For Twitter’s most zealous celeb disciples, pledging allegiance to the stars means exclusive access, recognition and a ride-or-die social network. But when does Standom cross the line from adoration to obsession, from defending to bullying? VIBE infiltrates the mad, mad world of cyber worship
BY TRACY GARRAUD (@itstracyg) | PHOTOGRAPHS BY REBECCA GREENFIELD
AT FIRST GLANCE, the living room inside Airy Alexander’s Chester, Pa., home looks ordinary. A 50-inch TV hugs one corner, while a black, leather couch snakes along the back wall. The room’s centerpiece, hung between two childhood portraits of Airy and her older brother, Avontaé, is a massive oil painting of their grandmother from 1944. Beneath protrudes a brick mantel adorned with Airy’s high school diploma, graduation cap, prom photo, home decor trinkets and one more thing: an 8x10 bronze-framed headshot of Rihanna, cherry-headed, grinning and suited in all white at the 2011 Billboard Music Awards. The Alexanders have no blood relation to the pop star whose face has been sitting next to a wooden “MOM” carving since this past January, yet Airy shrugs when asked about Robyn Fenty’s peculiar presence amid intimate snapshots.
“Rih is family,” she says, before slipping into distraction with her adopted kinsman’s “You Da One” video. Watching her only daughter watch Rihanna, Airy’s mother, Nimat, a 34-year-old University of Pennsylvania housekeeper, shows fatigue. “I need her to take responsibility as far as becoming an adult,” she says. “But as long as it keeps Airy out of trouble and her grades are all right, I really don’t mind. She’s not a problem child.”
But she does have some cultish habits. “Airy stays on her computer. She’s never even down here,” says mom. “Wait till you go upstairs.” Upstairs hosts the headquarters for much of Airy’s online and offline extremism. It’s where the unemployed 18-year-old spends up to 16 hours a day (per mom’s estimates) as @badgalfenty, tweeting Rihanna-related news, photos and commentary to her 3,000 followers. Like any teenager’s bedroom, the walls are collaged with her demigod’s mug—it looks like Google barfed an image-search for all Rihanna everything—but the fandom goes further. After discovering Gak green was Rih’s favorite hue, Airy ditched her purple walls and had mom re-paint.
Then there’s her computer, a standard HP desktop, where Airy splits her soldiering between Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr (rihannataughtme.tumblr.com) and Instagram. A folder titled “Robyn Rihanna” holds 16,411 photos of her shero—she’s re-created (a mere) 18 of Rih’s hairstyles—and a quick click into her Twitter page shows a profile formatted like a résumé: “@rihanna followed her favorite bitch 10/24/11 & tweeted me 1/24/12 & 4/16/12 and followed me on Instagram 7/16/12.”
She’s rumbled in numerous Twitter beefs on behalf of her Bajan leader, and this over-dedication has granted her mild Internet fame from peers who’ve dubbed her Rihanna’s twin. In the real and avatar world, Rih Rih’s her queen.
Such staunch celeb loyalty may sound abnormal, but for many it’s a lifestyle. Airy is part of an international collective who consider themselves members of the Rihanna Navy, a group of Stans (the term “Stan” originates from Eminem’s cautionary tale about a hyper-devoted fan) who ride or die for the pop star. In 2012, more than 850,000 tweets featuring the keywords “Rihanna Navy” and/or “Team Rihanna” were sent, according to Twitter Communications. But Rih’s force of e-cohorts, who bear Twitter handles like @MolestMeRihanna, @rihannatastic, @RihsKillerDoll and @fentynavysalute, aren’t the only ones drenching their favorites with PDA. Lady Gaga, who owns the most followed account on Twitter (more than 30,000,000), calls her fans Monsters; Justin Bieber’s got Beliebers, and there’s also Chris Brown’s Team Breezy, Beyoncé’s Bey Hive and Nicki Minaj’s Barbz.
Even artists still short of a debut release are requested to title their troops. “I never wanted to name [my fans] because I thought it was kind of dehumanizing,” says rap newcomer Iggy Azalea, who holds secret video chats with six lucky Azaleans every week. “But I didn’t really understand fan culture at that time. They kept saying, ‘If we don’t have a name, then what is it we belong to? We need something to identify ourselves with each other.’ It’s weird.”