Student name: Taylia Shelley Meese
Supervisor name: Anthea Garman
Title of project: The Celebrity and The Superfan
The nature of the intervention
My superfan journey began from the moment I was introduced to the concept of the celebrity. As a child I had of course been exposed to television, but I believed that the actors were who they were portraying. I would become obsessed with television shows and thus my superfandom journey began as a superfan of characters.Since the age of ten however, my investment in celebrities grew and I started becoming superfans of a person as opposed to a character.
When I moved out of my University residence into an apartment with my first flatmate, I met who I considered to be the first superfan I encountered at University. This was three years into my degree. We would both sit in the lounge and watch celebrity news, exchange magazines and have heated discussions about particular celebrities. As I lived with this person, fascination grew around the topic of superfandom. I started questioning if our habits were similar to the habits of others that called themselves superfans. Was I part of a select group of individuals extremely passionate about one or more celebrity or was I in fact, not even remotely as passionate as others?
When trying to unpack this project on an academic level, I found there to be a lot of literature. However, the literature primarily focused on sports superfans or superfans of franchises such as Star Wars or Star Trek. There was limited academia on the superfan of the celebrity particularly from a Hollywood standpoint. This project focuses on comprehending the everyday lived experiences of superfan audience members but of the Hollywood celebrity. I aim to understand how the various forms of adoration of the superfan’s manifest themselves and how these superfan’s act out this adoration. Through in depth immersion into the lives of the superfan, this project will show that there are indeed three main areas of impact that celebrities have on their superfan base. (Fiske, 1992) and (Jenson, 1992) are where I draw a lot of inspiration from in terms of literature.
Through in depth immersion with these three superfans, I adopted a phenomenological approach to understanding superfandom. The relationship that lies between the superfan and the super celebrity manifests itself in very specific ways that differ with each subject, yet still maintains similarities in each. Lee, Jayde and Palesa are the three superfans that I met. Lee represents activities as he has incorporated his celebrity into his musical passions. Jayde represents attitudes as he embodies that in which Nicki Minaj advertises in terms of personality traits whilst still remaining individualistic. Palesa represents aesthetics as her style, her makeup and her fashion in general is hugely inspired by her celebrity. As this shows, three subjects represent the three categories that I am using to identify superfans but each of them have traits of the other categories embedded into their daily lives. Some characteristics display the phenomenon more overtly than others but through the process of immersing myself into the lives of these superfans, I have also been able to identify an overlap.
The context of the intervention
In order to situate the phenomenon, one needs to identify where it comes from. Celebrities are a product of the media, and in turn they create media. Online platforms such as entertainment news websites,specifically catered to celebrity news, help us understand this, but it is social media where this phenomenon is mainly embedded. Celebrities are one of the main contributors to popular culture and the reason behind this is primarily their fan bases that constantly feed into this genre. Zoe Fraade- Blanar and Aaron M. Glazer explain this in their book titled superfandom (2017). They explain that whilst fandom is a historical phenomenon, it is only in recent times that relationships between the celebrity and the superfan have grown. Before, the relationship was primarily dictated around consumption whereas now, the nature is one that is more participative and inclusive (31). They separate fans from consumers with the very word participation. Consumers will make a profitable investment in a product or entity, whilst the the fan invests time, energy and themselves into the object in which they are a fan of (32). This is not to say that there is no consumerism happening with superfans, but it is on a more direct level. Fans will purchase celebrity endorsed products through the celebrities themselves or through news platforms that link the celebrity to a product. Thus the celebrity and celebrity news industry is still widely profitable when linked to superfans. With the rise of social media and the digital age, ordinary people get access to the lives of those that they admire in a way that they were not able to before. Relatability between the celebrity and the fan becomes larger everyday and access to information is at the tip of our fingertips. Whether it be by celebrity news platforms or the media that celebrities produce themselves, the more access to information given, the more this particular audience is fed. It is this information that audience members were not previously granted that has inspired this project. Audience members get a better sense of who the celebrity is, how they present themselves and what they do on a daily basis and this inspires them to incorporate some of these aspects into their everyday lives. Celebrity News websites therefore encourage this relationship between the superfan and the celebrity. With this access to knowledge, fans are able to decide what they would like to do with this information. But through media, we find that the celebrities own social media accounts, fans are able to glimpse directly into the lives of those that they adore and are therefore encouraged to participate. Whether it be through commenting on or sharing a post, creating a fanpage or participating in giveaways, fans are brought closer to their object of affection. Thus, through my academic research, I found that the best way to understand this phenomenon was to indeed discover superfans and their digital relationships with celebrities.
