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Fri 22
From fan to fanatic: why are we so obsessed with celebrities?

From fan to fanatic: why are we so obsessed with celebrities?

What propels our fascination with celebrities, and, more importantly, why is that so seductive that it becomes pathological?

Carolina Pompeo

Ana Hickmann, Anitta, Leonardo Di Caprio, Madonna… What do these celebrities, and so many others, have in common with each other? A stalker: all of them faced serious problems with obsessed fans who assaulted, threatened or broke into their homes.

Many artists had to seek protection from the courts and obtained restraining orders; in other cases, fan-stalkers ended up serving time for their excesses. Not to mention those tragic outcomes, such as the case of John Lennon or guitarist Dimebag Darrell, both killed by fans; or the attack suffered by Brazilian TV host Ana Hickmann, when a fan of hers, Rodrigo Augusto de Pádua, went into the hotel where she was staying and fired a weapon against her family.

The question that can’t be answered it: what lies behind our fascination for celebrities, and, more importantly, why that can be so seductive as to become pathological? Studies indicate the answer depends on who loves them, and why they love them.

Follow the leader

Stuart Fischoff was a famous media psychology at the University of California who dedicated most of his life to the study of the cult of celebrities. Fischoff defended that the need to find an idol and follow him or her is part of our genetic constitution.

“In our DNA, as a social animal, lies the interest in looking at those who are important within our group. Even politicians are more prone to pay attention to a problem when a celebrity is stating their opinion on that issue,” he told FoxNews in an interview. It is as if we are sociologically programmed to “follow the leader.”

Besides, according to Fischoff, celebrities themselves – as well the media – cultivate these “parasocial” relations, in which actors, singers, and writers share information about their personal lives and interact frequently with fans – a practice which has been intensified by the internet and social media. Ultimately, celebrities serve as a form of “bridge” for the stardom of fans themselves – one needs only to remember that Mark Chapman, John Lennon’s murderer, once said he shot the ex-Beatle because he wanted to “be somebody.”

Happy and healthy fan

Even though the cult of celebrities may indeed be somewhat unhealthy for some people, for most of us it is a healthy hobby, a pleasant distraction which, in some cases, may even serve to improve us.

According to psychologist Eric Hollander, celebrities may have a positive influence, by sensitizing us and reducing the stigma on issues we wouldn’t pay attention if a famous person hadn’t “invited” us to do – that is the case, for instance, of the attention drawn by actor Leonardo DiCaprio on environmental issues, or the reflection caused by singer Beyoncé on racism.

What is the problem, then?

From curiosity to obsession, the relationships established by fans with their “favorite celebrities” are processual. In a study published by the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease entitled “A clinical interpretation of attitudes and behaviors associated with celebrity worship,” researches established a sort of scale of the cult of celebrity – the process a casual and healthy fan undergoes before becoming an addict.

First, the quest for information on the artist is a sort of escape valve, a distraction, a way of interacting with other people who share the same interest. The turning point towards obsession happens when that interest becomes constant, and starts to interfere in some form in the fan’s practical life.

The pathology becomes manifest when the fan starts to believe he has an intimate relationship with the celebrity, and the fascination becomes some sort of substitute for real life – that is called “erotomania”, a condition in which individuals have the conviction that the person for whom they are obsessed is secretly reciprocating their feelings.

“Venerating a famous person seems to fulfill a void in the person’s life. It gives them a sense of identity, of existence, it feeds a psychological need,” explain psychologist James Houran to US news website Live Science.

The research conducted by Houran also found out that feverish fans are more prone to suffering from anxiety, depression and social dysfunction.

In that sense, Fischoff defended that this pathological worship was the central problem, more than the object being worshipped itself. “Many people who begin to worship wholeheartedly a celebrity are merely manifesting a pathology that was waiting to happen. The fact that this is manifested in the form of idolatry towards a celebrity is less important than acknowledging that this pathology actually exists. If it hadn’t been directed towards a celebrity, it would be directed to any other object.”


Stalking is the act of monitoring intensively someone else, who usually does not desire that much attention and doesn’t approve those interactions with that person. The expression became especially popular after the 1990s, when cases of fans obsessed with celebrities became more common.

There are many ways of stalking someone, from watching or monitoring insistently their routine (even in social networks) to sending objects, breaking into their homes, threatening or assaulting the victim.

Other cases

Fan wanted to “be somebody”

This case is symbolic because the fan’s obsession resulted in the death for former Beatle John Lennon, in 1980. Lennon was leaving the building where he lived, in New York, when he stopped to give some autographs. Soon afterward, Mark Chapman shot the musician five times; Lennon died instantly.

In 2010, Chapman said in a statement to the parole board that he thought that, by murdering Lennon, he would become famous. “I felt that by killing John Lennon I would become somebody and instead of that I became a murderer and murderers are not somebodies.” The statements were published by the BBC, and Chapman is currently serving a life sentence.


US guitar player Dimebag Darrell was murdered by a fan during a concert of his band. Nathan Gale fired his weapon against Darrell and other musicians and people attending the venue; 15 people were shot, before Gale was killed by a police officer.

The motivations of the attack on Darrell were never made absolutely clear, but at the time friends of the young man confirmed that Gale was a huge fan of the band Pantera, founded by the guitarist, and was dissatisfied by the end of the group. It was suspected he suffered from schizophrenia.

Fan wanted to “rule the world” with singer

Stalker Karen McNeil was able to break into the home of singer Justin Timberlake for several times, claiming to be a close friend. Timberlake eventually got a restraining order against McNeil, but the woman did not comply with it and began to stalk the singer, claiming she was destined to “rule the world” and he should marry her to rule along with her. In a hearing, the fan insisted all accusations against her were lies.

The husband was the target

The target of Dawnette Knight’s obsession was actor Michael Douglas, but the threats were directed towards Catherine Zeta-Jones, who was then Douglas’s wife. The actress received dozens of letters in which the fan threatened to cut Catherine into pieces if she didn’t divorce Douglas. Dawnette claimed she had an affair with the actor, and said she had been bribed to keep things secret. She received a three-year jail sentence.

Flour bomb

Singer Adam Levine, lead singer of the band Maroon 5, was the target of an unusual flour bomb during a 2015 event. Even though it may seem little compared to the problems faced by other artists and their obsessive fans, the flour bomb which hit Levine resulted in a three-year probation sentence.



Do fã ao fanático: por que ficamos obcecados por celebridades?

O que impulsiona nosso fascínio pelas celebridades e, mais importante, por que isso pode ser tão sedutor a ponto de se tornar patológico?