Our captivation with some celebrities just about makes sense. You don’t have to share the fascination with people who make no material impact on our lives to understand it. We live in and are parts of a culture that places great value on people who appear regularly in our media and who engage us in a way most of us find agreeable, if not totally spellbinding.
But figure this out: shopping at my local Aldi recently, I noticed a crowd gathering around a young woman who looked like Kate Middleton. On closer inspection, it wasn’t Kate (at Aldi?) and when she spoke in a Brummie accent, everybody within earshot knew. But she certainly looked like her, at least in a superficial way; she had a bump, and, while she wasn’t dressed in Alexander McQueen and LK Bennett, her overall style was reminiscent of the real Kate’s.
Initially, I wondered if the shoppers gathered around her realized this wasn’t Kate Middleton, but just someone who resembled her and probably made a living impersonating her. Of course. They must have. But then why did they hustle her for photos on their smartphones and ask her for autographs on those Bargains of the Week leaflets Aldi produces? (“Make it out to Sarah and sign it ‘Kate’, will you?) We’re not only fascinated with celebrities, but with people who look like celebrities.
In the 1950s, two American psychologists introduced the term parasocial relationships. Television was then in its infancy and viewers were forming unusual attachments. They were developing “friendships” with tv characters, some fictional and others real (like chat show hosts, or weather presenters). They also cultivated a “hated” towards some of them. Familiarity led to a sense of intimacy. Viewers actually felt they knew the figures they saw on their screens. They interacted with them parasocially. The relationships were and still are strictly one-way.
It’s called parasocial because para means beyond, as in paranormal. The viewer’s attachment might only have been as strong as a beam of light from a cathode ray tube. Yet it was experienced as strong and meaningful. It’s an old idea but it’s still relevant and helps explain why, for example, Lady Gaga’s 39 million twitter followers feel they have their own special relationship with Stef. Practically all of us have parasocial realtionships; they are unavoidable. Just reading a newspaper or listening to the radio involves us in learning about the adventures of Kerry Katona or Nigella Lawson. But trying to comprehend the relationship, not with celebrities, but with people who just look like celebrities is bewildering.
And before you dismiss my Kate@Aldi moment as a one-off episode, consider the plight of Xenna Kristian who has the looks and voice that allow her to perform as a Taylor Swift lookalike. In May, she was beaten up by people who, it seemed, just didn’t like Taylor Swift or the way she looked.
The chances of meeting a celebrity who arouses strong emotions, ranging from loving to loathing, in us are remote. For the most part our parasocial relationships remain distant and remote. Sofia Coppola’s new film The Bling Ring is about a group of Californian teenagers, who in 2008 and 2009 burgled the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and other celebs not so much to steal their jewellery and clothes (though they did do this), but to be that bit closer to them. Obviously, most of us don’t resort to such extreme measures, but we share longing to lessen the distance between us and them.
So when we see someone who might be a celebrity, we get excited. It’s a short-lived excitement, of course: it probably lasts a few seconds before we realize that it’s just somebody who looks like a celebrity. That in itself is enough though. By some weird alchemy, we remind ourselves this is an imposter, then, almost instantly, move towards them with an interrogatory impulse, “So what?” They become an inviting blank slate on which we write our own fantasies. Most are benign, like the photos and autographs; some are malicious, as Xenna/Taylor reminds us. We blur the characters in kaleidoscopic patterns so that their real identity doesn’t make too much difference. Celebrity culture gets no crazier than this.
When you think about it, celebrities are not real people, anyway. They are largely products of our imaginations, so we can make them do or say as we wish. The “real person” has become immaterial. In fact, the “real” anything has become immaterial. If I’d waited in Aldi long enough, I’d have come across a shopper carrying a bag that closely resembles a Hermès or Louis Vuitton number, but which is knockoff. Everyone knows. And no one thinks it’s the genuine article any more than they believe a tribute artist or band is the real thing. They’re simulacra – representations of something or someone. We’re savvy enough to know this and still not care. Same with celebrities: it doesn’t matter if “Kate” isn’t the Kate: she’s close enough – the rest we can trust to our phones, our signed leaflets and our imaginations.