Notes on fandom

or how to be the perfect fan

if that's even possible

by Anne Sharp

My story

When I was a little girl I saw a very famous old movie starring an actor named Kreepy Karl (not his real name.) Like millions of other people who've seen this famous film over the years, I was thrilled, enthralled and moved beyond words by Karl's masterful performance, and like any normal little girl responded by falling deeply in love with him. Under normal circumstances little girl crushes fade away with time, but that's not how it happened with me. I saw more of Kreepy Karl's movies, and the more I saw of him, and the more I read about his distinguished career (which was over by then, as he'd died some years previously) the more I found to admire about him, and the more I found myself doting on him in each new film of his that I managed to see (these were the days before home video, when the only way you could see a movie was if they showed it on TV or in a theater, so there was the added dimension of rarity and absence making the heart grow fonder.)

But though I enjoyed Kreepy Karl and his work so much, I found it impossible to enjoy being a fan of his. When I told people about my interest in him, they were shocked and either laughed it off or made fun of me. I soon learned just not to talk about him with anyone. Everybody thought that Kreepy Karl was weird, just like the characters he played in the old movies, and people who liked him were sick in the head. Not only didn't I want people to think I was sick in the head, I was scared to death that I might be sick myself, and that my love for Kreepy Karl was a symptom of that sickness. So I kept my feelings secret, but I couldn't resist sneaking a peek at my beloved Karl whenever he was on TV, when there was nobody else around to watch me watching him. Like any secret love, it was more exciting because it was secret, but it also made me feel a sickening shame.

Meanwhile in the normal course of things I grew up and began having boyfriends and having sex, even getting married once. My husband loved old movies and not only did he accept my love for Kreepy Karl without seeing anything weird about it, he actively encouraged me to see as many of Karl's films as I liked--home video had happened and it was getting easier and easier to find even his more obscure pieces--and to even buy posters and other memorabilia. The marriage didn't last, but my newfound ability to love Karl proudly continued. The World Wide Web was just taking off in a big way around that time, and literally the first thing I searched for when I got on a search engine was Kreepy Karl! I didn't find much, unfortunately, but I was encouraged by all the fansites I found for other stars to try making one of my own, just for Karl. Immediately I started hearing from other fans of Kreepy Karl. "You like him too? I thought I was the only one!" Somebody started a discussion mailing list for Karl's fans. I wasn't expecting it to get much response, and I prepared myself to encounter some potentially creepy people. To my amazement the fan list exploded with activity, and the people on it turned out to be really nice. Really smart, talented, funny, amazing people, just like Karl!  We started researching Karl's life and career and shared what we found with each other. We exchanged pictures we found of Karl and lent each other tapes of his films (DVDs would be arriving shortly, bringing a whole raft of previously unreleased Karl titles.) We wrote fanfics, sometimes in collaboration. Some built their own websites to showcase their own Karl-related work. One of these attracted the attention of someone associated with Karl's estate. This person, Gary the Genius (not his real name), thought what my friend had posted on her website was disgusting and disrespectful of Karl and made a big stink about it.  My friend, Amy the Artist, was shocked and offended by his aggressive, rude response to her work, which, to be honest, was pretty mild compared to quite a lot of fan art that's out there. But Gary didn't know that and he didn't care, so he continued making a stink. And Amy, who decided she wasn't going to let Gary or anyone tell her what she could or couldn't post on the Internet, especially when it was ridiculously inoffensive as fan art went, made a stink right back at Gary.  I won't tell you the details of this boring and disgusting conflict, except that I sided with Amy, and Gary aimed his stink directly at me. And never let up. To this very day.

I have no claim to the moral high ground in this now multi-decade-long war between the Kreepy Karl fans and these individuals associated with the Kreepy Karl estate. I don't think anybody connected with it has behaved themselves very well. The one thing I can say for myself is that I have tried in good faith to make amends for my own actions and try to negotiate peace with Gary and his associates, and that they have not only refused but gleefully pursued new opportunities to make my life in Kreepy Karl fandom as difficult and noxious as they can. And that's the way it is right now, and maybe forever.

Through all this, I've found that I still love Kreepy Karl. I'm glad I was able to come out of the closet about being a fan of his, and to do my part towards a world where Kreepy Karl fans and in fact all fans of all artists and entertainers can enjoy themselves and share their fandom with others without shame or fear of retribution from bullies who try to put them in the wrong for what is a very natural affection towards the public icons in our lives. Anyway, based on my long experience and hard-won insights, here are some notes on how to be the perfect fan, if that's even possible.

Be considerate to your star

Theater people talk about the "fourth wall," the invisible barrier between the audience and the performer. A lot of what went on in twentieth century performance had to do with breaking the fourth wall. Performers went out into the audience, audience members were invited up on stage, and theaters themselves were redesigned so that audiences and performers could interact in new and more intimate ways. Environmental theater pieces, in which audiences would follow actors from room to room in a real building and watch them play scenes as though they were witnessing real events playing out in real time, have completely changed our concept of what performance is and can be all about. Add the extra dimension of mass media, where radio and video and the Internet have brought performers right into our private living space, and it's very easy to lose track completely of that "fourth wall" and imagine performers as being an actual part of our lives, in the same way as family, friends, coworkers, or anybody we see or interact with in our normal routine. But of course they're not.

