Parasocial relationships: The good, the bad and the celebrity-obsessed – National

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When Lady Gaga dove from the rooftop and into Houston’s NRG Stadium as part of her 2017 Super Bowl half-time performance, it changed young Leonardo Flores’ life.

Flores, a 21-year-old student from San Diego, Calif., had always watched the Super Bowl while dining out with his family. This time, he lost interest in his pizza as he was won over by the spectacle of Gaga’s polished, campy performance.

He was only 14 at the time, but this would become the catalyst for a years-long, fanatic dedication to the singer.

“I’d never seen something like that before. It shocked me,” Flores recalls. “I wanted to learn more about her.”

Today, Flores self-identifies as a Little Monster, the moniker for members of Gaga’s fanbase.

He runs an Instagram account dedicated to the singer, where Flores and his 310,000 followers consistently bond over everything Gaga-related. Today, Flores’ zeal for Gaga is undeniable, but when Global News reached out to inquire whether his relationship with the singer was parasocial, Flores confessed he was unfamiliar with the term.

For the uninitiated, a parasocial relationship develops when someone feels a strong, one-sided, intimate connection with another person who doesn’t know they exist, most commonly celebrities.

Flores admits his relationship with Gaga fits the bill.

“Since I’m a big fan and I share all of these updates on social media, I tend to know a lot about her,” he explains. “But it’s true. She doesn’t know me, yet.”

In today’s interconnected world, it can feel like the biggest celebrities, sports players and even politicians are just a click away, with social media being a powerful tool to seemingly foster parasocial relationships. But if even Flores — who’s been infatuated with Gaga for the last seven years — was unaware of his parasocial relationship, it begs the question: what does it really mean to have one?

What is a parasocial relationship?

When most people think of a parasocial relationship, they often picture a young, celebrity-obsessed fangirl alone and chronically online in her dark bedroom.

But according to Raymond Mar, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, this isn’t always the case. Some people like Flores, he says, might not even be aware of their one-sided relationship.

Much of Mar’s work focuses on researching the self in fictional scenarios, specifically how imagined experiences can affect someone’s real-world perceptions. The Atlantic once described parasocial relationships as “imaginary friends for adults.” While not far from the truth, Mar is quick to establish these relationships are not new. Instead, they’ve existed long before our celebrity-obsessed digital age.

The term “parasocial relationship” was coined to describe how people felt about their nightly TV newscasters, beginning in the 1940s, Mar says.

“This sort of continuous engagement with this person, one that spoke to you with authority on a daily basis, really led to this feeling of closeness like you knew them,” Mar describes. “You felt a reciprocal relationship, even though there’s no interactivity.”

“Although it seems like this might be a new phenomenon, people have been obsessed with celebrities ever since we had celebrities,” he says, adding even French writer Voltaire had diehard fans in his era.

More recently, media like Eminem’s 2000 single Stan brought parasocial relationships to the fore of pop culture, telling a moody tale of a crazed fan who writes the rapper obsessive letters until his untimely death. 

Having a parasocial relationship, however, doesn’t necessitate a deranged way of thinking, like that of the fictional “Stan.” According to Mar, anyone, regardless of age, gender or background, can develop these one-sided feelings.

Parasocial connections, Mar says, don’t solely involve socially phobic or lonely people, though that’s a common misconception. Instead, he suggests they are simply an extension of how someone behaves in their regular social life.

You may be drawn to a person whose qualities you admire or someone with similar lived experiences, just as you would when choosing a friend or relationship partner. For instance, maybe you admire the way Lionel Messi plays well under pressure, or how Drew Barrymore overcame addiction.

“Because parasocial relationships are not real, in some ways they’re a little more reliable,” Mar explains.

“If you think about the case of a fictional character, Harry Potter is not going to reject you.”

What does a parasocial relationship look like?

Some people, like 21-year-old Ontario resident “Julia” (first name changed for privacy reasons), rotate through parasocial relationships with celebrities.

