Blame it on the fame: The psychology of being ‘starstruck’
“We have an infatuation for famous. It’s gone global. It seems that, with the rise of fame generated through social media sites and TV, we all have this non-specific person, this idol, plonked on a pedestal, simply because they could be bothered to do something to get themselves out there…A lot of [celebrities are] known for their talent, work bloody hard for it, and that’s inspirational. That’s something to idolise – their drive and passion. But being starstruck because of somebody’s position or wealth or title – just think about it. Most of the people who would leave you starstruck will be everyday folk, just getting on with their thing, even if that’s earning £250,000 a week” (from ‘Starstruck, fame-obsessed and suckers for Hollywood culture’ by Bianca Chadda)
Regular readers of my blog will know that I have more than a passing interest in the psychology of fame. For instance, I have looked at many aspects of fame and celebrity including whether fame can be addictive, the role of celebrity endorsement in advertising, individuals that become sexually aroused by famous people (so-called celebriphilia), individuals that are obsessed with celebrity (i.e., celebrity worship syndrome), and whether celebrities are more prone to addictions than the general public, as well a speculative look at the psychology of various celebrities (including – amongst others – Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Adam Ant, Roland Orzabal, Salvador Dali and Allen Jones).
The reason I mention this is because a few days ago (December 11), I was interviewed by Georgey Spanswick on BBC radio about the psychology of being ‘starstruck’. The first thing that occurred to me was what ‘starstruck’ actually means. I knew what my own perception of the term meant but when I began to look into it there are many different definitions of ‘starstruck’ (some of which hyphenate the word), many of which did not match my own definition. Here are a selection which highlight that some of those differences:
- “Star-struck – fascinated or greatly impressed by famous people, especially those connected with the cinema or the theatre” (Oxford Dictionary).
- “Star-struck – feeling great or too much respect for famous or important people, especially famous actors or performers” (Cambridge Dictionary).
- “Starstruck – particularly taken with celebrities (as movie stars)” (Merriam Webster Dictionary).
- Starstruck – Fascinated by or exhibiting a fascination with famous people” (Free Dictionary).
- “Star-struck – a star-struck person admires famous people very much, especially film stars and entertainers” (Macmillan Dictionary).
- “Starstruck – when you meet someone you are very fond of, like a celebrity, movie star, etc. and you get completely overwhelmed, paralyzed and/or speechless by the experience” (Urban Dictionary).
Of all the definitions listed above, it is actually the final one from the online Urban Dictionary that most matches my own conception. In fact, an article by Ainehi Edoro on the Brittle Paper website provides a lay person’s view on being starstruck and how it can leave an individual:
“What does it mean to be starstruck? You meet a celebrity and you are struck by a force that freezes you, holds you captive. You can’t think, your eyes are glazed over, your heart is beating really fast, open or closed, your mouth is useless – it’s either not making any sound or spewing out pure nonsense. In a flash, it’s all over. The celebrity disappears. And you’re left with a sense of loss that turns into regret and, perhaps, embarrassment”.
However, as there is no academic research on the topic of being starstruck (at least not to my knowledge), the rest of this article is pure speculation and uses non-academic sources. The most in-depth (and by that I simply mean longest) article that I came across on why people get starstruck (i.e., being completely overwhelmed and speechless when in the company of a celebrity) was by Lior on the Say Why I Do website. The article claimed there were five reasons that may contribute to being starstruck. These are being (i) excited from a feeling of anticipation of meeting a celebrity, (ii) pumped up from the effort of wanting to impress a celebrity, (iii) excited from receiving undeserved attention from a celebrity, (iv) starstruck because that is how other people act around a celebrity, and (v) excited from overwhelming sexual tension towards a celebrity. More specifically:
Excited from a feeling of anticipation of meeting a celebrity: This simply relates to the anticipation that is felt after taking an interest in someone that the individual has admired and revered for years (i.e., they have become “idealized” and “bigger than life”). What will the celebrity really be like to the individual? Will they meet the expectations of the individual?
