t was the autumn of 2015 when Georgia stopped updating her Sarah Michelle Gellar fansite for the first time. “The things that made me fall in love with her in the first place, she wasn’t doing them anymore,” she remembers. Gellar, the star of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and films such as Cruel Intentions and Scooby-Doo, had largely pivoted away from Hollywood and co-founded a company that sells home-baking kits. It was a far cry from talking dogs and staking monsters. “I was still such a giant fan, but she wasn’t acting and she wasn’t getting photographed as much,” Georgia continues. “There was nothing to post. I felt like I was being nostalgic all the time.”
Georgia’s dilemma, in which her favourite famous person retreats from the limelight in pursuit of less compelling ventures, has become a strong suit among celebrities of late. Rihanna hasn’t made an album in five years but has become a beauty mogul. Cameron Diaz retired to make wines. Gwyneth Paltrow traded acting for making vagina candles. Left to grapple with all that dead air are the fans, who are suddenly faced with fewer news updates to pore over, closed-door board meetings in place of red carpets, and fewer things to write about on the fansites they run. And that was even before the pandemic began.
Rihanna’s exodus from music has basically become an internet meme at this point, every one of her Instagram posts inevitably serenaded by fans asking: “Where’s the album, sis?”. “Years ago, music was just one focus of the updating of our site,” says Angey, who co-runs Ultimate Rihanna. “She’s not only not releasing music at the moment, but she’s really hiding out, and not in the public eye in the same way she used to be.” The pandemic notwithstanding, Angey points out that Rihanna had already stopped going out in the same way as the global lockdown hit. “She’s not walking the streets of New York, or clubbing, because that was such a huge thing. People were like, ‘Ooh, new pictures, quick, upload this, spread it everywhere.’ She’s not seen in the same way. It’s such a huge turn from the way it used to be.”
Some fandoms have been plunged into existential crises at the absence of their idol. Cult pop singer Sky Ferreira has been teasing the follow-up to her debut album Night Time, My Time for eight years, and there is still no release date in sight. She’s acted and given interviews to high-profile magazines in the interim, but her actual musical output has been minimal. “As I set up this account at 17 years old, never did I think at 21 years old I’d still have no Sky Ferreira album to update,” wrote the dejected Twitter account Sky Ferreira Updates last year.
Emma Watson Updates, meanwhile, oscillates between nostalgic Hermione Granger imagery and conversations about its future. Their idol has been off-grid since last summer, when her Instagram account became inactive. She chose to not significantly promote 2019’s Little Women, and reports this week have claimed she’s effectively retired from acting. In a December poll asking the site’s followers what they expect from the star in 2021, 65 per cent of Emma Watson Updates users voted “*crickets sound*”.
Perhaps the most extreme example of a bereft fanbase is that of Britney Spears, who disappeared from the public eye and then popped up on Instagram with posts that occasionally aroused concern. Her fans began the #FreeBritney movement, galvanised by the recent New York Times documentary about the star’s troubling conservatorship. They have largely gone into protective mode, eager to seek both karmic and legal justice for her, while others have grown more conspiratorial. Spears’s Instagram comments regularly play host to theories about covert communiqués from the star, as well as allegations that old photographs and videos are being fraudulently presented as new.
For the most part, none of the stars who are MIA from their best-known pop culture day jobs are truly MIA. Instagrams are updated; product launches are rolled out. Anyone even vaguely famous today is far more available to be tracked by fans, or merely gazed upon, than they were before the advent of social media. But that instant connection also makes it harder for fans to say goodbye to the stars they once knew, especially if they pivot away from entertainment. And fans living in a cultural economy fuelled by content are quick to worry that something’s wrong if they don’t get a steady supply of it.
“In the modern age, it’s almost impossible to retreat from fame,” says Hannah Ewens, author of Fangirls, an extensive ode to pop music fandom from The Beatles to One Direction. “People and often fans see their support as a non-negotiable deal to access. Fame isn’t seen as something that can be given to a person and later thrown away. It’s a contract to do with freedom, really. It’s why conspiracy theories about celebrities faking their deaths and living in solitude on some tropical island are so popular, with fans in particular … We simply don’t like the idea of famous people arrogantly throwing away their ‘gift’ that we bestowed upon them.”
Often, though, there is empathy. Louisa ran a Taylor Lautner fan group on Facebook at the peak of the actor’s fame in the Twilight franchise, but stopped updating it once Lautner began working less in its aftermath. Her life also got in the way. “I’d just started college when the last Twilight came out,” she remembers, “which was also the last time he was in a big, big movie. For a while I was able to balance it all, like living my life and going to class while also updating the site. But then I just got too busy, and I think Taylor himself maybe wanted to stop being as ‘out there’ publicly. I call it a mutual break-up.”
Lautner is very active on Instagram, with 6.2 million followers, but hasn’t acted since his run on the BBC Three sitcom Cuckoo came to an end in 2018. Louisa still looks back fondly on her years in the Taylor Lautner fandom. “I made so many friendships there, and was able to be creative,” she says. “But looking back, it was also probably a lot to be the actual person everyone was there for. It was intense. I totally understand if he wanted to stop working as much, or just not be famous anymore. He must have made so much money from those movies. If I could just chill on a beach somewhere with my Twilight money, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
If there’s anything that unites the stories of these stars, it’s that they mostly became famous as children or teenagers, and their growing up was done before the cameras. Alongside all of that was, for many of them, an absence of personal autonomy. There were agents and publicists, producers and record labels, journalists and photographers all hovering in the background and shaping the stars that millions of fans fell in love with. In return, they gave and they gave. It’s therefore no surprise if they grow up and wish to escape the Hollywood rat race or become CEOs of brand start-ups. There, at least, the trade-off between producer and consumer is more balanced in their favour. Megastars have greater control over their visibility, the work itself is their own, and their personal lives don’t automatically bleed into it – you don’t need a red carpet date when there’s no longer a red carpet to go to.
“It does seem that artists only seek total privacy when they’ve reached mass visibility,” says Ewens, about the way in which celebrities often deal with fame. “It makes me wonder whether it’s only good while it’s useful, so when you want to make money or receive initial accolades. There’s almost nothing redeeming about being highly visible – especially online – outside those two things … There’s so much pressure that comes with visibility and there is almost no escape from it. At least in the early to mid-stages of your career.”
But if those stars do decide to return to what first made them so beloved, they will be met with cheers. “As soon as Rihanna comes back with a single or any kind of news regarding music, people are gonna be quick to reactivate their accounts, even if they left,” Angey insists. “I swear, none of us are ever gonna leave for good.”