With great celebrity power comes great power to disappoint.
Blame it on Americans’ deep, abiding parasocial relationships with famous people, but feeling let down by celebrities has become an integral part of fan culture.
Earlier this summer, Swifties were majorly disappointed when Taylor Swift started dating Matty Healy, the 1975 frontman who’d made bigoted, internet edgelord-esque remarks in the past. A subset of fans launched an online campaign called #SpeakUpNow, accusing Swift of “perpetuat[ing] hatred and contribut[ing] to systemic oppression undermin[ing] the progress that was made towards equality and understanding” ― just by dating Healy.
Ariana Grande fans ― Arianators ― were equally disappointed last month, when news got out that the singer was romantically involved with her “Wicked” co-star Ethan Slater. Reports surfaced that the “Thank U, Next” singer began dating Slate amid breakups: fans were quick to notice that there seemed to be some overlap between the end of their respective marriages and pointed out that Slate just had a baby with his estranged wife in August 2022. (“How are y’all after what’s happened with Ariana this week?” one fan wrote during the eye of the gossip storm on r/ariheads, a fan forum that’s still full of discussions about whether Arianators should continue to support or divest in the pop star.)
And now, Lizzo has legions of disappointed fans: The “Truth Hurts” singer ― who’s become something of body-positive icon due to her self-empowerment anthems and embrace of her own weight ― was sued by two dancers earlier this month after allegedly weight-shaming them and creating a hostile work environment. After releasing a statement that some fans found “deflecting” and “a whole bunch of nothing,” the singer lost over 150,000 followers on Instagram.
It’s like “never meet your heroes” but more like, “never meet your heroes’ personal lives.”
“When a friend engages in a behavior that violates our expectations, it can create confusion and distress. It might cause us to reevaluate said relationship. We do that with celebrities, too.”
– Bradley J. Bond, a communications professor at the University of San Diego
Experts say communal disappointment is now part and parcel of the parasocial relationships we hear about all the time these days.
Coined in the 1950s by social scientists to describe an interesting phenomenon occurring among the increasingly TV-obsessed American public, parasocial relationships, or PSRs, are one-sided relationships formed when a person becomes emotionally attached to a media persona. As they described it, the viewer might even feel like they could be friends with the TV personality.
Parasocial relationships are arguably more common today because of the level of access modern celebrities give their fan bases on social media. (Albeit carefully curated access that’s always on brand.)
While interest in their private life from total strangers is no doubt pesky at times (or all the time, if you’re Doja Cat), celebrities’ often benefit financially and commercially from these strong fan relations. (Taylor Swift, worth an estimated $740 million, has been called a “genius” at cultivating parasocial relationships.)
Given that our parasocial relationships mimic our real-life relationships in many ways, it’s no surprise that audiences would feel disillusioned by a celebrity who lets them down, said Bradley J. Bond, a communications professor at the University of San Diego whose research examines the development and maintenance of parasocial relationships among media persona.
“When a friend engages in a behavior that violates our expectations, it can create confusion and distress. It might cause us to reevaluate said relationship,” he said.
We do this with celebrities, too, “when a celebrity acts in a way that does not fit our perception of their character ― or violates our expectations,” Bond said.
For instance, the fat positivity Lizzo often spoke about and came to represent feels hollow if it’s true that she fat-shamed her own employees. (It should be said that Lizzo has had her own misgivings about the body-positivity movement.)
Before you assume it’s only women who feel let down by their idols, consider how disappointed (and confused) Tom Brady fans were over his 11-day absence from training camp with the Buccaneers last year. (Or how Patriots fans called him called him a “traitor” after he ignored the team in a 962-word retirement statement.)
Or think of how confused Tiger Woods’ fans were when his private life was revealed to be far more chaotic than his cool, calm, perfectionist persona on the golf course. (During his 2009 cheating scandal, Woods lost a plethora of sponsorships, not to mention followers.)
