As a young adolescent, I wasn’t really one to fantasize about celebrities. I didn’t see much point in crushing on pop stars who didn’t know I existed, preferring instead to crush on local, unfamous teenage boys who didn’t know I existed. It’s a normal rite of passage for young girls to harbor elaborate daydreams about celebrities, a natural and unthreatening exploration of romance and sexuality safely confined to the daydreamer’s head. Like practicing tongue-kissing with your hand curled into a fist or stuffing socks down your training bra, plastering your bedroom with ripped-out magazine photos of the Teen Idol du jour is a time-tested method of preparation for impending puberty and the confusing rush of hormones that accompany it.
Around the age of eight or nine, I recall my girlfriends obsessing over the New Kids on the Block – sadly, theirs was the first live concert I ever attended. Fairly immune to the Kids’ charms and confused by the screaming fanbase around me, I spent the majority of the experience with earplugs in and my head between my legs, fighting a pre-pubescent panic attack. It was my best friend’s tenth birthday and I feigned interest in the entirely New Kids-themed affair, including my party favor (a poster of Jordan Knight that was subsequently abandoned years later, still rolled-up and dusty in my closet). It was a slumber party and the rest of the girls stayed up late into the night, high on excitement and Coca-Cola after the concert, eagerly chattering in the dark about which New Kid they’d most like to kiss. I didn’t really get it, but I tried to fake it.
I don’t even recall what other celebrities were objects of pre-teen girl interest in those days. I remember that Christian Slater was definitely considered hot (it doesn’t get better than Heathers), but most of my romantic fantasizing was centered around the few boys I actually knew and could chase around the playground, shrieking, after they stole my snap bracelet. I didn’t watch television much and the only music I really listened to was Madonna, so I was fairly removed from pop culture crushes. Or I was, until I discovered my one true love, the boy I was meant to be with, my soul mate, and the focus of every searing, devastating fiber of my yearning being.
Although Jon (as I thought of him) had enjoyed a successful career as a child television actor and even starred in The Neverending Story II, I don’t think he wandered into my awareness and my heart until his cross-dressing turn in Ladybugs. And I was smitten. I watched that stupid movie over and over, even though I thought Rodney Dangerfield was totally gross. Jon was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen, and I was possessed by a certainty that we were twin souls. While I had previously been impervious to the cheap, glossy fan mags littering the racks of shops, I was now begging to accompany my parents on trips to Target to purchase the latest issues of BOP and Tiger Beat, devouring every article and picture I could collect of Jon. I would carefully cut these stories and photos out and tape them to the inside of my bedroom door and walls, until half my room was swallowed by a Jonathan Brandis collage. It was an altar I prayed before nightly – I actually talked to my Jonathan Brandis pictures, a secret part of me hoping that somehow, he would sense that I was out there, the devoted girl of his own dreams.
And it seemed that perhaps fate was conspiring to bring us together – his next movie was not only filmed in my hometown, but at my public high school. Jon was within a five mile radius of me, and seeing Sidekicks, my heart pounded at every local scene. I’ve been there! We’ve walked the same paths! Sure, I was too young to date yet but it was meant to be – it was only a matter of time, and if I was patient, it would all come together.
I don’t know exactly when my love affair started to wane, exactly. I still carried a flame for him throughout middle school and seaquest DSV, but there were other distractions. I was growing up, in general, and I do remember that a real turning point was when a friend studied a picture of Jon in my locker and, rightly, pointed out that he could be my brother. It had never struck me before, but suddenly seemed obvious. We looked a great deal alike, especially in his younger days. I know that it made me feel strange, and I closed my locker door in a hurry, and took the picture down a week or two later.
As I progressed to high school, the Jon pictures came down and were replaced by volleyball posters, angsty poetry, photos of real-life boyfriends, and Kurt Cobain and Liz Phair lyrics. I couldn’t bear to part with Jon entirely, though, and a hidden drawer in my dresser was reserved for my favorite pictures of him, as well as a copy of the solitary fan letter I have ever written. Even at 16, I occasionally took out this secret stash and would feel a stab of wistfulness.
I never forgot about Jon, but he was relegated to the past, a sweet memory of more innocent times. I hadn’t thought of him in some time until I was 22 and surfing the internet at my first brain-numbing, corporate, post-college job, when I stumbled upon the news that his body had been found at his LA home, an apparent suicide.
I actually gasped, aloud, “Oh, my God, Mary and Greg.” His parents. Somehow, I remembered my favorite article from years before, a photo shoot involving Jon playing basketball with his parents and talking about their relationship; it was my favorite article because the family seemed so loving and supportive and normal, it had played perfectly into my fantasies of our relationship and what I wanted from a boyfriend. He was, like me, an only child.
Then I sat at my desk and cried for an hour. I remembered that in this photo shoot or maybe another, he had worn a white tee-shirt under an open plaid button-down, and how I had taken a plaid shirt from my mother and worn it, pretending in my mind that Jon and I had been on a movie date and I was cold, so he had taken it off his own body and wrapped it around my shoulders.
I think I cried for the remembrance of this type of fantasy, so poignant and luscious in my young mind. I also cried for his parents, and for Jon, who had been a perfect teen idol – gracious, kind, lovely, and fading gently into obscurity. I’m sad that Jonathan Brandis died feeling so alone, and sad for the pain his family and friends must carry. And even as a cynical 21-year-old, I thought, if only I had met him, maybe I could have been at least his friend, as he was a friend to me for all those years I sat alone on my bed and talked to his pictures and fell asleep to the thought of him.
I can’t speak for the girls and boys of today, or understand the fascination of a Robert Pattison or a Zac Efron, although I think I understand the feelings they might inspire. I’m grateful that my love for Jon existed before the internet was so ubiquitous, even before celebrity culture was as pervasive a force as it is today, so it felt private, and more personal. It’s a curious power these teenage crushes can carry and in a way, from a selfish perspective, there’s some comfort in knowing that Jon will never show up on a VH1 reality show, jowl-cheeked and alcoholic and desperately trying to reclaim some long-lost heartthrob status (I don’t really believe he would ever have turned to that, anyway). Instead, he will always be young and beautiful in my mind, and a symbol of a more tender, hopeful age.
Please share your own Teen Idol stories, Brandis-related or otherwise!