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Self-Improvement & Hobbies

Letter perfect admirers

Fan mail, in the age of celebrity Twitter, is not dead. Long live, fan mail
The Straits Times - September 19, 2012
By: Clara Chow
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Letter perfect admirers PHOTO: SPH

At the age of eight, I wrote my first fan letter - sort of - to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

In it, I said that I was from sunny Singapore, found corgis cute, and asked if Her Majesty could kindly send me a nice stamp with her likeness on it to add to my stamp collection.

Don't judge me now, for displaying childhood symptoms of a colonial hang-up - particularly if you stalked Kate Middleton with your iPhone when she was in town last week.

After waiting several weeks, a sturdy white envelope with the Royal Mail postmark landed in my letterbox. On elegant note paper, stamped with the Buckingham Palace crest, a lady-in-waiting named Hannah replied to say that the queen had received my letter. Unfortunately, it was not the royal family's policy to send the item I had requested, she added, before wishing me the best.

I hung onto that typewritten missive, admiring from time to time Hannah's cursive, fountain-penned signature in raven black. Sadly, the letter got lost a few years ago, when I moved homes.

I was reminded of this brief correspondence recently, upon reading that Twilight actor Robert Pattinson was inundated with physical fan mail during his split with his co-star girlfriend Kristen Stewart.

Never mind that they are reportedly back together again. At one point, R.Patz was said to be getting so many letters, cards and presents that his talent agency needed a separate room just to store all that stuff. Who still sends actual adoring mail to a bricks-and-mortar address these days, I wondered. And why?

After all, in this day and age of celebrity Twitter and Facebook interaction, all you have to do is figure out your idol's official user name, add an "@" sign before it, and you're on your way to possibly tweet-bantering with them. Or their friendly (usually), witty (hopefully), paid social networking assistant, at least.

Yet, when one thinks about it, it makes perfect sense that fan mail is still propping up the postal service. By its very nature, the outpouring of desire from a rabid fan must take a concrete, touchable form. It is the Self's way of reaching out not to touch another soul, but to reaffirm that it exists. The aim is to both discover more about the star, and more about yourself as you compose those few impactful lines that would keep your famous beloved reading.

Schoolchildren and teenagers are possibly the best practitioners, or worst offenders, of this genre: Their identities are still in flux. Penning a fan letter is the construction of individuality, of putting into words who you are, who you think you are, and who you hope to be. 'I am enclosing, herewith, a piece of me,' the most heartfelt fan letters seem to be saying. As the Mac Davis song puts it: "Whoever finds this, I love you."

"Almost from the inception," writes Anna Fishzon in The Russian Review in January this year, "fandom was tied to lunatic behaviour." The academic is talking about opera fandom in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, but her statement still holds true for celebrity culture today. There is a fine line between idolising an actor like R.Patz and psycho-stalker tendencies, and Team Edward players are acutely aware of that. One married woman posted on a Pattinson humour fan letter website how she felt that, when "having relations" with her husband, it was like a "big ol' threesome" with the actor. She ended with: "Please do not fear me."

As Fishzon points out: "Through the practice of confessional letter writing... fans enacted melodrama's cycles of crisis, revelation and redemption - imagined and recreated themselves as highly expressive, exceptional and therefore ethical beings."

A letter - as opposed to "instant" messages, e-mails and out-there blog posts - negotiates this thorny area between supporter and crackpot more subtly and effectively. It is possibly phrased more carefully, and comes with a built-in time delay, between the act of sending and receiving, that allows for the necessary distance to neutralise the stalker threat (that is, unless your letter is written in menstrual blood - not uncommonly used in fanatical notes to K-pop idols, I am informed).

Just as the celebrity is both actor and character to the fan, the fan also constantly shades from neutral correspondent to ardent believer-participant in the fictional world the character inhabits. To me, this slippage is meaningless in the blinking ether that e-mails are made up of. But, in the materiality of a letter in your hand, this paradox has weight and gathers force.

Besides, an e-mail can never beat the nostalgic pathos that childish handwriting can bear. Try looking at the letters that have been sent over the decades to Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes cartoon characters, and tell me this is not true. The classic animated TV show has posted 100 pieces of its 1980s fan mail on Facebook ( TunesClassic) in a bid to get the writers to come forward. One letter, scrawled determinedly on a scrap of foolscap, reads: "Dear Daffy Duck, I just wanted to say hello, that I've been thinking of you, that I love you with all my heart + soul". Signed "Charlene".

At the end of the day, however, fan mail boils down to a social contract or exchange. Send one and your efforts may be rewarded with an autographed reply or photograph (tip: it is always courteous and helpful to send a self-stamped, addressed envelope). Object begets object.

And in the event that one's fan mail does not get a response, the writer still can milk some kind of cultural capital or status out of it, by telling others about this missed or ignored encounter.

Sort of like what I just did - and I've waited decades - by telling you about my letter to the queen.


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