By Shieva Salenhia
A few Sundays ago, I went on one of those big bus celebrity house tours. The kind of tour where you sit in the back of a minibus with the top cut off, being driven around by your tour guide, a middle-aged white man in my case who seemed grateful he at least doesn’t have to drive for public transit.
It was a beautiful, temperate Los Angeles day, sun shining and a light breeze. We waded through the crowd on Hollywood Boulevard, a block east from the Chinese Theater.
The tour company headquarters was a shallow store front with only a desk and five men in bright red polos running around with fistfulls of brochures. The only bathroom available was nearby at the crowded McDonald’s across the street, right next to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum and Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s star on the Walk of Fame. Our group trudged there and back to preemptively empty our bladders in preparation of the 3 hour tour.
Once we got back from our bathroom run, there was a Pakistani family already sitting in most of the roofless area. As luck would have it, only half of the minibus top rolled back. I ended up sitting under the tinted windows of the bus, which, to be fair, did extend up to the very top of the center roof awning but did also make me feel like I was just riding the city bus through Laurel Canyon, Holmby Hills and Beverly Hills.
We rode up Mulholland Drive, and our guide pointed out the homes of Pharrell, Britney Spears and Aaron Spelling. While I squinted through the tall, perfectly manicured hedges to see the houses’ barely-visible rooftops, my memory brought forward every random factoid about each celebrity mentioned.
Oh, that’s Britney Spears’ house? The one where she was kept in against her will while she suffered under her conservatorship? Is it the same one where she’s now filming videos of herself dancing and spinning around her living room for Instagram, the pool of comments below encouraging and concerned in equal turns? Personally, I was happy for her and her new husband, my favorable bias admittedly influenced by his Iranian heritage. We all know how it turned out: as many love stories, this one was a tragedy. Betrayal, subterfuge,
Our tour guide drove past Mulholland’s Drive Dead Man’s Curve without a whisper of reference to the Jan and Dean song, written by Brian Wilson, or the cultural significance of the term and its attached drama — a hairpin turn in the road where many a speeding or careless driver lost their lives.
Just as breezily as our tour guide drove past Dead Man’s Curve without mention of it, he was quick to call the public park in Holmby Hills, The American Dream. It was a lovely and serene park — lush green grass with plenty of trees for shade — nicer than almost every public park I’ve ever been to in the U.S. But grass like that shouldn’t grow in L.A., a city built on loose sand and silt, with droughts and water limits, limits often flouted by the rich. No one lives The American Dream except the rich.
Celebrities and rich people in general, we have accepted as a society, will always have access to the best of everything. The rest of us plebes down here on the earth, have to scrounge together our pathetic disposable income to go on a vacation where we can only afford to stay in a depressing chain hotel. Even if we can afford to dine at the hottest new restaurant in the city, we have to hover over our phones for the exact moment the reservations become available online to snag a random Wednesday dinner at 9 pm or a Thursday 3 pm lunch. We sit crammed into tiny tables for two, elbow-to-elbow with the next table over, while the wealthy can stroll in on a whim for a spacious dinner in the backroom.
I love a late lunch, but jealousy and envy are a real buzzkill. And frankly, it’s easier to be happy for people you don’t really know. You can think of them as in a different plane of existence from yourself and your circumstances. They can attain that level of luxury and extravagance because they’re nothing like you. The distance between your realities leaves room for your imagination.
I was unfortunate enough to be born into the middle class and forward-minded enough to get a practical degree and struggle to start a practical career so I can get a steady paycheck. It takes more energy to detach from the personal comparison and fight envy when it’s my own friends island hopping in Greece. If they can have the fairytale experience, why can’t I be there right along with them?
I could do the scrimping and saving for a week in hostels along the Mediterranean, which is certainly nothing to scoff at. But the green lens of capitalism always finds a way to make bitter the sweetness of our realities.
With celebrities, our separation comes from staggering disparities in wealth, and also the institution of media — the notion that a person, their image, and the resulting associations are a product in and of themselves. We buy into a kind of bizarre, packaged intimacy with famous people.
