Leaf Blowers: Anatomy of a Teen Celeb Crush
It started in a magazine.
As a religious reader of Empire in my teens, I used the magazine as a barometer for what was objectively good in cinema. Anything with four or five stars got an instant viewing, which led to some wonderful discoveries and expanded my tastes considerably (it also resulted in the super awkward evening in the cinema where I took my grandmother to see INLAND EMPIRE. She’s never quite forgiven me for that). There was a two-page spread for The Village, the then-latest M. Night Shyamalan movie, and it featured a scene with the lead actor, Joaquin Phoenix, in a yellow cloak. He seemed striking and his name fascinated me. Once I figured out how to pronounce it, I went to see the film and thoroughly enjoyed it (and will defend it to this day, thank you very much).
And then of course, it began.
I’d had crushes on actors and other celebrities before. Like most 90s kids, I had my pop band preferences — Lee from Steps — and got swept up in the post-Titanic Leo craze, as was tradition. I liked Ewan McGregor because he was handsome and could sing and we were born in the same hospital. Predictably, Trent from Daria was a favourite of mine, although I didn’t appreciate what the show did with that character to show the realities of crushes until I was older. Most of these crushes were pretty frivolous, and I never really became outright obsessed in the way many do. The rite-of-passage that was the fandom eluded me until my household got a computer when I was 15. The lumpy desktop set-up, just in the corner of the living room where the kitchen door could conceal the screen from prying parents, was the ultimate enabler of my first real all-consuming celebrity crush.
Most people I know didn’t mourn the demise of the IMDb message boards, and I don’t blame them. Chaos reigned on the seemingly limitless array of boards dedicated to every person, film and subject imaginable. It wasn’t ideal for my first foray into the perils of the internet, yet it was also perfect for an overactive imagination in flux, with equal parts hormones, creative writing and sheer loneliness. The Joaquin Phoenix section of IMDb was like many fandoms in its ultra-specific hierarchy. Newbies were tolerated, but welcomed heartily once they proved themselves loyal. Repeat discussions would be sternly directed to previously existing threads on the topic, and talk of said focus’s girlfriends was best avoided. It was bonkers in its low-stakes focus, but utterly thrilling to a teenage girl who had seldom used the internet up to that point.
The object of my crush was somewhat unique. He seemed to be made up of disjointed parts that worked together in odd symphony: The scar on his lip — not a cleft-lip, he was just born with it — the thick eyebrows, the magnetic green eyes, look of vague menace, the crooked shoulder. He was shy but secretly funny; he had a fascinating childhood that invited all the armchair psychologists to the yard. He was famous, but not to the point where any common riff-raff would pollute the fandom. He didn’t fit the assumed preferences of a teenage girl, but that just made it more special to me. Every girl has that moment of self-aggrandizing where they think their interests and much more worthy than those of the “other girls”. Never mind that my generation of teen girls was in the midst of the emo years, yet another reflection of every generation’s belief that their pain is bigger than others, and having a crush on the seemingly most tortured man in Hollywood fit that stereotype to a tee. Mine was obviously different because nobody else had it, at least not my knowledge, in my high school. It was just off-putting enough to fancy the creepy emperor in Gladiator who wanted to bang his sister and who got killed by Russell Crowe, and it seemed like a natural extension of my reputation as the long-haired weirdo with no friends beyond her books.
My crush wasn’t just “unique” in my eyes: It was intellectual. Phoenix didn’t just do popcorn fare like every other poster-boy for my generation. He did weird arthouse films and grungy adult thrillers and psycho-sexual dramas and harrowing depictions of real-life tragedies. He worked with directors other people told me were talented, and he was really good at it. As a teen with no money, I didn’t have access to most of his films, and there was no way my parents were going to invest in this hobby, but I found my ways. I saved up my EMA money to buy cheap DVDs in HMV, and a friend from IMDb even sent a few to me. At one point I owned all of his films (yes, I owned Space Camp. It’s not great). The sense of completism is one of the most satisfying parts of being a super-fan. Not only does it grant you the voice of authority, it means you’re not one of “those” newbie fans.
One of the tricky lines to walk (heh) as a fan is to be wholly invested in your fandom’s life, but not to the point where it sounds creepy. You can share fantasies, but never make it seem like the ultimate end-goal in real life; you can express concern-trolling thoughts about their girlfriends or rumoured hook-ups, but getting angry is just too weird; you can look up details on their childhood and family — much easier to do when they’re a former child-star, I’m not proud to admit — but you need to know the arbitrary limit on that before it looks like stalking. Self-insert fan-fiction is encouraged, but preferably with the fandom object in character from one of their films to create the appropriate level of distance. Of course, there were times when you could break those rules, like when your fandom focus enters rehab or might be sleeping with Lindsay Lohan.
