Lizzo. Matty Healy. Colleen Ballinger. All three names have been buzzworthy but for all the wrong reasons. These past months have demonstrated the precedence that relationships with celebrities take in media and everyday life, and fans have been shocked to witness when celebrities reveal their less-than-agreeable personalities, their despicable moral compass, or their capabilities to commit heinous crimes. Yet, why do people feel so passionate about people that are clearly being paid to act a certain way?
When thinking about all of the connections one has in life, celebrities have proven that blood is not thicker than water. Since the advent of the arts as a career, people have turned to glorifying artists to a religious extent, and 1956 marked the categorization of this phenomena with the term “parasocial relationship.” According to Oxford’s Dictionary of Media and Communication, parasocial relationships are “a kind of psychological relationship experienced by members of an audience in their mediated encounters with certain performers in the mass media.”
The creators of this term specifically warned of the duplicitous nature of these parasocial relationships as fans are subject to neglect the reality of their relationship with someone that they only know through a heavily monitored form of reality. In 2023, this faux intimacy has only grown worse as people have unlimited access to star-studded interactions via social media.
Now, technology presents an uncanny illusion with live streams and vlogs that mimic real-life interactions. In addition to this, mass culture has encouraged and normalized illusionary and invasive celebrity-fan relationships with tabloids and TMZ-esque gossip shows to actively feed fans a romanticized understanding of fame along with a sense of entitlement as the pseudo-sponsors of celebrities.
Yet, with this in mind, I have realized that fans are not a blameless part of the parasocial cycle. Along with the celebrities listed above, Doja Cat’s scandal has led to recent controversy and speculation surrounding the artists’ personal life. Specifically, the Grammy award-winner has led a new social lifestyle that focuses on encouraging her fan accounts to delete themselves and that “if you call yourself a ‘Kitten’ or f***ing ‘Kittenz’ that means you need to get off your phone and get a job and help your parents with the house.” This change in attitude about “Kittenz”, a name that fans of the artist have given themselves, has coincidentally occurred as Doja Cat sheds her pop-girl persona to opt for a new R&B sound with upcoming album Scarlet.
This behavior led to a slew of upset and disappointed fans, but her controversy is rooted in her social media-based interactions turning from thoughtful and appreciative to abrasive and brash. Although this behavior has been branded by many as fan abandonment and apparent “self-sabotage” for her blossoming career, the musician has commented that this “change” in personality is a method of ridding her community of fans that are overzealously critical of her personal life, especially if it contradicts her persona or expected behavior as a public figure. More accurately, this is about fans hoping to control Doja Cat and other celebrities as one would property.
Meanwhile, the famous crave to be unrestrained outside of their work life expectations— just as anyone would expect when they’re off-duty. This instance, along with this summer’s other drama, reveals a phenomena at the heart of the obsession with celebrity scandal which I have coined “the reality of duality.” “The reality of duality” encompasses the true expectations that fans should have of celebrities as it consists of both their presentable public persona as well as a private and typically unmarketable personality.
Naturally, once a celebrity reveals their unappealing self to the media, fans are awakened from their fantasy of marketable personas which allows them to have an opportunity for self-reflection in relation to their parasocial relationships. Fans tend to realize that celebrities can simultaneously reflect two distorted forms of reality; one that attributes positive and presentable qualities and one that attributes negative and nefarious qualities. With recent scandals, many fans have experienced the latter type of distortion which may reveal something about a part of themselves they intend on keeping hidden from the world that contradicts their own persona in real-life interactions. Therefore, fans may begin to either excuse or criticize behaviors that are less-appealing but apply to both beloved celebrities and themselves.
This relates back to the normalization of invading celebrities’ lives and feeling an entitlement to knowing their private lives. As a result, many forget that celebrities are talented, but not perfect, and most definitely have their moments for mistakes and immorality. Therefore, it’s time for fans to take celebrities down from their social pedestal and recognize talent and affluence does not nullify the reality of parasocial relationships as relationships between flawed strangers.