I understand those tween girls who are swooning over the new Jonas Brothers movie. I'm a formerly obsessive teen-idol fan myself. And I started young: I was in third grade when I wrote my first fan letter. It was to Zachary (Zack) Morris, the blond main character of the '90s sitcom "Saved by the Bell." I addressed the note simply to "Zack." I was too young to realize that was only Mark-Paul Gosselaar's character's name. I was certain that each Saturday morning I was watching what would now be considered a reality show.
I don't remember much about the letter, but I do remember that my friend's mother got the address for me. I also remember sneaking into her purse and using her lipstick to plant a kiss on the bottom of my letter, confident that would make it stand out from the rest.
I held tight to the address and wrote to Zack often. After about 10 or so letters, one of my sisters told me that Zack wasn't his real name. I'm not sure which relieved me more--that he wasn't actually dating "Kelly" or that the reason he hadn't written me back was because I had been using the wrong name. After that, I started writing "Dear Mark" at the top of my letters. And still no response. But that didn't stop me.
Through fourth, fifth and sixth grade, I was a mash-note machine. I would practice writing the letter in my diary, making sure I didn't write the same thing twice, and working to get just the right tone. I kept a tally of how many I'd written each of them. After seeing Devon Sawa in the movie "Casper" (1995), I wrote him six times, Jonathan Taylor Thomas 11 times, Justin Timberlake of 'N Sync 12 times, Brian Littrell from the Backstreet Boys nine times, Joey Lawrence nine times and, after "Titanic" in sixth grade, I stopped keeping track of my Leo DiCaprio love letters after 14.
I may have been devoted, but I wasn't exactly the typical fan. I would just tell them about my day, or tell them about a magazine cover they did that I liked. Sometimes, I would just ask them questions. In June 1996, I wrote Devon Sawa and said, "I really love my fifth grade teacher Ms. Allen. I've learned so much, and she's just so nice. But what I'm really into these days is the Spice Girls. Do you like them? Who's your favorite? My favorite is Ginger."
In February 1998, I wrote this to Leonardo DiCaprio: "After watching Titanic I've been trying to rent other movies you've been in. I could be wrong, but I really think you are a really talented actor. I have a feeling you're going to be really famous still even when I'm old." All the i's were dotted with hearts. I never mentioned having crushes on them. I never went into any of that. But at the end of every letter, I would always say, "Please write back as soon as you can!" They never did.
Writing all of these letters got pretty pricey. I remember during the summer between fifth and sixth grade I started to feel guilty for all the postage my parents were paying for. So, I set up a lemonade stand on the country road where we lived in Beverly, Ohio. There wasn't exactly a lot of traffic, so I didn't get many customers. And by not many, I mean no one other than my parents and siblings, which defeated the purpose. So I set up camp outside of my grandparents' home in town. When people would ask what I was trying to raise money for, I would simply say, "love." That seemed to win over the neighbors, who bought a cup of lemonade with a chuckle and a wink.
I soon decided that if I had nicer stationary or cooler stickers, maybe the objects of my affection would start writing back. So I started selling clothes and shoes in yard sales in an attempt to scrounge up enough for glittery gel pens and shimmering stickers. I don't remember asking my parents to pay for any of this, although I'm sure they would have. I was independent in that sense, and I was certain my hard work would pay off. Sadly, many lemons and a much diminished wardrobe later, I still wasn't having any luck eliciting a reply--not even a form letter.
At some point during my preteen fan years, the journalist in me began to emerge. I wasn't just writing to Jonathan or Justin or Brian about how I liked their song or how much their movies made me laugh. I was doing research. I would spend my hard-earned Internet privileges at school learning everything about my crushes and reading any teen magazine I could get my hands on. I started to write to them about what we had in common. "Justin, I read you love red Starbursts. So do I!" or "JTT I love my family more than anything, too!" But nothing worked; even when I put postage on a return envelope with my address.
One crush in particular frustrated me the most. I was watching "The Sandlot" (the 1993 movie about young baseball players, for those of you who might have missed it) and I absolutely fell for Mike Vitar, who played Rodriguez. He was the best baseball player in town and befriended the lonely new kid. I wrote him more than anyone I'd ever written before. I loved baseball and, growing up in Ohio, I was also a huge Cleveland Indians fan. I wrote him letters and letters all about baseball. I was especially disappointed with this one because of all the guys I'd written, he was the least famous. I thought since he was less known, he surely received less fan mail, and would be more likely to respond. No such luck.
And then, I stopped. I was 12 years old. During junior high and even a little bit of high school, some friends were just starting their fan-mail days. And soon, a lot of them started writing e-mails. I stayed away from it, though, vowing that my fan-letter-writing days were over. I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment again. Besides, by then I was busy having crushes on boys that were in my life, not just on my TV set.
But a new crush emerged during my junior year of college: Pat Monahan, the lead singer of Train. At this point, I'd racked up some confidence--my English teachers, both high school and college, told me I was a talented writer. With these compliments in mind, I thought that this fan letter would be different. It would be so powerful, there was no way Pat could ignore it.
It seemed a little ridiculous to be writing to a singer at the age of 21. Yet after going to five of his concerts in one year, and listening to his CD daily, I caved and wrote another fan letter. The subject matter was a little more serious. It delved into how the lyrics of his songs had changed my life and how extremely grateful I was for that. It was short, about a page, and only took about 20 minutes to write. Before I could talk myself out of it , I mailed the letter. It's been about a year, and you guessed it, I haven't gotten a response from Pat.
Strangely enough, I wasn't that sad that none of my crushes wrote back. Back then I just kept trying. I never lost faith that one day one of them would answer. Of course, in hindsight, it does seem odd that these young stars didn't have someone on staff to deal with letters like mine. I wonder if things have changed since I was a kid. Is someone writing back to all those young girls who are pouring their hearts out to stars like Zac Efron and the Jonas Brothers?
It turns out that just collecting the mail for a hugely popular group like the Jonas Brothers is a Herculean task. A spokesperson for the band's label, Hollywood Records, says they get upward of 5,000 pieces of mail each week, including letters and elaborate arts-and-craft projects. Most of it is shipped to wherever the band is touring, but the label would not divulge how much the boys read and whether they respond.
That might mean there are still lots of girls waiting in vain by their mailboxes. I'd like to tell them that in the long run, getting a response may not be as important as writing in the first place. At least it wasn't for me. I think that if any of my crushes had sent some kind of perfunctory pre-printed note, I might have stopped dreaming up new ways to get their attention. And maybe I wouldn't have written those long chatty letters about my day, or spent all that time revising them in my journal. Looking back, I can see that composing those letters was a big part of my decision to become a writer. Sometimes I even think I should write them to thank them for ignoring me. Of course, that might start the cycle all over again.