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Fame Is Other People

What happens when the abyss of social media stares back.

Christian Cimoroni

Rule 34 of the internet holds: If you can imagine it, there is porn of it online. It’s slightly different for the famous: If you can imagine it, there’s porn of you doing it. Mia Swier, a television producer and bassist in a punk rock band, has dated Darren Criss, a former star of Glee and a bona fide teen idol, for six years. The couple’s fans call them by a mash-up of their names, Miarren. Every now and then, Swier’s friends like to forward her fan fiction. A very special kind of fan fiction—erotic stories written by strangers about her and her boyfriend, laced with scraps of information culled from their tweets and Instagram posts. “We were on a road trip last spring, and one of our friends was doing dramatic readings of them,” said Alli Coates, an artist and Swier’s best friend. “It’s funny, but so strange,” Swier said. “Being closely associated with someone in the public eye—which was never something I really wanted or thought I would be—it wasn’t a predicament I thought I would find myself in.”

Miarren fanfic covers the full breadth of human sexual fantasy, from Swier finding an engagement ring in Criss’s closet (“The box made her tremble a little, because those blue with a golden rim boxes were only made for one thing”) to a sexy scene in which Criss shows photos of himself in costume for Hedwig and the Angry Inch (“Mia finally tore her eyes from the screen and looked up at Darren, who didn’t even realize he was holding his breath”). Typically, Swier, striking and exuding confidence, is under constant scrutiny as to whether she truly deserves Criss’s undying love. Coates, whose Snapchat and Instagram accounts are dissected for clues about Criss’s life, occasionally appears in the fanfic, too. But she is idolized in part because, as a lesbian, she’s not competition for Criss’s affection. “Whoever is peripherally connected to him,” Coates explained, “they form opinions of who we are and whether we’re deserving of association with him.”

Fame is an agreement to be loved by strangers in exchange for being drafted into a narrative someone else controls. These stories, though, are built out of facts—fans want something real they can use as evidence for their own fantasies of celebrities’ lives. In the 1840s, the charismatic performances by pianist Franz Liszt inspired mobs of young women to fight over shreds of his gloves, handkerchiefs, and even cigar stumps to keep as mementos. A hundred years later, the management of fan frenzy was professionalized as Hollywood studios crafted their stars’ offscreen personas with as much care as their onscreen roles: fake names to suggest rugged masculinity, fake marriages to conceal homosexuality. In 1955, Life reported, “Fans are urging 29-year-old Rock Hudson to get married—or explain why not.” Actress Loretta Young had to pretend to adopt her own daughter in order to protect the career of the father, Clark Gable. But despite these invented fictions, the banalities of stars’ real lives still held sway over fans. Starline Tours began taking sightseers to movie stars’ homes in 1935. There is almost nothing to see on these tours, because the more famous the person, the further back from the street her home sits.

Social media takes the plebs behind the wall. Even better than getting into a celebrity’s house, they can get into their brains through their phones. The flood of famous trivia—favorite smoothies, waist-cinchers, bathroom décor, best friends—has spawned fandoms that act like amateur detectives. Think CSI: Instagram. But while social media seems like a mirrored window that lets us glimpse famous lives, it’s two-way. Celebrities can peer back into the minds of their fans, who, thanks to those very same platforms, are curating their own public personas as carefully as studio publicists of the past. Social media is a prism that fame passes through, refracting in unpredictable ways.

Excess fame has beamed off Criss and Swier to a friend of mine, Matt Glueckert—and then to me. Glueckert, who met Swier through friends in the music business, was the subject of fleeting fan interest in 2012 after he was tagged with Swier in a beach photo posted on Twitter. Swier looked happy in it, and fans noticed: Could it mean she was actually with Glueckert and not their heartthrob? (No.) Glueckert thought the attention was fun, until the novelty wore off. Last fall, Glueckert invited me to a Halloween party that Criss and Swier also attended. On Instagram, I lovingly documented the pumpkin I’d carved and, without realizing it, captured a blurry but recognizable Criss in the background. In a big group photo Glueckert posted, I was tagged with them; my head is only 24 pixels wide and half—covered by a stupid red hat. Within hours, three Criss fan accounts were following me. They have since abandoned my otherwise Crissless feed, but the event has been canonized by Miarren historians who have entered these photos into a Tumblr “miarren masterpost”: “Darren and Mia attend friends’ pumpkin party,” with our photos as evidence.

