Christina Grimmie had social media to thank for her rise to fame: Before becoming a contestant on The Voice, she was a YouTube star. That’s how Kevin Loibl – who shot and killed Grimmie after she performed a concert last Friday – found her, through her online presence. Co-workers said he went on a vegan diet to lose weight and got hair plugs to become more attractive for Grimmie. They teased him, but he swore someday he’d marry her.
Though Loibl had no personal connection to Grimmie, social media gave him a seemingly intimate view of her world. On her YouTube channel she posted videos from her bedroom and her private recording studio. She looked like the average teenage girl, heavy eyeliner shading her wide eyes, black hair flat-ironed into a straight bob, instead of some manicured celebrity paying a stylist for perfection. She was accessible.
This is what artists hoping for fame must now navigate: spaces like YouTube and Instagram have the power to propel an unknown to instant recognition; legions of fans click subscribe or follow and suddenly a singer recording songs in her living room is a phenomenon. But it also allows voyeurs to creep into their lives – and while some just want to watch, others, like Loibl, take this as an invitation for obsession.
Social media masquerades as a way to tangibly connect to strangers, to feel friendly with your favorite stars. The illusion is powerful, allows the public to demand that celebrities give up more of their inner lives, convinces us that we, as their fans, are owed this access. Privacy is suddenly a flexible term when selfies and Snapchats from home and private planes and VIP parties are the norm.
Celebrities willingly use this new medium to their advantage, enduring the judgmental comments and creepy DMs as the price paid for a new way to market themselves. But it provides more to fans than just a peek into glamorous lives: In 2013, a teen asked Kate Upton to his senior prom in a YouTube video; she said yes, and when she couldn’t make it, Danish model Nina Agdal even stepped in. A year later, a teen in Texas took a NFL cheerleader to his prom when his tweet asking her to be his date got 10,000 retweets. These encounters were all consensual – sort of. Twitter muddies the word’s definition. Celebrities have an online presence of their own free will, but in the real world, 10,000 retweets might feel like the equivalent of a stranger banging on your door, night after night, until you just can’t ignore it anymore.
Celebs sign up for social media to stay relevant and increase their reach because they feel pressured to feed the rabid public’s need for more information even when it feels like they’re discarding important boundaries. Now fans can demand attention in the form of mentions, follow requests and private messages – and while it’s certainly possible many celebrities are gratified by the constant validation, it is also disturbing to consider that at some point the public decided that celebrities should be appreciative of our constant, frenzied attention. Because after all, we’re the ones who make sure they get paid, right?
Not so far behind these invasive and entitled young men demanding prom dates from strangers are the fans who become dangerous: Ivanka Trump’s stalker sent her pictures of himself covered in blood via Twitter. Loibl himself claimed that he played “online games” with Grimmie. (Her camp has denied this.) Instagram-famous model Kourtney Reppert received emails from a cyberstalker proclaiming that he intended to “cut [her] fucking head off.” In 2012, Christopher Chaney got 10 years in prison for hacking into Scarlett Johansson‘s computer and posting her private nude photos online.
It’s possible to change your locks and hire a security guard, but avoiding Twitter and Instagram now seems like a strange eccentricity reserved for an older generation. The morsels celebrities post on Instagram don’t just offer a coveted glimpse into the life of famous people, they satisfy the craving people often have to connect with a star at a deeper level – one that used to be satiated with simple grocery store gossip magazines. Now social media, as much as it has created the fame of women like Kendall Jenner and Hailey Baldwin, empowers the public to feel sense of ownership and possessiveness over the lives of celebrities – and in a scary echo of victim-blaming sexual assault survivors, fans think they “asked for it” when they decided to live life in the spotlight.
The contract that celebrities have created with their fans online – that they can have limited access to their private lives – doesn’t translate well to reality, where the admiring public doesn’t seem to understand that the rules are different. Out on the street, even celebrities need space. Amy Schumer won’t take photos with fans anymore after one guy got in her face, and Justin Bieber recently declared he’s done with fan photos because he feels like a “zoo animal.”
Famous women aren’t people in the minds of their fans, they’re inventions. And while that always been the case in some sense, the inventions are no longer pure fantasy torn from the pages of a magazine. With the added dose of social media’s reality, the line between celebrity and fan gets blurry. The inside look of Tom Hiddleston and Taylor Swift dancing at the Met Gala made fans feel like they were in the same room with the couple, watching alongside their friends. Doesn’t that make us their friends, too?
Loibl’s pathetic desperation to be in Grimmie’s life led him to murder her, and though it is clear that he was already deranged, the strange world of social media certainly encouraged his obsession. Unless celebrities and their fans agree that allowing us unprecedented access is not worth their lives, women will continue to be at risk – no longer safe from the prying eyes of drooling admirers, not even when they’re separated by a computer screen.