Social context, political context, economic context, cultural context
The social and cultural contexts behind this project can be drawn from the history of fandom. As Zoe Fraade- Blanar and Aaron M. Glazer (2017) stipulate, fandom has been a part of our historical systems, on a cultural and social level. But they have primarily been consumerist in nature. Now they are more participative and inclusive. People now feel closer to the celebrity than ever before and can share ideas and thoughts with each other. They can engage with their celebrities and peers like them. Fandom itself creates its own culture as people are more likely to participate if others with similar interests are involved as to opposing alone (31). Fandom and its subcategory of superfandom are hugely social phenomena. The mere idea of exploring a relationship between two people, the celebrity and the superfan itself draws our attention to a social interaction of some kind. This is the relationship that this project explores.
The political and economic context is combined into this project. Celebrities have a huge impact on the political economy of fans, whether it be through meaning making or capital production. Celebrities become the objects which the fans consume and through the superfan’s own understanding of the celebrity, they embed this information into their everyday lives. Media productions,often produced by the fans themselves show the consumerist nature. Often advertising products for the consumer to purchase made appealing through the celebrity. It becomes cyclic because celebrities are dependent on the income generated by their audiences and their audiences demands for products are increased through celebrity investment. In a BBC Documentary with Tom Felton,Tom Felton meets the Superfans (2015) we see this consumerist approach adopted by the superfan. He meets with Harry Potter Superfans that have invested in paraphernalia such as outfits to feel closer to their fan objects. Similarly, my subjects have purchased products such as posters and makeup items which reaffirms this political economic relationship.
Theoretical context (includes a literature review)
Beginning with John Fiske’s “The Cultural Economy of Fandom” (1992). Fiske establishes his interpretations of fandom under three separate headings. The first heading is Discrimination and Distinction whereby Fiske explains that there are different measures that help distinguish a fan from a “normal” consumer and that these definitions are contributed to by the subjects themselves (34). Fans try to institute the ideology of a legitimate culture with their fandom towards the object of affection or desire. This is used as a means to explain why fandom exists for the fan (34). This is pertinent to my project as my three superfans find that drawing inspiration from their celebrities and incorporating them into their everyday lives is a legitimate action. They may not necessarily be aware of how celebrities filter into their lives, but they believe that following and keeping up to date with them is important in their daily routines. Fiske acknowledges that through meaning making, ordinary individuals can become fans based on their knowledge of the object of their fandom and the only thing that sets them apart from the ordinary person is their knowledge and the culture that they create.
In his second heading Fiske refers to Productivity and Participation. Under this particular heading, there are three subheadings that are worth noting: a. semiotic; b. enunciative and c. textual. Semiotics refers to how we generate meaning from the material that we are exposed to on a daily basis (35). This more specifically links to fandom and how the construction of one’s identity and their experience shape the way that the individual formulates meanings. This would suggest that because each individual is unique, that interpretations would vary amongst fans (35). Enunciative talks about older traditions of verbal communication and how the spread of information is often relying on the individual that is speaking. He further goes on to explain that traditions in communities that celebrate similar objects of affections may exist on a verbal platform (36). Media is the main distributor of these forms of production. Celebrities post on their social media accounts and celebrity news platforms are there to dissect posts generated.
