Two celebrity relationship scandals went viral this past week: a musician who has been in the mainstream zeitgeist for two decades, and an internet star who grew to fame among the first class of a totally new and uncharted type of fame.
The way the public reacted illustrates the unspoken rules of what audiences expect from celebrities.
Adam Levine of Maroon 5 represents a type of celebrity that feels so disconnected and unattainable to the common person that fans don’t expect access (though plenty will gladly take any morsels of confirmation of drama they’re given). And Ned Fulmer of YouTube’s The Try Guys represents a new generation of internet celebrities who often don’t feel they have that luxury of detaching from public opinion. The people demanding answers — to what perhaps should be a private situation — are the ones who built them up in the first place.
“While traditional celebrities are put on pedestals and fawned over by many of us regular folks, internet stars are somehow different, because they are far more accessible on these devices we stare at all day and actually could be any one of us,” says Dr. Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist specializing in celebrity mental health.
Trust-based vs. awareness-based fame: The psychology of being a fan
Fans reacted differently to each star’s cheating scandal news because the way they view their relationships to a celebrity like Levine versus a celebrity like Fulmer are vastly different.
A traditional celebrity might be famous in the sense that a lot of people know and recognize them, it’s a parasocial, one-sided relationship, Rockwell notes. An online celebrity gains recognition because people “care about their opinions and trust their perspective,” according to Brad Hoos, CEO of influencer marketing agency The Outloud Group.
“If something scandalous happens to an athlete or an actor or a musician, that stinks but ultimately people like them because they’re a good athlete, actor or musician,” Hoos adds. “For an influencer, ultimately it’s a trust and understanding of who they are and their community that makes them really powerful … but the downside of them violating that trust is much more significant because (their fame is) trust-based, as opposed to awareness-based.”
Of course, even the biggest A-list celebrities are people, too. But most stars in the entertainment industry don’t have the same back-and-forth, community-based repertoire with their fans that internet stars do and therefore seem almost other-worldly to the average person.
“The lives that (legacy media) celebrities live are so outsized, compared to the rest of us, from private planes, to designer clothes, to palatial homes, that we know we can never achieve such opulence and wealth. That level of high life is definitely unattainable to us,” Rockwell adds.
Those personal connections, or lack thereof, may help explain the public reactions to each of these scandals: Online responses to Levine’s breakup were overwhelmingly jokes and memes that used him as a punchline, while even casual past viewers of The Try Guys took Fulmer’s situation more personally, or expressed disappointment. “For not watching the try guys for like 4 years I am absolutely DEVASTATED by the Ned news,” one Twitter user wrote Tuesday.
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What do people in the spotlight owe the public?
When a musician, movie or TV star faces a crisis, they often have a team of several professionals to help guide them through: a publicist, a manager, a lawyer, an agent, sometimes even an additional crisis public relations specialist. A social media star might have a similar number of fans (Levine and The Try Guys both have millions of followers online), but often fewer resources: maybe a manager or agent, though each are likely more knowledgeable about branding and monetization than PR crises.
While the content creator and influencer industry has grown exponentially over the last few years, it’s important to remember the roots of internet fame are built upon the relationship between creator and viewer.
“Influencers have created a social community that’s clearly led by a person – or group of people in The Try Guys’ situation – but there is back and forth, and people then want to know more about the individual and they trust and understand them to really be part of that community,” Hoos says – which makes it all the more disappointing when an internet personality deviates from fans’ expectations, be it a product endorsement that clashes with values the creator has expressed, controversial comments that don’t align with the brand they created or a relationship that was presented as more perfect than it was IRL.
Both lanes of fame will likely continue to exist in the future, industry experts believe. Each type of stardom has its pros and cons, and ultimately it’s up to the individual star to decide what aspects of their personal lives they’re willing to share.
“With the internet, people have an option in terms of how behind-the-scenes you let your audience go,” Hoos says. “So long as you’re an actress or actor, musician, athlete … you can always choose to be known for that activity as opposed to being known for leading a community and sharing your whole self.”
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