Monday, December 1 2008

You don’t know them

If you hang out with fans long enough, eventually you’ll hear something like this:

“I think we ‘know’ our idols better than their casual friends do.”

This doesn’t just come from creepy stalkers, although it’s certainly how they get their start (“Hi, Mike! Been thrown in jail again yet, or have you finally stopped projecting madonna/whore complexes onto total strangers whose albums you buy?”). It may be most common with celebrities whose careers are built on selling an image, but every field has fans who feel a personal connection to the creator of the works they idolize. With multimedia idols, though, it’s much more pervasive; fans have watched them on stage, fooling around backstage, getting annoyed in interviews, breaking down in tears, getting flustered by personal questions, etc, etc, all contributing to a feeling that they’re able to see through the editing to The Real Person.

This connection is imaginary, and unless they have other problems, perfectly harmless. It often results in shock or anger when the idol fails to live up to the fan’s expectations, but most of them adapt or move on. I imagine Dave Sim’s fangirls were quite unhappy with the reality that started intruding into his work on Cerebus, but I’m sure most of them simply moved on to less misogynous works. No doubt a few found that their new knowledge about the creator prevented them from enjoying his earlier work, but for most, I expect they still go back occasionally to the stories they enjoyed.

When Ai Kago was caught smoking, some fans were outraged to the point of throwing away or burning all of the material they’d collected during her career. Forums and blogs were filled with comments that revealed just how different their Aibon was from the real person. A year later, when she started her comeback, some of them created elaborate rationalizations for an action that was so “unlike” her, complete with claims about what she thought and how she felt.

When she shot herself in the foot a few weeks later by getting caught at a hot-springs resort with a notorious womanizer nearly twice her age, some trufans were still determined to attempt the mental judo required to reconcile image and reality. They didn’t convince anyone but themselves, but they did convince themselves, so I guess it counts as success.

All of this is a long-winded way of getting around to an example that should have been enough to burst the bubble for any fan with two brain cells to rub together. Last Friday, former Morning Musume member Kaori Iida and her husband announced that their baby had died of chronic renal failure. Fans were of course deeply saddened by the news, but remember where we came in:

“I think we ‘know’ our idols better than their casual friends do.”

Fans who think that they somehow know her should stop for a moment and contemplate the fact that her baby never left the hospital, and actually died in July. She, her family, and her close friends spent six months hoping for life and five months coping with loss before revealing it to the outside world. And all of those fans are on the outside; years of watching video clips and reading interviews doesn’t change that. They might know how their imaginary Kaori responds to a tragic loss, but they’ll never know the real person as well as even the most ‘casual’ of acquaintances.

And if that still isn’t enough to burst their bubbles, this ought to be: many of her actual acquaintances, including some that a fan’s-eye-view would expect to be close to her, were shocked by the announcement. Or were they? After all, despite the intimate feel of a personal blog, Mari’s comments are still “what she’s willing to say to the public about a colleague’s private life”…

[side note: surprisingly, the same entertainment media that eagerly stalks idols to expose them for breaking character has almost certainly known about this since September, but kept quiet]

[less-directly-related side note: it is possible to go from fan to friend, but just making direct contact doesn’t count. Having their phone number doesn’t mean much. Being recognized by them in public and having them remember your name? Not a big deal, really. A good tip is that when their mother sends you a Christmas card, you’ve crossed over. By this standard, out of the dozens of Playboy models I’ve spent time talking to and had dinner with, precisely one of them is a friend.]