A cursory scroll through the Explore page on Instagram can feel like a visual assault: sponsored content, taunting influencer pictures and cute pets all vying for your attention through algorithmic targeting. As you work your way through the social media platform’s recommendations, you are also likely to encounter another constant: celebrity fan accounts.
The fan account has long been a fixture of celebrity culture, as the focus has moved away from tabloid newspapers to blogs and fansites, and from there to social media. From the now-closed Instagram page @beyhive, which had 1.2 million followers thanks to its regular Beyoncé updates, to the myriad Harry Styles fan accounts on the platform, and the gossipy shots of Ana de Armas Updates, these pages keep their many followers informed with daily repurposing of their favourite celebrities’ images and content. It is a fandom largely made by fans, for fans.
While the Instagram fan accounts of global music and movie stars might seem a logical extension of their far-reaching appeal and power, there is a proliferation of pages dedicated to British TV stars, too, from Holly Willoughby to David Tennant to Amanda Holden, all racking up followers in the tens of thousands, with many created during the 2020 coronavirus lockdown. But what is behind these more niche accounts, and what prompted their creation?
“When I first set up the page, two months into lockdown, I was on it five or six hours a day,” says 24-year-old Larissa Silva, a student from Rio de Janeiro. Her account, Paul Mescal Pics, has 18,000 followers and posted its first image on 6 May 2020, as the Irish actor’s popularity peaked while he starred in the BBC series Normal People. Her images added to the clamour fans were raising over his character Connell’s cool stoicism, scantily clad romantic scenes and, most bizarrely, his plain silver chain.
“I watched the series in one sitting with a friend and we couldn’t stop talking about it afterwards,” says Silva. “I searched for Paul on Instagram after the show and only found his own page, so I decided to create a fan profile for him, just posting images that I liked. Soon, other fans began commenting on how much they loved him and the show. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”
Silva developed a friendship with the administrators of other fan pages that began to spring up around the show, soon attracting the attention of Mescal himself, who would view their Instagram stories and sometimes respond to comments. One of her fanpage friends is Jamie Jones from Texas, who runs the account Normal People Support Group, posting images of Mescal and his co-star Daisy Edgar-Jones. The page has nearly 10,000 followers. “I watched the show in one sitting, too,” Jones says, “There was no one else in my small home town who had seen it, so I went straight online to start a page. I wanted to connect with others who I could talk to about it.”
“On the pages we get to be a part of the show in a small way because we’re supporting and celebrating it,” she says. “It’s amazing that Paul follows the account, too – I had never even set up my own account on Instagram before this, so it’s all new to me. I’m just an office worker in my 30s.”
As one might imagine, there are downsides to attracting such a committed following – especially when you are relatively new to social media yourself. “I try to keep the page about the actors’ work, since they deserve to have a private life,” Jones says. “When I started the page, I didn’t realise how many times people just comment things that have nothing to do with the show and that are hateful and ugly – attacks on their appearances or fame and talent. Cleaning up the comments to keep them positive is a daily job.”
Ultimately, Jones says running the page is a positive experience, even if she can struggle to do so alongside her day job. “My co-workers know that I’m a little bit obsessed so they’re really patient with letting me keep an eye on it,” she says. “On the whole, I try to focus on it only in the evening, as it’s meant to be a source of fun. I just want to support Paul and Daisy in whatever they do and I want to thank them for being a wonderful distraction during 2020. The more that I’ve gotten to know who they are as people, I think they’re very worthy of all the fanfare they get.”
Closer to home, 17-year-old Tasha from Surrey runs the Holly Willoughby fan account Hollywillsuk with its 31,500 followers. Starting the account in February 2020, it was not until the first lockdown began in March that the page began to attract followers with its mix of irreverent posts featuring the This Morning host’s outfits, as well as gifs and blooper reels. “I set it up because I started watching This Morning once school had stopped [during lockdown]”, says Tasha. I found Holly such a positive influence and I wanted to promote her.”
Like the Paul Mescal fans, Tasha has her own group chat with other Willoughby fanpages, while some of her school friends also run their own pages. “One of my friends has a Harry Styles fan account; I think online fandom appeals to young people especially, because we feel like we’ve been helped by these celebrities. We want to show our support in the only way we know how,” she says. “I post Holly and Phil’s bloopers from This Morning – lots of people message to say that it makes them smile and she’s even replied to me three times, which was surreal. I feel like she’s always empowering women, which clearly a lot of other people agree with. I haven’t really experienced any trolling or negativity on the page. It just seems to make everyone happy – me included – so I’d like to keep it going for as long as I can.”
Psychologist Dr Karen Dill-Shackleford of Fielding Graduate University in California, says this kind of fandom stems from a need for “intimate connection”. “We identify with these celebrities as an extension of ourselves,” she says. “Often we know more about celebrities than we do about people in our own lives, so we might naturally feel drawn to them. It doesn’t necessarily matter how famous a person is, as long as we recognise that identification. We’re pretty much all fans of something or someone.”
Shackleford describes the one-way relationship that many fans have with their celebrities idols as “parasocial”. “These relationships can help build empathy with others and if it is a fictional character we identify with, it can help develop our imaginations or challenge our perspectives by engaging with them and their other fans,” she says.
Shackleford explains that the “deindividuation” of social media – the loss of self-awareness when part of a group or not being able to say something to a person’s face – can account for some of the negativity described by the page owners. “This is why moderation of these communities is important,” she says, “that can then allow these spaces to become ones of connection and a much-needed comfort in a time of limited social interaction, as we’ve had during the coronavirus pandemic.”
And what of the celebrities themselves? The TV chef Ainsley Harriott is a stalwart figure of multiple online fandoms, with dozens of fan pages dedicated to him on Instagram alone, but he isn’t fazed by the attention. “It’s just a fact of modern life,” he says. “If I was a teenager now, I’d probably be doing the same thing, since social media is so instant it’s easy to build a connection. I’m just glad that my work makes people smile and encourages a positive reaction. That’s what I do it all for and the more people it can connect with, the better.”
With celebrity culture being reassessed and critiqued through documentaries such as the New York Times’s Framing Britney Spears, a debate has been reignited over the exploitative treatment of famous people, especially young women, by the media. Could the shift away from intrusive, paparazzi photos published by tabloids towards fan accounts largely reposting images that celebrities have shared themselves be a step in the right direction?
Silva certainly thinks so. She sees such pages as a healthy outlet for celebrity culture online, one distanced from the often critical demands of traditional media coverage. “I know some people might think of this as an obsession, but it’s not. It’s just an admiration for another’s work,” she says. “The thing that most catches my attention is the way that a person carries themselves in their public life. We should be celebrating those who leave a positive legacy.” It seems we will be seeing Paul Mescal’s necklace choices for some time to come.