Guess who I just saw.
You wouldn’t guess how many times I’ve sent this text these past few months. Let me paint you a picture: I’m waiting in the endlessly long dinner line at Crossroads, shooting off this text while trying not to be too obvious. Thankfully, my friends play into the joke, asking what shoes they’re wearing and how they styled their hair. Pandemonium ensues and I smile to myself. Why do I find so much joy in spotting these complete strangers around campus?
You might’ve seen the term “campus celebrity” pop up on your TikTok For You page or other platforms such as Instagram. Don’t be fooled, this term doesn’t refer to the stars on par with Taylor Swift or Kylie Jenner. Rather, they’re completely normal people we celebritize in our own minds: people we feel we know, yet we don’t even know their names. It might seem strange to place these complete strangers on a pedestal, but maybe we can’t help it; it can feel a little like destiny when we see the same people on a consistent basis at a school as large as UC Berkeley. And, it’s fun to imagine their lives — guessing their favorite movies, their go-to Peet’s order and what major they are. Fueled solely by my own, and maybe my friends’, delusions, I’m not ashamed to say that campus celebrity sightings are noteworthy events that make my day.
I think that there are a few major categories of campus celebrities. The first category consists of the people who have garnered fame within UC Berkeley for reasons specific to campus life, like a star athlete or the people who went viral on TikTok for interviewing students on Sproul. It’s definitely cool to see people in person who you’ve only interacted with through a screen, but they don’t hold a candle to the campus celebrities that are shared by your friend group. This category of campus celebrity is usually a completely normal person that, for some reason, lives in infamy in your friend group. Maybe you met them offhandedly on a night out or maybe they just always spawn when you guys are together. Regardless, they turn into your own micro-influencers, one that you and all of your friends are equally invested in. And, finally, you have the campus celebrities that you personally always seem to cross paths with — walking to class, in the MLK student union building or maybe in the Recreational Sports Facility. It may be the way they dress or the way they carry themselves, but locking eyes with them while going through the motions of your daily routine can be satisfying, even comforting. At least for me.
Why do we have these parasocial relationships with complete strangers? For me, I think my obsessions with ordinary people can be explained by a desire to romanticize the mundanity of my daily routine. By making up a fun story about a stranger I keep seeing at the dining hall, I can momentarily escape the dullness of my own life, the midterm I have next week or the exhaustion of studying. Campus celebrities are, in my mind, exempt from this type of predictability, perpetually interesting and fabulous. They live in this bubble of projection where I’m free to imagine a life parallel, yet completely different to mine.
One of my early campus celebrities ended up being in one of my clubs this semester; in all honesty, I was baffled and equally excited at the prospect of getting to know someone I’d put on an imaginary pedestal. But now that I’ve gotten to know them through various projects and meetings, I’ve found that they are actually really similar to me. I pulled the curtain back and realized that they were extremely cool and friendly, but also completely normal and human. It got me thinking about the potentially isolating and unhealthy consequences of idolizing people we hardly know. Because yes, it’s fun to attribute silly and somewhat delusional stories to people we only see in passing, but they should be understood as just that: silly stories meant to be taken with a grain of salt. A campus celebrity should never make us feel bad about ourselves because we don’t have their perfectly crafted theoretical lives. So, while I still love having my campus celebrities (and freaking out about seeing them every now and then), they also serve as a reminder that everyone has their own reality. This notion connects us through our shared experiences rather than our differences, which is way more gratifying.