The following feature appears in the February 2016 issue of NYLON.
“If my eyebrows don’t look good I’m not posting it,” says Michael Benyamin, clad in a Balmain T-shirt (“for H&M!” he clarifies in a Jersey accent) and a black long-haired faux fur jacket, as his friend snaps a photo of us together on a dark Chinatown street. Benyamin strikes myriad poses while I stand like a stone next to him, my Instagram photo shoot game clearly beneath his. Later the best shot will get posted for a following of over 10,000 people and I will become a very tiny part of the Internet celeb’s highly curated brand. Because in taking a photo with Benyamin, I am, sort of, also taking a photo with Lady Gaga.
The 21-year-old Benyamin is better known to his followers as “Maikeeb” (or @maikeeb_kills online), one of Gaga’s most visible and popular fans. Except he’s also so much more than that: He’s a rising stylist, club kid, and fashion plate whose persona was built almost entirely on his admiration of the singer. Benyamin and his ilk are torchbearers of a new kind of fandom: devotees of celebrities who are so visible and admired that they now have fans of their own. In 2015, your love for Harry Styles or Justin Bieber can make you a star, too.
FROM FAN TO FAMOUS
For decades, the divide between fans and their idols was clear; idols made the media and fans consumed it. In the 1950s, if you wanted a picture of your favorite singer you bought a head shot or tore one from a magazine. In the ’60s and ’70s, you might have mailed letters to bands or joined official fan clubs to connect with the artists or like-minded enthusiasts. In the ’90s and early aughts you tuned in to TRL to hear from musicians in real time.
And then, of course, the Internet exploded. Suddenly, people could reach their favorite artists and fellow devotees directly on platforms like Twitter and Instagram; social media also allowed individuals to broadcast their admiration in an unprecedented, public way.
“A fan would become notorious within a fandom, but that didn’t translate outside of [it],” explains psychologist and fandom expert Lynn Zubernis of what it was like in the pre-digital era. “[Now], the Internet has allowed for bigger fan visibility and fans can get famous outside of just small communities.” Zubernis calls these high-profile superfans BNFs, or “big name fans,” who today can reach astonishing levels of notoriety. Indeed, in the modern world, fans are no longer just consumers of media, but also very successful producers of it—from every bit of blogged fan fiction to all of the viral Vines of a Justin Bieber song cover—and other fans want a piece of this content, too.
THE CELEB SIDEKICK
“If it weren’t for Gaga I would have zero following and zero public persona,” Benyamin tells me. After moving to America from Egypt at age 11, he soon found solace in Gaga’s music as a bullied, gay teen. He eventually began traveling into New York City from his hometown in New Jersey to see her perform and became increasingly entrenched in the Gaga fandom scene. Benyamin finally had a teary-eyed first meeting with the singer after hunting down her hotel post-concert, an encounter which grew into a casual friendship of party-going and hangouts. And then, there was “Yaaas Gaga!”
“When it was happening, we were just shocked at how good she looked,” says Benyamin of the well-known Vine, recorded by fellow Gaga fan Johnny Versayce, of the star walking out into a crowd of paparazzi amid a chorus of Benyamin yelling “yaaas Gaga,” a now-famous Internet phrase he claims he helped pioneer. There’s no denying that he is one of Gaga’s biggest followers: His Instagram is littered with pictures of the two of them at fashion week and in clubs. Meanwhile, his own followers snap paparazzi-style photos of him in the street and send him letters and art. “I’m not just a fan, I’m someone who cares about her, who will ask: ‘How are you doing?’” says Benyamin of how he’s gotten closer to Gaga than other fans. “And I think [my fans] see something in me that they see in her.”
Benyamin, who aspires to be a stylist or someone “who creates trends” (and has even interned in fashion at NYLON to those ends), is not afraid to say he likes the attention he gets on social media from his ever-growing network of fans. And he owes his success to Gaga. “I used to tweet 100 times a day when Gaga was just blowing up on Twitter,” he says. “That was my claim to—not fame, but my claim to…something, you know what I mean?”
THE MEDIA MOGUL
Since the age of six, the photographer and professional fan known as “Stalker Sarah” (or @stalkersarah on Instagram and @sarahmonline on Twitter) has taken thousands of photos with celebrities, from Miley Cyrus to Drake. When she was 12, she started a Flickr account to post her pictures, initially just for her family to peruse. Gradually, viewers from all over the world found her profile and began making requests. When she got pics with the guests at Demi Lovato’s 17th birthday party, her photos went viral; before long, stars like Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens began pulling her into parties because they recognized her. “It started to get weird,” says Sarah. “I’d be at an event and I’d take a picture with someone I’d never taken a picture with, and they’d say, ‘Thanks, Sarah!’ and start talking to me like a friend.”
