Parasocial relationships

Feel like you ‘know’ your favourite celebrity? Then congratulations, you’re in a parasocial relationship

For those that worship at the altar of celebrity, there’s a very high chance they feel an emotional connection, and therefore are in a parasocial relationship, with their favourite stars. So what, exactly, does that mean? 

Talia Lee-Skudder, a marketing executive based in Manchester, first started watching reality TV, in particular the wildly popular Real Housewives franchise, in 2015.

“I started with the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills franchise and it went from there,” she tells Stylist. Since then, she’s watched nine out of the 15 franchises – from Beverly Hills to New York, in turn cementing herself as a part of what fans of Bravo TV, the channel which produces the shows, refer to as the ‘Bravo universe.’

While the quagmire of modern-day reality TV is nothing new, its increased ubiquity in popular culture has afforded fans seemingly real-life glimpses into the everyday existences and conversations of the once-normal-now-famous stars. In turn, fans of shows like Real Housewives and Love Island forge parasocial relationships with the stars, a term coined in 1956 by American social scientists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl to describe the one-sided bonds people at the time were beginning to form with TV stars. They claimed that increasingly engaged viewers were forming parasocial relationships or the “illusion of a face-to-face relationship” which fostered “intimacy at a distance” with actors.  

“Parasocial relationships are essentially one-sided pseudo relationships that we have with celebrities or public figures, whereby we possibly have lots of feelings, thoughts and opinions about them,” psychologist Honey Langcaster-James says. “Whereas that person actually doesn’t know us at all, and has no relationship with us.”

Langcaster-James names Beyoncé and the Royal Family as examples of parasocial relationships a person might have, particularly for somebody who describes themselves as a fan or follower of either. For Lee-Skudder, the parasocial relationships she has developed with the stars of the Real Housewives franchise are so influential that she has found herself adopting their mannerisms in her own life.

“I noticed it most after watching the Real Housewives of Atlanta because their phrases and language was so different to mine, but I literally have the show on all the time, so I pick up on the characters’ behaviour,” she says. “I also find myself defending the behaviour of the characters I really like, as though they’re my friends.”

Lee-Skudder isn’t alone in feeling close to the stars of the shows she watches. Recent research by cybersecurity company Kaspersky found that almost two years after the first national and government-mandated lockdown, one in five people believe they could be friends with the people they follow on social media, with 21% of respondents asserting that influencers offer a relationship they don’t have with anyone else.

“Some studies have also suggested that people with lower self-esteem are likely to develop more extreme attachments to someone they have a parasocial relationship with,” adds Langcaster-James. “They might become extreme fans or just very, extremely attached to someone that they’ve never met.” 

Thanks to the ascent of social media though, fans that engage in parasocial relationships with their favourite stars no longer always look the same way they once did. Another fan of Bravo TV, Maggie Kelley started a @BestofBravo Instagram account in 2018. Fast forward three years and the Nashville-born IT executive (she has a full-time job alongside posting to the account daily) has amassed a loyal and dedicated Instagram following of 202,000.

The account’s posts chronicle the daily lives, bickerings and dramas of the stars – which is to say, the real people – of Bravo TV’s reality shows. “I find it soothing to watch these characters that I have grown to love over the years,” Kelley tells Stylist. “I’ve been a Theresa [Giudice, a member of the cast of Real Housewives of New Jersey] fan from the beginning, I’m very invested in her family, their wellbeing and I love her four daughters.” 

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But reality TV stars, actors, singers and models alike are not immune to the age-old human trait of messing up; so how does it feel to be in a parasocial relationship with somebody that makes what could be perceived as a colossal mistake? Indeed, parasocial relationships – regardless of the intensity of the one you have with a celebrity – are part of the reason we, as a collective society, cancel people in the public eye when they do wrong. The honed art of the celebrity apology is, in fact, in response to the parasocial relationships their fans have with them. 

“That’s where it gets tricky,” Armitage admits. “We project a lot of what we want and need onto other people, but when doing this in a parasocial relationship, where you feel that you know that person and have almost a friendship with them, when they do something that doesn’t fit with your own projection of what you believe that person to be, then that causes upset.”

The presence of social media, and the ability to follow, like and comment on what people in the public eye are doing – has meant that for the first time, these bonds are no longer necessarily one-sided. “Social media has completely changed the qualitative nature of parasocial relationships,” Langcaster-James asserts. “What were once inaccessible people to us are now instantly accessible at the touch of a button, which means that any parasocial relationships we have carry the potential to become real-life relationships. That’s both exciting and daunting.”

While the prospect of a parasocial relationship becoming a real social connection is oft-times exciting for the fan, the potential isn’t always reciprocated by the public figure. Langcaster-James runs a company called On Set Welfare, which specialises in working with people who live and work in the public eye. “One of the things I’ve learned is how disconcerting it can be when you’re on the receiving end of a parasocial relationship,” she explains. “The feeling of people talking to you in a way as if they know you and they know things about your life can be draining, especially when you don’t know anything about the person approaching you.”

She references the way in which reality TV stars crave infamy and influence on the internet, without fully comprehending the impact it will have when they meet their fans. “Sometimes, you know, they say, ‘Well this lady started talking to me in the supermarket and knew about my children and knew about things about me’ etc,” Langcaster-James adds. “It’s a wholly unusual experience because it is actually so removed from what our sort of human psychology is used to in social relationships.” 

The reality is that, particularly with the ascent of social media, there’s no blueprint to fandom or the parasocial relationships we craft with those that we love in the public eye. As Maggie concedes: “At the end of the day, I’m just a fan surrounded by a community of other fans who love a TV channel and the people on it.” 

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Images: courtesy of Getty.