Pumped up from the effort of wanting to impress a celebrity: This relates to the fact that when meeting someone an individual admires (in this case a celebrity), the individual is trying to make the best impression they can and to put forward a persona that the individual would like the celebrity to perceive them as. This can be a situation that brings about a lot of pressure resulting in being starstruck.
Excited from receiving undeserved attention from a celebrity: This relates to the idea that the individual perceives the celebrity as somehow better (i.e., more successful, attractive, and/or talented than themselves) and that to even acknowledge the individual’s existence is somehow undeserved. The lower the self-esteem of such individuals, the more undeserved they feel by attention from a celebrity.
Starstruck because that is how other people act around a celebrity: This simply relates to the idea that individuals feel starstruck because everyone around them does (or they perceive that everyone else does). Similar situations arise when a crowd goes wild, screams, cries and faints when watching their favourite pop bands. As Lior’s article notes:
“Before Frank Sinatra became a celebrity, it wasn’t common at all to see screaming fans. In 1942, a publicity stunt was done to promote the 25-year old Sinatra, where they planted a number of girls in the audience who were told to scream and swoon when he stepped on stage. What began as a publicity stunt spread through the whole theatre to become a mass hysteria of screaming and fainting. It’s in human nature to copy behaviour around us”.
Excited from overwhelming sexual tension towards a celebrity: This relates to the idea that many celebrities are sexually attractive to individuals that admire and revere them. As Lior notes:
“When some people find someone good looking, they may start to behave in a way that’s quite similar to being star-struck. Star struckness from sexual tension may arise for several reasons. It may be a manifestation of embarrassment about having had fantasies about the person who is now standing in front of you. It may be that every time you look at that person, your thoughts go to places you can’t quite control and that makes you unable to think straight”.
If you are someone who thinks they might be starstruck if you met someone famous, there are various articles on the internet that provide tips on meeting famous people either out in public or within the confines of your job (see ‘Further reading’ below). I’ve been fortunate to meet many celebrities in my line of work with all the media work that I do but I always tell myself that celebrities are human beings just like you or I. I treat them as I would any other human being. No worse, no better. I’m friendly and I’m professional (at least I hope I am). I’ve yet to be starstruck although I’ve never met anyone famous that inspired me to get to where I wanted to get. There is a well known cliché that you should never meet your heroes but if David Bowie or Paul McCartney fancy coming round to my house for dinner I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be lost for words.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Chadda, B. (2013). Starstruck, fame-obsessed and suckers for Hollywood culture. Lots of Words, March 3. Located at: https://biancajchadda.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/starstruck-fame-obsessed-and-suckers-for-hollywood-culture/
Edora, A. (2012). Seven tips on how to avoid being starstruck. Brittle Paper. May 21. Located at: http://brittlepaper.com/2012/05/meet-celebrities-starstruck
Intern Like A Rock Star (2012). Starstruck: How to talk to celebrities you meet at work. January 2. Located at: http://www.internlikearockstar.com/2012/01/starstruck-how-to-talk-to-celebrities.html#sthash.JBtzCC9Y.dpbs
Lior (2011). Why do people get star struck? SayWhyIDo.com. February 7. Located at: http://www.saywhydoi.com/why-do-people-get-star-struck/
Fame in desire: A brief look at celebriphilia
In a previous blogs I have examined both Celebrity Worship Syndrome and whether fame can be addictive. Another behaviour allied to both of these is celebriphilia. There has been no scientific research on celebriphilia and I have only come across a few passing references to it in academic texts. In his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices, Dr Anil Aggrawal describes it as a sexual paraphilia where a “pathological desire to have sex with a celebrity”. The online Medical Dictionary is slightly different and defines celebriphilia as “an intense desire to have a romantic relationship with a celebrity” (and is therefore slightly different is the focus on this second definition is romance rather than sex, although there is an implicit assumption that having romantic relationship would involve sex). Finally, the only other definition that I have come across is in the online Nation Master encyclopedia that was a bit more padded out and claimed that:
