Remember Freddie Prinze, Jr.? In the third grade, I fell in love with him after seeing She’s All That at the movies. For months, I would play “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None The Richer on my boombox and dream of kissing Freddie beneath the milky twilight. But I completely forgot about him until I read CRUSH, a new collection of essays by writers on their first celebrity crush, including James Franco, Jodi Picoult, Roxane Gay, and Emily Gould. (And only now have I learned that his last name is Prinze and not Prince). The collection was put together by D.C.-based writers Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton, who write about their own crushes on Donny Osmond and David Cassidy, respectively. In the book’s introduction, Alter and Singleton argue that celebrity crushes say more about the admirer than the admired. So what does my crush on Freddie Prinze, Jr. say about me? What does your first crush say about you?
Ahead of Alter and Singleton’s conversation on their new book with Michelle Brafman at Sixth & I tonight, Arts Desk spoke with Alter, a former Washington City Paper contributor, about why crushes matter.
Arts Desk: What is a crush?
Cathy Alter: It’s something that goes on in your mind and [is] usually never reciprocated, and you are loving somebody from afar, whether it’s on a movie screen or across the playground. It’s sort of like this safe place to try out all these burgeoning feelings that you have when you’re that age. Your unformed love feelings in this safe, idealized way because chances are, when you do get to meet your crush and get to know them, they’re always more disappointing.
Arts Desk: You’re speaking from experience. When you were just seven years old you started writing daily love letters to Donny Osmond (who Jodi Picoult also writes about in the book), only to have him break your heart and send you a boilerplate letter in response.
CA: Did you see that he tweeted and wrote on Facebook apologizing? It was the best day of my life. The day the book launched I put an excerpt of that essay on Huffington Post—but not the part where I was annoyed and mad at him—and someone must have told him about it because at the end of the day… he had tweeted an apology. It’s my Twitter background because I’m so excited about it. It was so ridiculous. And also Jessica Anya Blau, who wrote about wanting to be best friends with Tatum O’Neal, is now emailing with her multiple times a day. So may be she will be best friends with Tatum O’Neal.
Arts Desk: What did you learn from having a crush on Donny Osmond?
CA: In writing my essay, it was really an essay about my mother, writing, the power of writing, and getting right to the point. I didn’t mess around in my letters [to Osmond]. (She wrote: “Dear Donny, I love you. Love, Cathy”) And feeling understood, not by Donny Osmond, but by my mother, who understood this sort of devotion that I was showing. And also that this was really my first disappointment in love. It prepared me for when it really happened. That’s why people write poetry and write sappy love songs: you get disappointed in love, you get your heartbroken and Donny prepared me for that. I wasn’t going to get a letter from him with an engagement ring taped to the inside, which is what I was expecting.
Arts Desk: More broadly, why should we care about crushes?
CA: Because we’ve all had them. It’s part of the adolescent experience. There’s something about these celebrities that make them the perfect receptacle for our romantic hopes and dreams. They’re safe places because the reality of love is just messy. It’s scary and it makes you more vulnerable. Some of that happens with unrequited love because a celebrity crush really is one sided. Maybe one percent is reciprocated in weird D-list groupies. But really they’re just these dreamy places where we can have our imaginary conversation and try out these feelings of love in the privacy of our own bedrooms, staring at a poster. Even if you didn’t have a crush on Jared Leto or River Phoenix you can understand wanting to be like that person—because they weren’t all romantic crushes—aspiring to be somebody like your crush, or being embarrassed now.
Arts Desk: Yeah, in some ways, revisiting our former crushes is a way of revisiting our former selves.
CA: Exactly, and our crushes say more about ourselves than the actual crush. They tell us who we were. They’re like little time capsules.
Arts Desk: The other thing I took away from the book is that celebrity crushes are important because they’re a way for us to discover romantic desires that we may not have examples of in our everyday life. For example, with your co-editor Dave Singleton identifying his feelings for David Cassidy when he watched The Partridge Family as an 9 year-old boy.
CA: And Shane Harris had a crush on Luke Skywalker.
