It started when I was 11 years old. I was flipping through the very first Seventeen magazine my mom ever let me have (June 1996 — Liv Tyler was on the cover, if you must know) and I saw one of those “hot guy” features. You know those “hot guy” features: A collage of very different, but still traditionally attractive actors and musicians. Conventional wisdom says there has to be at least one that strikes your fancy if you are a girl with heterosexual inclinations. (Otherwise, you can spend more time on the Liv Tyler profile.)
Anyway, I remember flipping through it and not being particularly struck by Johnny Depp or Edward Furlong or Jakob Dylan. I mean, I got that they were cute. I understood that women wanted to date them. They just didn’t speak to tween me.
Then, I turned the page and spotted a young Brad Renfro. He had greasy, tawny hair parted down the middle and he had such a direct gaze, that I truly thought he was staring me down. I immediately felt my first ever rush of sexual desire and developed my first all-consuming celebrity crush.
Over the next two years, I crafted numerous elaborate fantasy scenarios in which Brad Renfro and I knew each other, fell in love, fell out of love, fell back into love as adults, got married, had kids, and then split up again. Oh, and in most of these, I was a beautiful teen actress with a career (and looks) like Natalie Portman.
It was harmless, really. I was exploring my budding sexuality in a consequence-free environment and finding an escape from the tedium of being a boring, awkward and unpopular tween in Delaware.
However, part of me never stopped fantasizing like this. The first thing I do whenever I have a crush on an actor or musician is Google him. The second thing is to Google whether or not he is single. It’s very important to me that he’s available. I need to believe I have a shadow of a chance with him. I would be worried this makes me the biggest creep on the face of the planet, but I know for a fact I’m not the only woman who does this.
Last week, millions of women were devastated when they discovered that Ryan Gosling was expecting a baby with girlfriend Eva Mendes. Some of those women were upset that he was starting a family with a woman named Eva Mendes instead of a woman named Rachel McAdams, but most of them were appalled that he wasn’t having a baby with them.
I completely commiserate with each and every one of these women. I mean, Ryan Gosling is the platonic ideal of what a man should be: he’s handsome, tall-ish, charismatic, sensitive and can lift an Emma Stone-sized woman in the air. He’s perfect.
Let’s be real though. The actual reason why Ryan Gosling is perfect is that none of us have ever met him.
Whenever we crush on any other human being, we aren’t interested in them as people.
No, we’re not. We are obsessed with the people we think they are in our heads. By the time we’re adults, we know this. So, it’s easier to get over crushes just by getting to know our crush in real life. Either we hate them, they hate us, or we get to fall in love with the person who actually exists.
Celebrity crushes perpetuate the fantasy-element in crushing forever. It’s not just that we’re unlikely to ever meet our celebrity crushes, but most of them are in the business of selling fantasies. When a musician sings a love song, he or she wants you to believe that song is about your life. Professional athletes present themselves as modern heroes. Actors literally are paid to pretend to be other people.
I think intellectually we all know this. I think we all know that Ryan Gosling was never going to father our children. However, it sucks to have the clear proof. It becomes immediately harder to keep up the ruse in our imaginations. For instance, I think Chris Pratt is very handsome, but I can’t ever fantasize about him because I know he has a wife and son whom he adores. I suppose this shouldn’t matter. After all, it’s just fantasyland. (But I still carry too much Irish Catholic prudishness to ever want to be an adulterous homewrecker — even in my imagination.)
Where does this leave us? Should we stop fantasizing about celebrities? Hell no. Look, daydreaming is our brain having playtime and masturbatory fantasies about handsome men and beautiful women are part of our prerogative as sexual human beings. It is important to remember, though, that these people are people. They are just as entitled to their own private, personal lives as any of us. If Ryan Gosling is in love with Eva Mendes and wants to have babies with her, that’s wonderful. That’s his life, and it’s not yours. You deserve your own real life.
Fantasy relationships are easy; real ones are hard. It’s easier to imagine the emotional and sexual ups-and-downs of a relationship that’s not real than it is to actually put yourself out there in the real world. Forgive the crude metaphor, but all of my adolescent celebrity crushes remind me a lot of when I used to masturbate as a virgin. I had no desire to imagine sex as a messy, embarrassing or painful act. I just wanted the pleasure. Of course, just as I couldn’t imagine how bad sex could be, I also couldn’t imagine how fucking awesome it could be. It was fun, but it was hollow.
Fantasy romances are just like this. We’re sparing ourselves the bad stuff, but we also don’t get anything tangible. It’s all in our fucking heads.
The funniest twist to all this is that if we knew our celebrity crushes in real life, we probably wouldn’t want to hook up with them either. No one can ever live up to fantasies, but the people who sell them for a living are especially disappointing in the flesh.
About a year ago, I got to spend some time in a hotel room with one of my celeb crushes. It wasn’t sexy. It was a four minute interview for a super-serious movie he was promoting. Before I entered the interview, I had crafted this mental image of him being this witty, swaggering seducer. Gossips all say that he enjoys his liquor and his women. I figured he’d be flirtatious and fun. What I found was a sweet man with the saddest eyes I’d ever seen. He was very polite, but also very tired of being whomever he was supposed to be that day. Now, whenever I see him in a movie, or glimpse him on a poster or catch a friend swooning over him, I don’t feel sexual attraction for him. I feel bad for him. Let me say then, from experience, that it is literally impossible to have a raucous sexual fantasy about a man when you know that in real life that man doesn’t exist.
That all being said, a small part of me briefly blamed myself for Brad Renfro’s tragic death a few years ago because the fantasy-version of myself wasn’t there to save him. The rest of me told myself that he was a person I’d never met and it was time to move the fuck on.