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When Hugh Jackman and his wife of 27 years, Deborra-Lee Furness, announced their divorce last week, did you shed a tear? Was your understanding of love suddenly tipped on its axis? Did you have strong reactions to the news Kylie Jenner was dating Timothee Chalamet? Or maybe you freaked at the rumours of Taylor Swift and Matty Healy?
If your answer is yes then you, my friend, are in a parasocial relationship. But before you panic, know that you’re far from alone. Most people with a social media account and at least a vague interest in celebrity culture are guilty of falling victim to the parasocial trap, though not everyone is conscious of it. So, what exactly is the parasocial phenomenon, and should we try to break out of it?
Parasocial relationships are all around us, but are they healthy?Credit: Compiled by Nathan Perri
A para… what?
Parasocial relationships are best described as one-sided, usually involving an everyday person and a celebrity. In fact, they are so one-sided that one party doesn’t even know about the existence of the person obsessed with them. The everyday person will express adoration and support for the star, adopting an assumed intimacy even though they’ve likely never crossed paths.
Many people invest unrequited emotional energy into things like sports teams and brands, but the most common type of parasocial relationship is between an average fan and a movie star, television celebrity, musician, author or even podcast host.
Why does that sound familiar?
These relationships have become almost inescapable. Everywhere you look, A-listers are offering seemingly exclusive insight into their private lives by posting online and fans are naturally lapping it up.
Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner.Credit: Invision
A week before Jackman announced his divorce, singer Joe Jonas and Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner announced their split, sparking disbelief among fans which transformed into debates over the quality of Turner’s motherhood. These speculative conversations were initiated by people the pair couldn’t pick out of a line-up – anonymous fans intent on getting to the crux of their favourite couple’s demise.
A wave of celebrity separations preceded this, including between Reese Witherspoon and Jim Toth, Taylor Swift and Joe Alwyn, Sofía Vergara and Joe Manganiello, and Ariana Grande and Dalton Gomez. The end of these relationships seemed to hurt fans as much as it would if their sibling had their heart broken because of the assumed intimacy established by watching the celebrity’s endless stream of Instagram stories or analysing their heartfelt love songs.
However, these attachments can also create a sense of entitlement, whereby fans feel they deserve to know everything about a celebrity’s personal life, or to have a say in their decisions.
The confirmation of Timothée Chalamet’s relationship with Kylie Jenner sent social media into a frenzy, with some fans refusing to believe a reality TV socialite and Oscar-nominated actor – two seemingly juxtaposing public figures – could actually be dating. Fans questioned how much they really knew their favourite star’s authentic self. Was their (parasocial) relationship a lie?
“If you’re feeling distressed by the video, it’s ok. But please take care of yourself. Step away from social media for a couple of days,” a Chalamet fan wrote on Instagram after the actor was photographed kissing Jenner in public.
Kylie Jenner and Timothée Chalamet were spotted together at the US Open this month, which upset many Chalamet fans.Credit: Getty Images North America
The same happened when Olivia Wilde began dating Harry Styles in 2022 and when Taylor Swift dated The 1975’s Matty Healy. Swifties were so enraged with this supposedly misaligned pairing that they launched a campaign, #SpeakUpNow, which implicitly demanded Swift end things with Healy.
How did we get here?
Some academics have argued that the first parasocial relationships track back to Ancient Egypt, citing religious worship of pharaohs and deities like Amon as examples. However, most parasocial relationships today involve tangible, living people rather than idols. These attachments have arguably intensified over time, as exposure to a celebrity’s personal life increases – whether through television, podcasts or tabloids.
But nothing has strengthened parasocial bonds more than social media. While seeing a celebrity in a press junket or quoted in a magazine feels like a glimpse into their inner-workings, they remain a form of controlled exposure. A TikTok account, on the other hand, seems far more unedited and authentic, sharing the minutiae of a celebrity’s life alongside posts from your friends or everyday people. The line between genuine and fabricated connection becomes blurred.
Alongside social media came the birth of “stan culture”, which is an extreme form of fandom whose members ardently support a celebrity by frequently engaging in online communities, writing fan-fiction and creating fan art.
Stan culture flourished during the pandemic, when people sought comfort in what celebrities would post while they isolated at home. Watching Courtney Cox play with face filters or Jessica Alba dance with her daughter offered comedic relief during a trying time and made you feel as if you were part of their sacred inner circle.
But this dedication can merge into blind support, such as fans supporting a celebrity who has been sentenced for a crime, or fans vilifying others for opposing their chosen star in any way.
For example, the demonisation of Amber Heard by Johnny Depp supporters during the Depp vs Heard trial last year was described by The New York Times as contributing towards the “death of #MeToo”.
Help! How do I end my parasocial relationship?
Every relationship needs boundaries.
Celebrities are paid hefty amounts to be in the spotlight, but they still deserve a modicum of privacy and total agency over their personal relationships and actions.
Doja Cat alienated certain fans after admitting she does not love them because she doesn’t know them.Credit: Getty
When these boundaries aren’t respected, celebrities end up shattering the parasocial illusion themselves, which can ultimately alienate fans. Doja Cat’s fan base, who refer to themselves as “Kittenz”, were left adrift in July when their idol told them to delete their fan accounts and “get a job” instead.
“I don’t [love you] though cuz I don’t even know y’all,” she wrote on Threads after a fan asked her to tell them she loved them.
Several fan accounts were subsequently deleted and an open letter was posted to X (formerly Twitter), reminding the rapper her fans had been to “hell and back” supporting her through multiple scandals, including a resurfaced video from 2020 of her using homophobic and racist slurs alongside self-labelled “incels” during a TinyChat video room.
If you find yourself getting a bit too invested in a celebrity’s life, the general rules of healthy social media practices apply. Try a detox – temporarily block the celebrity from all socials for a few weeks. Once you’ve unblocked them, don’t message them. Try to distinguish the art from the artist and remind yourself what drew you to them in the first place.
Notably, stan culture or fandoms in general can help people form meaningful connections with others who share similar interests and values. They’re also vital for the entertainment industry – the more fans cherish stars, the more likely it is the celebrity will snatch lucrative brand deals or movie roles.
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