As it is with most celebrity airport meet-ups, what ends with a full-body photograph often begins with a last minute text. “Wanna meet Ariana Grande?” Sent at 3:14 p.m. on a Thursday, smack dab in the middle of November, the text, meant only for the eyes of a select few, was read in total by eight superfans.
From what the initial Arianator could gather, the pop star was leaving New York for an obscure and insignificant state. Funny though, because she wasn’t scheduled for any promotions or appearances, at least not to his knowledge. But, as he stared amusingly at his United Airlines smartphone app, one that just so happened to have Ms. Grande’s flight information and frequent flyer number, her final destination was the least of his worries.
Grande’s team booked her on three separate flights—one after the other, two hours apart. A nuisance for the superfan who wanted to catch her as quickly as possible, the tricky scheduling left him no choice but to logically guess her travel plans. Ruling out online check-ins and last minute delays, he finally settled on the 9 p.m. “As long as it’s not like last time when she didn’t show up at all,” he said, “We should be fine.”
After three months of shadowing New York’s millennial celebrity stalkers, a majority of whom are college sophomores, I was just beginning to earn their trust. The text, kindly forwarded with an address and time, was also enforced by a hard rule: bring no one. Out of respect for a fan’s hard work—the literal sweat, blood, and tears he or she put into sleuthing a celebrity’s whereabouts—it is commonly understood not to invite or show up with other free riders. Because mobs eliminate opportunities for conversations and photographs, the key is to keep these ambush meetups small.
An irrelevant in the grand scheme of celebrity stalking, I had a lot to learn. The unconventional hobby, as redefined by an elite group of social media-savvy individuals, superfans who navigate Instagram and Twitter with the most fluid of finger strokes, is about crossing the fame threshold between fandom and stardom. While the measures taken to meet a celebrity are, at times, questionable, the end goal, a hug, “hello,” and picture, is not. Coming from a place of adoration and gratitude, their extreme dedication, waiting hours outside public and private venues, is often hard for mere mortals to fathom and therefore misunderstood. For these superfans, nothing compares to a quick conversation with a childhood favorite or longtime idol—except, perhaps, a picture to prove that it did indeed happen more than once. The desire to share it across all social media channels is then immediate and automatic. “It depends on the person,” said one superfan, “I’ll fanboy on the inside but [on the outside] I try to keep my chill. No screaming, nothing. Afterwards, I usually tweet about how happy I am.”
Unfortunately, however, there were no square photographs or 140-character gloats to commemorate November 6, 2014. The subway to 33rd Street, PATH to Journal Square, car ride to Newark Liberty, and sprint to the departures terminal were all done in vain. Ariana Grande was a no show. Of her three United Airlines flights, she chose the 7:30 p.m. By the time the smartphone app updated to reflect her check-in status, the Arianators were too late.
Heads bowed down and spirits broken, the superfans parted ways. Disingenuous in their consolations—in their “better luck next time”—each knew that the slight miscalculation had cost the other a chance to uphold his and her social media image. As professionals, they quickly shrugged off their grief.
“Bieber’s in town,” a superfan offered, “He’ll probably be at the Four Seasons, Langham, or Palace if not at his pastor’s in [New] Jersey.”
“I might go for Kim and Kanye, they’re in town too,” said another.
“I still have to call Qantas to figure out when One Direction arrives in December. It’s still a secret though, guys,” said a third.
There was no point in dwelling: done with one celebrity and on to the next. The night was still young and it’s easier this way.
Veteran Lillie Gissen has been paving the way for celebrity stalking since 2010. An original, she began her career at age 16. Back then, when the Jonas Brothers were still together and popular, she considered herself among their biggest fans. In fact, Kevin, Joe, and Nick—their looks and their musicality—were the reasons she began her unique hobby in the first place. It was after a fellow Jonas lover suggested she “run in” to the brothers outside the Trump International by Columbus Circle, that she realized meeting them regularly, or meeting any other celebrity for that matter, was an accomplishable feat.
Consumed by the addictive adrenaline rush of meeting her favorite people, Gissen hangs out with friends who chase the same insatiable high. Driven, now more than ever, to maintain her social media image, one centered around the facade of a Hollywood fast life, she is constantly tracking down celebrities with seasoned ease. Still, she avoids referring to her hobby as stalking—at least in the ways that it suggests obsession and harassment. “I guess we’re used to it,” she said, but it sounds so bad when other people call it that.”
