In 2017, Danny Pellegrino was living in Los Angeles, performing sketch and standup comedy at venues around the city. Just as his career was just taking off, he was faced with a few career and personal setbacks that caused his anxiety and depression to act up more than it ever had before. "I suddenly felt like I wasn’t even able to go out and perform anymore, my depression was so severe," Pellegrino recalls now. "I didn’t even want to leave the house."
One of the only things that would bring Pellegrino a little joy during that time was watching the TV channel, Bravo, specifically the Real Housewives. So, he started to make and share Real Housewives memes on social media as a small creative exercise, and other Bravo fans caught on. "I had this kind of Bravo community forming on social media," he says. As the memes went viral he had an idea: why not start a podcast about pop culture and Bravo-lebrities? "That's what I love and am obsessed with anyways, so it was a good fit," he recalls. Plus, it allowed him to perform again from the comfort of his own home, and under his own terms.
The result was Everything Iconic, a podcast that covers pop culture, all things Bravo, and often mental health topics. This year the podcast, which is on its 180th episode, amassed more than 4 million streams, and Pellegrino will perform a few live shows in the fall. "The impact the show has had [on people] has just been so wonderful, and I'm so incredibly grateful to everyone," Pellegrino says. "I just like knowing that so many of us connect on these silly things, and we all like the same stuff."
Pellegrino's experience reflects what experts have long known about fandom and mental health. Research has very clearly suggested that there's a link between being a fan of something and improved psychological health. If you consider yourself a fan of something — whether it's a sports team, the Vanderpump Rules cast, or a K-pop band — it not only enhances your identity, but allows you to interact with other people who have similar interests, explains Dan Wann, PhD, psychology professor at Murray State University, where his research program centers on the psychology of sport fandom. "What you get as a consequence of that are a lot of connections to other people," he says. Social connection is one of the key determinants of health, and these relationships can have a protective effect on developing a variety of health conditions, such as heart disease.
In addition to finding common ground and connecting with people who have shared interests as you, fandom can also be a personal hobby, Dr. Wann explains. As anyone who's spent hours on Reddit boards for specific shows or become emotionally invested in a Facebook watch thread knows, the internet has allowed people to become instant experts on the topic that they care about. "It allows for a greater expanse of these social connection networks," he says. Consider the way that we consume TV now: most of us have a laptop or phone open while we watch, so we can easily text a friend or fire off a tweet to other fans when something epic happens. Even if you're watching something alone, you can feel like you're with a big group online.
Internet fan culture isn't all positive, though. In the past few years, "stans," or overly passionate "stalker fans," have created a somewhat toxic environment online. This type of fan is quick to defend the celebrity that they stan, and come for anyone who suggests otherwise with robotic fervor. Studies suggest that people who rank high on "celebrity-worship scales" also tend to display problematic psychosocial characteristics, including narcissism, addictive tendencies, and stalking. Those who are on the far end of the celebrity worship spectrum may also have poorer mental health, and experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, and social dysfunction. "For the vast majority of people, [fandom] is probably a good thing," Dr. Wann says. "Still, it's important to recognize that there are potential qualities out there for people who get too wrapped up in it."
Another thing that can decrease the positive effects of fandom? When a celebrity does something problematic. There's a psychological phenomenon called "self-conception," which posits that people tend to be fans of people who we imagine as an idealized version of ourselves. But being a fan and supporter of someone also means developing coping mechanisms when they do something we don't agree with. In order to keep a healthy distance from the person or team you stan, it's important to remember that whatever they did, you're not responsible for it, Dr. Wann says. "You shouldn’t feel more guilty about that then you should good and proud if that person doesn't something good," he adds.
Pellegrino says he often hears from his listeners that his show gives people a break from the stress of the current political climate. "I think pop culture also has an impact as an escape," he says. "Latching onto a specific thing in pop culture refuels us and is such a necessity particularly in the time we’re in right now."