Instagram is a branding platform, and my Instagram exists to advertise to people I don’t see all that often that I am a super-fun person who does weird, cool stuff all the time. So to be tagged with famous people—and then have fans of those famous people meticulously document the photos—was basically my greatest possible Instagram triumph. I sent a link to the photo to my status-conscious friends: “Plz acknowledge my fame.” “So proud of you,” one replied. “Fucking finally,” I said, and meant it.

There is a constant referendum on social media on whether the famous deserve their fame. Swier originally got on Twitter to promote her band; she loves being able to talk to people all over the world about her music. But she’s careful not to put out personal information. She keeps her Instagram private. She stays off Tumblr, which, as home to much of the Criss fan fiction, is for her “a very scary and angry place.”

Much of the hate Swier gets is from CrissColfer shippers. To “ship” is to imagine a romantic relationship between two famous people, and teen girls especially like to ship two guys; CrissColfer refers to Criss and his Glee co-star Chris Colfer. On Fanlore, a sort of Wikipedia for fandoms, a post argues that girls write gay fan fiction because they’re fantasizing about being in a truly equal relationship, with no feelings of inferiority, no unfair gender expectations, no body image problems, no risk of pregnancy. But it’s hard not to see some internalized misogyny in some girls’ apparent inability to relate to other women. “Oh Mia how do I hate you? Let me count the ways,” wrote a CrissColfer shipper before listing nine, including, “she used to post really inappropriate things about him and their sex life on Twitter. She just did it for the attention, but it could have been really damaging for Darren’s career.”

In February, fans insulting Swier prompted Criss to tweet, “If you disrespect my girl, you disrespect me. You got a problem you take it up with me & we can talk. Like ppl with integrity. Kluvyabyeee.” This kicked up a storm on Tumblr. How could Criss be so rude? How could he insist his fans be nice to Swier? Even those who heeded their idol’s call seemed less concerned with Swier’s feelings than with the norms that govern their alternate reality. “I don’t care much for your shipping preferences or who you do and do not like,” one Criss fan wrote. “But you just don’t go insult people like that. I don’t care who they are, if you cared about Darren one tiny bit, and as long as there’s even the tiniest possibility that Mia is someone he cares about in any way (and there is, ’cause honestly, none of us truly know anything) then you just don’t.”

Being fame adjacent is not all bad, of course: Coates acknowledges her association with Criss and Swier has drawn more attention to her art and helped her videos go viral. In one she filmed in 2013 called American Reflexxx, performance artist Signe Pierce walks down the main drag of Myrtle Beach while wearing a short, tight blue dress, stripper heels, and a smooth mirrored mask. It’s night, and people are out on the street, acting a little tipsy. As Pierce walks wordlessly, sometimes posing, Coates follows with the camera, and men catcall: “I would love to make love to you with that on.” People gawk and point, and the crowd reacts as much to the camera as to Pierce. They want to document the scene—“I’m putting this on Instagram!”—but they also resent her. Women shout that Pierce is really a man. Someone throws water on her. As the crowd swells, it gets angrier, and violent. Teen girls throw bottles, then try to trip her, and she’s violently shoved to the ground, her shoes flying into the street. Who pushed her? An appalled teen boy says, “Some grown-ass woman.” Internalized sexism is sometimes expressed externally. Pierce lies on the ground bleeding while people circle her and stare.

Why did the mob get so angry? The mask probably made it seem like Pierce wasn’t a person. But, Coates said, “I think other people were also getting angry that she was getting attention—this weird micro-fame she’d gained in only ten or 15 minutes. It was upsetting people, they were following her around. It was this small experiment that reflects a lot of what happens in entertainment culture.” The mob had elevated the girl in the mirror mask to a sensation, but when she wouldn’t play along, they turned on her, decided she was a fraud, undeserving of adulation, and that she needed to be literally knocked off her high heels. In the last few minutes of the film, Pierce stands up, bleeding, holding her shoes. The spell is broken, she is a real person. As she lunges toward the crowd, people run away.