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.