People ask me why I became a journalist. If I’m being honest, the answer is Christian Slater.
At 16, all I wanted was to meet him and become his girlfriend. The best way to do that, it seemed, was to pursue journalism and work for an entertainment magazine. An editor would ask me to write a profile of Slater (best known then for leading roles in “Heathers” and “Pump Up the Volume”). We would fall in love over the course of an interview. I would move to the West Coast. He’d act, and I would write.
Perhaps I should be embarrassed that my infatuation with an actor was what inspired me to become a writer, but I have found validation in the new anthology “Crush: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush,” a collection of confessions about early romantic obsessions, from Nicola Yoon’s passion for Michael Jackson, whose image she kissed every day for a year, to Shane Harris, who stayed loyal to Mark Hamill even when he felt pressure to be a Han Solo kind of guy.
The essays in “Crush” — edited by Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton — range in size and scope. Stephen King’s contribution is brief and doesn’t reveal too much about him, beyond what he remembers about his infatuation with Kim Novak: “It was the first time I really noticed a woman’s breasts, I think — at least coupled to a desire to touch them. I fell deeply in love, although she was an adult and terrifying.” Breasts are a running theme in “Crush.” Andrew McCarthy, who himself was probably a crush of many Gen Xers, writes of Adrienne Barbeau, “Never in my fourteen years had I beheld such amazing breasts. Had I simply never noticed breasts before?”
The essays are best when they focus on memoir and the narratives writers developed to justify their deep emotional connection to people they’d never met. Yoon’s offering, for instance, is more about how it feels to be young and on the verge of independence. Of her beloved Michael she writes, “The dancing made me feel things I didn’t really understand — a bubbling, fluttering, chaotic, insistent feeling in my belly.”
It’s also sweet to learn that most of these writers were already very much like their adult selves when they were kids, at least in their memories. “Bad Feminist” writer Roxane Gay’s priorities were clear when she fell for Almanzo from “Little House on the Prairie,” a man who tells his betrothed, Laura, that marrying him doesn’t mean obeying him. A young Jill Kargman dismissed John Travolta’s Danny Zuko in “Grease” for Jeff Conaway’s bad boy Kenickie — because in her heart, she has always been Rizzo. “She was all woman. Opinionated, silly, sexy, badass. How hot is it to find a guy who’s drawn to that rather than poodle skirts?”
Kargman’s essay also brings grief into the equation. How many of us have had to mourn our celebrity crushes as if we knew them, feeling conflicted, as adults, about losing a relationship we never experienced in real life? To Kargman, there is no line between Kenickie and Conaway, who died in 2011. She mourns him because she’s lost a part of herself: “ . . . what I also buried was a piece of my childhood, in that not only my first crush but also my huge-hearted youth was gone.”
The only thing the collection is missing is a young voice who can speak to the complexity of crushes in the age of social media. So many of the essayists write about how they experienced these crushes in their youth, pre-Google, during an era of handwritten fan mail. As kids, they imagined, quite vividly, what their crushes might think and feel, and what they might be doing on a random weeknight. But kids today don’t have to guess about these details because, often, an Instagram or Snapchat account tells them.
I wondered whether that kind of access has made these first celebrity crushes less interesting, or perhaps, for many young people, they seem even more attainable. After all, in 2016, I can just tweet at Christian Slater. But the teenager in me holds back, playing it cool.
Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush
Edited by Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton
William Morrow, 272 pp., $19.99Meredith Goldstein can be reached at meredith.goldstein