My best friend sleeps for ten hours straight before he gets up to get ready for work. His pre-work routine is intense – he gets nutrients and vitamins injected into him through an IV and has a strict acid reflux-conscious diet. He does a few laps around his workplace before work actually begins, and I don’t blame him, because his job is pretty physically demanding.
A team of people get him ready for work – they fluff up his hair, prep his skin, and dress him in an outfit that changes every day, custom-made by one of the biggest luxury brands in the entire world. In just a few hours, he will sit inside a box and be rolled out underneath the stage of an arena, where he will then rise from the stage to perform for a crowd of hundreds of thousands of screaming fans in glitter and feather boas. Later, he will run through the crowd and jump straight into a car that will drive him back to his hotel, where he will take a shower, go to sleep, and the whole cycle begins again the next day.
I know everything one ought to know about their best friend – from obvious things like his birthday and his favourite sports team to less obvious things like the running shoes he likes to wear and the brand of body wash he uses.
Of course I do, he’s my best friend. But he can’t really say the same thing about me: he doesn’t even know I exist.
I’ll be the first to admit that it does sound alarming and, frankly, delusional. My best friend – the one who wears custom Gucci outfits and performs for sold-out arenas every night – can’t possibly be Harry Styles. He’s Harry Styles.
While it seems strange and wholly imaginary, our bond is anything but. I confess, it’s not a particularly conventional social relationship – it’s one step further: a parasocial one.
The parasocial relationship, while increasingly rampant in online spaces, isn’t a new term. Coined by researchers from as early as 1956, a parasocial relationship is defined as a one-sided relationship formed between an individual and someone they don’t know personally. While it also exists between people who know each other in real life, these days the term is typically used in conjunction with public figures – celebrities, politicians, athletes, influencers, and the like. What separates a parasocial relationship from a regular one is that a parasocial interaction tends to give you a false sense that you’re actually part of their life.
Parasocial relationships also extend towards fictional characters. Mentions of a “comfort character” are commonplace on the internet – ranging from genuinely comforting characters like Remus Lupin and Jim Halpert to murderous psychopaths like Bucky Barnes and Joe Goldberg. While some pull healthy traits from these characters, it’s enough for others to see them as
someone to lean on on hard days. If music and hobbies are appropriate sources of comfort, why can’t it be the same for fictional characters, too?
Despite the prevalence of the term on places like stan Twitter and TikTok, parasocial relationships are far from being a new phenomenon. It’s been around for centuries. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, fed up with writing Sherlock Holmes’ witty and eclectic adventures, killed off his infamous protagonist, fans were outraged. In protest, twenty thousand people cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand Magazine. Thousands of people wrote to Doyle directly – some desperately hoping he’d revive the consulting detective that provided so much comfort to them, while others being downright abusive. Many people even wore black mourning bands around their arms in the streets of London for a month after the publication of his death. Eventually, Doyle succumbed and a decade later, Sherlock Holmes was brought back to life.
Parasocial relationships, involving fictional people or otherwise, aren’t inherently a bad thing – like Sherlock Holmes to the British in the 1890s, they’ve been a source of comfort for many people, helping them come to terms with things widely regarded as taboo such as mental illnesses, identity crises, and disabilities. Selena Gomez shed light on what it was like having lupus, an autoimmune disease, as well as being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Emilia Clarke suffered from two brain aneurysms while still being a cast member of Game of Thrones. Bo Burnham would have panic attacks on stage in the middle of his comedy set and had anxiety so intense he stopped performing live. It was reassuring to know that the people we looked up to were not exempt from struggling. Stars, they’re just like us.
It was especially comforting during the pandemic when everybody’s mental health collectively took a turn for the worse. When the pandemic forced the whole world into physical isolation, everyone was desperate for human connection. Trapped at home and unable to socialise, celebrities began posting on social media with a frequency unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Stars turned into humans in front of our very eyes – when once the only glimpse we’d have of them would be a press photo for a red carpet event, now we were privy to the interior of their kitchen as they tried making sourdough for the first time.
When dispatches from public figures sit side by side with updates from our real-life friends, it only encourages the feeling that we’ve developed a kind of friendship with these celebrities. They look straight into the camera, and it’s as if they’re looking straight at you. They develop inside jokes with you, and it’s almost like they know who you are. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem completely unrealistic to think that you’d become friends with them if given the opportunity. I mean, Gigi Hadid puts heavy cream in her pasta, too – we’d get along so well!
However, the more human you appear, the more inhumane people start treating you. It’s morbid, but it’s the truth – when you have demonstrated a willingness to share some personal information publicly, people begin to feel entitled to all of it.