It’s completely emotional and illogical to spend time and energy on continuing research of the facts and fictions of Megan Markle and Prince Harry’s relationship, no matter how many Netflix documentaries and interviews they themselves have done in their own furtherance of the mythos of it.
I’m genuinely curious how the other half lives. It’s fun to escape the mundaneness of life in dreaming of their lucky station and all the fabulous resulting luxuries. Sometimes, I earnestly respect a famous person’s artistic abilities or just plain cleverness. But mostly, I want to know what it’s like to always have a hair stylist on hand to make sure I never have a funny patch of my scalp showing in the back of my head; or a make-up artist to seamlessly put on my make-up, instead of me painstakingly wiping away and reapplying my own crooked winged eyeliner with q-tips soaked in my spit.
Let’s face it, the lives and relationships of the rich and famous are fun to us because real relationships take work. You argue about which shitty dive bar to get a couple drinks at on a Sunday night. You squabble about the internet bills, the dishes, the lack of intimacy that’s grown between you. You mutter nasty things under your breath as the other person exits the room. It can be a drag.
I once dated a guy for three years, and never once met up with him without having first shaved my legs. It wasn’t about his preference or distaste for women with leg hair; he didn’t offer his opinion one way or the other. It was my own, internally-devised scheme to keep some parts of reality at bay — the dull parts, the messy parts, the distinctly human parts. In those three years of spending nearly every day together, I only took two shits while he was in the same building, and only because I really couldn’t wait. Bowel movements are inherently human, and to me, inherently unsexy. The longer you spend time with someone, the more likely all that human shit comes out.
But with someone you don’t actually know? You don’t know what’s around the corner, what they could take from you yet. If they’re famous, they’ll never even get the chance. Your inner neurosis can be wiped away in a parasocial relationship. What’s there to be self-conscious about when the other person doesn’t even know you exist!
Sometimes, it’s an unrequited crush. Sometimes, someone you just have close proximity to, a person you see semi-regularly but don’t cross paths enough or in the right circumstances to be close with them — a sense of familiarity but not enough of it that in reality they could ruin your life. Like a barista at your usual coffee shop or the same bartender who works the Tuesday night shift at your neighborhood dive. The type of person who is decidedly not flirting with you as they take your drink order, but you still can’t help wondering what your children together would look like.
People do this all the time when they’ve gone on one date with someone and then imagine a whole life together, though they may only know: 1. where their date went to college and 2. their date works in finance. It’s not enough to have a real relationship, but it’s enough to imagine these pieces of information as the bricks to a relationship’s foundation.
The only parasocial relationship I’m in is with my yoga instructor. Taylor is a woman in her mid-30’s, same as me, but she seems to embody the ideals I aspire to.
Her tattoo of the Fool tarot card, one of many across her arms and legs, tells me she values the kind of innocent, unjaded view of the world the card represents. On my best days, I find myself being cynical only in passing and call it a victory. On my worst days, I’m brooding from the moment I open my eyes first thing, simmering in my angst throughout my office hours, and then tossing and turning in my misanthropy as I try to fall asleep.
Taylor seems intense about nature because, from the pre-class announcements, the posters hanging on the studio walls, and her Instagram posts, she leads a lot of long camping and yoga retreats where folks are explicitly asked to have “strong hiking experience”.
Now, the idea of camping for days on end with nothing but the wilderness around me sounds lovely, but in reality, certain logical factors keep me from it. For example, my sweet blood attracts mosquitoes like city rats to waist-high piles of bursting garbage bags lining the boulevards the night before trash pick-up. The bites swell to half-dollar sized welts that itch and itch to the point I’m driven to madness. I’m also not particularly keen on going to the bathroom in the woods; see the aforementioned mosquito situation.
My yoga teacher is great at giving you the whole “feel-a-oneness-with-the-earth” you expect from a yoga class. I believe this is in no small part because she also works as a motivational speaker, says her clearly self-written bio on the yoga studio’s website.
I admire all these things about her, though that admiration makes me too nervous to talk to her about these semi-intimate personal details for fear of looking foolish. Oh, the irony. We’ve never had a one-on-one conversation. It’s the kind of parasocial relationship where I find myself compelled toward her in no small part because I don’t know much about her.