The third heading is Capital Accumulation. Fiske notes that there are two different types of capitalism in this sense: cultural capitalism and fan cultural capitalism, the latter being less formal (39). Media now can no longer ignore this demographic suggesting that fan cultural capitalism can possibly be turned into economic capital. Fiske explains that relationship with fans and commercial culture is facilitative and that they are not merely independent. Fandom is a cyclic relationship developed through mass media (43). There is a physical manifestation of the capitalist nature of celebrities and fandom. There is also the side where in order to get information, fans make an investment. Whether it be through news platforms or purchasing their celebrities products, there is huge monetary emphasis placed on fandom.
In her journal article “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization” (1992), Joli Jenson describes two types of fans: the ‘obsessive loner’ (12) where an individual is isolated vs the ‘hysterical crowd’ which is seen as frenzied. Jenson points out that celebrities help construct the identity of individuals (17). Fans become othered and are viewed in a negative light. With this, the media often uses terms such as “hysterical” and I wanted to see if the superfan is a modern day representation of what Jenson claims to be a fan. Jenson talks about how fans are linked with psychological deviance as they facilitate an unnatural obsession (13). What this says is that anything that deviates from what was socially acceptable at the time, was considered to be linked to pathology. However, Joli also insists that with the rise of media, the perceptions of fans have changed (17). The difference between someone who is obsessed and a fan, and someone who is a specialist or an aficionado, is mentioned. Those who were part of a more elite group in terms of class were not looked down upon in their fandoms, but those of lower classes were bracketed into the negative connotations associated with fandom (17). Jenson questions why fans are victimised and also questions why emphasis is placed on the fan being a deviant (18). Jenson stresses that pathology links more to an individual and their development and not to fandom itself and says that with the rise of social media, fandom has not only become more accessible but also more acceptable (18).
When analysing the popular media, I was looking for ways to amplify my findings and I came across an article in HuffPost.com. ““For certain fans, the ones who have a very strong connection to a team, that role of team follower is very central to their overall identity,” says Daniel Wann, a sports psychology professor at Murray State University.” This article is titled “Inside the Mind of a Superfan”and was published on the 14th of May 2015. Although it directly pertains to sport, it is still relevant in other popular culture with a slight bit of tweaking: for certain fans, the ones who have a very strong connection to a celebrity, the role of a follower or supporter is very central to their identity.The article talks about the ideals and notions that the fan object promotes. How fans take inspiration by what is said and done and how they incorporate this into their everyday lives. This links to identity formation. Something or someone appealing to a fan on a level that affects their character. This links with my project as the project sets out to analyse this relationship. It pinpoints three main areas where fans are impacted by their fan objects. This is in their aesthetics and their style construction, their activities and their hobbies influenced by the fan object and their attitudes, the ideals and notions perpetuated by the fan object embedding itself into the identity construction of the superfan.
The central question/s guiding the intervention
- What is a superfan?
- Why are they a superfan?
- How does the celebrity influence their superfan’s?
- Why is the celebrity important?
- When is the celebrity most impactful?
- Is a celebrities influence more direct or indirect?
- Are audience members aware of what encompasses a celebrity?
- What is the political economic effect of said celebrity?
- Have celebrities created a social culture that incorporates more identification and more similarities between themselves and their audiences?
- Has a more reasonable expectation been placed of everyday life, is it more achievable or are more expectations placed on the average citizen to uphold societal norms perpetuated by celebrity influence?
The ethical considerations
I needed to ensure that my project maintained human dignity and well-being throughout and I needed to ensure that my sources are protected at all times. I made sure that I researched my topic thoroughly and I remained truthful in my findings. I have followed all legal standards with regards to attributions, any previously written material has been credited accordingly. I needed to be culturally and socially sensitive as to not offend any audience members or participants.I have told all of my subjects that they are free to withdraw from the project at any point and have kept them up to date with any progress that I have made. Because this project is so heavily immersive, I worked with my participants side-by-side to ensure that whilst I maintain a professional standard, their happiness is maintained throughout this process as well.
