Death is powerful. Celebrities are, too. Combine both and celebrity deaths lead to the million-strong crowd lining up along Princess Diana’s 6km-long funeral cortege, the two million origami cranes fans folded for the tenth anniversary of Cantopop superstar Leslie Cheung’s death and the potential redeisgn of the NBA logo to immortalize Kobe Bryant.
Consider 2016, known as a year of great loss. A slew of celebrities bowed out of life within that 12 months. Public mourning and memorials crossed continents, both online and offline. Most of these grieving fans have, almost certainly, never gotten a call from George Michael, never shared a meal with Carrie Fisher, never taught in class by Alan Rickman, and never danced with David Bowie.
But they grappled with grief that seemed stronger than what they may feel for real-life acquaintances. In 2014, five Michael Jackson fans sued his doctor, who had administered the medicine that Jackson overdosed on, for “emotional damages”. They won. So why the intensity of emotions for a human being who does not even know our names?
Celebrity deaths: What is dead may never die
To answer this, let’s put on some ripped jeans and “Billie Jean” and travel back to the 1980s. Meet Carmen Nge, a 13-year-old Malaysian living and breathing everything Michael Jackson. The King of Pop was gyrating on her television screen, crooning and hooting on her radio, posing in the posters on her walls, and romancing her in the fan fiction she was writing about him.
“No sex, but you know, kissing and hugging Michael Jackson, becoming his girlfriend, those fantasies were in there,” recounts Nge, who is now a 48-year-old professor in a Malaysian university.
When not firing puberty from all cylinders on paper, teenage Nge practised the Gloved One’s iconic moonwalk and learnt his songs by heart. So did all her friends. The collective craze for Jackson, she now believes, fuelled her obsession. So confident she was of Jackson’s character that when allegations of his sexual abuse of young boys surfaced around 1993, she brushed it off. No way would her idol hurt others, she thought.
Fast forward to 2009, when Jackson died. Watching the telecast of the memorial service held in Los Angeles, Nge’s tears went full Niagara Falls when the performer Usher, a disciple of Jackson, sung Gone Too Soon.
“I was surprised at how emotional I was. I think it’s because I was watching a lot of fans sharing the sadness, especially Usher. A lot of the emotions stemmed from identification. I was already in my thirties at that time and Jackson had gotten weirder with his plastic surgery and all, so I didn’t identify with him so much anymore. But I identified with Usher and his memory of who Jackson was in our heads,” says Nge.
“The feeling was that ‘we are Usher’.”
Why does it hurt so much?
No fan is an island. Fandom is about relationships and connections. Susan Kresnicka, a cultural anthropologist who studied fandom, notes its benefits.
“When we wear our Clone Club T-shirt on the first day of class, subtly inviting other Orphan Black fans to initiate conversation, or when we stay close to our daughter during her difficult teen years through our shared love of Supernatural, fandom is providing social connection. When we better understand some facet of who we are through Jesse Custer or who we want to be through Hermione Granger, fandom is helping us explore and craft our identity.”
Hence, it is not difficult to imagine the pain of losing a celebrity who helped define one’s social relationships and identity. But another major ingredient in the knuckle sandwich to the gut? Like Nge, fans often feel like they know the celebrities personally.
“The celebrities may be distant physically to their fans, but since the days of the radio, the electronic media has created intimate virtual proximity between the artist and the consumer,” Liew Kai Khiun, an associate professor specialising in pop culture and social studies for Nanyang Technological University Singapore, tells UNRESERVED.
Beyond that, he explains, celebrities are also cherished for what they symbolise. This is partly why licensed merchandise sell particularly well after celebrity deaths. Jackson, for example, has earned US$2.1 billion within nine years after his death and John Lennon’s trademark sunglasses fetched a fortune at an auction. Similarly, Bowie and George Michael both have their posthumous records released, while James Dean continues to be hot property in Hollywood.
The right and wrong ways to deal with celebrity deaths
Jackson’s legacy, which withstood scandals of his unstable conduct and drug abuse, is once again put to the test. A HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland, delves into the testimonies of James Safechuck and Wade Robson who alleged that Jackson sexually abused them when they were children.
But what hit home was their wide-eyed adoration for Jackson when they were kids. The inordinate faith in the King of Pop culminated in Robson’s parents allegedly letting the seven-year-old boy sleep with Jackson in his bed, even though they have met only four hours prior.
But there are also those who find it disrespectful to bring up the allegations again and sully a dead man’s name. They fall back on the reasoning that the court had cleared the popstar of wrongdoing in 2005.
A similar case recently was when Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s creative director, passed away in February last year. A day after that, actor Jameela Jamil had called out Lagerfeld for being “a ruthless, fat-phobic misogynist”. The German giant in fashion had been known to openly fat-shame others, call feminists “ugly”, and say that Syrian and Muslim migrants weren’t welcomed in Europe.
Bryant’s death opened up the debate once more, as A Washington Post reporter twetted about his 2003 sexual assault allegation, shortly after the superstar’s death. The reporter, Felicia Sonmez, faced a fierce backlash online and was initially suspended by the paper, before being reinstated after she was found not guilty of breaching the company’s social media policy.
Therefore, although the celebrities may have expired, their influential power has not. In some cases, death may have amplified it. Together, celebrity deaths create tidal consequences that cannot, and should not, be belittled. But, like all power, it is perhaps best to be wary.
This article is an excerpt form UNRESERVED’s May 2019 issue from the article Idol Worship.