I stutter when I’m nervous, like my brain is moving too fast for my mouth to catch up with. Plus, everything’s always better in my imagination. Or worse, depending on my general level of optimism at the time. I don’t even follow her on social media because I don’t want to know enough about her to make her a real, complicated person in my mind.
I feel even more familiar with my yoga teacher because she has the same energy as my childhood dance teacher, Melissa. Something my friends from childhood and I call “earth mother” energy. She was a lovely woman who I spent nearly every day with for 15 years in her classes, learning modern dance, tap, liturgical. Living on the American prairie, the dance studio she opened in my little university town was a haven for creative, unique, strange girls and a few boys. She taught us about Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, and played Tori Amos and the Indigo Girls during our warm-up tendus and plies.
Melissa was one of those people I knew so much about, but I don’t think she knew much about me. If she did, she didn’t lead on. She had her favorites, the natural dancers, those inclined, perhaps by their genetic make-up, to have the discipline and physical fluidity to perform as she wanted.
Let’s face it, I’m not one of those naturally gifted dancers. Sure, I can keep a beat, and I’m mildly athletic (see: the yoga). I just don’t have the verve, the quality of movement to have been a favorite at the dance studio. Writing, if nothing else, was my passion from an early age.
Despite our emotional distance or maybe because of it, Melissa was a mother figure to me — someone who I revered and someone who I wanted to like me. I knew about her family, her kids. So many evenings after school were spent under her guidance. She taught me about art, discipline, community, creative expression. She yelled at us when we wouldn’t be quiet, and praised us when we did well. She gave me a place to explore being myself for many years, until I graduated high school.
Even with all the hours and years with Melissa, I still don’t think she knew more than superficial details about me. Not that I blame her. But it is odd knowing so much about a person who I invested so much time in and who had no idea who I was on a personal level.
The dance studio of my childhood was a place of feminine energy and eccentric women, who I revered in person before the internet allowed us to lurk from behind our computer screens. And at the dance studio, I also experienced my first parasocial relationship as crush.
Leslie was blonde, pretty and cheery. She was a few years older, not in the same school or in the same level of most of our dance classes. But we did see each other in the bigger company classes where about 30 kids would learn and perform modern dances choreographed by Melissa. I don’t think Leslie spoke even once, but I was infatuated.
Even as an elementary school girl, I could see she seemed to be the opposite of the women in my family, who are all dark-haired and moody, highly-emotional. I liked how bubbly she was with the other girls and I was jealous of the attention she gave them. She seemed perfect to me.
I was so enamored that I couldn’t get over my nerves to say hello to her. I had no reason to talk to her and couldn’t conjure up something to say either.
Finally, leaning on the only method of somewhat private and covert communication I knew, I wrote her a note I shyly handed to her at the end of one of our company classes as we were all leaving the studio, timing it just right so that I wouldn’t have to watch her read the note in front of me. I was too nervous to watch her reaction. And god forbid she thought I was weird for handing her a note. I wouldn’t be able to handle the humiliation.
I wrote to her that I thought she was pretty and cool, really the only things I knew about her since it was all I could glean from seeing her at the studio. It was the first time I’d put myself out there to anyone in an earnest way about my feelings. Regardless of how superficial the compliments were, it was a big step for me.
The next week at our company class, with all of us sitting along the edges of the studio space, chattering and waiting for class to begin, Leslie glided from across the room and handed me a note of her own. I was shocked to have gotten any kind of response, but also so excited, imagining what she could possibly have written back to me.
I don’t remember when I opened the note, but I remember what it said, to some degree, and that it was written in purple gel pen. She had written, Thank you for your sweet note! If you need a babysitter sometime, I can babysit for you. Ask your mom and let me know.
What had been a declaration of my admiration had turned into a solicitation for business. It was logical for a girl of her age to cast a few nets for babysitting gigs. Still, I was disappointed, though I didn’t know what I was expecting to result from my note.
Leslie’s response left me nowhere to go. My mother never hired babysitters. She was a stay-at-home mom and only went out to my parents’ friends’ houses for dinner, where my sister and I were dragged along to play nice with whatever kids were also present. And again, I didn’t have any expected outcomes for the situation. Maybe I wanted us to be friends. Maybe I wanted her to pay attention to me, to braid my hair like she did with some of the other girls, to be a cheerful mentor.