The tools, methods, platforms used
The physical tools that I made use of was my Nikon DSLR Camera, I used recording equipment such as lighting and tripods. I also made use of recording equipment in the Rhodes Music Radio, RMR Radio studios. I then have used Adobe Creative Suite software such as Premier Pro, Photoshop and Illustrator. This is the main equipment I used for this project, I tried to keep it as simple as possible.
As far as method is concerned, I used predominantly observation for my findings. I immersed myself into the lives of my superfan’s and recorded my findings where I could. Either by audio, film, picture or in notes. I then edited this all and then created the website. I asked my subjects if I could spend days with them observing and interacting with them which they allowed for. I also requested that should I make any important findings that I use it for the project. They were happy to give me permission as long as they could see the information first. The relationship between my subjects and I was mutually beneficial, whilst they contributed to my findings, I provided them with filming and photography for their own endeavours. I did these services for free as they were exceptionally helpful and through this relationship they were comfortable with the immersion. We treated it as if we were spending a day together, sometimes incorporating photoshoots and that seemed to distract from the project at hand, allowing for more natural observations to be made.
I mainly used entertainment news websites such as clevver.com, eonline.com thehollywoodreporter.com, vogue.com and cosmopolitan.com to draw inspiration for this project. I noted that most celebrity news is produced on celebrity news websites and thus I wanted to create one of my own. Whilst maintaining the aesthetic and tones of these websites, I wanted to go a step further and inform academically. So whilst it appears to look like a website catering to celebrity news, it in fact explores the relationship between the celebrity and the superfan. A side of the celebrity words that is not widely reported on. This with academic explanations to the phenomenon. This was used so that an audience familiar with celebrity culture is not overwhelmed by the information and are in fact relatively familiar with the structure. The aim was to achieve a higher understanding of the phenomenon in the realm in which it appears.
How the project demonstrates innovative/disruptive/interventionist practice
This project takes a look at theories on fandom and challenges them. It takes the definition of superfandom and sees how it pertains to the individual on a personal level. It puts a face behind a theory, a voice that people can potentially identify with. Not only does it test theories on fandom and superfandom, this project sets out to humanise this phenomenon. This is done through thorough immersion into the lives of superfans. There are many similarities with previous research conducted, but there are also major differences.
John Fiske’s “The Cultural Economy of Fandom” (1992) suggests that fans create their own meaning of their fan object and that is what is said to set them apart from the average individual. This is true for my subjects. They generate meaning through the consumption of media surrounding their celebrity and it impacts their lives on a level of identity construction. Fiske also talks about participation and consumption with regards to identifying a fan. This links to my superfan subjects. Whilst they do consume products endorsed by their celebrities, their main emphasis is placed on participation. It is more important for the subjects to feel closer to a celebrity on an interpersonal and mental level than on a physical one.
It diverts from the theories in Joli Jenson’s journal article “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization” (1992). My subjects are not the ‘obsessive loners’ or ‘hysterical crowds’. They do not fit into older world notions of fan theories.
My subjects do however support theories of participation shown in Zoe Fraade-Blanar and Aaron M. Glazer’s book titled Superfandom (2017). Although they do participate in forms of consumerism, buying products that link them to their celebrity, their relationship is more participative. They place more emphasis on the amount of time and emotional investments that they make into their chosen celebrities and place less emphasis on financial investment.
Through in depth immersion with my three subjects, I was able to discover three main areas of impact. These areas of impact were the driving force behind this entire project. They helped me secure subjects as well as understand the affect that celebrities have on their superfan audience members. These three areas are in line with many scholarly findings as mentioned above in the theoretical context. They especially link to the consumerist nature of the celebrity-fan relationship. In each case, a subject has invested funds in their daily life to pursue something that brings them closer to the celebrity, whether it be a makeup product, musical equipment or posters and CDs.
There are contrasts with the academia with regards to the superfan subjects analysed do not show any signs of pathology or hysterical behaviour. They live their lives as an everyday person would, the only difference is that they have a celebrity or a fan object that they idolise and this affects certain areas of their lives and lifestyles. The discovery of the three areas of impact: activities, aesthetics and attitudes, facilitates previous studies conducted but also gives a more in depth personal account of the lives of the superfans themselves.
