Tears and Teen Idols: Why Fans Can't Let Go

12/05/2016 16:37 | Updated 12 May 2016

Three teenage girls camp, cramped on the steps of the Mondrian hotel, awaiting their prize: a glimpse of Harry, or Zayn, or someone I'm not cool enough to have heard of. They've been there for days.

In the office next door, a grown man weeps the loss of his idol, one of the recent celebrity deaths that made millions mourn: whenever they left, they would have gone too soon.

A friend is so obsessed with the band Queen that she owns their entire back catalogue, visits far-flung hotels on the proviso Freddie Mercury stayed there once, and recently made the ultimate commitment: a tattoo. She's 33.

Teenagers teeter on the edge of sanity, admittedly - but what about the rest of us? Why don't we drop the act at 13? What emotional bonds are formed in those precious years that survive overtime, shopping lists, mortgage repayment plans?

And how do our relationships with celebrities affect our 'real life' relationships?

Celebrities are constructed, not born. Seen through a screen, they take on an irresistible hue. Cameras flash, a flicker of filtered photos; their lensed gaze locks onto yours and before you know it, you're smitten.

Being a fan is a form of parasocial interaction - a one-sided relationship, where we act as if it were reciprocal (much like my relationship with Tom Hardy). This is only exascerbated by the apparent accessibility of social media stars - being able to tweet them, or comment on their videos (and, occasionally, get a response) conjures the illusion of connection.

Research by the American Psychological Association shows that people engage in parasocial relationships because they 'negate the chance of rejection' - a risk in any real world relationship. The lack of interaction is a relief: fans are free to imagine... well, anything, really.

A win win, right? According to Dr Drew Ramsey, Columbia professor of psychiatry:

"Fandom is reasonably unsatisfying. It doesn't return something specific to the individual."

In other words, a one-sided relationship can only get you so far. Except for some people, it goes too far. This becomes especially apparent when fans endure the loss of their idol. Leading psychologist Alan Hilfer told the New York Times Magazine:

"There are some people whose reactions to celebrity deaths are so obsessional and extreme that it can literally make them sick." 

Whatever onlookers might think - the grief is real.

Given this, it is perhaps surprising that the reason we become fans is often nothing to do with the celebrity in question. It's a 'tag' - part of our identity, something we can use to build (real) relationships: a conversation starter, a passport to a new community. These tightly-bound groups (just witness the 'army' of One Direction superfans) can provide an invaluable support network.

In fact, being a fan does not always require a celebrity at all. Our own social networks are dominated by parasocial relationships: intimacy, but at a distance. We see our friends' lives through the same filters that were once the preserve of the famous. With the rise of online dating, we even view potential partners through this lens.

When we form relationships with images, reality can only pale in comparison. Ok, we know these images aren't 'real'. We understand, rationally, the transiency and artificiality of celebrity. But that doesn't make us immune.

Celebrities need fans: they're essential to their survival. If Zoella takes a selfie in the middle of a forest and there's no WiFi connection, does she still exist?

It's natural to admire; human to adore. Just make sure it's worth the investment.