Or how Kanye West’s largely male fan base temporarily turned the top Kanye subreddit into a Holocaust education center and Taylor Swift fan page after he went on a number of antisemitic rants last year.
Sports — rather than entertainment — fandom may give us a better vehicle to study disappointment as a group phenomenon, according to Lynn Zubernis, a psychologist and professor at West Chester University who researches fan psychology.
“We all bathe in reflected glory when our football team is at the top of the charts, and that feels really good,” she told HuffPost. “Conversely, when our team (or favorite show or singer) doesn’t perform well, is cancelled or does something disappointing, we feel really bad.”
Some research has suggested that the most fixated sports fans experience spikes in testosterone levels when their team wins, Zubernis noted.
When a celebrity does disappointing things ― like Deflategate or infidelity ― “that good feeling we get from being part of their group of fans on the internet is diminished, which feels bad in a very real way,” she said.
The more highly identified a fan is, the stronger their psychological connection, the greater the emotional reactions, Zubernis said. “There’s a feeling of vicarious achievement when the celebrity is ‘winning’ and a crushing feeling of disappointment when they’re not,” she explained.
Criticism can be an act of love, too. “I want so-and-so to be better” is a common refrain after a celebrity fouls up.
Some cultural critics have suggested that hate and love exist on a spectrum in fan culture. Being an anti-fan is still being a fan and keeping the conversation going, as we see with the Kardashians’ following. Commiserating with your former fellow fans on subreddits and TikTok is still engaging with the celebrity.
Kate S. Kurtin, a professor of communication studies at California State University, Los Angeles who studies PSRs, thinks fans expressing their collective disappointment is also probably related to the cultural adoption of cancel culture and a willingness to cut people out.
“I think as a society we are much less forgiving of unforgivable behaviors,” she said. “For example, when Kanye made those antisemitic comments, Adidas cut him off quickly. I think decades ago, his behavior would have been rationalized away.”
Plus, she said, “the mediated world is so incredibly saturated that if you don’t like what one celebrity is saying, you can just move to another one. We are no longer living in a world where there is just one ‘king of pop.’” (Speaking of which, the parasocial relationship fans still have with Michael Jackson, the late “king of pop,” could fill a book.)
When does feeling disappointed by a celebrity become unhealthy?
Being invested in celebrities’ lives may be normal enough behavior, but how do you ensure you’re not too caught up and or disillusioned by what they do? (Besides going outside and touching grass or strictly being fans of people like Mandy Patinkin or Dolly Parton?)
“I don’t think pulling away from the fandom community is necessary, but I do think that we can all keep in mind both the healthy things we gain from fandom and the risks of losing perspective with unrealistic expectations,” Zubernis said. “I’d say it’s not healthy if this sort of disappointment is interfering with your mental health or everyday life.”
While being a fan can be a significant and healthy part of a person’s identity ― really! ― Zubernis said it’s better to focus on the community aspect of fandom when it comes to finding identity and support. While the relationships you have with celebrities aren’t reciprocal, the friendships forged with fellow fans are, the psychologist said.
“Sharing the joy of a new song or experiencing a concert together is part of what makes being a fan rewarding and healthy,” she said. “Fall back on those mutually supportive relationships when the inevitable disappointments happen and weather them together.”
Lastly, don’t set yourself up for disappointment by forgetting that celebrities are human. (They’re modern-day idols with feet of clay ― and really well maintained public personas and social media profiles.)
“Appreciate their good qualities and allow yourself to be inspired by those, but also expect imperfection and disappointment from time to time,” Zubernis said.
On X (formerly known as Twitter), one woman, @dianelyssa, may have summed this point up best while reflecting on what’s happening with Lizzo.
“Representation matters but I also think that we’ve created an environment where we feel entitled to have folks live a certain way in order to validate us,” she wrote. “Don’t rely on external validation. You will always be left disappointed, because others don’t live for you.”