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 little girl would I 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 really be sick and my love for Kreepy Karl was a gross symptom.

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 I grew up and began having sex and boyfriends, 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 an email list group 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, 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.

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 day.

I have no claim to the moral high ground in this conflict that started in the last millennium and is still going. I have tried in good faith to make amends for my own actions and try to negotiate peace with Gary and his associates, but they've refused and relentlessly pursued new opportunities to make my life in Kreepy Karl fandom as difficult and noxious as they can.

Despite all this tsuris, I still love Kreepy Karl. I'm glad I was able to come out of the closet about being a fan of his, and 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 stage and the audience. A lot of what went on in twentieth century performance had to do with breaking that  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, completely changed our concept of what performance is and can be all about. Add the dimension of mass media, where radio and video and the Internet brought performers right into our private living space, and it's easy to lose track completely of that traditional 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 a 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 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" became an enormous cult hit. A bunch of us young idiots were hanging around outside his tour bus 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 tickets, 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 fans' urge to get a little more of that irresistible presence performers have to offer, and performers' obligation to make nice with the people who make up their 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 the custom of fans begging for stars' autographs into authorized events that take place under controlled, preplanned circumstances, usually 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 them is what thirty minutes might be to you. Besides, someone else is waiting to get their attention. Be considerate of other fans and let them have their turn.

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

3) If you really want to have your favorite autograph something for you, make it one special thing. If the favorite is promoting a book or a recording of some kind, buy a copy and have them sign that. If you've just seen their show, have them sign the program or your ticket stub or a souvenir of the performance you bought in the theater. What this says to them is, "I paid hard earned 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 them do the tiresome, hand-crippling work of having to sign yet another autograph. 

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, police, or the FBI, do it. You have a right to enjoy your fandom in safety and comfort. As for you, 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,  take time to look at what others have to share, and be generous with positive feedback.

My hero in fandom is Forrest J. Ackerman, who taught my generation of kids about classic twentieth century horror, science fiction and fantasy movies with his magazine "Famous Monsters of Filmland." He lived in a house near Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles that he furnished with 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 still grew, until  got into an unfortunate legal wrangle that forced him to sell it off. So enjoy your fandom, be generous, but be careful, because there really are some monsters out there.

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 their pocket that enables them 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 ever steal your favorite's work. Love them, love their intellectual property rights.

If someone says something wrong about your favorite, correct them in a respectful and reasonable way. Don't fight. But don't let it go by either. Take the opportunity to educate others in the specifics of why this person is worthy of their respect.

Keep the feelings of others in mind, including those of your favorite and the people in their life. Don't say anything you wouldn't be comfortable with your favorite seeing. You honestly never know whether or not they 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 them. 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 them out of your life, as many Morrissey fans have done since he became publicly noxious.

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 at the top of their game can develop serious panic disorder in front of crowds. 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 where appropriate boundaries begin and end. 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 their life and the ability to enforce it. Some of us ordinary folk aren't that lucky. It's one of many ways in which we have more or less reasonable grounds to envy the people we admire. The fact that they have so much that we don't--talent, and privilege, and money, and the right to demand so much of our attention without even being aware of our individual existences, can make resentment happen.

The phenomenon we think of as toxic fandom can happen even in the most respectable circles. 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 into enemies who decided to use their exclusive access to their life histories in order to tell the world how rotten they were.

As literary figures go, I don't think Frost or Nabokov fall into the category of truly evil influences that need to be exposed, but some of the idols we've been taught to worship are in fact really bad people, and might even pose a danger to others.  What does it say about us that we're capable of giving so much affection to someone so undeserving, just because they shine on the surface? That love is blind? Something like that. Also that the institutions that promote our appetites for famous people aren't always feeding us what's healthy for us.

(c) by Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.

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