Leslie Cheung, Celebrity Fandom, and Guilt

(Disclaimer: What follows is a mostly stream-of-consciousness musing on celebrity fandom and guilt that originally was a response to a discussion on Tumblr; I have no grand conclusions or lessons to be learned, unless one can be extrapolated from my experience. Possibly triggery for discussion of suicide.)

I’ve had one star-centered fandom/crush.

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Leslie Cheung was a megastar by Hong Kong standards; I saw him first in the film Farewell, My Concubine (for which he is in partial makeup above), the hook being a song that I recognized from another film and had always loved. And he was… gorgeous. Not just his face or body – although they were – but his performance. Richard Corliss has waxed rhapsodic about him in the past – and when I say “waxed rhapsodic,” I’m talking a man-crush of Epic Proportions:

Cheung could qualify as a monument to pop longevity if he was not still in his glistening prime, and if he was not still so damned gorgeous. Any visitor to Hong Kong who mentions his name to a local will hear the same refrain: “Guess how old he is” (as if he kept a rotting portrait of himself in the attic). Cheung is 44, and if he has changed at all during his half-life in the public eye, it is to become more wily in the lavishing and husbanding of his allure. He simultaneously seduces and withdraws, flirts and forbids. He is the most cunning, provocative tease in Asian showbiz.

As an actor, he is terrifically versatile, at ease in art films (as Farewell My Concubine‘s conflicted gay opera star), action thrillers (as the sensitive young cop in A Better Tomorrow), fantasies (as Brigitte Lin’s mountaintop lover in The Bride with White Hair), dark romances (as the haunted singer in The Phantom Lover) and fluffy comedies (as the music mogul in He’s a Woman, She’s a Man). Last year he played a psycho killer in Double Tap.

Inside these varied characters is the irreducible, enigmatic “Leslie”: a beautiful man whose sexuality is a gift or a plague to those who fall under his spell. Typically, they love him and he leaves them; he must have said, “I don’t love you” more times than anyone else in movies. But he doesn’t just mesmerize the camera; he works subtle wonders before it. He glamorizes a scene in Days of Being Wild just by appraising himself in a full-length mirror while doing an expert cha-cha. And then, in unforgiving closeup, without moving a muscle, he will somehow change emotional temperature. You can see feelings rise in him like a blush or a bruise.

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His top lip was fuller than the lower, overhanging it in a deliciously pouty way that became something of a trademark. He was bubbly and bitchy in public – not at the expense of others, but usually over things he saw as stupid. He was ruthlessly pragmatic, sinfully beautiful, and I was in love. I saw everything I could get my hands on (living in Japan, where he was undergoing a surge of popularity amongst a small-but-vocal subculture of women, this was considerably more than it would have been had I been living in the US). I bought CDs (he sang), films (he acted), and even ‘bromide’ (star photographs and paraphernalia), trying to get as close to him as I could.

Because this is what star fandom is. We want to get close. We want to experience a sense of intimacy (I know what he’s really like, I understand him) with a star who attracts us, because there’s something in them – be it physical or emotional or (I think) some indefinable combination of the two – that speaks to something in us. Even if it’s only in the context of a given role, to the extent that that role is embodied by a star, that star is necessarily implicated in our desire. And it’s a relationship that’s in constant tension, because a star’s marketability is predicated on his ability to attract just that kind of attention from fans, yet it simultaneously risks attracting too much attention – too much of a desire for proximity. A star has only so much control over his ‘press’, and, at least in Leslie’s case, he seemed to constantly be trying to appease the craving for more in still photographs, interviews, etc.

Yet, when the Hong Kong tabloids started digging into his personal life for evidence that he was, in fact, living with his male partner (thus confirming what he barely would, that he was something other than strictly heterosexual), fans bought them out. I bought one, to tell the truth, although in my case it was a matter of discovering, in a tabloid whose language I could hardly read, that the home he shared with “Mr. Tong” was, in fact, next door to my childhood home,

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making us asynchronous neighbors (and heightening my own sense of proximity exponentially).

But buying that tabloid made me feel dirty and wrong in a way I never had when watching his films or looking at pictures of him. It was too much – too close for comfort, and I wound up (needlessly, since the money had long since passed to the publisher) throwing it away.

That was one moment of guilt.

The other came when I attended his 1997 Osaka concert. I managed to swing front-row tickets through a benevolent connection who knew how much I loved him, and it was… a strange experience. He was more human on stage than he’d ever been behind a lens – smaller, more vulnerable. He gave so much – witty banter in three languages, charm, charisma, and even descended into the orchestra pit to shake the hands of those of us sitting up close. And I’ll never forget the feel of his hand in mine, in the same way that I’ll never forget the slight – almost minuscule – light of apprehension and nervousness in his eyes, and the number handlers he needed around him to keep him feeling safe.

I woke up in Tokyo on the morning of April 2, 2003 to the news that he had jumped from the 24th floor of the Hong Kong Mandarin Hotel – one of the immutable fixtures of my own childhood in Hong Kong – and died the previous night. The handful of people who knew how much I loved him – including my PhD advisor – had emailed in the night to see if I was okay. He left a suicide note saying that he was tired of battling depression (subsequently, it was revealed that he had attempted suicide a year earlier), but all I could think, from my fannish perspective, was that he was gone – his career was written – and that I hoped he’d gone out on his own terms. It’s how all the great Chinese actresses had died, and I wanted to see it as the swan song of a diva, rather than what it likely was: the last stand of a desperate man.

As I said above, I have no neat answers about guilt and fandom. I’ve been a guilty fan, and I sometimes wonder how much culpability I – along with Leslie’s other fans – have in his death. At the same time, he was a human – a flawed, frail human – even before he was a star. I don’t think he was hounded to death, and I do think that there was a part of him that craved the attention he got as a star. And I believe that, in the end, it was about his personal experience of depression more than anything that drove him to suicide. It’s a tightrope that we walk, both as fans and – I’d hazard to guess – as stars. How much should they give? How much should we take? Stardom collapses without that push and pull, but I think there are ways of being responsible fans that most of us already engage in: we set limits on what is acceptable to see (as much of the professional as we can find) and what isn’t (telephoto lens shots of family, friends, and a private life that should remain private). I don’t (always) feel guilty about looking, but every so often, I wonder if stars aren’t standing out on a ledge begging us to look, and giving us too much when we do.

2 thoughts on “Leslie Cheung, Celebrity Fandom, and Guilt”

  1. Hmmm. This is well written, and moving, but I have never felt that who I think my crush is, is who he actually is. I want to get close to my image of my who fan-crush is (also someone whose sexuality has been a matter of puzzlement to fans). So yes, I am eager to obtain real information about him, but does that make me somehow responsible for his decisions? I also don’t think the decision to set limits on what one reads (which every fan sets differently) is a matter of general morality but more of individual conscience. Everyone deals with information differently. It’s not what information you read (or don’t read), it’s what you do with it.

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  2. I don’t really think fans are responsible, but there can be things in fandom that make me cringe and I often wonder why people don’t speak up.

    Maybe it’s a messier than I have previously considered, well done on this post.

    A little off but slightly related topic: Celeb privacy, for me, is like a cake that belongs to someone else. Sure, they can offer me slices, but I have no right to steal the slices, demand a piece or force a view of the entire cake.

    Like

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