Global News contacted Julia through a Discord server, which she manages, dedicated to singer Harry Styles. During an interview, Julia said her interest had already transitioned to other musicians, namely the rock band Greta Van Fleet.

Julia describes her parasocial relationships as a “hyper-fixation” requiring a considerable time investment. She almost always knows the city where her favourite artist is touring and watches regular social media live streams of concerts she cannot attend.

When they’re close enough, Julia will spend the money to see her favourite artist, sometimes travelling to nearby provinces or states.

Greta Van Fleet lead singer Josh Kiszka.

Greta Van Fleet lead singer Josh Kiszka on stage in Mexico City, Mexico on March 16, 2024.

Medios y Media/Getty Images

She struggles to describe what her parasocial relationships feel like. Similar to Flores, Julia says one has always developed after hearing a specific song from an artist that makes her want to learn more about them.

Julia says where a casual fan is able to “just go on with their day,” a parasocial fan is “constantly in the loop,” often refreshing social media for the latest artist update or to participate in new fan discourse. 

Despite it all, one day, she envisions herself giving up her fixations entirely. Julia says she’ll eventually have to focus her energy on buying a home or having children.

“I think you have to grow up and live your life; move on,” she says. “There’s no point in being stuck on a certain artist forever.”

Who can be in a parasocial relationship?

Parasocial relationships exist beyond the archetypal heartsick fangirl.

Christine Noels, a 55-year-old artist from Ontario, isn’t what some would imagine a fan of the K-pop group BTS to look like.

Noels says she was scrolling social media in 2018 when she first discovered the South Korean boy band. Within seconds of watching one of their music videos, she was hooked. Noels recalls when member Kim Tae-hyung (known as V) opened his mouth to sing the first lyrics of DNA, she shot upright and needed to know more about him.

From there, Noels says she fell down a BTS “rabbit hole.”

Today, Noels self-describes as ARMY, the name given to BTS’ fanbase. She has parasocial relationships with all seven band members.

“I feel emotionally invested in them,” she says. “I think it’s a very healthy relationship. I don’t have any deluded expectations or believe Jungkook is my boyfriend.”

Noels struggles to put these feelings into words, but it ultimately comes down to admiration.

“I care about the boys. I root for the boys. I am worried if they’re sick,” she says.

When she first discovered the band, Noels was at a difficult point in her life, working in an office job she found unfulfilling. She was later laid off during the pandemic.

“I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Noels recalls. “I was in my 50s, and I had no job. I thought, ‘If I don’t try to make a living doing something that I love now, when am I ever going to do it?’ I didn’t want to end this life without trying to be the person I feel like I was meant to be.”

Always an artist, but never professionally, she says BTS inspired her to start drawing again, with the boys as her muse. She’s now a full-time visual artist and often shares her BTS-related work online to show the friends she’s made through the fandom.

A pencil drawing of BTS member Park Ji-min (known as Jimin) by Christine Noels.

Christine Noels

Noels notes that within the K-pop industry specifically, parasocial relationships are seemingly encouraged because the level of fan access to most Korean superstars is different than in the West.

“I think that’s why K-pop has become such a huge thing, it feels very reciprocal,” Noels describes.

BTS, like many K-pop idols, maintain close relationships with their fanbase. The members will often host informal livestreams on social media to talk to their followers directly. At their concerts, they can spend up to 15 minutes humbly thanking fans for their continued support.

“There’s this increased loyalty on our side because we feel that,” she says. “They have encouraged me to be my best self. There’s more to BTS than just cute boys.”

Noels doesn’t see herself ever giving up BTS and says she will likely be a parasocial fan for a “very, very long time.”

Are parasocial relationships healthy?

The word “parasocial” is often conflated with obsession.

Many might think of fans with parasocial relationships as the creepy, stalker-type — or go so far as to think of violent superfan interactions like that of Mark Chapman, who fatally shot John Lennon in 1980.

