The bizarre parasocial fans of the Johnny Depp v Amber Heard trial

Within hours of a makeup company posting about the trial on TikTok, a Johnny Depp fan turned up at the courthouse in Virginia to hand-deliver ‘evidence’ to Depp’s lawyers. Another posts videos online suggesting a secret relationship between Depp and his lawyer, Camille Vasquez

Meredith Clark
New York
Monday 30 May 2022 12:25
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The highly publicized defamation trial between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp came to a bitter close on Friday 27 May as both sides presented their closing arguments. For those who haven’t been following one of the biggest celebrity court cases in recent history, Johnny Depp is suing his ex-wife Amber Heard for $50 million over a 2018 op-ed she wrote in the Washington Post. In the op-ed, Heard wrote that she was a victim of domestic abuse. Though she did not name Depp when she wrote about the abuse, he claims that her allegations made it difficult for the actor to land movie roles.

Throughout the past six weeks, the historic trial has attracted worldwide headlines, a frenzy of fans, and memorable viral moments. But what has caught people’s attention more than just the trial’s wild claims are the social media users who have taken the case into their own hands.

On 21 April, a drugstore makeup brand known as Milani Cosmetics became involved in the Depp-Heard trial when it posted a TikTok to its official account that disputed a claim made by Heard’s lawyer, Elaine Bredehoft. During her opening statement, Bredehoft showed the court Milani Cosmetics’ All In One Correcting Kit — a compact-sized palette featuring a color wheel of shades to help conceal blemishes and uneven skin tones. Bredehoft claimed that Heard used this palette to cover up her bruises from the alleged abuse, until she divorced Depp in 2016.

Milani Cosmetics was not convinced. In the TikTok, an off-camera employee searched through the company’s records and found that the All In One Correcting Kit wasn’t launched in stores until December 2017.

“You asked us… let the record show that our Correcting Kit launched in 2017!” they wrote in the video. “Take note: Alleged abuse was around 2014-2016, got divorced 2016, makeup palette release date: December 2017.” A popular TikTok sound from The Backyardigans played in the background of the video, its lyrics proclaiming: “‘I’m an international super spy…”

This video went as viral as it is possible to go. With more than 4 million views and over 25,000 comments, Johnny Depp fans praised Milani Cosmetics for fact-checking Heard’s lawyer. “Someone get this to his lawyers ASAP,” commented one TikTok user. And someone did.

Within hours of Milani Cosmetics posting their TikTok, a creator named Nuha visited the Fairfax County Courthouse in Virginia to hand-deliver the “Milani evidence” to Depp’s attorneys. “I’m going to go inside right now and try to find his attorney,” she said in the video. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to find them, anybody on his team, but we’re going to try. I’m sure if I ask I’m going to get kicked out, but here we go.”

I’m the first person to admit when my fascination with a celebrity has become a downright obsession. If you asked a15-year-old me what the zodiac signs of all members of One Direction were, I could tell you right away, and I wouldn’t even have to pull up my old Tumblr fanpage to prove it.

During the pandemic, the only thing that kept me from the brink of madness was Florence Pugh’s Instagram livestream show, Cooking With Flo. “We would get on so well,” I would say to myself as I watched my favorite actress chop onions in her boyfriend Zach Braff’s kitchen (see, I even know whose kitchen it was.) But when does a general interest in a media figure’s life become parasocial?

The term “parasocial relationship” was first coined in 1956 by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl. It describes the way mass media consumers interact with media figures as if they were familiar friends. One side of the party becomes emotionally attached to a person, while the other party most likely doesn’t even know the other exists.

These one-sided, essentially imaginary, relationships existed long before the invention of Twitter or TikTok. From Beatlemania to televangelists, they have always been there. I might even wonder whether I have a parasocial relationship with God. And discussion of the parasocial relationship has been rife since comedian John Mulaney filed for divorce from his wife of six years, Anna Marie Tendler, and Dana Schwartz wrote an article for Bustle headlined: “I’m in a parasocial relationship with Anna Marie Tendler”. Fans of the affable-turned-scandalous Mulaney were shocked that by Tendler’s announcement that he was leaving her not long after he returned from a rehab facility for drug addiction. And just a few months later, they were shocked all over again when Mulaney publicly revealed he was expecting a baby with his new girlfriend, Olivia Munn.

Some social media sleuths took it upon themselves to create timelines of Mulaney’s personal life. Many claimed they were there to defend Tendler against unforgiveable personal slights. They pointed out how Mulaney always joked about not wanting children in his stand-up comedy, and mapped out how many weeks along Munn was in her pregnancy, trying to parse out whether Mulaney had been unfaithful. The discourse got so involved that a meta-discourse about ending the discourse began to trend not long after.

But it might not be our fault that we’ve become so invested in the lives of celebrities. Social media platforms were built for forming parasocial relationships. Access to our favorite celebrities is now easier than ever before. We become “followers” or “subscribers,” and we stay up-to-date by turning on post notifications. Popular TikTok accounts post “blind items” — unfounded pieces of celebrity gossip — and encourage users to decipher them. We are supposedly invited into people’s homes via TikTok or Instagram, and encouraged to see the famous people on those platforms as our friends — mainly so that they can sell items to us through well-placed advertising done up like a friendly, anecdotal personal recommendation.

Outside the Fairfax courthouse where the Depp v Heard defamation trial is taking place, a long line of public spectators snakes around the block. Only 100 spectator wristbands are available from 7am each morning and are highly coveted; offers to buy the bands off people who have procured them are common. Who can blame them? Johnny Depp himself delivered waffles to his fans standing in line last Thursday. And he’s not the only one they’re waiting to see.

Depp’s lawyer, Camille Vasquez, has risen to her own level of fame with fan pages and video edits made in her honor. In a parasocial turn of events, fans are now “shipping” Depp with his lawyer. On TikTok, a Camille Vasquez fan account shared a slow-mo video edit analyzing the subliminal body language between Depp and his lawyer. The majority of comments ranged from, “She left his bed an hour ago” to “Hope she’s single and they get married and live happily ever after.”

It’s hard, sometimes, to have sympathy for people that obsessed with a celebrity who doesn’t even know they exist. But social media primed these followers to translate their affection from phone-screen to real life. In a trial where everyone claims they’re the victim, these superfans fighting for scraps should probably be seen as victims too.

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