What's the difference between a stalker and a super-fan?

By Claire Bates & Harry Low
BBC News Magazine

image copyrightGetty Images

Singer Lily Allen has spoken out about her experience of being stalked by a stranger and her treatment by the police. It's not the first time a celebrity has received obsessive attention, but what are the stages that lead to somebody becoming a dangerous stalker?

Lily Allen was relaxing in her flat last year when a stalker broke in and confronted her in her bedroom.

"I'm lying in bed and I can see the door handle moving and then he steams in, starts screaming and shouting... I could see he was really agitated and upset," she told the BBC's Newsnight.

Alex Gray, from Perth, was charged and found guilty of harassment and burglary and is awaiting sentencing. It was the culmination of an ordeal that started back in 2008 when Gray first contacted Allen on Twitter. Over time he began turning up at her house and office, left abusive notes and made suicide threats.

Lily Allen is one of a long list of celebrities who have received persistent unwanted attention including singer Joss Stone and Little Mix's Jade Thirlwall.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionA man was cleared of stalking Jade Thirlwall from Little Mix in March 2016, after he accepted a restraining order

Television presenter and journalist Alexis Bowater has been stalked three separate times.

"It's extraordinarily psychologically damaging and traps you in an unwanted relationship with somebody that quite often you've never met and never want to meet. You're locked in a relationship with this perpetrator who's trying to control your life."

But Alexis says super-fans and celebrity stalkers have little in common. While they may both have an intense interest in a particular celebrity, this is where the similarity ends.

"Stalkers frighten people and fans don't. There is a massive difference between meeting somebody and thinking 'she's quite nice and I'll send her some flowers' and approaching someone persistently doing that and making threats, pursuing and harassing them."

image copyrightAlexis Bowater
image captionAlexis Bowater is a former chief executive of the Network for Surviving Stalking

Frank Farnham, consultant forensic psychiatrist at Barnet Enfield and Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust, agrees.

"Super-fans are relatively stable. They gain a lot from being in a group of people who like the same person. It's a pro-social behaviour. The super-fans know each other, they go to the same gigs together, they meet up and go for a drink," he says.

"With stalking, it's an anti-social behaviour. They think they have this special bond and this relationship with the celebrity and none of the other fans matter. When you're breaking into someone's bedroom, that's not the actions of a super-fan."

It's a fundamentally different thing to start harassing people, says Dr Emma Short from Bedfordshire University. "People with mental health problems who are vulnerable to delusions are the more likely to become stalkers," she says.

"The fixated celebrity stalker sees everything the celeb does in relationship to themselves. Everything has meaning. So if they are served with a cease and desist letter, they may think the celebrity is trying to contact them in code.

Stalking law in the UK

  • Two specific criminal offences of stalking were introduced in England and Wales under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012
  • A person guilty of stalking faces six months in jail or a fine, or five years in jail if they cause a victim to feel fear of violence or serious alarm of distress
  • Sending indecent, offensive or threatening phone calls or letters was criminalised under separate legislation. A bill going through parliament consolidates laws against cyber-stalking and "revenge porn"
  • Stalking was made an offence in Scotland in 2010. A bill to tackle the rise of so-called "revenge porn" has also been published by the Scottish government
  • In Northern Ireland, alleged stalkers can be prosecuted under the Protection from Harassment Order 1997

"The court process is complicated - for stalkers being in the same room as the celebrity can reinforce their feeling of attachment. Lily Allen spoke on Newsnight about how her stalker locked eyes with her. Being in the same room as her was very important to him."

Celebrity stalkers get a huge amount of press, however they make up just a small part of those committing the criminal activity. Research from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust (which runs the National Stalking Helpline) has found one in five British women and one in 12 British men are victims of stalking during their lifetimes.

Most celebrities don't know their stalkers, however in 90% of cases victims do know the person harassing them.

media captionLily Allen reads out an email she received from a police officer

Statistics from the National Stalking Helpline have revealed that 22% of stalkers are acquaintances of the victim, 5% worked or once worked with them, and 4% are family members. The largest group by far is ex-partners, who make up 45% of the total.