Reminiscing about the days before celebrity stalking became popular, Gissen recalls a younger more naive self, one unfazed by the competitive nature of her peers. Because she considered everyone her friend, the endless hours spent shuffling feet and trading salacious gossip outside hotels, with other fans, were always hours well spent. Best of all, the Jonas Brothers never shaded. Regardless the wait time, whether it 6 or 8 hours, Gissen consistently went home with a JB photograph.
Hardened by experience, she has since abandoned her doe-eyed demeanor, for a more practical and aggressive work ethic. At 21, she belongs to the exclusive grandma and grandpa ratpack—a generation of stalkers worshipped for inventing the tricks of trade. With little to no patience for inexperienced fans, irrelevants who seem to proliferate by the minute, she disapproves of the way the younglings suffocate celebrities. Their ruthless swarming of everyone who’s anyone, in front of cars, restaurants, and hotels, limit her chances of a successful full-body, never mind a less desirable head-to-head selfie.
Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, Boopsy429 had her own haunting melody of know-hows, and those eager enough to learn it, desperate tween and teenaged fans, marched to the beat of her tune.
While being Boopsy429 has its benefits, Gissen occasionally struggles to live up to her name. With 15,869 Twitter followers and 39,287 more on Instagram, she is a celebrity in her own right. Known as the girl on social media who constantly uploads, without fail, a picture with Hollywood’s latest darling—the most recent being Ansel Elgort—she juggles death threats and public declarations of affection on a daily basis. “It feels cool,” she said, “I’m kind of used to it now. I hate saying stuff like this because it sounds like I’m bragging, but it’s gotten to the point where everytime I go stalking, people know who I am.” There was, for example, that one time she and 50 other Ed Sheeran fans waited outside Radio City Hall for him to exit. Everywhere she went, every exit she scoped out, the fans followed. Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, Boopsy429 had her own haunting melody of know-hows, and those eager enough to learn it, desperate tween and teenaged fans, marched to the beat of her tune. One particular fan, too enthusiastic for her own good, marched right behind Gissen into the bathroom at Madison Square Garden to ask for a selfie with the stalker queen. Even though the One Direction concert was memorable, Gissen remembered leaving the venue, humbled and harrowed by the experience because she had to ask the fan if she could wash her hands first.
Gissen and I met for the first time at Aroma Espresso Bar on 42nd Street. Close to Hunter College and within walking distance from Grand Central Terminal, the Israeli coffee house chain was one of the few casual places still open at 7:30 p.m. Early to our meeting, the stalker-superstar seated herself at the first booth by the door. Dressed in a pair of baby blue American Eagle Jeans, Ugg boots, and a faded pink hoodie—staple wear I would come to recognize her by—she played with the fraying handles of her striped tote, one she is also never without.
The honors student, a junior studying journalism and communications at The City University, agreed to meet as long as she could still make the 9:20 p.m. train home to Ossining, New York. The fact that she agreed to meet at all, was a surprise. After unsuccessfully reaching out to several amateur superfans, individuals with less than 50 photographs to their name, I felt like an outsider shunned. The ramifications of their silent treatment, all the more glaring with their ceaseless social media uploads, made probing the private world of celebrity stalking impossible at best.
Perhaps protective of their hard-earned trade secrets or perhaps weary of prejudice and judgement, many preferred the comfort and anonymity of Instagram and Twitter. Cyberspace, with its predictable follows and likes, its occasional trolls and death threats, was simply what it was: manageable. The absence of direct contact, a virtual bubble of sorts, sheltered celebrity stalkers from reality. In their culture, one vastly different from ours, full-body photographs are normal and envied. Truth be told, the more photographs the merrier the stalker.
Unlike her lesser-known counterparts, Gissen was unapologetic about her eccentric pastime. Confident in her sense of self and impartial to her naysayers, the queen embraced celebrity stalking for the euphoria it brought her. For what it’s worth, though, she tried suffering through a year without it. Before transferring to Hunter College, the Stony Brook University freshman juggled a normal life of alcohol-inclined roommates and strenuous course loads. Miserable, she’d beg her parents to come home on the weekends. “I think they realized I really needed [celebrity stalking] in my life, or that it was a way I made friends,” she said, “They’d rather me do that then do drugs.”
So, little by little, celebrity stalking became the new Gissen family normal. Her parents, unconventionally supportive, ask about her latest triumphs and listen to her periodic woes. A Boopsy429 fan himself, Gissen’s father, former director of digital media at OK! Magazine, even has a Facebook album titled “Lillie and Celebs.” While occasionally weary of their daughter’s camping and car chasing techniques, the Gissens trust Lillie to prioritize her academics over the fervor and fanfare of her fast life.
