By Nancy Levinson
“Some years back psychologists, observing the intense emotional attachment that fans develop toward actors and other celebrities, named the phenomena “parasocial relationships, with fans investing time, energy and emotion in stars who are unaware of their existence . . . fans even will feel as if they own the celebrity or as if they are a personal partner.” — New York Times, July 31, 2022
I was a fan once. In my earliest movie-going years I was much taken with bigger-than-life actresses, Natalie Wood and Margaret O’Brien. One day Natalie actually appeared live in a department store downtown, publicizing a line of little plaid dresses with starched white Peter Pan collars. If you bought a dress, she would sign her name with a ballpoint pen on the collar. My mother made the purchase as my heart leapt, and my idol penned her autograph. At home, I would not allow this treasure to be washed.
During my early adolescence, new stars twinkled in my eye. Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Powell were tops, and I idolized Esther Williams. On a big screen and in a deep-water pool she dipped and flipped, each swim scene climaxing with rising music while amidst a fountain she emerged gloriously in a turquoise or raspberry swimsuit and matching flowered headdress upon perfectly coiffed hair.
Then there were the men. Heart throbs. Montgomery Clift, Audie Murphy, and yes, Rock Hudson. Magazines called Motion Picture, Photoplay, and Silver Screen, priced a dime each at the drugstore, contained full-page pictures of these dreamy faces up close. I carefully cut them out and pinned them on my bedroom walls. One could also write requests directly to studios in Hollywood, California and receive glossy 8×10 photos. Free!
Soon I became a Doo Wop music devotee, mooning over The Four Lads, The Four Freshman, the Platters. . . with friends I listened to records in listening booths in a department store (the same store where Natalie Wood signed my dress) and occasionally paid ninety-nine cents to buy one. Johnny Ray was all the rage, too. Yes, I was fan of the singer and his outrageously dramatic performances. “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud that Cried.” Oh, how I cried! And Screamed! That came to be known as hysteria. Later I would understand the emotional and hormonal needs of early-teen girl mobs squealing at Beatles concerts.
One hot summer evening I was in my room upstairs, singing loudly along with Johnny Ray on my victrola when the doorbell rang. On the front step stood the boy next door with two friends, arms outstretched while they burst into song, wildly imitating me and my idol. Then they busted into uncontrollable laughter.
Well, the time was right for me to move on anyway. I was just learning to play tennis and following the greats of the day, especially Maureen Connolly. Once I got a ticket to an indoor arena match between Jack Kramer and Pancho Segura. The following week I bought a white shirt and shorts like those pros sported and wore them all summer on my neighborhood park court. (washed) I wasn’t fawning. That, of course, was the proper court wear. As I watched those athletes on screens, small and large, I learned strokes, swings, rules, good manners, and proper behavior in competition. Looking back, I might say that I’d become a student!
How innocent I was as a young fan! And what a different time before Celebrity Culture invaded with yet more movies, TV, live heavy metal and rock concerts, Sunset Boulevard- style billboards, and ever-present social media. And don’t the big-name stars revel in limelight attention, money, power, and privileges! A two-way road.
Wikipedia includes a large entry discussing “celebrity worship syndrome,” some crazed enough to involve stalking and attacking performers on stage. Security guards are employed full-time. Psychologists and journalists offer a range of explanations for current fandom, often reaching a place of obsession. Fascinated, many feel attached to the wealth, fame, and glowing glamour. Others may be somewhat small-minded or feel empty or powerless, and a relationship they conjure becomes one of love, sometimes, sadly, even believing it to be requited.
For myself, in passing time I began taking to heart all manner of personalities, dead and alive. . . artists, writers, journalists, symphonic and operatic performers. . . Occasionally, I have written letters to novelists and editorial columnists praising their work. I join standing ovations in theaters and concert halls, but I am not a fan, as such.
I am a devoted admirer.
© 2022 Nancy Levinson
Nancy is the author of MOMENTS OF DAWN: A Poetic Memoir of Love & Family, Affliction & Affirmation, as well as a chapbook, The Diagnosis Changes Everything. Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Poetica, Sledgehammer, Hamilton Stone Review, Panoply, Constellations, and Fleas on the Dog. In past chapters of her life, she published thirty books for young readers. Her youthful years were spent in Minneapolis. It happens that she now lives in Los Angeles, only minutes from Hollywood.