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They’re Just Like Us! Kogod Prof. on Celebrity Deaths and Blockbuster Obits

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Hollywood star of Aretha Franklin.
Aretha Franklin's death in August 2018 set off a deluge of fan eulogies and tributes on social media.

Your social media feed is probably filled with news about politics, sports, or pictures of people’s cats. But you might also get this type of comment: “Oh, no! I grew up on his music! RIP [Insert Name of Artist].” There’s also a decent chance your friend who posted this A) has never met this now deceased musician, and B) hadn’t mentioned him in years.

The Atlantic wrote that we’re living in an era of the “blockbuster obituary.” Each celebrity passing spawns its own deluge of online fan eulogies, tributes from other Hollywood luminaries, and think pieces on the late celebrity’s artistry. The celebration of an artist’s life—all highly sharable on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook—can go on for weeks.

American University’s Kogod School of Business professor Cristel Russell has expertise in entertainment culture and marketing, consumer behavior, and media influences. In a recent interview, Russell observed a shift in how we interpret celebrity deaths.

“I think what has changed is that we have much deeper and seemingly closer connections to celebrities, and closer connections to other people who also really love those celebrities,” says Russell, a professor of marketing. “That’s because of social media.”


Cracks in the Wall

Russell has examined “parasocial relationships,” where fans relate to celebrities as if they are friends or family members. While this isn’t a new phenomenon, the walls between famous people and fans are breaking down.

“These parasocial relationships have always existed. Even back in the 1950s and 1960s, there were researchers studying how we make parasocial connections with radio celebrities. But now, we follow stars on Twitter, we follow them on Instagram, and we have friends who do that, too. So celebrities are much more prominently part of our social network, even though they’re still parasocial. They’re not real, because these celebrities don’t know us.”

If a prominent American novelist died in the 19th or early 20th century, people might have expressed dismay. When Mark Twain died in 1910, the New York Times published a few fan tributes in its obit. Despite reading their books, people wouldn’t have seen a popular author that many times. Nowadays, even an intensely private artist like Prince was—through web, video, and TV—still ubiquitous in the culture. Russell says we now have much more exposure to celebrities while they’re alive, and it can influence how we mourn their deaths.

“Celebrities are now human brands,” she says. “We usually know not just their work, but the person behind their work. Or we think we know them—we obviously don’t. But some celebrities really put themselves out there.”


Democratizing Fame

The death of Aretha Franklin in August 2018 felt like a national event. She was a musical icon—perhaps the best pop vocalist of her time—and her passing might have always solicited outcries of grief. But Beverly Hills, 90210 and Riverdale actor Luke Perry’s death also resonated with fans, even if he was no longer the A-list household name he was in the early 1990s.

“The question is, ‘What is a celebrity?’ A person may be what you call a ‘B-list’ celebrity. But for the people who really care about them, they’re super, super important. And maybe it’s more democratizing. There are some bloggers who have become celebrities in a very nontraditional way. For their followers, if they were to pass away, they would be mourning and grieving equally as much. So the scale of it is perhaps different in size, but it’s not different in the quality of the relationship,” Russell says.

She also explains how we identify celebrities with our specific age demographic. “I think that is what happened with Luke Perry. He epitomized the whole 90210 generation. Everybody who was a teenager—myself included—during those years sounded like they lost a person who was a common bond with their other friends of the same generation.”

If social media posts often appear attention-seeking and performative, Russell says people do take these deaths personally. Russell has researched people’s parasocial relationships with fictional characters in movies, TV, and books. She became intrigued by how audiences react when TV shows like Sex and the City or Gossip Girl go off the air, and she gauged fans’ adaptation process.

“What I found is that it’s very similar to a bereavement process of losing somebody who’s real. You have the phases of grief and mourning. And people are also going through phases of communally celebrating the highs and the lows of the show. They’re commemorating the show and collecting mementos,” Russell says. “So when a celebrity dies, it’s all of that plus more. Because now it’s not just a character, but possibly all the characters that the celebrity played.”

It can emulate how we cope with interpersonal relationships, Russell notes. And, she adds, people don’t respond differently if the figure is a musician, TV star, or even TV character. “There’s that same notion of closeness to the celebrity or the character. Sometimes it’s, ‘Carrie Bradshaw is my friend.’ But they don’t think of Sarah Jessica Parker, they think of Carrie Bradshaw,” she explains. “It’s the same universal processes that I’ve found: falling into a relationship, staying in a relationship, sometimes breaking up. Sometimes forgiving, and then losing and mourning the celebrity.”


Preserving the Image

Russell is considering research on the futuristic use of holograms, which have been controversial in movies. The Star Wars’ Rogue One filmmakers decided against using the late Carrie Fisher’s hologram, instead hiring a young actress and adding CGI effects for Princess Leia’s brief appearance.

“With holograms, are people upset because it’s sort of a violation of the sacredness of this now dead celebrity? Or are they excited that this brings them back to life, albeit for a short time? I’m curious about that,” Russell says.

In life and in death, a former star’s image can be degraded in other ways. Tabloids, hard news, and social media can unearth intimate—sometimes unsettling—details about a celebrity. In 2009, Michael Jackson’s untimely death evoked widespread sorrow, but new details about child sexual abuse allegations are arguably damaging his legacy.

Even if new information isn’t nearly as explosive, can we sometimes know a little too much about our heroes? Could these bonds begin to fray? “Yes, but then people can still redeem themselves, or audiences will forgive them. It’s human nature, if you really, really love someone, to be forgiving,” Russell says. “From a consumer standpoint, people might only remember the good parts.”