Every few months, I find myself swept up in a brand new celebrity crush. I will see them in something – a movie, a TV show – and get those cartoony hearts in my eyes before following them on social media. Although I’ve had a small handful of mainstays over the years (hey, Brad Pitt!), it’s mostly been a revolving door of infatuations – some fleeting, others more long-term. But they all have one obvious thing in common: they have no idea I exist. Zero. None. I’m 36, for the record, but I’ll never stop crushing on famous people.
As it turns out, parasocial relationships are common, even throughout our lifetime. There’s actual science behind it, too – reasons why we are drawn to wealthy, famous strangers who aren’t even aware of our existence. But what do these crushes actually say about us? Are these attachments merely harmless surrogates for something (or someone) missing in our lives? Or are we in danger of setting unrealistic romantic expectations? According to Dr. Dara Greenwood, it’s a bit of both – and can entirely depend on the situation.
An associate professor of psychology at Vassar College in New York, Greenwood has written extensively about the emotional and social implications of media engagement – specifically regarding our devotion to celebs.
“We might be tempted to view parasocial attachments to media figures as superficial, based solely on attractiveness or status; [and] that can certainly be a piece of the equation, but in my research, participants have identified qualities such as kindness, authenticity and humility as top reasons for their celebrity affinities,” she says. “We can joke about the much-used phrase ‘celebrities, they’re just like us!’ from the magazine spreads, but in fact, we do tend to gravitate towards media figures who are like us in certain respects – who reflect our own values or interests, whether actual or aspirational.”
That jibes with the ongoing Internet Boyfriend/Girlfriend fascination: in general, we prefer our crushes to be, not only conventionally H-O-T (see: Zac Efron or Zendaya), but socially and politically conscious as well. We want a heart of gold with a side of sexy.
So, what is a parasocial relationship anyway?
Coined in a 1956 study co-authored by anthropologist Donald Horton and sociologist Richard Wohl, the term initially described the personal bond people felt when watching a beloved talk show host or listening to an engaging radio personality. Greenwood offers up a 2021 definition: “A parasocial relationship involves feelings of imagined intimacy or friendship with a media persona – whether actual or fictional – that develops in a purely symbolic capacity via the mass media.” But that isn’t a bad thing!
Be it lusting after Robert Pattinson’s vampire antihero in Twilight, Michael B. Jordan’s Black Panther baddie or swooning over ultimate “Nice Guy” Keanu Reeves, it would appear there is some psychological value in these pseudo-relationships.
We want a heart of gold with a side of sexy.
“It sounds bizarre, but we come well-equipped to engage imaginary interactions,” Greenwood adds. “In our real-life relationships we are constantly anticipating/rehearsing/rehashing interactions we’ve had with friends or partners in our heads. So, in a sense, parasocial relationships are a natural outgrowth of our existing social tendencies and motivations.”
Why do we thirst after celebrities?
Some of it is the function of the aforementioned exposure, as Greenwood points out. “We see certain celebrities in movies and TV shows, we hear/see them interviewed, and with the advent of social media, we often have a seemingly direct pipeline into their personal ‘off screen’ lives,” she says. “It is not a coincidence that the most widely known celebrities can become targets of parasocial engagement.”
As Greenwood mentioned, the famous folx we are drawn to often speak volumes about our own personal aspirations, interests and value systems. If Harry Styles gender-bending his way onto the cover of Vogue or Amandla Stenberg using her platform to call out the appropriation of Black culture speaks to us on a personal level, all the more reason for us to crush on them. Hard.
Yet, for those who are susceptible to preexisting vulnerabilities (think: relationship anxieties or an overwhelming desire to fit in at school), a celebrity crush might consume even more of their thoughts and actions. “My work has found that people with existing vulnerabilities… may be prone to experience more intense celebrity affinities than others,” Greenwood says. “One explanation is that media relationships offer a kind of non-threatening way to escape or manage negative emotions.”
Women, especially young girls, have faced more scrutiny when it comes to analyzing behaviours around celebrity figures. There’s the assumption that they crush harder, longer and more intensely than their male counterparts, but Greenwood is quick to nip that assumption in the bud.
“Sometimes the problem is that researchers only survey females – based on intuitive or stereotypical assumptions – so that makes making direct comparisons impossible,” she points out. “In my own work, men and women did not differ in their affinity for… celebrities, but young women [did] report more imagined care, passion and intimacy with a same gender media figure than young men.”
Greenwood posits that this might be, in part, due to the homophobia ingrained in toxic masculinity. “We thought this [discrepancy] might be in part an artifact of homophobic anxiety and socialization that inhibits men from forming or admitting to close bonds with platonic male friends.”
Celebrity devotion, then and now
When Italian actor Rudolph Valentino unexpectedly died in 1926, at least one woman reportedly died by suicide over his death while tens of thousands bereaved fans lined up around the block to pay tribute to his life during his open casket funeral in Hollywood. At the time, such a public outpouring of grief for a dead celebrity was unprecedented and left some psychologists baffled.
Those were the early days of celebrity culture, when handwritten fan mail and glossy magazines packed with gossip columns were the only ways to “connect” with our onscreen infatuations. It wasn’t that long ago, either, that this was still the customary way to “make contact” with a celebrity crush.
Growing up, if I wanted a sense of connection with an imagined paramour, I picked up the latest issue of Tiger Beat or secretly stole a stamp from my mom’s purse to mail a fan letter – something I may have done at age 13 in a desperate attempt to feel “seen” by Brad Pitt.
But with the advent of social media, the game changed. Suddenly, we not only felt more connected with our favourite celebrities and caught glimpses of their day-to-day lives, but we could easily reach out to others who shared our interests and opinions.
“[Some] research has found that interacting [with] or following celebrities on social media strengthens parasocial feelings,” Greenwood says. “Along those lines, social media may make celebrities seem all the more accessible as potential romantic partners, and perhaps lead to increased frustration or disappointment when we can’t turn fantasy into reality.”
The perks (and perils) of crushing on a celeb
According to many experts, a little harmless celebrity crush might actually improve our current relationships, especially as teens. “[They] might be used as surrogates for real life romantic relationships for younger teens who aren’t quite ready to embark on an actual relationship,” Greenwood says. “They might also offset circumstantial loneliness – as so many of us are facing in the pandemic – or help someone manage a relationship loss.”
On the flip side, compulsively thinking about a celebrity even when you don’t want to be might set off some alarm bells. Thoughts or behaviours that interfere with day-to-day tasks can quickly become problematic. “Most likely what is happening for any given person is reflective of other issues they may be struggling with,” Greenwood notes. “So, an unhealthy parasocial relationship with a celebrity may be a symptom, as well as a contributing factor, to psychological distress.”
They might also offset circumstantial loneliness – as so many of us are facing in the pandemic – or help someone manage a relationship loss.
She continues, “It can be a liability to use celebrity crushes as a benchmark for real-life relationships, which at their best are not predicated on fantasy projections and involve flaws and arguments and awkward moments. We may also, accordingly, feel safer with celebrity crushes and use them to avoid real-life relationships, in extreme cases.”
At the end of the day, indulge in whoever makes you thirsty. To lust after a celeb (or fictional character) is universal – a part of being human. I love Brad Pitt, and that devotion has been going strong for 16 years now (so loyal, I know). My husband adores Rachel Weisz. If this were an episode of Friends, both of their names would make our “laminated” list, a la Ross Geller. So, who you are you crushing on?