how-superfans-took-over-world-n735936.
  2. Janabeth Ward, “A Content Analysis of Celebrity Instagram Posts and Parasocial Interaction,” Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2016): 45, accessed November 2, 2017, https://www.elon.edu/u/academics/communications/journal/wp-content/uploads/sites/153/2017/06/05_Janabeth-Ward.pdf.
  3. Lisa Tolin, “Obsessed: How Superfans Took Over the World.”
  4. Ibid.
  5. Carly Mallenbaum, “Lady Gaga on fame: ‘I miss people’,” EntertainThis!, USA Today, November 27, 2016. https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/entertainthis/2016/11/27/lady-gaga-fame-miss-people/94518038/
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