Personally, I’ve noticed a stark difference between both the amount and the nature of social media posts from my favourite people posted years ago versus the ones posted today. Harry Styles, for example, used to post incredibly silly things on his Instagram – one post that comes to mind is one of a stuffed elephant head with the caption “Ele-fancy.” – but now, all he posts are professionally shot photos of his public appearances. Similarly, Taylor Swift would often post about random things in her life coupled with lighthearted captions, but now she isn’t able to post anything without fans speculating if it’s an easter egg, hinting at a future album release. While their decline from social media can be attributed to their rising stardom and prolonged media exposure – having both been in the industry for over a decade now – it’s not a reach to say that parasocial relationships may have had a role in it as well.
Doja Cat, for instance, is someone who’s recently been at the brunt of it. Doja’s cultivated an online persona that hinges on having “relatable content” and “not being like other celebrities,” largely because, unlike most other celebrities, she too grew up on the internet. She is among one of the few public figures who have figured out how to post content that doesn’t feel out of place. She participates in popular trends and tries out filters, and she does this in a way that feels wholly natural and organic, and not at all like she’s been told to by a publicity team. Because of this, you would be remiss not to notice the influx of comments with varying degrees of “omg doja you did not”s and “sometimes i forget that she’s a celebrity lmao”s.
And it is because of this that her fans feel entitled to her time. It’s easy to forget that you’re not actually friends with her when you get the sense that you’re on a friend’s private Instagram story every time she posts a video. But Doja is not a friend. She’s a musician, and her primary – and, to a certain extent, only – job is to perform the music she releases. Everything else is completely optional. This leads us to March of this year when an entire crowd of fans waited the entire day outside of her hotel in Paraguay where she was scheduled to perform at a music festival. When she didn’t stop to interact with them at all, many of them took to Twitter to spew hate at her, claiming that her behaviour was rude and ungrateful.
It’s true that we often see celebrities stopping to sign autographs and take pictures with fans whenever they’re approached, so it does seem like a personal attack when a celebrity chooses not to. Interacting with fans outside of their place of work – their place of work being concert venues and movie premieres, of course – is a way to show an artist’s appreciation to their fans, sure, but it’s certainly not an obligation. While it’s generally considered to “come with the job,” in actuality, doing anything aside from what they’re paid to do is completely up to the celebrity themselves. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but these celebrities don’t actually owe us anything.
Especially not to fans who go so far as to camp outside of their hotel, effectively breaching their privacy.
We see celebrities as a separate entity from us – as something completely other – because the lives they lead are so unfathomable. The average person will never experience walking the red carpet with bright camera flashes blinding them, or hiding from the paparazzi every time they leave the house, nor will they ever know what it feels like to have the world watch their every move. While we know that they’re just as human as the rest of us, we unconsciously place them in a higher league. This, coupled with their newly discovered humanity thanks to social media, births an entirely new type of parasocial relationship, one that genuinely makes you believe that you have full reign over a celebrity’s entire being all the time, every time.
Admittedly, it’s also difficult for fans not to feel entitled towards a celebrity when they’ve dedicated a significant amount of time and energy to supporting them.
My best friend Harry himself ends every show with a small speech thanking fans for sticking by him, whether it was “for one year, four years, or twelve years.” For most of his fans, myself included, the fact that we grew up together establishes a bond unlike anything else. After all, how could you not feel like lifelong best friends when you’ve seen him at virtually every stage of his life – at sixteen, messing around in the X-Factor video diaries; at nineteen, messing around with his long hair and Chelsea boots; at twenty-three, messing around as the guest-host of The Late Late Show with James Corden; at twenty-eight, messing around as he headlined Coachella?
The fanbase for the universally beloved K-Pop group BTS, aptly named the ARMY, is especially guilty of this. While it can be attributed to Korean idol culture, the amount of content BTS puts out for its fans is still massive, at least by Western standards. Between weekly vlogs, live streams, and interactions via their app among others, fans have no shortage of content. But the more you give, the more people expect from you. So it’s no surprise that despite the seemingly infinite amount of ways you can reach your favourite idol, there will always be a high demand for another vlog, another live stream, another, another, another.
But we do have to remember that as personal as a celebrity can be, it only touches the surface of their true feelings. We don’t actually know them in real life – we only know the persona they choose to portray. Regardless of the amount of no-makeup selfies they post and the honest opinions they express, these things are still carefully curated with the knowledge that they are going to be perceived a certain way. Thus, the connection between fans and celebrities, while completely real, is inherently a product of fabrication.
Parasocial relationships become troubling when fans begin to create their idol’s thoughts for them. This is when they start projecting opinions on someone they don’t actually know and who
doesn’t know them. By their logic, they can admit that while their favourite celebrity has never actually said XYZ, they probably could have.
