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Celebrity Parasocial Relationships: The Popular Rise and the Mental Downfall of the Consumer

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In the era of social media, it is easier than ever to interact with celebrities and influencers online. With the rise of fandoms — a subculture that consists of groups of fans for a particular subject or person — and “stan culture” — a similar culture present online consisting of extremely devoted fans — another phenomenon arises, too: parasocial relationships. 

According to Verywell Mind, parasocial relationships are “one-sided relationship[s] that a media user engages in with a media persona.” The dynamic of these relationships creates unfair expectations on the media persona and can result in mental health issues for both parties involved.

When fans become attached to internet personalities or celebrities online, they begin to make assumptions about their lives and opinions. Parasocial relationships create a sense of entitlement and obligation between both parties involved. Fans feel entitled to emotionally attach themselves to celebrities and assume they know everything about them, without ever actually knowing them personally. Fans also can place expectations based on their own perceptions of their favorite celebrities without realizing the impact it may have on the celebrities’ well being. Because of this one-sided aspect of the parasocial relationship, the celebrity is left to defend themselves not only against obsessive fans who pressure them to perform a certain way, but they are also forced to balance as not being seen as ungrateful for the fan base that contributed to their fame. 

One recent example of this is between singer and rapper Doja Cat and her fan base, when fans in Paraguay expressed their concerns on Twitter about Doja Cat not supporting those who waited outside her hotel in the rain after she canceled a concert due to the storm. Initially, Doja Cat reacted with frustration over the outrage and high expectations from her fans. The controversy led her to announce she is “quitting music.” 

A large fan base like Doja Cat’s tends to create high expectations over their favorite celebrity, which often results in the ultimate downfall for both parties involved. Fans are disappointed when the unrealistic expectations they set are not fulfilled, and celebrities deal with the consequences of setting their own personal boundaries. 

Due to the structure of parasocial relationships, mental health is one factor that can be greatly impacted. Fans who become emotionally attached to celebrities may develop an unhealthy obsession, and if celebrities let them down in any way, this can cause a fan’s mental health to drastically change. Especially if fans cling onto celebrities rather than real-life friends in their lives, the mental impact is inevitable. Parasocial relationships allow for fewer feelings of loneliness and a sense of social interaction, but it comes with a price: these relationships are limited, at a distance and frequently only fabricated in a fan’s mind.  

Adding on to one’s mental health, parasocial relationships allow fans to extract their personalities from a singular outside factor — in this case, the celebrity. A fan may feel pressured to support the celebrity they obsess over for anything and everything they do, even if that celebrity makes harmful decisions. Parasocial relationships cause fans to see tunnel vision by only focusing on their celebrity of choice and inheriting their personality characteristics, leading to a fan’s dramatic shift in their sense of self and their values.

There are dangers with companies and celebrities who encourage this behavior, either by controlling how a celebrity is seen in order to appeal to the obsessed masses or by actions celebrities take when interacting with fans. For example, in the K-Pop industry, many celebrities are forbidden from dating in order to be seen as “accessible” to fans. Celebrities themselves may give in to this behavior by continuously interacting with fans online and even developing friendships with their fans. While there’s nothing wrong with healthy celebrity-to-fan interaction, celebrities need to know where to draw the line if they don’t see this friendship continuing in the future. Otherwise, fans may feel encouraged to obsess over their favorite celebrity and develop the harmful aspects of the parasocial relationship.

While parasocial relationships can feel just as fulfilling as in-person relationships, it’s important to realize the reality of the relationship. Celebrities, while most of them have their fans to thank for their fame, do not owe their fans anything. Celebrities do not know each of their individual fans personally, so fans should understand this boundary when they feel a sense of attachment to them.

Camelia Heins is an Opinion Staff Writer. She can be reached at cheins@uci.edu