I never went through a One Direction phase. I was in high school when they were big, just a little too old for straightforward interest in a teen boy group. Yet, in April, as a single, queer, 25-year-old living with my parents, I became infatuated with Harry Styles, a person I’d hardly considered pre-2020.
It is a classic pandemic love story: He kept popping up on my TikTok feed. I listened to his newest album. Suddenly, with little else to occupy myself, he was all I could think about.
I listened to Harry’s albums on loop, impulse purchased a Watermelon Sugar T, and fantasized about meeting IRL as soon as possible. I enjoyed all the saccharine hallmarks of a new relationship. I giggled. I got butterflies. I daydreamed while he gazed back from my phone’s lock screen. On a particularly stressful day, I even drew a bubble bath and watched the One Direction documentary. “It started fun and lighthearted,” my friend Brian recalls, “and then you moved into posters-on-your-bedroom-wall territory.” I was embarrassed by the velocity of it all. I wanted to know, as a science journalist, what on Earth was going on with me. I’ve never had a celebrity crush half this size before. I started making phone calls to experts.
“Humans are social creatures. Of most value to us is to love and be loved,” said Elie Aoun, a New York–based psychiatrist who specializes in addiction. During quarantine, those of us isolating without a romantic or sexual partner lost the possibility of experiencing the intimacy we naturally crave. I was personally enduring weeks on end without seeing anyone my age, let alone a flesh-and-blood romantic interest. “The way we address our need to be loved is to provide more and more love,” Aoun explained. “In the absence of true human connections, we start these predictably unsuccessful relationships.” I am not quite willing to deem my relationship with Styles unsuccessful (yet!), but the rest of this makes sense given the loneliness I was going through in quarantine.
At least in a modern pandemic we have good crush material to work with. Back during the 1918 flu, even the most famous people in America would have been harder to get to know from afar. Over the past decades, social media has laid out superdetailed human blueprints onto which we can project the romance and friendship we crave in times of social isolation. “Opportunities for interactions with celebrities in the past were rare and carefully controlled by celebrities for publicity and promotion purposes,” researchers noted on this subject in 2017. “These new media environments have narrowed the distance between audiences and celebrities.” Over the past six months, for example, I’ve gotten regular glimpses into what appears to be Harry’s pretty mundane life. He grew a mustache. He went on runs. He protested. That kind of exposure wouldn’t even be possible with a cute next-door neighbor. Social media “normalizes celebrities,” Aoun said. “It takes these people who were historically perceived as greater than life, and makes them feel accessible. It allows people to feel like, ‘Yeah, maybe I have a shot.’ ”
Not only is he accessible, the Harry that lives in my head is, well, perfect. With him—unlike with all the nonfamous people I care for and love—there are no missed calls, no compromises, no squabbles or blowups. He’s never been in a bad mood after a long day of telework (not around me, at least). Plus he could never give me COVID-19. By being perpetually out of reach but always in sight, celebrities can comfortably grow in our minds into perfect prefab partners: “reliable, predictable, nonthreatening” said Gail Basch, a psychiatrist and director of addiction medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “That person will never let you down, and there are no burdens and requests placed upon you.” This is the beauty of a pandemic celebrity obsession. At a time when all you have to give is not much at all, it’s a form of love that requires of you only your imagination.
Technically speaking, celebrity crushes are a kind of “parasocial relationship,” involving unrequited affection flowing from fans. But the dynamic isn’t exactly one-sided: Celebrities actively encourage the loyalty and affection of their followers (understandably!). In one study, researchers found that the more a celebrity uses social media like Twitter conversationally, showcasing interactions with fans and other celebrities—rather than through obviously curated posts promoting upcoming projects, for example—the more fans engaged with the posts, which in turn encouraged them to seek out more content. (Which is to say: Harry knew what he was doing this year when he narrated a romantic bedtime story for the Calm meditation app and released a very touchy-feely music video during quarantine!)
Outside my circle of close friends, I was pretty embarrassed to be a part of a parasocial relationship. I didn’t need to be, I realized, as I examined the research. While “people who enjoy consuming celebrity culture have been pathologized, portrayed as miserable or lonely,” and characterized as hopeless stans, researchers have concluded chronic loneliness, neuroticism, and low-esteem do not predict parasocial interaction. “There is this stigma. We tend to think of ‘real’ relationships as 100 percent wonderful and ‘parasocial’ ones as messed up, which is not the case,” said Fielding Graduate University social psychologist Karen Shackleford. Evolutionarily speaking, the celebrities we fall for are among the most high-value potential mates we could encounter—physically attractive, charming, powerful, and wealthy. Studies have shown that parasocial relationships with celebrities seen as “ideal selves” can have self‐enhancing benefits for people with low-esteem. Fandom can also be a healthy and rejection-free way to safely rehearse social interactions and figure out what we want in a friend, lover, or even ourselves, Shackleford said. Maybe my own romantic daydreams have kept me in practice for the day I can safely flirt at bars again.
Few of us, in fact, escape some version of the celebrity crush. In one study of young adults, 90 percent reported having had a strong attraction to a celebrity; 75 percent said they had several. While it’s too soon to confirm, quantitatively, that the pandemic has stoked celebrity crushes, it would make sense if even more people than usual were turning to them as a coping mechanism. “It fills a purpose, especially now when things are unpredictable and uncertain,” said Basch. “It can be organizing and calming and soothing.”
That is, until it’s not. By week seven or eight of my Harry fling, the bliss wore off. I’d filled, even overflowed, all the time that I’d once spent with friends or on dates—or doing any activity that involved leaving home—with the crush. I had a hard time concentrating on work and couldn’t keep myself from Googling questions about him or watching his YouTube interviews. I felt myself bringing him up too often in conversations with friends. It got bad enough that my mom groans when she hears “Watermelon Sugar” on the radio now. The crush left me feeling obsessive, and distracted, instead of energized. “The purpose of daydreaming is to fantasize,” Aoun said. “But when it takes over your life, it becomes maladaptive.”
I started to wean myself off. I changed my phone background and limited how much I listened to his music. By the time I moved back to my apartment in August—and, more importantly, into the company of friends—I no longer craved Harry with such intensity. Today, I feel like I’m in the last stages of healing from a breakup. I haven’t heard the sound of his voice in weeks or checked his social media lately. I got a haircut and bought new shoes. Most importantly, I’ve started going on dates—with people who are unpredictable, imperfect, and wonderfully real. I hope Harry’s taking it OK.