One of the most curious aspects of pop culture is the advent of “fandom,” and how it does and does not survive over time. Literally, the word “fan” is short for “fanatic” and there is plenty of fanaticism to be found in those who gravitate to a single work, or a celebrity, and so forth. Look at the people who dress up when they go to ComicCon or to the opening of a big franchise movie. Look at the people who write fan fiction to continue on the lives of characters that their original authors have set aside. In most cases, these attractions are innocuous yet nonetheless carry the exterior appearance of intensity. These are a large part of their lives, but for the most part, aren’t their lives.
The corollary to this is the “fan crush.” This has been an aspect of pop culture even before pop culture. This is the part that attracted viewers to the original “It Girl” Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino. This is where girls looked past the visage of The Beatles in the 1960s and saw only the one that struck a chord within — The funny one, the cute one, the mean one, and the sad one. In moderation, there’s nothing wrong with this, and I believe nearly everyone has had this kind of celebrity crush. Most don’t want to talk about it because, despite the reality that most of these are thoroughly innocent, it’s also kind of creepy.
Pause for a moment. Think about your star crush from your past, or your present. I’m not here to judge. When you were enamored of this individual, it may have been based more on the character they played or a song they sang that you felt was “just for you” (and the other million people who felt the same way). Most people lose the crush because they either learn more about the individual from the tabloids, or they move on to another crush, or they find everything that satisfies them in a true life-based relationship, and carrying over a fantasy loses its value. Once you have crossed that threshold, you can then see how daft the whole attraction might have been.
In other words, you might have thought you had a shot with Johnny Depp when he was on 21 Jump Street, but you are older and wiser now. You have a husband and kids. And deep down, you know you could never give him what he gets from Helena Bonham Carter…and Tim Burton.
Some brave souls have gone so far as to write fan letters. When seen through the eyes of youth, these too are harmless. Adulthood tends to render them one step too far. It’s okay to let your mind wander in the confines of your own skull, but taking that next step to reach out to them presumes an awful lot. It presumes that you would have something to say to this stranger you think you know, something that hasn’t been said a thousand times by a thousand just like you. And yet there’s still something quaint and charming, in measure, about this. The person reaching out is also reaching up, into an existence that is as enticing as the point-of-contact might be. Celebrities are adored, but a lot of that adoration is about the attention.
Is it any wonder why so many crave celebrity themselves, and why the phenomenon of “famous for being famous” is more prevalent than it has ever been? The constant spotlight on Kardashians has nothing to do with this being the progeny a man who was a defense attorney for O.J. Simpson during his murder trial. It has something to do with the girls’ inclination for disrobing, but a bunch of horny well-wishers only get you so far. The attraction is this amplified life being radiated out to the world. Much as their detractors hate to admit it, if each of the Kardashians passed away today, they would not be forgotten and in their passing they’d probably be remembered even more. We, on the other hand, will mostly likely not have that impact when we go. We might be “better people,” but we will be anonymous to all but a handful of family and friends, and even they have to get on with life sometime. The cult of Elvis was huge. The cult of Dead Elvis is enormous. You must remember this.
The fan crush is about transcendence in that way. It has changed in the digital age though. Back then, you got the address for the studio, you wrote your note, sent it off, and hoped it would return as a response. Most times it would not. And much as we wouldn’t want to admit it, when things did come back, they came back with the handwriting of the assistant or the studio wonk whose job was to respond to these things. There was still that temporary thrill that connections across this vast divide were accomplished. You can hit up your celebrity crush on Twitter or Facebook pretty easily now. Most of them are just strangers like you assuming the guise of a famous person. Some are constructs of a publicity department, and are there mostly to promote product. Rarely to never are your responses to their posts regarded in any way, and that’s just how it is.
My last “serious” celebrity crush was in the 1980s. I still find celebrities attractive and, yes, I’m probably more interested in finding out about their new product with the attraction than without, but I know what that is now. In the eighties, not so much, and I miss that lack of cynicism a little bit. My crush was the actress Heather Langenkamp who famously played Nancy in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. That was not, however, how I knew her because I was a wimp and couldn’t handle horror movies. On the sitcom Just The Ten Of Us, she played the heavily-religious and inhibited sister in a large family, surrounded by, shall we say, looser sisters. The show was a spinoff of Growing Pains and, I don’t know if this is interpretation or inherent, but the character seemed like the ultimate outsider…too uptight for her sisters, too square for the more religious. Plus Marie Lubbock was drop dead cute.
But Marie Lubbock was not Heather Langenkamp; but a role she played. When you are 16-or-so years old, these distinctions don’t jibe. I sent off a fan message and, lo and behold, about a month later I received an autographed photo. I kept it with pride. The show was canceled not long thereafter. I do not blame myself for that one.
Now in my — Good lord, how old am I now? — I think back upon both the innocence of my reaching out, and the fact that it was kind of invasive. I’m reconciled with the belief that Langenkamp probably did not sign it herself. I am grateful for the time-lag that the standard mail provided, which is so much more merciful than the instant rejection and disregard that modern communication inflict. Of course when I started living my “real life” among my friends, acquaintances, and eventually co-workers, the need to connect with this glamorous other world ended too, and thankfully so. I think now what hell it must be to become an adult and still be stuck in a fantasy land like that.
I do miss the autographed photo though. I once put it away for safe keeping, probably in the early ’90s. I always thought that one day, when I have my personal office and I’m a successful writer/musician/artist/dog-groomer/spaghetti-dissector, I’d hang the picture on the wall. I never got that office, and after years of “growing up,” I’ve forgotten where I put that photo. That bothers me a lot, but earthquakes, hurricanes, September 11, the passing of loved ones, and more has that effect. They call it re-prioritization. I call it another lost piece of my youth when I was dumber, but probably happier. It might be for the best.