In recent years, celebrities like rapper Doja Cat have made complaints about their parasocial admirers. In 2023, Doja told her fans, who call themselves “kittenz,” to “get a job.” In a since-deleted tweet, the rapper refused to say she loved her followers “because I don’t even know y’all.”

The comments hurt many in her core fanbase, who demanded an apology. Others sided with Doja and pointed to parasocial fans who invade privacy or artist safety.

But according to Mar, parasocial relationships are not innately pathological. Just like real-life relationships, they have nuance — one-sided connections can become toxic and obsessive, but they don’t always go that route.

There are, however, those who take things too far.

Julia, the Greta Van Fleet fan, says she has witnessed first-hand when the line between a healthy and an unhealthy parasocial relationship blurs.

In her Harry Styles Discord server, Julia says she had to shut down attempts by some fans to stalk Styles through London, U.K., last autumn. At the time, dozens of photographs emerged of the superstar riding a bicycle through the city. She says some of her server’s 12,000 fans were using the photos to map out Styles’ cycling route, in an attempt to find him along the way.

“That artist takes up their life and I don’t think that’s healthy at all,” Julia says of the other fans. “You have to do your own thing. You’ve got to go out, you’ve got to live your life. If you have this artist stuck in your mind 24/7, that’s not OK.”

Mar notes it’s possible for a parasocial relationship to become so obsessive that it leads to dangerous situations or difficulties in one’s personal life.

Social media, and with it, the constant access to a celebrities’ daily lives, can accelerate a fan’s feelings.

“In some cases, you might ‘hear’ from BTS more often than you hear from your own mother,” Mar describes.

The frenzied attention of obsessive fans is likely frightening for celebrities on the receiving end, like Styles, who had a fan send 8,000 letters to his home address in London, all in less than a month.

But for Luke MacNeill, a media and technology research associate from the University of New Brunswick, it’s important to distinguish this sort of frantic behaviour from a parasocial relationship. Stalking, and other invasive activities toward famous people, are often not a result of parasocial relationships directly.

Instead, it can be indicative of celebrity worship, which MacNeill defines as “a very intense psychological attachment to a celebrity.” Obsessive behaviour like stalking, he says, can be a sign of psychological or mental health issues.

MacNeill says celebrity worship is often associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety, lower life satisfaction and less positive emotions — traits not commonly indicative of parasocial relationships on their own.

“Parasocial relationships are a normal thing, and pretty much everybody has them,” MacNeill explains.

“It’s a matter of degree. Parasocial relationships are not necessarily good or bad.”

He pointed to research that found these one-sided attachments can provide people with a feeling of belonging, or even comfort after social rejection or the loss of a loved one.

But the results aren’t always so wholesome, especially when a parasocial relationship evolves into celebrity worship.

“At higher levels of celebrity worship, you can start thinking of the celebrity as a soulmate or having intrusive or uncontrollable thoughts about the celebrity,” MacNeill warns.

Those who worship a celebrity may also experience identity confusion as they attempt to emulate the characteristics of their favourite famous person. This can be especially dangerous for adolescents who are constructing their identities and are typically seeking role models, MacNeill says.

Emulating a celebrity isn’t necessarily a bad thing — although not every celebrity can be considered a good role model.

If a celebrity engages in drug use or risky sexual behaviours, MacNeill says some research ascertains their most dedicated fans are likely to as well. The same can be said for celebrities with pro-social behaviours.

On the flip side, it’s also possible to have a parasocial relationship with a celebrity you hate — and the interaction is hardly different from someone’s everyday experiences. Even hating Vanderpump Rules star Tom Sandoval can be considered parasocial.

“Just like in real life, you might have an annoying coworker that you have a relationship with — it’s just not necessarily a positive one,” MacNeill says.

Parasocial connections, Mar and MacNeill agree, are just as nuanced as someone’s “real” interpersonal relationships.

Sometimes it pays to be parasocial

It’s lucrative for a celebrity to have a fanbase of parasocial followers. These fans are already intensely interested in what’s on-offer and are therefore more likely to buy merchandise and event tickets.