The infatuation fizzled out with the coming of reality. Once it dawned on me that Leslie and I had nothing in common and no practical way to be friends or be in each others’ lives, I gave up. It wasn’t exciting anymore to pine for her attention.
Having a crush is having an experience of insatiability. People are intriguing when you don’t know them, when you haven’t gotten used to the tedious details of their lives. You can build up your own stories about them. Projecting is so much easier than facing reality. The excitement of attachment with no risk is thrilling.
When we’re pursuing, we’re striving, fighting to get what we want. When we receive attention, affection, we have to surrender to the moment and the person. We have to be vulnerable, human. There’s only so much of our humanness we can hide anyway. Only so many times I can tensely hold all the shit in before I have to let go, expose who I really am, even the nasty parts. Maybe after enough experiences of rejection, it feels in some ways easier to hide the tender bits, the less-than-perfect parts.
Parasocial relationships give us the illusion of control. Like with any illusion, it can be intoxicating; and like with any intoxication, it can be overpowering and addictive. Imagining the lives of parasocial crushes past and present becomes like the mosquito bites I know I shouldn’t itch, making the discomfort last for days longer than if I just left it alone. But it can be overwhelming, the urge to scratch just a little.
The unrequited intimacy of parasocial relationships is what draws me most into them, and it’s also what repulses me most about them. It’s one thing to be curious about other people, and another to try to break into someone’s house because you’ve deluded yourself to believe you’re destined to be together with them, in spite of never having met. Absentmindedly scrolling through social media, I so often my cheeks flush with the thrill and agony of being a voyeur — safe but isolated, lonely.
Sometimes, I’ve had the kind of parasocial relationship where I’m scanning an ex’s new girlfriends’ instagram profile just frequently enough to know what they did three weeks ago. Or, 72 hours ago. Or the kind of parasocial relationship where I’ve become jealous of my super hot fashion girl neighbor once I found out she’s friends with famous celebrity stylists and takes trips via private jet. The American dream — fame and elitist experiences.
I spend hours looking for the inevitable signs that a person really isn’t as cool as they portray themselves in their perfectly posed photos. No one’s really that cool.
My neighbor may have famous friends, but we still live on the same dingy lot in the same gentrifying low-income neighborhood. Just because she can afford the big unit by herself doesn’t mean she’s exempt from being lame. Happening on her filming content for her social channels in our wonky asphalt driveway confirms that fact for me.
Not only do parasocial relationships distort our perceptions of reality, they also dampen our capacity to appreciate the people actually in our lives, for better and worse. We’re all guilty of taking our friends, our family for granted. Humans are very adaptable, and as a result, we get used to things and people and forget that they’re special and wonderful and that we don’t ever fully know them, regardless of how many days or years we spend with them. Even my mother, a person I’ve been relatively close to for 34 years, still tells me stories about her life I’ve never heard before.
As fun and entertaining as flipping casually through a tabloid can be, we have to remember, stars, they’re just like us. My yoga teacher recently did a sponsored post on her instagram, which I peruse but can’t commit myself to following, for butt wipes, supposedly biodegradable, to be used when you’re out camping. I’m not judging her for taking the check; I’m just shocked she posted so openly about shitting in the woods. And I’m a little disappointed to read about her pooping habits because pooping is one of those things that’s undeniably human. A real, multifaceted, complicated person.
There are photos readily available on the internet of the inside of Pharrell’s old house in Beverly Hills. I know this because I frantically searched for them on my afternoon riding the bus in the Platinum Triangle. But does that mean I know anything more about him and his inner world than I did moments before? How unusual that I know what his living room once looked like, obviously cleaned and organized for a magazine photo shoot; still, where I imagine he used to sit on the couch in his pajamas to watch Netflix on his massive TV.
No matter how fancy those houses were on my bus tour around the Platinum Triangle, no matter how high the thread count of the bedsheets inside, all those rich people still have to deal with the shit of life and be human sometimes.