Zoe Dronfield was stalked by a former partner who later attacked her. The mother-of-two from Coventry was left hospitalised with a bleed on her brain and a neck wound following an eight-hour attack.

Zoe said she received calls, messages and emails and was harassed on social media after they broke up.

"There is a serious lack of understanding of stalking and the insidious behaviour behind it because certain incidents in isolation aren't frightening but when it gets to double figures and on a daily basis and you aren't able to function it's really frightening. You think 'what have I done to deserve this'?"

The five main types of stalkers

As classified by Australian academics Paul Mullen, Michele Pathe and Rosemary Purcell.

1: Rejected stalkers tend to be former sexual partners, who want to either reconcile or get revenge. They stalk because it allows the stalker to continue to feel close to the victim or allows them to salvage some self-esteem.

2: Intimacy seeking stalkers suffer from loneliness and a lack of a confidante. Victims are usually strangers or acquaintances and the stalkers behaviour is often driven by mental health problems such as delusions. Celebrity stalkers often fall in to this category.

3: Resentful stalkers feel they have been somehow mistreated by the victim and can arise from mental illness where the stalker develops paranoia.

4: Predatory stalkers have deviant sexual interests. Stalking often starts as voyeurism for sexual gratification but can lead to sexual assault.

5: Incompetent suitors want short-term sexual relationships. They usually stalk strangers or acquaintances for short periods. If they do persist they may be blind to the distress this causes and may have conditions that affect their social skills.

Stalking is "repeated, unwanted contact that occurs as a result of fixation or obsession and causes the victim(s) to feel distressed and fearful," according to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.

While the triggers for stalking can vary, the behaviour displayed follows a broadly similar pattern.

"It is common for stalking to escalate and get gradually worse over time. Stalkers are by nature obsessive and the longer they do it the more entrenched their fixation becomes," says Kristiana Rixon, from the trust.

"Stalking doesn't just affect the victim. A stalker typically contacts 21 people known to the victim including friends, family and neighbours. It's important that they don't engage with the stalker either as 5% of stalkers will assault someone known to the victim. Research shows 30 to 40% of victims are also physically assaulted."

Help and advice

You should contact the police if you're being stalked - you have a right to feel safe in your home and workplace. Call 999 if you or someone else is in immediate danger otherwise contact your local police.

Victims, whether they are celebrities or otherwise, experience a constant sense of dread and anxiety.

"I experienced what any other stalking victim would, which is hyper-vigilance," Alexis Bowater says.

"You know that an attack is imminent and inevitable but you just don't know where or when or who by. You slowly change all of your behaviours, not all at once. Everything that you do is to make sure you and your family are safe. You spend your whole time expecting to be attacked at any moment."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionTwo men were found guilty of plotting to rob and kill the singer Joss Stone in 2013

According to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust 80% of victims of stalking are women. Although women in their early 20s are slightly more likely to be stalked, age isn't a barrier.

"We've had cases from women in their 70s to women under the age of 18," says Rixon.

Her advice on how to deal with stalkers is straightforward.

"If you are receiving unwanted attention tell them once. If they don't stop you shouldn't respond to them again as they will take this as an acknowledgement. I know this can be hard. You should also keep a record. You can also contact the National Stalking Helpline for advice and you can go to the police and make a report."

The trust has argued that the police need to do more to support stalking victims. They have pointed to research that found only 26.6% of cases had been reported to the police and of those who made a report, 43% had not found the response helpful.

Police action on stalking differs around the country. While Alexis says the police took her case "very seriously", Zoe said she was met with an unsympathetic response.

"My experience of the police was when they first came round was 'you need to find yourself a nice boyfriend in future.' That's really not the attitude to be taking and it's quite an insult to your intelligence. It's exasperating. I felt helpless which is why I felt I had to manage the situation myself."

Additional reporting by Jon Kelly

More from the Magazine

image copyrightiStock

What's it like to be stalked for a decade? One woman tells her story.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Related Topics