Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton, eds.
CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing,
and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush
(William Morrow, 2016)
I have very few memories before the age of thirteen, but one is of my first celebrity crush: Bill Clinton. I remember sitting on the couch in our living room in New Hampshire, watching Clinton on TV and thinking, He is speaking to me. This happened around 1997 or 1998—I would have been six or seven—and even then I questioned the appeal of this gray-haired, pink-faced man who was old enough to be my dad. That said, we all know Bill is an exceptionally charismatic man. It seems now that my crush, which faded almost immediately after the speech, was more an attraction to charisma than to the president specifically. And, like any celebrity crush, it was absurd and short-lived.
CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush suggests otherwise. In the introduction, editors Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton write, “Celebrity crushes change and mold us into the people we will become, shaping our ideals, fueling our fantasies, aiding and abetting our conquests, and leading us to (or away from) the people we meet and fall in love with decades later.” The thirty-six novelists, journalists, YA authors, actors, TV writers, and athletes who contribute essays to the collection—ranging from James Franco on River Phoenix, to Stephen King on Kim Novak in Picnic, to Roxane Gay on Almanzo Wilder in Little House on the Prairie—describe how their first unattainable loves shaped their romantic tastes and relationships for years after. Alter and Singleton divide the book into thematic sections with tongue-in-cheek titles including “My Idol,” “I Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “We Belong Together,” and “So Wrong But So Right.” The success of the essays in each ranges wildly. In some, the line of influence drawn between childhood and adulthood feels a bit too straightforward and exact to be true. Other essays entertain compelling ideas about what it means to be infatuated for the first time—to not only like someone, but to want to be that person.
The best essays in the collection are self-reflective and surprising. In “Start Me Up,” Hanna Rosin describes finding an old diary in which she lists Shaun Cassidy and Mick Jagger as her crushes. Rosin explains that the choice to include a celebrity crush rather than a real person was because of her friendship with a pretty, blond, blue-eyed friend. She writes, “I knew it was her the boys really wanted to kiss, so that blocked me from feeling anything for any of them. I was her sidekick, the funny one, the tomboy.” Both Shaun Cassidy and Mick Jagger looked girlish to Rosin—“I don’t remember feeling exactly swoony, like the girls watching Elvis,” she writes of Cassidy. “It was a crush that in retrospect looks more like a proto-crush, a happy discovery that boys’ faces can be smooth and pleasing and pretty as ponies, without the knowledge that sometimes looking at them can feel like getting stabbed in the gut.” Jagger in particular she describes as “shape-shifty”—a man whose song “Angie” just as easily might be sung about “Andy” instead. If Jagger could shift from singing about a woman to a man, Rosin could “stop being the usher and change places with the one about to be kissed.” Rosin finds in Jagger’s fluid sexuality the possibility of her own fluidity—that she could be the desirable one, or the one to act on her desires. She concludes, “To this day, it’s the first thing I do when I meet a man: I look for the girl in there, even if she’s deeply hidden.”
While Rosin and others recognize complexities in their early attractions, the risk of writing about a first celebrity crush is the potential for cliché. Often the crush occurs when the writer is a teenager, and the indicators of teen-dom are all too familiar—the book features a lot of poster hanging, record playing, and Tiger Beat reading. The real problem, though, is when the attraction itself feels like a cliché. In “The Love Boat,” actor Andrew McCarthy describes a night home alone as a fourteen-year-old boy, when he discovers Adrienne Barbeau on The Love Boat. “Never in my fourteen years had I beheld such amazing breasts,” he writes. “Had I simply never noticed breasts before?” He later writes, “This woman seemed frail, wounded. Yet how could someone who possessed such an extraordinary bosom feel in any way less than glorious?” McCarthy goes on to do “what any self-respecting fourteen-year-old-boy would do”: masturbate into a sock during the next commercial break. At this point, the essay already feels like something we’ve heard before—but there is still hope that McCarthy’s adult reflection will give some witty insights. Instead, he concludes the piece by writing that his love for Barbeau was “fleeting but real, educational, and altogether absorbing. If I saw her today, I’d still want to wrap her in my arms to protect her. And perhaps I could.” Yikes.
The last section of the book, titled “Over It!” includes Emily Gould’s entertaining “My So-Called Crush on Jared Leto.” Gould describes her crush on Leto as Jordan Catalano in My So-Called Life—a kind of vicarious crush, during which Gould identified with the narrator of the show and saw Leto through the character’s eyes. Ultimately, the crush ends the way most do—with an abrupt shift from total attraction to complete revulsion. She writes, “I learned from wanting and then opposite-of-wanting him that it was not just possible but likely that when a crush or affair had run its course, you could feel an inescapable wave of nausea where once the pull of attraction had been just as automatic and just as strong.” She concludes that the Jared/Jordan crush prepared her “psychologically for the possibility that lust could turn into revulsion as surely as delicious cake turns into decaying garbage if you leave it in the back of the fridge too long.” For much of the book, it’s hard to buy the editors’ claim that a celebrity crush prepares you for future relationships, but Gould’s essay makes this point well: once you learn that attraction might vanish as promptly and intensely as it arrives, you never really look at a new crush in quite the same way.
CRUSH is in many ways like a celebrity crush itself: sugary, fluffy, occasionally delicious, and—with the exception of a few good essays—mostly trivial. Taken as a whole, the collection does offer moments of insight about coming of age that might have greater gravity if they weren’t peppered with hashtagged words and exclamations of “OMG” and “WTF.” What becomes apparent by the end, though, is something relevant beyond the realm of imaginary relationships with celebrities. The essays in the collection show just how one-sided attraction and love can be. The way a crush works, after all, is as a grand projection onto another person of all you hope a partner can be, and what you, by association, could be, too. All the better if that person is already a figment of our collective fantasies.
HILARY REID writes fiction, reviews, and criticism. Reid works for the publishing imprint of the New York Review of Books and lives in Brooklyn.