And we got two essays about Almanzo Wilder. That was fascinating. It’s really about their [Roxanne Gay and Joanne Rakoff’s] search for the modern man. And Jill Kargman’s essay on Kenickie too. I thought her essay was really more about Rizzo than Kenickie. They’re like who they gravitated toward later in life too.
Arts Desk: Yes, we identify with these female characters and aspire to be like them and by seeing the kind of men who are interested in those women, we identify the kind of men we would want to be with.
CA: That’s why we asked writers because we knew those kinds of experiences would come through.
Arts Desk: Yeah and for some of the contributors it was through crushes that they started their careers as writers. Like Caroline Kepnes, whose beginnings as a fiction writer can be seen in her letters to Brian Austin Green, which she wrote and rewrote before sending.
Alter: She created a character for herself, the kind of girl that Brian Austin Green would want to go out and she totally invented it. The pay off is so good at the end when you realize that she’s been writing to his mom the whole time.
Arts Desk: And it’s so funny that she ended up working at Tiger Beat and Teen Machine and reading other people’s fan letters.
CA: Yes! …When Brian Austin Green announced he was getting divorced from Megan Fox, we were like, Yay! Now he can be yours.
Arts Desk: Many of the contributors are, like you, based in the D.C. area—Amin Ahmad, Michelle Brafman, Yesha Callahan, Richard McCann, Kermit Moyer, Carolyn Parkhurst, Karin Tanabe—do you personally know them, or how did you choose who would contribute?
CA: The first thing we did was make a wishlist, in our wildest fantasies who we would want: Joan Didion, Amy Poehler, John Stewart, Louis C.K. and we also had a list of writers who we knew that we loved. And D.C. has so many writers, like Carolyn Parkhurst. I started out as her fan and now we’re friends, so of course I was going to ask her, I love her writing, she’s so funny. And Jessica Anya Blau too, I started as her fan… I randomly met her at a party we were both snooping around this woman’s bedroom… It was this game of who do you know and then who do they know and who do they know. James Franco came to me through David Shields, who was my literary crush and I had to do a reading with him and kept in touch with him. James Franco optioned one of his books and turned it into a movie and they worked together. I was emailing David Shields asking him if James Franco was tall or short—it started as being curious about him and before I knew it, he was contributing to the book. It was just casting this net. It was amazing how many people responded right away. They were just taken by this idea… People just really got it and had to because we certainly we’re paying them a lot.
Arts Desk: Speaking of James Franco, I thought it was interesting that he had already written a poem about River Phoenix that he was able to fold into his essay. How many other contributors had worked on this subject before?
CA: If they had, I didn’t know about it… James Franco he is a storm of creativity. He not only gave us the essay and poem, he gave us collages, he made collages, they were pretty great but we could not figure out who took the original photographs that he collaged out of to get permissions so we couldn’t use them in the book, which was really disappointing.
Arts Desk: So did Janice Shapiro’s forthcoming graphic novel, Crushable: My Life in Crushes from Ricky Nelson to Viggo Mortensen, grow out of the piece she did on John Lennon for the book?
CA: No, she started first… I asked her if she would create something new. What appears in Crush is the first part of her soon-to-be-released series of famous crushes.
Arts Desk: What have you learned since putting together this book?
CA: The universality of this idea is what’s so fun. Just hearing about other people’s crushes is so fun. It’s just bonding. It’s how to connect with somebody right away.
Arts Desk: Yeah, it’s such a great icebreaker question. In reading this book, I remembered my big crush was Freddie Prinze, Jr.
CA: You do find out a lot about yourself and when you ask somebody, you find out a lot about that person too… It’s almost like when you’re out to dinner and the person’s phone goes off and their ringtone is something bizarre. You find about a lot about person through their ringtone in the same way. Somebody suggested we should do the politicians’ version… I would really love to know who Hillary Clinton‘s celebrity crush was. Because she doesn’t seem like she was ever young; she always seem like she was a 40 year-old lady in a pant suit. Who she liked as little girl would be so revealing.