I often look at this generation’s brand of fans, from the feverish intensity of One Direction’s fandom to the conspiratorial paranoia of the Robsten shippers, and I wonder how they can sink so deep into something so clearly ridiculous. Talk about white-washing my own past, because of course I did that too. I never got tin-hat wild, but I still liked to follow Phoenix’s every move when filming or on press tour or just taking a break. I had a PhotoBucket account that was 95 pages full of photos of him from various sources. I got furious at people who expressed the wrong opinions about him, and I dismissed every fault or awkward shade he seemed to have. To be a fan is to admit your own hypocrisies, but justify them as different from everyone else’s. Nobody will ever understand. They clearly don’t get it, but your fandom does, and they’ll always reassure you that you’re right.
Things cooled by the time I left home to go to university. I kept all of my DVDs and a pile of magazine clippings I’d collected over the years in a plastic box at the end of my bed in my new flat. I watched some of his newer films, which did little for me. It was a crush, but a manageable one, and one that didn’t require constant validation from others (by this time, most of the fandom had migrated from IMDb and moved to the useless Yahoo system, which proved far too time consuming to keep up with). It was a crush that had its place, and one to look at fondly.
Then there was a little project called I’m Still Here.
Teen crushes flame out. Some fall off the rails or have troubled lives that end in tragedy. I’d already gone through the loss of Heath Ledger in high school, which hit hard due to it coinciding with a class project I did on Brokeback Mountain. Unpleasant things happen, but they’re seldom as baffling as your crush growing a beard, quitting acting and deciding to become a rapper.
I couldn’t bear to look at photos of him anymore. My box of DVDs felt tainted, and my cinema visit to see Two Lovers overshadowed by the ludicrous show going on in the outside world. It crossed my mind that he may be ill, or have snapped from the pressure of public life. I considered the possibility that he’d fallen off the wagon, and it didn’t seem impossible that he was following a similar route to darkness as his late brother. I justified it all, I made my excuses, but it did little to ease the betrayal I felt. How could my crush do this to me? How could he make us look like fools for ever investing in him as we did? All this time, I could have been in the Jake Gyllenhaal fandom. He may have done Bubble Boy but he wasn’t pulling this shit. It didn’t help when it was revealed to have been a hoax/social experiment for a film I never saw (to put that into perspective, I’ve seen 8MM several times of my own free will). Ultimately, what I’m Still Here did for me was something of a wake-up call. It was the moment every fan has, where they realize that they don’t have to defend every single thing their fandom does, nor does it mean that their failures are reflective of you. You’re not a bad person for liking something bad or stupid or insulting. Sixteen year old me could have used that advice.
I moved onto different hobbies and interests. Film remained my first love, but fandom focuses went more political, with the fake/real news fandom of American punditry that was part fluffy fun and part serious education. I didn’t think much of Phoenix beyond muted memories of adolescent joy and a few movies of his I still loved. Friends would bring up the crush as a punchline and even I could laugh along with it.
Then something odd happened. He became interesting again.
The Master wasn’t quite enough for the dregs of my adolescence to forgive him for feeling so wronged, but it offered a whole new way to look at my former crush — as a talent. I knew he was a good actor, but this was different: This was otherworldly. After that — and another Oscar nomination — the movies got more interesting and the performances consistently excellent. His public persona changed too, becoming more abrasive and clearly giving less of a fuck as to what people thought of him. Teen me would have been hurt; now, we’re on the same level.
Nowadays, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still check up on Phoenix now and then. He’s got some fascinating projects coming up soon — and a couple potential train-wrecks I’m always up for — and I’m oddly invested in his alleged relationship with Rooney Mara, mostly because of how much it seems to anger her fandom. You may grow out of fandoms but you never get over taunting them. That’s always fun. It’s a more palatable relationship as a fan, one that requires less of my emotional labour.
The pop culture you consume as a teenager shapes your life in a profound way, but so does the ways you consume it. Having a nigh on encyclopedic knowledge of the life and work of a strange actor who would easily find my fascination terrifying wasn’t just a fleeting fancy of adolescence: It was a gateway into a new way of thinking and it gave me confidence to talk about things I didn’t have the vocabulary for. I made many friends, including some I still speak to, and even met up with one of them in Florida (relax, my parents were there, and we all went to Universal Studios together). I expanded my DVD collection and challenged myself more with the pop culture I partake in. Phoenix is still in 3 of my 20 favourite films ever, and I still have my Walk The Line poster rolled up in my attic.
Being a fangirl is a potent combination of critical thinking, cultural exploration, personal catharsis, and defiant squee. For all the mockery it inspires, the hub of activity it fosters creates a unique space for young people, usually women, to understand themselves better. As someone with a severe case of emotional word vomit who struggled to make friends and struggles to this day to find ways to love myself, having a teen crush obsession and the fandom to bolster it was a life-raft in a sea of confusing times. Some people had therapy: I had Quills, and it worked out not too bad in the end.
Now, who wants to hear about my Mads Mikkelsen crush?!