Superhuman in her many abilities, there is little Boopsy429 can’t do. With a part time job at Millwood’s Drug Mart and school both seamlessly handled, the stalker to rival all stalkers is more or less invincible.
“So, who else have you been interviewing?”
In this day and age, celebrities matter. The universal obsession with famous people, demonstrated through extreme fandom and habitual “love to hate” proclivities, has pointed out a 21st century phenomenon: we use celebrities to enhance our lives. Their worldwide presence, deeply felt in the cultural and media landscapes of contemporary society, have made the likes of Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lawrence household names. “Fame is a funny thing,” said rapper Eminem in a 2010 interview with Brooke Anderson for Showbiz Tonight, “You know, actors, musicians, rappers, rock singers, it’s kind of a lifestyle and it’s easy to get caught up in it—you go to bars, you go to clubs, everyone’s doing a certain thing…it’s tough.” Yet, even with its trappings, its dangerous pitfalls, fame, the representation, possession, and quest for it, is still relentlessly pursued.
If it’s any consolation though, this is how it’s always been. The desire to be publicly recognized is an age-old predilection, one that only because of recent technological advances, has manifested and materialized in the stardom-fandom division. In The Frenzy of Renown, a historical account of fame in Western society, Dr. Leo Braudy traces the compulsion to stand out back to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. The English, History, and Art History Professor at the University of Southern California then follows the craze through the rise of Christianity, where “Jesus embodied a fame compounded of vulnerability, marginality, and powerlessness—a polemical denial of everything his audience had both admired and feared in the traditional imagery of public men and public institutions,” to the the democratization of fame where “a world of advertising and consumption,” became the ultimate cornerstone of Hollywood.
History aside, fame is further complicated by its inherent structure. There are A-listers, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, Bruce Willis, and Julia Roberts, people whose charisma and talent differentiate them head and shoulders above any and all competition, and then there are D-listers, people whose luck or uncanny ability to manipulate mass media make them known for being known. As Dr. Robin D. Barnes, professor of law at the University of Connecticut School of Law, puts it in her book Outrageous Invasions, Fame is “traditionally associated with individual demonstrations of superior skill or striking deeds as displayed by a select few [whereas] celebrity is more transient, relying on marking, timing, and instant appeal.” In short, celebrity is fleeting and stardom is forever. Celebrity is Boopsy429 and friends.
A week after the Ariana Grande fiasco, I found myself shivering on the corner of Bowery and 3rd Street. “Harry Styles sat there,” Gissen said, pointing her finger longingly at an empty chair outside the Bowery Hotel’s Gemma Restaurant. The 183 or so days since their last selfie together have served as a constant reminder that despite her prowess, Styles lives an ocean away. Her mind drifted back to the magical moment his face touched hers before she quickly snapped back to reality. Tonight was not the night to be thinking about him.
Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson, heartthrobs of the Hunger Games trilogy, were in town promoting Mockingjay Part 1. Jennifer Lawrence was here too, but because she never stops for photographs, it was pointless to even try for her. In fact, legend has it that the last poor stalker who did received the rudest awakening of his stalker career. Lawrence firmly told him that because she wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, selfies and full-bodies were out of the question. Leaving her to her old-fashioned ways at the Greenwich Hotel, Gissen decided it best to stake out the Bowery where the boys were due to arrive, any minute now, from Teterboro by car service.
Scanning the hotel’s main, service, and restaurant entrances, Gissen and two other stalkers kept their eyes peeled for heavily-tinted SUVs with TL or O6 license plates. After three hours of playing Where’s Waldo, the stalkers, tired and hungry, ultimately settled on dinner at Gemma. Spoilt by the timely nature of most airport pickups, where they could show up according to flight times, Gissen and her friends collapsed on the wooden chairs of the restaurant’s outdoor seating. Besides the frigid fall air, everything about their new location and new tactical approach was perfect. Not only did it have unobstructed views of both Bowery and 3rd, but from where we were sitting, the stalkers could easily sprint to the boys within seconds of their arrival.
Somehow, with their guards down and appetites quelled, the superfans missed the actors’ inconspicuous entrances. It was either that or the boys had already settled in before the stalkers began their prowl. Two pizzas, one burger, a hot chocolate and spaghetti later, anxiety that built from their inability to get Hemsworth and Hutcherson on the way in was channeled into dedication towards getting them on their way out.
