Why You Feel Like You’re Friends With Your Favorite Celebrities

Parasocial relationships are mostly virtual, but the emotions attached to them can be very real.

09 February 2022, 6:02am
VICE K-Pop: Music, fandom, celebrity, and all things K-pop.

This month, VICE is doubling down on all things K-pop and Korean music, featuring articles and videos on music, fandom, and celebrity.

“Of all people, I could not imagine myself becoming a K-pop person,” said Trish Menchaca, a 27-year-old marketing professional from Manila, Philippines. 

Like many of the uninitiated into the multibillion-dollar K-pop industry, Menchaca had her reservations about South Korean pop culture. Why is it so popular? Why are the fans so into it? Now, she’s a proud member of boy group BTS’ fan base, ARMY. 

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“I’ve never been this much into artists before. This is the first time that I’m really invested.”

That K-pop has become the global phenomenon that it is today is driven largely by the commitment and intensity of its fan base. Idols constantly interact with fans online and offline, while fans are known for their very public displays of fandom (like customizing an airplane for their idols’ birthday).  

Those who aren’t quite moved by the catchy tunes might call the relationship K-pop fans have with their idols curious, but psychologists call it something else: parasocial relationships.

“Parasocial relationships occur when individuals who consider themselves fans or admirers of someone famous—like a celebrity, musician, or politician—invest interest, time, and even emotions for their idols,” explained John Felix, a clinical psychologist based in Manila.

Humans are social beings, so we have a natural need to form relationships with others. But why form relationships with people you don’t really know, or who don’t know you? 

Some research, Felix said, indicates that loneliness is a variable in forming parasocial relationships. That does not mean that all fans are lonely, but when people don’t get the closeness and connection they crave from those physically around them, many tend to  look elsewhere and develop those feelings within themselves. This may be why many people discovered K-pop during the pandemic, which forced the whole world into physical isolation. 

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Because BTS members share snippets of their daily lives in vlogs, live streams, and social media posts, Menchaca and other fans don’t always feel that their relationship with them is one-sided. 

“You feel like you know them, and you feel like they’re your actual friends, and that you both just root for each other,” Menchaca said.

Nadya Desita Siregar, a 25-year-old clinical psychology graduate student from West Java, Indonesia, stans the boy group WINNER, and says she’s taken along on both their ups and downs.

“When [our K-pop idols] achieve something, [fans] will also be proud of their achievements… I consider myself as a part of their success. However, I also feel I am emotionally affected in a negative way whenever my idols get rumored scandal issues or something bad regarding their health. Sometimes in response to those situations, I find myself feeling shocked, conflicted, sad, or angry,” Nadya said.

“When [our K-pop idols] achieve something, [fans] will also be proud of their achievements… I consider myself as a part of their success.”

So much so, she said, that being a fan sometimes takes a psychological toll on her. When she was first getting into K-pop, she said, she would sometimes feel sad and not “worthy enough” to be called a fan when she did things for her idols that they didn’t seem to notice. Now, she and her fellow psychology students run Fanpsy, an educational platform that strives to create a safe space for people to share and learn ways to “be a healthy fan.” 

Felix, the psychologist, explained that seeing so much of their idols’ daily lives makes fans feel as if their idols are sharing their lives the way a real friend would, in turn making the fans feel more connected to the celebrities.

A fan of K-pop boy band NCT swapping collectable cards featuring images of the band members. Photo: ANTHONY WALLACE, AFP

“I was surprised with the amount of content BTS has—from reality TV shows to documentaries and behind-the-scenes clips of their videos. Together with their social media presence in VLive, Weverse, Twitter, Instagram, etc., I feel that I know them personally and that makes me emotionally connected with them. I feel like I know when they are happy or when they are sad,” said Mitzi Cañafranca, a 44-year-old fan from Manila. 

Cañafranca first got into K-pop at the suggestion of her niece and nephew. She’s since become a full-fledged fan, and even flew to Los Angeles last year to watch BTS live

It’s difficult to deny the quality of South Korean production, but the sheer amount of content is something else altogether. K-pop idols are known to constantly and actively interact with their fan bases. For example, ahead of the college entrance exam in South Korea, BTS sent test takers a good luck message through a video.