Discussion and reflection on the intellectual and making process and final outcome
Finding The Superfan
From the onset of this project, I intended to find superfan’s and discuss the impact that celebrities have on their lives. I found it quite challenging to firstly find a superfan because I had not yet quite defined the concept clearly in the beginning stages. As I am myself a self-proclaimed superfan, I went into this project with preconceived notions, none which were entirely helpful. I met with many subjects that claimed to be superfan’s but the preliminary interviews were not as fruitful as I had hoped. How could these be superfan’s? I then went back to the drawing board and tried to define what a superfan is. Once I did a little bit of research, I decided to roughly look for areas of influence. I looked at how people dressed, did their makeup, I listened to their arguments and tried listening to the conversations that were being brought up.
At this stage my project was at least better defined but it was not entirely helpful. I had given up on the project almost entirely and I went to go have one last drink with friends before changing my entire idea. Almost mourning the loss of its potential. That is when I met Palesa Makam, the person who became my first subject. I did not fully comprehend why in the beginning but I knew that I needed her for my project. When you first look at Palesa, she gives you this feeling that you have seen her before, somewhere. After conducting my interviews with her, this makes a lot of sense because she has been compared to many different celebrities. However, the moment that I met her, I introduced myself and I said, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Rihanna?” I did not think much of it until she said, “I get that all the time, but thank you, I love her so it is such a great compliment”. After my initial thinking that well, yes, nobody should be upset about being compared to Rihanna that it finally clicked. I did not know if she was a superfan, but this is the moment where the first area of affect came to me: this girl is tremendously influenced by the aesthetics of a celebrity, to the point where she gets likened to them often. Because of the social context, I could not bombard her with formal questions, so instead I opted for a friendly chat. I told her about my project idea and then the best thing happened. She told me that she identifies as a superfan of Rihanna. After not having much luck with previous interviews, I found that although the formal interview setting was indeed helpful, immersion is going to be the best form of information gathering. I set up a photo shoot with her, where I could ask her questions whilst giving her free photographs as long as I could use them for my project. This first official meeting provided me with a lot of insight.
Excited by what I had found, I brought the information to my supervisor, Anthea Garman and she was much more hopeful about the direction of the project and much less apprehensive. She suggested that I find more subjects like this, at least three and that I embed myself into their lives so that I can see the impact as opposed to being told what the impact was. Observation was going to be the key tool to this project. After finding Palesa, my next subject was easy to find and was actually close to home. Now that I had established loose criteria for what I am trying to discover, this was a lot easier to implement. Jayde Mapaling is someone who I met earlier this year. Someone who was born in Grahamstown but has a noticeable American accent. When we met, I knew from very early on that he was a superfan of Nicki Minaj but I did not know how to make it pertinent or relevant to my topic. After sitting with him for five minutes I realised that his accent and his demeanour are all influenced by his celebrity so he became my second subject. The phenomenon which I placed him under was aesthetics. I then realised that I was starting to formulate a bit of a theme here, affect and a’s, I had two a’s of influence.
I then got introspective and tried to discern whether or not there could be a third category that was relevant. The first celebrity that I truly was a superfan of was Britney Spears and I wanted to be just like her. At this stage I was hugely considering using myself as a subject for my project as I consider myself to be a great superfan candidate. Bells began to wring in my head and I realised that celebrities inspire people to follow a specific career path and at the very least inspire the hobbies that their superfan’s interact with. I needed to find a third person that fit this specific mould before I fully defined it though. By chance, my photography was advertised by a friend and I got a message from someone called Alim Toliss. He asked me if I could perhaps do videography instead. He asked if I could shoot a video to accompany his music. I listened to his music and I asked what inspired him and he informed me that Radiohead has always been one of his favourite bands. I agreed to shooting the video if he would agree to a meeting with me and when we met, it was clear that he was a superfan. He had the attitude and aesthetics down, but he also brought a new dimension to the project. Thus, the third and final criteria was born. The Three A’s of Affect: Activities, Aesthetics and Attitudes. The three most pertinent areas in which superfan’s are impacted by their celebrity idols. They act, look and pursue that in which their celebrity encourages.
