The recent assault on X Factor winner Leona Lewis demonstrated the extremes of fan obsession. Cormac Duffy explores the weird and far-from-wonderful world of celebrities and their biggest fans
On 14th October, Peter Kowalczyk spent five hours waiting outside a branch of Waterstone’s book shop in Piccadilly, where X Factor winner Leona Lewis was due to sign copies of her new autobiography.
In an event that has almost monopolised celebrity gossip headlines for the past fortnight, Kowalczyk waited until he was at the top of the queue before assaulting Lewis, punching her in the head. Footage of the incident has leaked onto YouTube, showing Lewis being escorted out while security tackle Kowalczyk to the ground as he laughs maniacally.
It’s one of those bizarre stories you couldn’t make up, and has inspired a fair amount of awful puns (one blog post: “Apparently she kept bleeding, kept, kept bleeding…”), but there is a serious side to it. Celebrities are often accused of having cushy, detached lifestyles, but in fact, as the assault showed, they are as prone to danger as the average Joe. Of course the herds of security guards that follow each celebrity give them a sense of security none of us have, but as the story demonstrated, such shields are not always impenetrable.
The motives behind the attack are unclear. Initial tabloid reports jumped to the standard sociopathic loner/stalker hypothesis, but as the story developed the conclusion appeared different. It seems that Kowalczyk was a failed X Factor contestant, and was intensely jealousy of Lewis for her victory. Both reports are sketchy, but both put the incident down to Kowalczyk‘s obsession, whether it was a veneration or loathing of the star. Of course, it has to be an exceptional level of obsession – there is a very fine line between screaming in the front row at their concert and staying quiet in the bushes outside their house.
It is impossible for us to imagine what drives people to act out in such a way. Maybe the only insights that we have are gained from fiction. When most read the initial coverage of the attack on Leona Lewis, they – myself included – assumed the attack was carried out by a stalker. This led my mind to think of Misery, Rob Reiner’s film about an obsessed female fan who holds her favourite author hostage, and then to Scorcese’s criminally underrated King of Comedy, which tackles almost identical issues.
The female stalkers in these films, played respectively by Cathy Bates and Sandra Bernhardt, can still scare any man off the idea of fame. But it’s not always women who serve as the basis for fictional obsessees. Let us not forget ‘Stan’, Eminem’s ode to a fan whose devotion to the rapper drives him to mental breakdown. All these have become iconic, and are all likely to be quoted at anyone who is seen by their friends as developing an obsession.
But, these are all fictional, and the fictional never approaches the weirdness of real life.
The most notorious case of celebrity obsession is the murder of John Lennon. The assassin, Mark David Chapman, was less an obsessive fan and more an obsessive hater. He thought Lennon had betrayed him by making negative comments about religion and abandoning the hippie lifestyle, and decided – much like Kowalczyk – that something had to be done.
Stranger still is the case of John Hinckley Jr, a delusional psychotic who developed an obsession with Jodie Foster after seeing her in the movie Taxi Driver. Foster was only 13 years old when she starred in the movie, and Hinckley continued to stalk her until she was 17 and studying in Yale University. As she spurned his advances, he tried to win her affection by attempting to assassinate then-US President, Ronald Reagan. Reagan was fortunate to survive the attack, and Hinckley remains under psychiatric care to this day.
Foster’s brush with Hinckley showed the danger of putting teens and younger children in the public eye, and was not the only occurrence. Irritating tween Miley Cyrus was frequently reported to have been stalked by a middle-aged man. And last March, security at CBS television network arrested a trespasser on the set of Dancing with the Stars. It was reported that a search of his car revealed guns, duct tape, zip ties, and love letters addressed to 17 year old gymnast Shawn Johnson, a contestant on the show. It rarely gets any scarier than that.
Whatever drives stalkers and obsessed fans is truly beyond our empathy; and it should probably remain so, but maybe it is possible for us to see the celebrity lifestyle in a new way. We tend to focus on the glamour, the fat pay cheques, the publicity and the general luxury they surround themselves with.
Yet the exposure someone receives as a celebrity comes with risks and dangers that can’t be ignored. By now it’s almost sure that most stars have learned to feel a certain sense of wariness when they hear the phrase “I’m your biggest fan!”.