But even fans can turn their parasocial interests into profit.

Flores, the Lady Gaga admirer, has earned thousands through his Instagram fan page.

For a period, Flores was making money creating Instagram Reels, which are short video clips under 60 seconds. He says he made between $4,000 and $5,500 through his posts.

Now, Flores offers a subscriber tier on his Instagram account. For 99 U.S. cents a month, his followers can receive exclusive content.

More than anything else, Flores sees his fan account as a form of non-monetary “payback” for the enjoyment he receives from Gaga and her Little Monsters.

“It’s all been about sharing that certain love with other fans,” he says. “No one’s forcing you to have a parasocial relationship with someone else. It’s your decision.”

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The concert boost: How top acts like Taylor Swift, Beyonce are driving economic growth

Is every superfan in a parasocial relationship?

Meghan Nolan really, really loves Taylor Swift but she doesn’t consider her relationship with the singer parasocial.

Nolan, 26, from Ottawa, Ont., says she first heard Swift’s music in 2007 while attending an all-girls summer camp. Since then, she’s seen Swift in concert six times and will be heading to Toronto to see the singer again during her upcoming Eras Tour this fall. She shelled out $336 for a ticket to see the tour in nearby Detroit and dropped $400 for the Toronto show.

Meghan Nolan, age 13, before attending Taylor Swift’s Fearless Tour in 2010.

Meghan Nolan

Nolan says she separates her relationship from the parasocial realm because she recognizes Swift as an artist and a celebrity, as well as an individual.

She’s critical of fans with parasocial relationships because she says they often see their favourite celebrity as a character rather than a real person. According to Nolan, these fans behave as if celebrities are “just there for their entertainment.”

In the case of Swift, Nolan characterises this as fans who pry too far into the singer’s personal life, like the people who lurk outside Swift’s New York apartment or hyper-analyze the star’s dating history.

“Some people just see her as like a character and not as a person,” Nolan says.

Rather than having a parasocial relationship with Swift, Nolan says she’s developed strong, lasting bonds with other fans in the community.

Role model or idol?

Some parasocial fans develop a one-sided bond with a celebrity they consider to be a role model.

Jorge Santana, a 21-year-old student from Los Angeles, Calif., says he has a “mild parasocial relationship” with Beyoncé, fuelled specifically by the release of her ballroom-inspired album, Renaissance.

Santana likes Beyoncé because “she’s inviting anyone to join her in her confidence,” he says.

Jorge Santana in silver glasses and a white cowboy hat with beaded fringe.

Jorge Santana before attending Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour on Sept. 1, 2023, in California.

Jorge Santana

As a self-identified perfectionist, Santana says he sees the same qualities in Beyoncé.

He also admits that since she is notoriously private, his parasocial relationship makes him especially curious about her day-to-day life.

Regardless, Santana does not consider his connection with her to be unhealthy, but says for others, it can be a slippery slope. He considers a parasocial relationship unhealthy when “you stalk for information” or think “excessively” about the other person.

While acknowledging that social media likely feeds his parasocial relationship by algorithmically serving him Beyoncé-related content, Santana says he enjoys the online community.

“I like that I just have a place to share a fandom with someone,” he says. “For example, my roommates, they like Beyoncé but if they hear me yap about Beyoncé all the time, they tell me to chill out.”

Through the insight and conversation with other fans, Santana says he is not only able to discuss Beyoncé, but also develop a deeper love and understanding of her artistry.

According to Mar, it’s not uncommon for people in parasocial relationships to share Santana’s perspective and attach themselves to a celebrity they believe they resemble.

“I know that you’re probably thinking, I don’t know too many people similar to Taylor Swift, but it’s a perceived similarity,” Mar explains, adding that these similarities likely encourage the growth of a parasocial relationship.

Still, it’s important for fans to be aware of when these one-sided feelings become overly involved or toxic if they step too far.

“Too much of anything can be a problem,” Mar says. “Carrots are not bad for you, but if you eat too many carrots, you will get sick.”

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