In third grade, we had an in-class, pet chameleon. The day before the chameleon joined us, we all went around the room and suggested potential names. I said that we could call it Mystery, anticipating its ability to change colors and surprise us. Mystery it was.
The pathetic thing, we quickly learned, was that Mystery barely even changed colors! Almost always, he stayed olive green. But if he was feeling particularly zany, he’d become olive green with a hint of brown—just in his tail!— as if to tell us underwhelmed eight-year-olds, I just changed colors, ok? What else you want from me? I get no respect. (In the last 19 years, Mystery, in my mind, has become a reptilian chain-smoker with the voice of Al Pacino and the physique of Steve Buscemi).
At the end of the year, our teacher, Mrs. Baker, asked if anyone wanted to bring Mystery home for the summer and beyond. Naturally, I was the only one to volunteer—not because I enjoyed lame Mystery more than anyone else but because I felt a certain pride in naming Mystery.
That summer, every Thursday, I’d open the lid and drop in a handful of stinky, Petco-purchased crickets. And the other six days of the week, I’d just observe him from my bed on the opposite side of the room, keeping an eye on him while listening to Red Sox games on the radio instead of actually picking up his crusty, squirmy, gross, little body.
Early that next fall, in fourth grade, I went to my friend Stefan’s 10th birthday party. We ate ice cream cake and reenacted our favorite Ken Griffey, Jr. highlights and talked about which girls in our grade were most annoying. And when I got home, Mystery wasn’t in his terrarium. He’d slithered out and gotten wedged between the window and the windowsill. My mom kindly handled mangled Mystery. I cried and cried, and my sisters walked me around our yard to calm me down.
Last week, I was watching Selena Gomez do press for the new Hotel Transylvania movie, and I thought of Mystery—as one tends to do while watching Selena Gomez do press for animated kids movies about vampires on cruise ships. It hit me that having a celebrity crush is a lot like raising a pet chameleon: maintaining the crush and maintaining the livelihood of the chameleon both require next-to-no effort and no physical contact—although maybe slightly more than next-to-no effort with chameleons which I learned the hard way. You might follow the crush on Instagram or listen to their new album and assume they’re singing about/to you; it’s an infatuation that grows, from afar, with no legwork other than passively watching them on a TV. With the chameleon, you could have a three-day sleepover at your friend Ben’s house, and in those three days? They’re probably doing fine! Continuing to stink up your bedroom with half-eaten, dead crickets!
The former is a detached, distant, not real kind of romance. The latter is a detached, distant, not real kind of pet-raising.
Celebrities are the crush. Pet chameleons get crushed (in your window).
So, which celebrities fit this mold? Who made me swoon for years at a time? I went in the way-back machine and sorted through my biggest celebrity crushes since I started, um, having crushes:
1999-2001: Natalie Portman. When I turned five, I had a Star Wars-themed birthday party. We watched The Empire Strikes Back and decorated our own pillowcases with R2D2 drawings while making Chewbacca noises. From age four to ten, I was obsessed. And so when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, when I was eight, I was the ideal audience: young enough to not be jaded yet by the idea of a prequel, young enough that the original ones were still fresh in my head as a wide-eyed fan recently introduced by my dad.
But what was I most drawn to in the theaters when I saw The Phantom Menace? I’ll tell you one thing: it wasn’t Jabba the Hutt.
2001-2003: Emma Watson. Roughly the same thing but for Harry Potter. And there was something appealing then about being the same age as the blossoming movie star—the endearing know-it-all who always seemed adorably exasperated and truly other-regarding.
2003-2004: Jennifer Anniston. By principle, as a tween, you’re supposed to hate whatever show your big sister watches because it’s not the show you want to watch. Molly watched The OC and Friends. I wanted to watch Sportscenter and Spongebob. Eventually, though, I stuck around to see what this Friends nonsense was all about….
2004-2009: Beyoncé. Throughout high school, I was never not crazy in love for the “Crazy in Love” singer (and fellow Montessori school kid!) until…
2009-2013: Rashida Jones. …Peggy Lipton and Quincy Jones’ daughter became Karen from The Office became Paul Rudd’s wife in I Love You, Man became Ann Perkins in Parks and Rec, the “beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk ox,” according to Leslie Knope.
2013-2016: Sara Bareilles. Maybe it’s because this song had the exact message I needed to hear exactly when it came out. Maybe it’s because I have the biggest soft spot for funny, creative ladies with brown hair. Maybe it’s because her book continues to inspire me.
2016-2017: Melissa Villaseñor. SNL’s next breakout star. Three things I’m especially attracted to: kindness, tasteful tattoos, and uncanny impressions. Check. Check. Check.
2017— : Selena Gomez. My little sister, Annie, recently pointed out how absurd and unlikely and delightful it is that Pete Davidson from SNL is now engaged to Ariana Grande—a goofy, gangly, generally anxious 20something guy improbably spends the rest of his life with an iconic yet down-to-earth heartthrob pop star??!? So you’re telling me there’s a chance?!?!