“Celebriphilia is the sexual fetishism and obsession with sex with a celebrity or famous person. Celebriphiliacs may stalk these celebrities and either observe them for sexual pleasure voyeuristically or try and approach them and have sex with them. Some may simply masturbate to images of them”
Despite this more in-depth definition, it actually complicates matters as it brings in other behaviours such as voyeurism and stalking that are separate entities in and of themselves. As far as I can tell, the first reference to ‘celebriphilia’ appeared in an article written by journalists Benjamin Svetkey and Allison Hope Weiner for Entertainment Weekly. Their article was about Bonnie Lee Bakley, the wife of American actor Robert Blake (star of shows like Baretta and films such as In Cold Blood), who was shot in 2001 (May 4) while sitting outside a Los Angeles restaurant in Blake’s car. (Blake was eventually charged with his wife’s murder but was found not guilty. The murder remains officially unsolved although Bakley’s grown-up children from previous relationships took out a civil suit on Blake and was later found guilty of wrongful death).
The focus of the article by Svetkey and Weiner was Bakley’s celebriphilia and her ‘celebrity obsession’ (more specifically, her long-term history of pursuing relationships with celebrities). Bakley’s close friends all stated that her aim in life was to marry someone famous and all of her actions were geared around achieving this goal. Bakley was quoted as saying “being around celebrities makes you feel better than other people”. Her pursuing of celebrities began in 1990 when she became obsessed with wanting to marry rock ‘n’ roll singer Jerry Lee Lewis. She even moved to Memphis where Lewis was living, met him, and befriended Lewis’ sister as a way of getting closer to him. Bakley may have had a brief sexual relationship with Lewis, and in 1993 she gave birth to a daughter and claimed Lewis was the father (and even went as far as to name the baby Jeri Lee). Paternity tests later proved that Lewis was not the father of Bakley’s daughter. Following a move from Memphis to California, she continued her celebrity obsession by pursuing many different celebrities including actor Gary Busey, singer-songwriter and guitarist Chuck Berry, singer Frankie Valli, actor Robert De Niro, singer-songwriter Lou Christie, publisher Larry Flynt, entertainer Dean Martin, and musician Prince, before having a relationship with Marlon Brando’s son, Christian (following his release from prison in 1996).
It was in 1999, that Bakley met American actor Robert Blake while still dating Brando. She became pregnant again (telling both Blake and Brando that they were the father of the baby). She believed Brando was the father of the daughter she gave birth to (naming the child Christian Shannon Brando). However, later paternity tests showed it was Blake who was the father (and the baby was then re-named Rose). In November 2000, Bakley and Blake married (and Blake became Bakley’s tenth [!!!] husband). When I first read about Bakley’s attempts to have a relationship with someone famous, the first words that sprang to mind was ‘groupie’ and ‘stalker’. However, the article by Svetkey and Weiner specifically stated that:
“People who attempt to make themselves ”feel better” by romantically pursuing the famous [are] not groupies: Groupies are merely overzealous, oversexed fans. They’re not stalkers, either. Bakley’s relationship with Blake wasn’t imaginary…nor is she known to have ever threatened him with physical harm. And although her past was hardly squeaky-clean…she wasn’t simply a grifter. What Bakley pursued with meticulous and methodical precision wasn’t so much cash as cachet, the reflected glory of being with a star. Any star would do — even one like Blake, who hasn’t shone for the better part of a decade. Unlike stalkers and groupies, people like Bakley generally don’t develop crushes on the stars they pursue — it’s fame itself that flames their desires, regardless of whom it’s attached to. Sometimes they don’t even seem to like those they’re chasing. While Bakley was attempting a relationship with Blake, for instance, she was also apparently involved with Marlon Brando’s son Christian”.