Giving fans casual and constant peeks into their lives are just some of the ways idols can “reciprocate” fans for their time and energy, Felix said. Other ways include showing intimacy during live meetups, speaking words of affirmation (saying they love their fans or that the fans are their source of strength), and doing what might be called acts of service (like answering fan questions and doing dares).

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It can be a slippery slope, he added, as parasocial relationships can progress through three stages: entertainment-social, intense-personal, and borderline-pathological. The first is when the relationship exists only for entertainment purposes, the second is when fans begin to form emotions for their idols, and the third is when fans over-identify with them.

There’s nothing to worry about in the first stage, said Felix, but fans may eventually become too emotionally invested in their idols and forget that these celebrities sometimes do the things they do as part of their jobs. Fans run the risk of becoming obsessed with their idols and unable to differentiate reality from fantasy. The feelings of attachment can become so real that they may suffer from feelings of loss and betrayal when their idols do things that they don’t particularly like, or that break the illusion of their relationship. 

“There are stories from people that I know who wanted their idols to notice them or validate them, which eventually drove them to commit crimes, like fraud or identity theft. There are also possibilities of getting involved in conflict with other fans on social media, due to differences of opinions or perspectives. News about people getting canceled or doxxed are not new-news in the fandom,” Nadya said.

Felix offered a piece of advice: “If your idols inspire you, make you happy and be a better person, then great. However, you must keep in mind that if your interest in them gets in the way of living your life productively, then you can consider it a red flag.”

“If your idols inspire you, make you happy and be a better person, then great. However, you must keep in mind that if your interest in them gets in the way of living your life productively, then you can consider it a red flag.”

Fans like Menchaca, Nadya, and Cañafranca understand that their relationships with their idols are one-sided—that while they feel they know their idols, their idols ultimately don’t know them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the relationships are shallow.

“Parasocial relationships are definitely meaningful. In a way, I think what made me stay and become this invested is because of the impact that [BTS] had on my own life,” said Menchaca. 

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She used to listen to a lot of indie and underground music, she explained, so K-pop wasn’t even really her “kind of sound.” But things changed when she started reading the translations of BTS’ Korean lyrics.

“I was just so impressed by the things that they were saying,” said Menchaca. “The themes are really comforting stuff that I think, with people our age, everyone goes through… learning how to love yourself, starting all over again, or talking about how society always expects us to study, study, study, but there are other things in life.” 

It also helped, Menchaca said, that she’s around the same age as the members of BTS, so it felt to her that they were going through the same things. 

Nadya, the psychology graduate student, said that K-pop, as well as the parasocial relationships born from it, helped her manage her emotions and cope with daily life. Idols also act as “role models” on how “to behave in our society.” For example, members of WINNER are seen as creative and hardworking, yet still humble—inspiring her to be the same way.

The way K-pop idols behave can lead to very real positive effects in fans’ lives. 

Menchaca admires how her idols work hard and always try their best. “They never half-ass anything, and you kind of want to be like that, too. It rubs off on you,” she said. 

Cañafranca said that BTS inspired her to get back into painting and journaling. She’s also been reading books the group’s members have read. 

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More than their connection to the celebrities, however, it’s the friendships they’ve formed with fellow fans that many value most. 

“I must say that what I value more after being in this fandom is the relationships I have developed with fellow fans, and the deeper connection I have cultivated with existing friends who I realized are also fellow fans. It is amazing that I share this with my niece and nephew as well,” said Cañafranca. 

“I must say that what I value more after being in this fandom is the relationships I have developed with fellow fans, and the deeper connection I have cultivated with existing friends who I realized are also fellow fans.”

“The bonding process could be built even through the internet and it made me feel less lonely because we have people we talk to, feel like having other people who have, acknowledge, and relate to the same hobby,” Nadya said. 

The fandom has become a safe space for Menchaca, too—a place to connect with others over shared interests and values.

“It’s hard to explain my own experience unless it kind of happens to you, too,” she said. “It’s just so wholesome—we just support people that we respect and are super inspired by.”

Follow Romano Santos on Instagram

Tagged:

South Korea, POP CULTURE, Asia, VICE K-Pop , BTS, psychology, parasocial relationship

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