You won’t believe who I just saw.
I’ve sent this text way too many times throughout college. Sometimes the message pertains to an old acquaintance — someone I met during the Welcome Week of my freshman year, only to never speak to them again. Sometimes it’s about an old and hated Graduate Student Instructor of mine who I saw skateboarding through the Diag. But most of the time, I send this text because I’ve spotted a celebrity, and I am simply starstruck. This is not just any celebrity on par with Taylor Swift or Adam Sandler, but my own personal celebrity — my campus celebrity, so to speak. This person, unnamed for the simple reason that I don’t know their name, is someone who I feel that I know. I feel like I know their coffee order, or which TV shows are their favorites, or what their go-to order at Chipotle is. I feel like we may actually be friends, maybe because they wore the same shoes as me one day or because we sit two rows away from each other during one of our classes. But the truth is, I don’t know them at all. I just know they exist, either from seeing them on the streets of Ann Arbor or on a specific social media platform; everything else that I’ve construed about them — their major, their social life, their hopes and dreams — are things I’ve made up on my own time, fueled by nothing but my own, and maybe my friends’, delusions. Regardless, I’m obsessed with them.
I believe there are two major categories of campus celebrities. One category consists of those people who are famous on campus for a reason specific to the University of Michigan, such as any Michigan football player or that guy from TikTok who interviews random people throughout campus. The other category is made up of those completely normal people without any touch of fame. They’re the ones who live a completely ordinary existence, the ones we latch onto and turn into our own personal micro-influencers. These people don’t know me and I don’t know them, but they are the personification of my hopes and dreams, my wants and wishes, my jokes and my humor. They’re all my cumulative desires rolled into one.
But before we have an established parasocial relationship with an ordinary person, how do we even choose a campus celebrity? It may be the way someone dresses, with self-assured style, or the way they carry themselves through Mason Hall with a general air of self-confidence. It may be the way you find a myriad of stories residing in the mystery of someone’s irises as you lock eyes with them on the Diag. Or maybe you’re drawn to a specific person because you see them every day on your way to class and they’ve become a staple in your daily routine. I’m not exactly sure what causes us to gravitate toward a particular person and project upon them a detailed identity, but it most likely has something to do with an amalgamation of snap judgements and curiosity. As our specific, interesting person roots themself in our mind and captures more and more air time, completely unbeknownst to them, they naturally form into our campus celebrity.
For me, my campus celebrities act as a vessel for my romanticization of daily life. I’ve spent far too much time and effort constructing perfect worlds that reflect my own desires and interests. For example, I’ve assumed that all my campus celebrities have majors in the humanities or liberal arts realm, as opposed to my STEM major. In ways like this, I am allowed to dream of possibilities that aren’t normally a part of my reality. My storytelling and projecting allows me to escape the harrowing details of my own mundane routine — roommate drama, academic tribulations, a general feeling of stress — and offers me solace that perhaps life is quite literally perfect for someone else.
Last week, I was stressed about a big exam of mine, and while studying, I saw one of my campus celebrities in the library. They were sitting with their friends, a large iced coffee in one hand and an Apple Pencil in the other. Immediately, I sent a text to my friends, excited that a campus celebrity of mine was also studying late at night. But instead of sympathizing with the fact that they were in the library at 11 p.m., perhaps studying for an impending exam, I chalked their presence up to social purposes rather than academic responsibility. It was hard for me to imagine that they might be meticulously drawing hexagons for their organic chemistry exam instead of goofing around, working ahead on their non-science related work. To me, their days are filled with rainbows and sunshine, and they probably don’t ever feel stressed because they have no reason to be.
Personally, I think our obsession with ordinary people also lies in the fact that humans have an innate draw to storytelling — a narrative allows us to make sense of the world around us. Why else did the ancient Greeks explain weather phenomenons with myths of ancient Greek gods, and why else do I religiously follow reality television shows in my eagerness to learn more about celebrities? Perhaps we’re quick to create stories around an individual in an effort to understand them and maybe understand ourselves a bit more, too. By putting in an effort to figure out someone’s quirks — how they act, how they function, how they see the world — we also see reflections of and connections to ourselves. Through our understanding of the intricacies of a stranger’s life, we obtain subconscious comfort in the fact that we’re all more connected than we may think.
Stories bind us together. While I have my own personal campus celebrities, my friend group has a communal one — someone that we are all equally invested in. As trivial as it sounds, deliberating the trials, tribulations and triumphs of this person’s life has brought all of my friends closer. Our group chat contains texts upon texts consisting of freak-outs and jokes from instances when one of us has spotted an individual we’re all mutually obsessed with. Our campus celebrities give my friends and I a common point of excitement, one that we consistently use to fuel each other’s enthusiasm with.
Of course, stories bring us joy as well. The beginning of the semester was extremely exciting for me, because it just so happens that a campus celebrity of mine is in one of my discussion classes. As I’ve gotten to know more about them from interacting with them over assignments and group work, I’ve found myself reevaluating the campus celebrity idea all together. My campus celebrity is extremely cool and very personable in real life, but I now can’t believe that I’ve spent months idolizing them and putting them on a niche pedestal, when, in fact, they are quite like me. My obsession with them completely obscured the fact that they’re a normal person with a normal life — one that was, to my upset, very different from the one I had cultivated for them. After spending time interacting with someone I’ve revered for so long, I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe campus celebrities are a little unhealthy. To think that other people have “perfect lives” creates an atmosphere of negative isolation and invalidates our own human experiences. We shouldn’t let a fictional story that we’ve created for someone else make us feel bad about our own realities.
With that said, I also think it’s wonderful to celebrate people for the fact that they are people, to admire someone for a positive attribute they possess or because they seem interesting. It’s fun to immerse yourself in someone else and create a world for them for the purpose of wanting a story and wanting to understand an unknown individual. At the end of the day, storytelling is an entertaining enterprise, giving us a way to share so many pieces of knowledge, passion and personality with each other.
So, if attaching quirky — sometimes delusional — details to a stranger brings enjoyment and enrichment to our lives, then so be it. I think the key is to never take this parasocial obsession with a random person too far. I know I will still be sending many You won’t guess who I just saw texts, but I’ll also be taking each story I craft with a grain of salt. I know not to internalize what I’ve constructed and take it to heart. I’m still my campus celebrities’ biggest fan. Not because they’re perfect and happy all the time, but because despite my detailed life story for them, I know they’re human and probably don’t have it all figured out — which is a way more gratifying notion.
Statement Columnist Ananya Gera can be reached at email@example.com.