Most of the famous people that she pursued most actively (i.e., Blake, Brando, Lewis) had careers that were on the wane. She chose people that wanted validation that they were still famous. Both Bakley and the ‘stars’ she chased appeared to be yearning validation, attention and wanting to be perceived as special. An American psychotherapist – Donald Fleming – was interviewed for the article by Svetkey and Weiner. He speculated about celebriphiles:
”Often these people have serious identity problems. They lack a centered sense of self. They’re usually people that have not developed any particular skills or abilities in life. They never developed out of their grandiose childhood wishes and fantasies to be important. The only way they can feel important or special or unique is through famous people being part of their life…People who follow stars often have the obsessive-compulsive trait. They can fool almost anybody. They become so acute at reading how to meet another person’s needs that they can pick up on their vulnerabilities and play them like a violin”.
Dr. David Giles who wrote one of the best books on the psychology of fame – Illusions of Immortality: A Psychology of Fame and Celebrity – explains the relationships that people have with celebrities as a parasocial interaction:
”One of the things about fame is how incredibly new it is to human experience. It started with mass communication, which is only about 100 years old. And the speed with which it’s developed – radio and then TV – has been astonishing. In an evolutionary sense, we may not have caught up with the phenomenon of fame as a species”.
Celebrity (and therefore celebriphilia) is as Dr. Giles would argue a completely modern, man-made phenomenon. In typical journalese, Svetkey and Weiner wrote that celebrity has “been injected into the cultural bloodstream like an untested drug – with a similar rush of disorienting results”. They also speculate about other people that display celebriphilia:
“Courtney Love may have once suffered a touch of it. (‘Become friends with Michael Stipe’, Kurt Cobain’s widow supposedly jotted in a journal years ago, mapping her road to fame)…And certainly Whitney Walton – known around Hollywood as the mysterious ‘Miranda’ – has something like it. She became infamous for charming her way into telephone friendships with Billy Joel, Warren Beatty, Quincy Jones, Richard Gere, and…other celebrities [including] Robert De Niro”.
As noted above, there has been no empirical research on celebriphilia unless you include the small amount of research on ‘celebrity stalking’ (although very few academics who have written on the topic use the word ‘celebriphilia’). However, there are a few exceptions. For instance, Dr. Brian Spitzberg and Dr. Michelle Cadiz wrote a paper on the media construction of stalking stereotypes and described one of the types as ‘stalking as celebriphilia’ in a 2002 issue of the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture (although the authors didn’t actually define what celebriphilia was in this context). In a 2006 book (Constructing Crime: Perspectives on Making News and Social Problems) edited by Dr. Victor Kappeler and Dr. Gary Potter, the authors briefly noted (in what seems a follow on from the paper by Spitzberg and Cadiz) that “media reports eventually moved away from a dominant image of stalkers as exclusively experiencing ‘celebriphilia’”.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Giles, D. (2000). Illusions of Immortality: A Psychology of Fame and Celebrity. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kappeler, V.E. & Gary W. Potter, G.W. (2006). Constructing Crime: Perspectives on Making News and Social Problems. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
King, G. (2011). Who murdered Bonny Lee Bakley? (part 7: Bony the celebriphiliac). Crime Library, Located at: http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/family/bakley/7.html
Medical Dictionary (2012). Celebriphilia. Located at: http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Celebriphilia
Nation Master (2012). Celebriphilia. Located at: http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Celebriphilia
Spitsberg, B.H. & Cadiz, M. (2002). The media construction of stalking stereotypes. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 9(3), 128-149.
Svetkey, B. & Weiner, A.H. (2001). Dangerous game. Entertainment Weekly, June 22. Located at: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,256019,00.html
Wiktionary (2012). Citations: Celebriphilia. Located at: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Citations:celebriphilia