13 Jul 2023

How to be a fan

Celebrities have always attracted fans, but the relationship is intensifying, sometimes in problematic ways. Social media is giving fans unprecedented access to celebrities and helping to foster the illusion of relationship. The very real distance between fans and artists is greatly diminished in cyberspace, leading to the phenomenon of the “parasocial relationship”, a term that describes intense, one-sided attachments to celebrities or public figures. Social media also facilitates the formation of vast fan networks, which can whip up hero worship to an alarming degree.

When it all goes wrong, the world of fandom can turn very nasty indeed. There has been a recent spate of incidents at gigs, when over-excited fans have thrown objects (ranging from mobile phones to a bag containing cremated ashes) at performers on stage, in some cases causing actual physical injury. Post-pandemic, live audiences have passionately re-engaged with performers, and this has led to troubling breaches of behavioural norms.

The word fan comes from the Latin fanaticus, meaning “insanely but divinely inspired”. “Stan” is a new term that has recently been coined to denote fans who teeter into the realm of online stalking and whose relationship with their chosen celebrity is deeply troubling. Their fervour when it comes to defending the object of their attention has led to many instances of threatening and toxic behaviour online.  

Why do people become fans? It is argued that, on one level, being a fan is a positive trait because it fosters a sense of belonging and group identity. Uniting with other people in admiration and adulation of a celebrity, a sports personality, or a team can be a bonding experience, a shared enthusiasm, which helps to create a distinct social identity. But this is the healthy end of the fan spectrum: psychologists have identified a sliding scale, which tips fans from the enjoyable and socially bonding end to intense personal fixation to borderline pathological adulation. At the extreme end of the spectrum fans display addictive, compulsive and narcissistic behaviour and begin to deviate from social norms, straying into perilous territory.

This disturbing slide into dark obsessiveness is frequently compounded by our current celebrity culture, where the objects of fan worship – whether they are performers, creators or influencers – are expected to “feed” the fans’ single-minded fascination through their own social media presence. This often involves releasing telling details about their private lives, and these tantalising morsels in turn generate yet more obsession and fascination. It is scarcely surprising that some celebrities are refusing to play the game and are increasingly withdrawing from their admiring public.

Clearly, when admiration segues into stalking and harassment, when the desire to interact with celebrities leads to fans actually inflicting physical injury on them, the situation needs to be addressed. If you’re a fan who is lucky enough to enjoy a physical encounter with a celebrity, observe the following etiquette:

How to be a Considerate Fan

• If you’re out and you spot a celebrity, don’t take a surreptitious, clandestine photograph. If you’re spotted, it will compound the celebrity’s paranoia about being stalked.  Be up front about it and ask permission. Assess the situation objectively: if the star in question is locked in an intimate conversation with a partner, or having dinner with the family, accept that the most considerate option might be to choose not to intrude and to leave them alone to get on with their lives.

• When it comes to asking if you can take a photograph, you can never be too polite. Use tentative phrases like “Excuse me”, “Would you mind if….?”. or “Could I possibly….?” Remember celebrities are not public property and you do not have an inalienable right to poke a camera at them. If your target asks you to stop photographing or filming, do so immediately, no ifs, no buts. Always thank celebrities politely if they do allow you to photograph them.

• Many fans want selfies with their favourite celebrities. Obviously, if you are seeking the holy grail of the selfie, you must ask politely. If permission is secured, you will of course have to huddle quite close to them, but you must be extremely careful about physical proximity. Never touch them, put your arms around their shoulders, grab a quick kiss. You should always be respectful of their physical boundaries.

• If a celebrity agrees to a selfie, don’t turn it into a production number. Be quick and efficient about taking the photograph – there are bound to be other fans waiting and plenty of people seeking their attention.

• Don’t monopolise celebrities. If you’re queuing up for an autograph or a signed book, bear in mind that other fans are waiting. You may have dreamed of this long-awaited encounter, but you must accept that you are just one of many, and that everyone should have a chance too.

• You know why you’re obsessed with certain celebrities, but they haven’t a clue. So, if you approach someone for an autograph, a photograph, or a selfie, it’s always a good idea to hand out a brief compliment or explanation. Just saying something like “I really loved your performance in xxxxxxxx” or “I read xxxxxxxxx when I was sixteen and it changed my life!”, will make the whole encounter much less transactional and will give the object of your adulation a chance to bask in genuine praise, rather than feeling that they are warding off unwanted advances.

• Keep comments positive. You may have been disappointed by a hero’s latest performance or feel that they have made a bad choice or taken a misstep, but it really is not your business to air your grievances. Remember you do not have a real-life relationship with the celebrity; you are, first and foremost, a fan, and it is your job to be a positive and enthusiastic cheerleader not a carping critic.

• Don’t objectify celebrities. Making intrusive comments about their physical appearance, their clothes, or their sexuality (especially during personal encounters) will make them feel like cheap commodities. Is that really what you want?

• If you feel moved to throw an object on to the stage when a celebrity is performing, accept that you need help. Your perception of the physical boundaries between yourself and the performer has clearly broken down. You may think your action will grab the star’s attention, but you are more likely to find yourself being frogmarched out by security.


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