A friend of mine once saw Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees at some sort of meet and greet event and said that his instinctive reaction on seeing him was to wait for Mickey to recognize him. "He'd been in my living room so many times," my friend said.  I myself had that experience once with Tim Curry, when he was touring to promote one of the pop albums he recorded after "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" first became an enormous cult hit. A bunch of us young idiots were hanging around outside his trailer and screamed and cheered as he came out and walked through the crowd to get to the stage door. I looked up in that familiar face and was, yes, shocked to see that my face didn't register with him, and then suddenly felt very stupid about the way I was acting. Here was a hard-working actor, smiling and trying to look pleasant and friendly as a bunch of silly kids play-acted Beatlemania around him for their own amusement. And at that moment I gained a new respect for this man. He was a professional, a master craftsman who knew that this was just part of the show. How did he feel about that? He wasn't about to show us, and it didn't matter anyway, because what he was there to do was to give us an awesome show, and that's exactly what he did after he got into the theater, made his preparations, and made his entrance onto the stage.

From a purely economic standpoint, performers are providing a service, and audiences are their clients. Our role is to pay for our ticket, take our seats, watch the show, and then go the hell away when it's over. When we loiter around the stage door, that's when we become fans, and that's where our relationship with the performer becomes problematic. What are we there for? How is the performer supposed to deal with our presence? The custom of autograph signing came about as a way of negotiating this awkward intersection of the urge of the fan to get a little more of that irresistible presence the performer has to offer, and the performer's obligation to make nice with the people who make up his* paying audience. But then you have the problem of celebrities being bothered by having to meet and greet random people when they're not really prepared or in the mood or have the time or patience to do it, which is why public relations planners came up with the idea of making autographings into special authorized events that take place under controlled, preplanned circumstances, usually directly after a performance or at a scheduled promotional public appearance. This is really the only time in which a fan should make any attempt to break the fourth wall. It's when your favorite is ready, willing, and able to make eye contact with you, register your presence, and give you that one on one attention that we naturally crave from people we care about. My advice is to make the most of it, in the following ways:

1) Make it quick. Remember this is a person who is very busy. Thirty seconds to him is what thirty minutes might be to you. Besides, someone else is waiting to get his attention. Be considerate of other fans and let them have their turn.

2) If you have something to say to him, make it short and sweet. It doesn't have to be brilliant. Just let him know you're aware of how wonderful he is. That's what he really needs to hear, and no matter how many times he's heard it before he needs to hear it again.

3) If you really want to have your favorite autograph something for you, make it only one special thing. If the favorite is promoting a book or a recording of some kind, buy a copy and have him sign that. If you've just seen his show, have him sign the program or your ticket stub or a souvenir of the performance you bought in the theater. What this says to him is, "I paid hard money to enjoy your work, and I want to remember this time that I was REALLY HERE WITH YOU." That will compensate for your selfishness in making him do the tiresome, hand-crippling work of having to sign yet another autograph.  But if you feel you really need that signature, this is the time to do it.

Outside of this, respect the fourth wall and you can't go wrong.

Share with other fans

Play nicely with others. Don't pick fights with other fans and don't let them pick fights with you. If someone's particularly nasty to you, ignore, ignore, ignore. If they won't go away, report them to a third party who has the ability to stop them. If that doesn't work, try another third party. If circumstances make it appropriate for you to go to a lawyer, a police clerk, or the FBI, do it. Don't put up with anybody's nonsense. You have a right to enjoy your fandom in comfort and peace. As for yourself, mind your manners, avoid stepping on toes, and don't allow little missteps and misunderstandings to escalate.

Take the opportunity to check out fan communities. There are good ones and bad ones, and even the good ones can be improved by your positive participation. Exchange pictures, facts, ideas about your favorite freely and generously, and take time to look at what others have to share.

My hero in fandom is Forrest J. Ackerman, who taught my generation of kids about classic horror, science fiction and fantasy films with his magazine "Famous Monsters." He lived in a house near Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles that he furnished with the priceless memorabilia he collected and preserved, and kept open house for fans who made an appointment for a personal guided tour of "the Ackermansion." Some people took advantage of the opportunity to steal things from Forry--he kept on giving tours. And his collection grew, until he got into a nasty legal wrangle that forced him finally to sell it off--well, these things happen in fandoms, unfortunately.

Support your favorite in meaningful ways

The most meaningful support you can give your favorite involves cash or credit. When you buy a ticket to a performance or pay for an authorized recording or book or memorabilia, you're putting money in his pocket that enables him to keep on performing for you. You don't have to go broke spending your whole paycheck on your fandom, of course. Do it in moderation. But don't be a cheapo chiseler.

