Teenage Dreams

If ever you want a great conversation-starter, bring up the topic of first celebrity crushes. It’s sure to beget some really great, illuminating responses based on the person you’re talking to. I’ve personally had too many to mention, but I still look back at each young babe who stole my heart with innocent lust and adoration. I’ve loved them all equally at one point in my adolescent life, even though I’d never see that same kind of love (and psychotic obsession) returned back to me.

It’s that singular theme of unrequited famous first loves that is explored in CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush (William Morrow), co-edited by Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton. The duo has pulled together a rousing list of contributors like Stephen King, James Franco, Roxane Gay, Emily Gould, and Hanna Rosin, to write candid odes to the ones they’ve so loved many moons ago. I caught up with Cathy Alter on how this anthology, a true labor of love, came together.

First, I want to say how obsessed I am with this book and how surprised I am that there isn’t a book like this out already.
Isn’t it funny that sometimes the ideas that are the most obvious haven’t been done before? We were surprised, too. Part of the success we had in getting a publisher to buy the idea was that we had such great contributors. We amassed a really good group of writers, really diverse, bold-faced names. There’s something about this subject that really appeals to people.

How did the list of contributors come about?
Two different ways. First, Dave and I sat down and made our wishlist with our reaches: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Joan Didion, Susan Orlean…we went wild. Then we thought about who knew who, and then it snowballed. David Shields, who is one of my personal literary crushes, and I were pen pals after doing a reading together. And I knew James Franco had optioned his books and was making movies with him. So David asked me if I wanted to send James Franco an invitation to contribute to the book and he accepted. I couldn’t believe it. James Franco sent me an email and I forwarded it to my co-author Dave and I made him open it at the same time because I thought it was a virus.

I felt connected to James Franco’s piece about River Phoenix because I also had a huge crush on River Phoenix growing up. The way Franco writes about him in this man-crush way—it’s romantic, but also full of pure admiration.
James Franco was so generous, he gave us a lot. We were really loose with the term “celebrity crush.” We have the coming-of-age crushes, the same-sex crushes, we had the crushes the writers wanted to be. We wanted our contributors to have fun and explore. We didn’t give too many parameters other than “first crush,” and what that person meant to the writers then and now. The fact that Joanna Rakoff and Roxane Gay wrote about the same literary character from The Little House on the Prairie series blew my mind. They both wrote about the same obscure dad, how they identified that he was a really good man and why that was important to them.

Speaking of, were you surprised that a handful of writers had legit crushes on fictional characters from cartoons and video games?
Both yes and no. When I edited Jamie Brisick’s essay about his crush on Speed Racer, it made me wormhole back to seventh grade math class where these guys were having a heated argument about who was hotter, Betty or Wilma from The Flintstones. So I think it’s absolutely possible to have a fixation on a cartoon or a fictional character in a book. But I’m really glad those characters were represented in the book because we wanted the diversity.

It’s cool that the celeb crushes in the book aren’t the Angelinas or Brads of the world. Jared Leto, Rivers Cuomo, Donny Osmond, Mick Jagger, Kenickie from Grease—some make total sense, some are really unexpected.
We knew that these writers were going to take a deeper look at their crush. Most of the essays are actually about something else. For example, my essay about Donny Osmond is really about my mom and her encouraging me to be a writer. So that’s what I wanted these essays to deliver, something deeper and personal to the writer, whether it was about coming out like Richard McCann’s essay about Bette Davis, or Jill Kargman’s essay about Kenickie from Grease and what was important to her in finding a spouse. I also love that we have celebrities like James Franco and Andrew McCarthy who contributed because they are—or once were—the objects of crushes themselves. Having a celebrity crush humanizes everyone. It makes everyone feel embarrassed, silly, and insignificant in a way.

Did you notice any obvious differences between how the men and women contributors handled their emotions towards their crushes?
It’s difficult to make one sweeping statement, but for many guys, the first thought is the “idealized woman” or the aspirational woman. They were physical crushes. That’s what I noticed, which didn’t really surprise me. The women were more boundary-pushing. A lot of the women contributors admitted to writing fan letters to their celebrity crushes—I think teenage girls did more of that than the guys—so they weren’t afraid to let go and get personal in their essays.

The book is broken up in an interesting way. There are essays about puppy-love crushes, the admiration crushes, the moment of meeting crushes and then the feeling goes away, essays about growing out of crushes. How did these chapters come about?
We talked about the kind of anthology we wanted and discussed all the various kinds of crushes there are. I’ll never forget this, but my best friend from the fifth grade had a crush on Kenny Rogers who was literally an old man. So we were thinking, Yes, inappropriate crushes should be a category. And those types of discussions helped guide our vision. When we got the essays in, we saw them falling into certain categories very naturally: Well, this is a coming-of-age one, this one is more about inspiration, this one is about the crush that turned out to be disappointing.

Your previous books—Up For Renewal, which is about coming-of-age in the glossy magazine era, and Virgin Territory, about first tales of sexual awakening—seem more research-based. Did you learn anything new from putting together CRUSH that you feel could be used as legit research?
It’s funny you mention research [for my previous books] because all I did was subscribe to a million women’s magazines! I guess you have to become your own anthropologist about the cultural studies you observe, and what that means in a larger context. I don’t mean to say this to belittle myself but I’m not really a “thinker,” but I love pop culture and I love to know why. Like, why do I, and a lot of my intellectual friends, love The Bachelor so much? Examining lowbrow and turning it into highbrow is what interests me.

Asking who your celebrity crush sounds lightweight and fluffy in the same way subscribing to women’s magazines sounds gimmicky and silly, but what I found out from doing both is that it’s serious and life-changing. I joke about how Cosmo saved my life because those magazines were a vehicle for deeper territories.

Finally, what was it like to work with such huge names for this book?
Getting to work with Andrew McCarthy, who is one of my own celebrity crushes…it was very hard for me to keep cool. I guess I’m just a huge starfucker because I think these celebrities are out of reach and to be interacting with them was too much for me.

An edited and condensed version of this interview appeared on STYLECASTER.