Incognito in a baseball cap, Hutcherson was the first to emerge. Slipping straight past Gissen’s gaze, he walked briskly into a waiting T6 that was scheduled to take him and his family to dinner. Upon realization, Gissen beelined for the street, just as Hutcherson’s black Escalade began to pull away. Dissolving into hysterics, the celebrity stalker began jumping up and down and wailing uncontrollably in what seemed like a miserable attempt to hail the closest cab. Stunned, I watched with my mouth agape, unsure of whether or not to follow or to pull her away from oncoming traffic. Before I could decide, however, Gissen flagged down a driver—one who ended up dumping us two blocks north because he could care less about chasing the SUV. Still, nothing beats returning to the Bowery just in time to learn that we, too, missed Hemsworth by seconds.
If not for Sam Smith’s unexpected appearance that night, or for the individual photos we each accumulated, Gissen would have written me off as bad luck. Even though there are no guarantees to each vigil—each orchestrated bump in—her losing streak had been so heinous since meeting me that my presence was the only logical cause to blame.
“Celebrities live lives many people wish they had,” said Dr. Lee Barron, Professor of media and communication design at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England, “From the outside, the life of a celebrity looks perfect.”
Indeed, it does. Among a plethora of enviable examples, their wealth, their clique, their movies, their music, and, quite frankly, their existence—famous for being famous—their lifestyle emanates an undeniable magnetism. Celebrities, gilded by the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, are superhuman. And, in their presence, people are affected in the most curious of ways. Take, for instance, fans responding to One Direction. The semi-religious moment when they faint or forget their words, in the presence of their idols, speaks volumes of how incredibly influential celebrities are. If anything, the great lengths these star-struck fans go to bask in their fame only serves to champion their larger-than-life quality.
Para-social interaction, the scientific term coined by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in 1956, which defines the one-sided relationship between celebrity and fan, has evolved exponentially as a result of technological advancements. Sixty years ago, when radio, cinema, and television, were the only channels through which viewers and listeners experienced Hollywood, the “bonds of intimacy,” established upon the consumption of mass media, was, for the most part, in front of a box. “People on television [became] perceived as friends,” explained Dr. Barron, “They’re on [air] at the same time every week [and] they look to the camera as if they’re speaking to you.”
Because celebrities became permanent fixtures in the lives of their fans, it was not uncommon for admirers to look to their idols for advice and example on how to overcome life obstacles. Fandom, an effect the para-social relationship, is “a building block for the formation of identity, the establishment of social relations, and the navigation of rocky emotional and psychological stages in life,” wrote Dr. Robert van Krieken in his book, Celebrity Society. To expand on his point, the sociology professor at the University of Sydney drew upon studies of secondary attachment to rationalize adolescent identity formation. Young fans, he said, “engage with an idealized representation of the celebrity which constitutes an important basis for real-life social interaction.” Essentially, stalkers like Gissen, recognized their network of superfans as family and friends.
Extensive celebrity and fan use of social media platforms has eradicated the traditional aspect of para-social relationships. No longer one-way, celebrities are able to reciprocate fan interaction. “Twitter is arguably re-addressing this balance,” wrote Dr. Barron in his book, Celebrity Cultures, on the celebrity-fan divide, “It represents a medium that offers the potential for fans to be recognized by the particular celebrities that they follow.”
Kristian Sokolovski, Gissen’s best friend, is a die-hard Selena Gomez fan. The actress and singer has been his beacon of hope since her days as Alex Russo on the Disney Channel sitcom, Wizards of Waverly Place. Twelve years-old when the show first aired, Sokolovsi grew attached to the 23-minute episodes. In more ways than one, they gave him the childhood he could never have.
Forced to grow up at a young age, when his parents divorced, he watched what seemed like his whole world fall apart. “You know when you’re a kid and all you have to do is concentrate on going to Kindergarten and hanging out with friends?” he said, “I had to concentrate on how to survive. My parents were completely separated and I couldn’t see my mother.”
Everything he imagined a beautiful upbringing to be, Sokolovski found in the Russo family. Alex, Justin, and Max—Selena Gomez, David Henrie, and Jake T. Austin—the teenage wizards and show protagonists, were his make-believe siblings. In the rare moments he allowed himself a break from reality, he was, thanks to them, a kid again. Carefree and optimistic, Sokolovski projected himself onto their family—the family that, to this day, he still wishes he could have.
