What happens when a stan account loses its idol

When you’ve spent your life chronicling the career of someone famous, how do you grieve, then adapt, once they die?

by Douglas Greenwood
22 July 2020, 1:00pm

On the 5th April 1994, TV stations around the world captured a sea of fans congregated outside of the home of Kurt Cobain in Seattle, Washington, laying flowers and lighting candles. They cried as they contemplated his tragic death. “We can’t believe that it happened,” a fan said on an American newscast. “This is one man that will not be forgotten.”

In the early 90s, the legacies of artists and their fans were cultivated at shows, in the pages of magazines, and in the bedrooms of those who admired them. Conversations were built around hearsay, passed through phone calls and letters rather than online. Congregations of people who loved someone who passed too young -- be it a musician like Cobain or an actor like River Phoenix, who died of an overdose at the age of 23 -- were limited in their expressions of grief.

In the 2000s, as forums and message boards were born, online fan clubs formed alongside them. Teenagers in Bumfuck, Nowhere, were suddenly connected to others who understood their love for someone fully. And as social media platforms like Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram were born in the late 2000s, everything became deeper and documented more thoroughly, both by the celebrities themselves on their own accounts, and by the stan accounts that sprung up in their wake.

So when you spend your spare time -- or often all of your time -- chronicling the life of your favourite artist, what happens when that person passes away? For those who run update or stan accounts, this is a reality some have sadly had to face.

When news broke a fortnight ago that the actor and singer Naya Rivera had gone missing after visiting California’s Lake Piru with her four-year-old son, the internet soon became a space for condolences and solidarity with those searching for her. For fans who’d grown up watching Naya on Ryan Murphy’s high school-set musical series Glee, the idea of her life being in danger was hard to compute. There is a sacredness that enshrines those who are famous and admired by the public, as if they live inside of a world where the things normal people worry about don’t exist. On 7 July, Naya had posted an image to her Instagram and Twitter account of her cradling her son with the caption ‘Just the two of us’. Naya Rivera Team, an update account with over 18,000 followers retweeted it. Two days later, they heard the news of Naya going missing. “Wtf is happening,” the next tweet read.

“It happened 10 years ago,” the admin of Naya Rivera Team, Roby, tells us of the first time they noticed the singer and actor. “I’ve never met Naya in person, but the first time I [recognised] her was when I was going through some new music and listened to a Glee song, I literally fell in love with her voice. Since that moment I never stopped supporting her. It was like love at first sight.”

Naya Rivera Team has been active on Twitter since March 2011 and has, as Roby testifies, been a constant source of what’s been said by Naya, said about her by her peers, and the projects she’s working on. The level of commitment involved in running update accounts is similar to that of a full-time job for some. Instead of remuneration, the fans’ dedication is fuelled by the idea that they’re supporting someone’s career, and lifting up someone who deserves it.

In the days that followed, culminating in the news of the discovery of her body, Naya Rivera Team tweeted out constant updates on the search, how people could assist it responsibly, and the outpouring of love from those who were close to Naya. Since then, it’s become a space for fans to visit, organise a physical memorial, and remember their favourite actor through the words of her friends. “I don’t want to believe it really happened,” Roby says, “but fans need Naya, and I know my account has been a very important place for us Nayaholics [a term used for the actor’s fans] during all these years. Even Naya loved it.”

For fans of Cameron Boyce, this sudden shock of unexpected loss is familiar. Since April 2015, Cameron Boyce Brasil has been tweeting images, interviews and news stories tied to the actor to their 17,000 Twitter followers. But on 6 July 2019, Cameron died aged 20 following an epilepsy-related seizure at his home in Los Angeles.

“We admired his simplicity, humility and love for others,” Rafaela and Nathalia, the two admins of Cameron Boyce Brasil say. “He was kind and gentle to everyone around him, and had a light so pure and so bright, that’s still here even after what happened. Everything about him was full of magic, light and love.” The news of his death hit strangely, mainly because it happened without warning. He was alive, busy and working one day, and passed away the next. His family, friends and fans were visibly devastated. “The day before we had received notification of his last picture on Instagram, we reposted it,” Rafaela says, “without ever imagining that it would be the last update we would make of him, of something made by him. We didn't believe it was true.”

“It seems like the world stopped around me,” Nathalia adds. “It was so painful that it seemed impossible to stop crying. I could only think how young and talented he was, and how unfair everything was.”

The reaction that Rafaela, Nathalia and Roby felt was one that was historically expressed internally when fans lost their heroes in the past. What update and stan accounts do is act as an informal meeting place for these fans. They are also, in many cases, the closest thing a fan would get to their favourite artists' feed. Only in this context, their legacy lives on.

“Even if it’s hard to post now, knowing that Naya will never notice those tweets again or she’ll never see how much she means to us, I’ve decided that I’m not gonna stop posting,” Roby says. “I’ll keep running the account she loved so much to keep her memory alive, and to show our community that we’re all in the same bad situation. No one is alone, we’re all together.”

Rafaela and Nathalia believe that running their account for Cameron has made the process of grieving a little easier; softening the blow by knowing they’re some of the many thousands who miss him. “We have a lot of support, and get a lot of affection from a lot of people and we feel that, [by running the account] we keep a part of him here, which makes it easier,” they say. The account also has a new purpose: to fight for the causes Cameron always believed in. “We continue to spread the word about his work and his causes for him, and it's comforting that more admirers are showing up,” they say. On his birthday, they came together to gather donations for the Cameron Boyce Foundation, which exists to end gun violence and bring clean water to those without it. “This is how we keep a part of Cameron with us, remembering him in the best way.”

To lose someone you love is a private experience that, perhaps paradoxically, requires an outpouring of love and support to get through it. Consider how lonely it can make you feel, and then imagine the support of tens of thousands of people online going through the same thing you were. Stan accounts are sometimes seen as symptoms of internet obsession spiralling out of control, but for those who find comfort and solace in an artist who has died, they can be vital resources. A social media feed is much like a scrapbook, composed of moments in a person’s life that brought them joy, and marked an occasion that was important to them. These young people, behind the scenes of these accounts, have made it their job to preserve the legacy of those they loved. How grateful their heroes would be for that.

naya rivera
cameron boyce