Part paparazzi, part collector, Sarah is one of the most prolific celebrity-selfie photographers on the Internet and—with her signature brunette hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and dark eyeliner—among the community’s most recognizable faces. As for the name? When she was a 13-year-old Jonas Brothers follower, a group of older fans mocked her photography hobby and dubbed her “Stalker Sarah.” “I was offended for, like, two minutes, then I thought: ‘That’s genius,’” she
says of the insult, which she ended up adopting as her moniker. “The controversial name drives people to my content, but then they find I’m not controversial at all!”
The 20-year-old is understandably media savvy, too, now parlaying her hobby into a promotional career that includes a forthcoming app that she claims will be as big as Twitter. But in an age when celebrity photos are an Instagram handle or Google search away, what exactly do fans get out of Sarah’s selfie collection? Likely a way to live vicariously through her: “I’m an accessible, indirect connection to these celebrities that kids don’t have access to,” she says. To be or to date Justin Bieber is undoubtedly a fantasy for many fans, but to be the girl who actually gets a rare selfie with him feels far more tangible.
Sarah wouldn’t call herself a celebrity, but rather a “well-known photo blogger.” Though she does admit that she is famous enough that she can’t attend One Direction or Bieber shows without a security guard to keep her from being mobbed. “It’s because my photos are everywhere,” she says. “They know my face, but they don’t know my story.”
THE RISING AUTHOR
In 2012, Anna Todd fell into a One Direction Internet rabbit hole and stumbled upon the “Imagine” Instagram account, where paragraph-long fan fiction is written into the photo captions. A Directioner herself, she started writing her own, only to delete them later out of embarrassment. “Those were the dark days of my 1D fan-fiction writing,” says Todd, laughing. She instead decided to join the website Wattpad and began publishing After, fan fiction about the band that tells the story of a young girl named Tessa Young who’s drawn to a sexy bad boy named Harry Styles.
“I had never written anything outside of school,” says the 26-year-old Todd. “There was no pressure, I was just writing for fun and not really thinking about what would come of it.” After started to gain major traction online, racking up an impressive amount of views (the number is now over one billion). The series’ tremendous popularity eventually led Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint to offer Todd a multi-book publishing deal, and now the fan-fic story is even being made into a film by Paramount. (However, the original One Direction character names had to be changed for legal reasons, with the story’s “Harry Styles” becoming “Hardin Scott.”)
“At first, I thought it should stay online,” says Todd of her initial hesitance. “But then I thought, I spent hundreds of hours on this thing; I’m a writer, I deserve this!”
Todd wouldn’t call her followers—who she says are “crazier” in countries like Brazil or France—“fans,” but rather “friends who experienced this with me.” And she credits her fortune not just to hard work, but to how big of an industry there is right now for fandom. Clearly, there’s a market for what fan-fiction writers’ work has to offer its readers: a side of their idols that they will almost certainly never experience in real life. “To fans I might just be a ‘romance author,’ and to literary people I might just be ‘that 1D writer,’” concludes Todd, laughing. “I just really don’t care!”
MORE THAN AN OBSESSION
Screaming music fans have always had it rough. The “fangirl” or “fanboy” has never been taken anywhere near as seriously as the rock critic, though both probably spend the same amount of time each day overanalyzing songs.
“Obsession” can still be coded with negativity, especially for female fans, explains Zubernis. The time and dedication that the most zealous of fans devote to their idols can in some cases be viewed as unhealthy. And while musicians might be more accessible than ever in this social media age, many people question at what point fan activity constitutes an invasion of privacy. The slope can be slippery. “It’s not the passion itself [that can be abnormal] as much as the related behavior,” says Zubernis. “When it gets you in trouble or leads to breaking social norms or appropriate boundaries—when it significantly interferes with relationships, work, school, or daily life and functioning—then you’ve got a problem.”
But the fact that some young people are now finding personal success as superfans suggests that perhaps perceptions are changing. That could be because many of the mega-fans today are more interested in producing art, fiction, and other content of their own, inspired by and celebrating their idols. Indeed, as Stalker Sarah explains it, “[We] are the best promoters, better than publicists that you pay.” She’s not wrong: Fans take their work seriously. And sure, some people might still judge, but really, these fans are laughing along with them—all the way to the bank. “Older fans still have a lot of shame,” adds Zubernis, “but younger fans are like, ‘Screw that, I’m allowed to love what I love.’”