Fans have gone beyond putting words in a celebrity’s mouth – now, they’re even adding traits to their personality. It’s not uncommon for fans to create preconceived notions about their favourite celebrity based on the idea of them in their head.
While it tends to start out harmless enough, it becomes especially problematic whenever new revelations about the celebrity emerge that contradict what was previously established. The internet never forgets, so when an old clip is taken out of context or an interaction doesn’t go as smoothly as planned, fans become distressed. Suddenly it feels like a betrayal. How dare they do this…? I thought they were…?
What’s more damaging is when it involves the celebrity’s personal life. Here, there is a very fine line between acceptable and deeply invasive behaviour, and more often than not, fans pretend this line doesn’t even exist. This is when fans, convinced that they know the celebrity, think they have a right to comment on their relationships. And when commenting isn’t enough, they resort to more extreme measures.
This is especially prevalent among male celebrities, since their parasocial relationships extend towards believing they themselves could have a chance at dating them. For these fans, no one is good enough for these men. I consider Tom Holland to be extremely lucky to have the entire internet rooting for his relationship with his girlfriend of over a year, Zendaya. After the success of No Way Home late last year, he’s still considered to be at the prime of his career, but it’s nothing compared to the coverage he’d gotten during the release of his first few Marvel movies. Prior to Zendaya, I distinctly remember paparazzi shots of him holding hands with a young lady at a golf course, and the vitriol hurled at her for weeks afterwards by fans heartbroken and betrayed that he dared to be in a romantic relationship. It’s fortunate that Zendaya is the only person the internet seems to accept him with, and that he actually did end up dating her. I could have easily seen his future partners constantly being harassed by his horde of fangirls for decades to come.
Unfortunately, Harry Styles is still a victim of this – to his fans, none of his girlfriends is deemed good enough for him. Additionally, his fans seem convinced that he’s not actually dating them, that they serve only as beards to keep up with his heterosexual heartthrob persona, further keeping him closeted, but I digress. His so-called “concerned” fans are some of the most rabid, hurtful, malicious people I’ve ever encountered on the internet – which is ironic, considering Harry’s well-known for his slogan, “Treat People With Kindness.” These fans attack his choice of partner because they claim to be concerned for Harry himself, stating that it’s up to them to save him from the awfulness of these women, despite the fact that he’s a grown adult man who’s
perfectly able to make his own decisions. It got to a point where, in 2018, he was made aware of a few fans making particularly vitriolic posts about his then-girlfriend, model Camille Rowe, and he blacklisted those fans from ever attending his concerts again – a decision that is still in effect today.
Taylor Swift, one of the biggest and most influential figures in the world, is no stranger to parasocial relationships. In fact, the relationship she’s cultivated with her fans is what has made her an industry giant today. She’s well-known for writing about her life experiences in her music in a way so honest and unflinching that it resonates with millions of people, and while she encourages speculation about her lyrics via easter eggs that she leaves in her music and promotion, it can get troubling. Her fans, nicknamed Swifties, are known to nit-pick everything Taylor chooses to share with the world, which includes her past relationships. One needs not look any further than the release of Red (Taylor’s Version) in November of last year, and the subsequent release of the highly-anticipated ten-minute version of cult-favourite All Too Well. Within the song, the description of how her then-boyfriend (widely confirmed to be actor Jake Gyllenhaal) treated her outraged the entire internet. Insults were hurled towards him from left and right; fans even went so far as to antagonise and harass him in the comments section of his post mourning the death of his friend and beloved music titan, Stephen Sondheim, causing him to disable comments entirely. While some of the backlash is deserved (see: John Mayer), there is a limit.
Knowing how much of a slippery slope parasocial relationships are, why do we still insist on having them? We are loath to admit it, but deep, deep down, there is comfort in putting our comfort people on a pedestal. We don’t have to worry about them being mean or unkind to us – they understand us, they know us. We get to pile all of our expectations on them and simply admire them from afar. As long as they do nothing to shatter the illusion, there is nothing to worry about. They are always perfect and always there for you.
I am fully aware that my best friend doesn’t, and will most probably never, know of my existence. This doesn’t invalidate the love and support I’ve received from listening to his music and being in his presence, nor does it negate the fact that he’s changed my life.
The connection we form with these people, although one-sided, is as real as the relationships we have with the people in our lives. The fans desperately wishing Sherlock Holmes back to life, commenting “First!” on a video posted thirty seconds ago, holding up signs about their boyfriend cheating on them at a Harry Styles concert, are all openly expressing a feeling people spend years, decades, centuries, trying hard to suppress – our inherent human need to be seen.