Building the Website
It was now about observing fully. Whilst observing I had to come up with what structure I wanted to present this project in in order to discover how I wanted an audience to receive it. I decided to look at multiple different celebrity news magazines and websites. I had always wanted this project to take form in a website so the magazines were then dismissed. I narrowed it down to three main websites that I wanted to draw inspiration from: The Hollywood Reporter, EOnline and Vogue. The first and the last of these sites became the main inspiration as they were minimalistic and I wanted to use that for ease of navigation. But I pulled inspiration from EOnline nonetheless. I discovered that red, black are colours used consistently throughout entertainment news websites and this was confirmed by looking up clevver news too. I found that the fonts and themes used in The Hollywood Reporter are the main inspiration points that I would like to draw from. I decided to do this because I wanted my website to have the look and feel of a celebrity news site. This was decided because it would amplify the topic in which is being discussed: the celebrity.
I originally only intended on having three articles, titled after the three A’s of Affect but after a meeting with my supervisor, we thought it would be pertinent to put these topics separate from the articles. So I have the three articles for my superfan’s on the front page on the left hand side, occupying a third of the space and the other two thirds are dedicated to the video and a brief description of the website. In the top navigation bar we have my logo: The Celebrity and The Superfan modeled after the very logo that The Hollywood Reporter uses. I have seven tabs that each take you to different pages, showing different elements of the website. I have the Home page which I have described above and the next three tabs are titled: Activities, Aesthetics and Attitudes. Under each of these tabs, you get a small description of each of the phenomena. I then have the Blog.which has all of the stories filed there too, if you do not catch them on the home page first, but hopefully once the site picks up, you will find stories from multiple superfan’s filtering through and showing up on their. I was talking to my other supervisor about the site, Priscilla Boshoff, and she suggested making it interactive, where other superfan’s can share their stories. I thought this would be incredibly fascinating, to see whether people conform to the notions I established in this project or whether they deviate. Whether or not I could find more information from the experience of other superfan’s. This is still heavily in the works and will rely on audience engagement which is not guaranteed but it will still be a fun option.
The last two tabs are dedicated to the academic portion of this project: Report and The Superfan Phenomenon. The Report is dedicated to what you are seeing now. The process and production of this project so that audience members, if they are interested at all, can see how I went about this project and came to the conclusions that I did. It is the official Practical Report for this Masters Project, available for the public to see. I believe that because this is such a unique project, many people would be interested to see how hypothesis were made and how conclusions were drawn. Then The Superfan Phenomenon is a culmination of how I applied academic articles and journals to the project. As I stipulated beforehand, it was quite difficult to define the superfan using academic articles, so most of the information that I pulled, was on fandom in general as there is an abundance of information on this topic. I then adapted the research that I had, together with pop culture references found on entertainment news websites and tried finding the best way to explain to my audience what a superfan is. Incorporating the academic portion into a more sensational journalistic piece was suggested to me by my supervisor, in order to make it something different from the standard website that any person could produce. It brings an element of clarity and gives backing to the discoveries made. I redesigned the website multiple times, hoping to make ease of navigation as well as visual appeal stronger to audience members.
I decided to outsource with the purchasing and development of my website because even though I did web design as a specialisation, it was for a very brief period and I wanted someone who knew more about the topic. With this being said, he helped me with the basic layouts and the rest was up to me. He also helped me with errors that I would run into but other than establishing the website and building the necessary foundation, I have put in a lot of effort towards the design of the site. We did not first opt for the route mentioned above and this proved to be extremely tiresome. Our domain name did not register so the first developed site crashed and we could no longer access our original name. The site was initially thecelebrityandthesuperfan.co.za, the title of the project but now it varies slightly and has become thecelebrityandsuperfan.co.za. Because of this, the rebuilding of the site has taken an incredibly long time.