If someone says something nasty or wrong about your favorite, correct them in a respectful and reasonable way. Don't fight. But don't let it go by either. Take whatever opportunities come your way to tell others how wonderful your favorite is, recommend his best work and educate them in the specifics of why he's worthy of their attention.

While you should feel free to say what you want to say in a public forum without self-censorship, keep the feelings of others in mind, including those of your favorite and the people in his life. Don't say anything you wouldn't be comfortable with your favorite seeing. You honestly never know whether or not he might. Don't assume that your favorite has developed a thick skin and doesn't care or isn't sensitive to what others say about him. The singer Morrissey was so offended by fans that criticized his work that he had the webmaster of one of those critical fansites thrown out of one of his concerts. Hint: when an artist disappoints you, it's best to just cut him out of your life, as many Morrissey fans have done now that he's openly embraced the racist lifestyle.

However talented and experienced your favorite is, don't ever forget how much sheer nerve it takes to get up in front of an audience, camera, or microphone, time after time. These people are risking rejection and failure every time they expose themselves in this way. I'm sure this is one reason why there seems to be such a high level of addiction among performing artists. They must certainly feel the need for artificial courage sometimes.  Even performers who are at the top of their game in every way can suddenly develop serious panic disorder, with no warning at all. For years Barbra Streisand avoided all live appearances. Laurence Olivier, at a time when he was considered the greatest actor in the world, out of nowhere started having severe panic attacks onstage, and the only way he could get through a performance was to have someone else on the stage with him at all times. People who saw his performances at this time said they had a marvelous intensity. That's showbiz.

Enjoy in moderation

The root of the term "fan" is the word fanatic, meaning someone with an obsession that's out of control. There is that scary edge to fandom, both for fans and their love objects, of how far is too far. Probably any person who reaches a certain level of fame will have at least one stalker. But then plenty of perfectly ordinary private individuals have stalkers too. At least the celebrity has the legally recognized right to keep a disorderly fan out of his life and the ability to enforce it. Some of us aren't that lucky.

It's important for fans to recognize and respect the boundaries between fantasy and reality, and not to cross that fourth wall and try to force your favorite to become a part of your own life. It's just as important for fans to see their favorite in a realistic light, as a human being who may be fantastically talented, but beyond that is just an ordinary human being. As Maria Riva, daughter of Marlene Dietrich and author of a jaw-droppingly candid memoir about what it was like to have this brilliant, monstrously narcissistic woman for a mother, put it, "You cannot pray to these people." You need to approach your favorite with compassion, caution and a sense of when it's time to back off and switch your attention to something else.

The poet Robert Frost and novelist Vladimir Nabokov both chose to allow their authorized biographies to be written with their cooperation while they were still alive, and both had the nightmarish experience of having their biographers turn from admirers to haters who decided to use their exclusive access to their life histories in order to tell the world how rotten they were. Why did this happen? Frost and Nabokov were pretty tame as far as literary celebrities go. I think the answer is suggested in Michael Frayn's novella, "The Trick of It," about a literature professor who meets, falls in love with and marries the celebrated writer that he's been studying. At first he starts finding fault with the writer, and suggesting ways that she could change. Then, resentful because she resists his interference, he starts to outright sabotage her work. Finally, he gets a job at a university in a strict Muslim country where she literally has to live in seclusion from the world. Finally she wises up and leaves him. He decides to write his memoirs, drawing on the letters he’s been writing to a friend in which he’s carefully documented the progress of his relationship to his writer-wife (and which make up the text of the novel.) But his friend hasn't been keeping the letters--he tossed them out as he read them. So the great writer just goes on being famous, while the professor who tried to hijack her fame for his own purposes ends up as an undocumented footnote in her career. Moral: don’t latch onto a great person expecting the greatness will rub off on you. It never does.

It's easy to feel stupid and inadequate and worthless in comparison to someone who's done something really above the ordinary with his life. But we're not anybody’s inferior. We're all just human beings living on a planet for a finite period of time. We don't all get to do the same things. It's not that big a deal when you come down to it. We should cultivate gladness and appreciation for the people among us with special accomplishments. Envy and resentment get us nowhere.

We also need to accept the fact that some of the people we admire, even love, are capable of and have actually done some really appalling, harmful things and might even pose a danger to others.  What does it say about us, that we admire, even love people like that? Just that we're human. We might have an impulse to deny our favorite's flaws and wrongdoings, or to attack and denounce them. We can also just get flat-out sick of people when we spend too much time with them, and feel resentful when we've given too much of our own precious time and other resources to them. When that happens it's time to back away, refresh our thoughts, and get some perspective. We aren't obligated to love or hate anybody. It's okay to walk away from a fandom if it starts to feel unhealthy and it's okay to come back if it seems all right again. It's not a question of what's normal. It's a question of what's ultimately good for us and the objects of our fan-affection.

*Though I usually try to follow guidelines for gender-neutral writing, in this piece I’m calling the object of fandom a “he.” That’s because I’m really talking about male stars from the view of a hetero female fan and I thought I might as well admit it.

(c) by Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.