After spending two years in Macedonia, Sokolovski moved back to New Jersey for college. In doing so, he promised himself that he will find Gomez and thank her for everything she has given him. Not knowing when, where, or how, he clung to the idea of someday. Someday he will meet her. Someday all the pain he suffered will be worth it.
Thanks to a voting contest hosted by New York’s Z100 radio station, Sokolovski won a meet-and-greet with his absolute favorite person. But, instead of celebrating, he was more determined than ever to meet Gomez beforehand. At the time, a 39-year-old Selenator, who lost to Sokolovski in the Z100 competition, threatened to seek him out and kill him. Weary of the price on his head, Sokolovski was desperate to meet the Disney star in case he actually died.
Fortunately, days before the radio event, a couple of friends learned that Gomez would be staying at the Plaza Hotel while in New York. Knowing that to meet her has been his life’s ambition, they invite Sokolovski to come wait with them outside her hotel. New to celebrity stalking, he remembers being indefinitely suspicious of their plans. “I even asked if waiting outside the hotel was legal,” he said. Showing up at 9 a.m. and finally getting a selfie at 4 p.m., Sokolovski describes his first encounter with Gomez to be everything he imagined it would be.
Today, with 6,635 Instagram and 60,084 Twitter followers, Sokolovski has assimilated into the celebrity stalking community without much competition. Even so, the path to his virtual acclaim, hindered by sleepless nights, wasted hours, and failed celebrity encounters, has been everything but easy. Despite the public admiration, subsequent of his full-body accomplishments, Sokolovski is adamant that recognition and acknowledgement are not what he is stalking for. “To be honest, the word stalking, it’s another level,” he said, “I don’t like to use the word because it’s kind of offensive, not to you or me, but in general. People associate stalkers with harm. I’m only trying to meet someone I look up to.”
Choosing, instead, to refer to his hobby as “meeting celebrities,” Sokolovski prides himself on being remembered by his fave. He’s certain that out of all the other fans Gomez meets on a daily basis, she continues to know him best. Quite frankly, there is no reason as to why she wouldn’t. The star knows Sokolovski by first name and by social media handle—OrgazmicGomez—a shameless declaration of his allegiance as a Selenator. And, the last time they met, a little over three months ago, Gomez cupped his face while they were engaged in a 10-minute catch up conversation.
As a distinguished stalker, Sokolovski believes it his duty to help other inept fans, particularly those with limited access to big cities. Weeding through desperate help requests that flood his social media platforms on a daily basis, he mentally notes the usernames of those in need of a little extra help. Sympathetic to the importance of meeting a fave, the superfan is constantly looking to pay it forward whether it by passing along flight information or dissecting and sharing Twitter spottings.
But 2 years ago it happened like i got a follow (thanks to kristian) and i met her!! pic.twitter.com/4vQVL0B7VW
— ella luna ✨ (@ghostofyou) May 3, 2015
For the beginners and irrelevants who simply stalk for photos, followers, and likes, Sokolovski offers nothing more than a disapproving sigh. “There are so many people who will literally ask for a picture and that’s it! They don’t care about the conversation. To me, that’s selfish,” he said. But, selfish or not, it’s the hard truth: stalking produces fans who do it from the heart and fakers who do it for the fame.
Sitting at the Applebee’s in Times Square for Gissen’s birthday dinner, I remember thinking, “Look Ma, I made it!” Surrounded by a table of stalkers and there by invitation, I was no longer the irrelevant journalist hovering on the sidelines. Fluent in their slang, everything from full-bodies to OLs and T6s, I caught up on the latest gossip.
The seven months I spent stalking Gissen and her friends, as ironic as it sounds, were some of the most eye-opening ones of my budding career. Now impartial to their antics and accustomed their illegal ways, I have come to accept stalking as a millennial hobby—one made prevalent and possible by the technological advancements of our society. As Dr. Barron so eloquently put it, “Everyone with their smartphones is now a paparazzo. That does something to fame. It adds a new dimension to the para-social relationship.”
A more reserved fan myself, I prefer the para-social relationship the way it once was: unrequited. But, for my fellow Gen-Yers who have ineradicable “bonds of intimacy” with their idols, they bravely choose, instead, to push the envelope with fame—for reasons I’ll never truly understand.
“I don’t want to [stalk] forever,” Gissen announced to her guests, “I know that real life awaits after college. But, I still have one more year until I graduate and find a job.”
“Happy Birthday, Lillie,” Sokolovski said, raising his glass.
“To this,” said another, raising her glass in solidarity.