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BTS to Bollywood: The irrefutable power of social media and new-age celeb connections

Online platforms, especially social media, have introduced a new celebrity-fan dynamic, allowing the masses to catch up with public figures, sometimes directly, and vice-versa

The K-pop sensation from South Korea is known for its sharp dance choreography, interludes, pyrotechnics and has had millions groove to Korean lyrics on subjects like bullying, elitism and mental health.
The K-pop sensation from South Korea is known for its sharp dance choreography, interludes, pyrotechnics and has had millions groove to Korean lyrics on subjects like bullying, elitism and mental health.

BTS’ megahit butter was named the bestselling song of 2021 in the US, and according to music sales data provider MRC Data’s 2021 US year-end report—presented in collaboration with Billboard—the catchy cut was the only single to hit one million pure purchases. If you are a die-hard BTS fan, you would know who we are talking about.

The K-pop sensation from South Korea is known for its sharp dance choreography, interludes, pyrotechnics and has had millions groove to Korean lyrics on subjects like bullying, elitism and mental health.

A growing fan base of over 43.3 million followers on Twitter and 58.7 million on Instagram and counting, BTS (BangTan Boys, also known as Bangtan Sonyeondan in Korean and Beyond the Scene in English) has achieved a staggering level of fame with fans all over the world and adeptly leveraged social media for both music and followers. One of the band members of BTS, Suga, told BBC Radio 1 in 2020: “I think we’re so lucky to be born at the right time. Without social media, we wouldn’t have been so successful.”

Rightly so, as today, the Internet, especially social media, has intensified fan and celebrity relationship as opposed to yesteryear when the only good source of information on celebrities were newspapers and magazines. Celebrity interaction with fans for more than a decade was perhaps limited to a simple autograph or a photo. But social media has introduced a new celebrity-fan dynamic, allowing the masses to catch up with famous personalities, sometimes directly, and vice-versa.

According to life coach Chetna Chakravarthy, who has worked with personalities like Academy award-winner Guneet Monga and acclaimed actor Sarah Jane Dias, social media performs three functions—it allows celebrities to stay connected with fans, market their work and offer a revenue-generating platform through brand deals and partnerships. “In an age when daily news is being consumed on Instagram or Twitter, celebrities use social media to grab fans’ attention. Especially at a time when the business of movies is going through a shift in terms of cinemas being unable to lift their shutters and films being released on OTT platforms, ignoring social media is not really an option. It’s about staying relevant,” says the Mumbai-based coach, who in August last year, launched a new series called ‘Speak/Listen’, a 12-episode series comprising life hacks and lessons on Instagram.

This is true. You spend five minutes on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to realise a barrage of celebrity news on the timeline. News, views, tweets, posts, reels, videos, images of airport look, celebrity weddings, film launches, or holidays abroad are common. Fans, too, post a sneak peek of grainy, zoomed-in videos of stars posing in airports, events or public places.

However, some celebrities might be trolled for their weaknesses while a majority of them are lapped up for anything they do. For instance, time spent during the lockdown made celebrities turn as home chefs or maintain a rigorous fitness regime. As a result, the common man could take a sneak peek of celebrity lives and homes, all through the Internet. Bollywood actor Madhuri Dixit cooked up classic and healthy recipes with her husband Dr Shriram Nene on YouTube, or actor Shilpa Shetty Kundra made Instagram Reels on how she balances health and fitness yet enjoys an overdose of sugar in her ‘Sunday binge’ with family and friends.

In August last year, Netflix rolled out a show, ‘Cooking with Paris’, where socialite Paris Hilton adds her own flair to every dish with anyone-can-cook attitude. Though not a trained chef, she still explores new ingredients, recipes and cooking with her celebrity friends. However, the show invited criticism by international dailies like The New York Times claiming to be ‘the latest in a food TV genre starring celebrities who lack professional kitchen experience, and even revel in it’.

Clearly, being a celebrity does involve choosing to live a public life. “It’s the nature of the job. The fame, adulation and following are also a very big reason why someone chooses this profession. However, how much of their life is out there for their audience to devour is completely up to them,” says Chakravarthy.

A two-way connect
Social media platforms can create a buzz by sharing personal lives of stars, and one can show support or follow them. Yet, it is considered a one-way communication where most stars cannot respond to every fan request. But a slew of start-ups is now offering an unconventional service to connect with personalities or celebrities who can talk, celebrate your special day or interact through text or video messages.

Pune-based businessman Ashwin Srivastava last year ditched the regular ring or saree as a gift to his wife on his eighth marriage anniversary and decided to surprise her with something unusual. “I booked singer Shaan’s video for our anniversary. It was magical and beyond my wife’s expectations. Imagine you get up in the morning to see your mailbox with a message from singer Shaan, saying ‘wishing you happy eight years of marriage!’ He wished us and sang a song,” says Srivastava, who booked Shaan through GoNuts, a celebrity engagement platform that facilitates communication between fans and celebrities.

The need to do so is because the experience is priceless. “It’s overwhelming to be wished by a star on your special day. I was on cloud nine. I never thought that this would become such a happy moment in the family,” shares Trivandrum-based Nandan Sasi, another user of the service, who surprised his younger brother with a video of singer Kailash Kher. “He hums his songs almost throughout the day and is a great fan. So, what better than the singer singing and wishing him personally on his special day via a video,” says Sasi.

Both Srivastava and Sasi have fond memories of the experiences which engagement platforms like GoNuts and other startups offer. It’s a personalised two-way communication that enables fans across the world to engage via video messages or co-created content. “It’s a transparent encounter in terms of value and experience for those who really want a piece of their favourite stars to create memories for a lifetime,” says Mumbai-based Joji George, founder of GoNuts.

Because it’s a win-win situation for both fans and celebrities, a transactional business is converted into an experiential one for fans. Celebrities can convert a traditional model of income into a revenue model by self-recording a video and sending it to people from anywhere in the world. The platform brings a variety of entertainers, actors, comedians, dancers, emcees and singers to stay connected with the audience. “For celebrities, it is money earned during free time. This also gained momentum during the pandemic, a time with zero income, as stars earned in double digits without disrupting their professional or personal schedule,” says George, who started the platform in March 2020.

How do such platforms universally work? When you select your favourite celebrity from the list offered on platform, select payment mode and the start-up can share a video through WhatsApp or e-mail within 72 hours. “It’s instant service, there is no misrepresentation, ambiguity and the typical layers of finding celebrities for consumers and business,” adds George, who has introduced animation (Chhota Bheem, Charlie Chaplin), music stars, impersonators (Donald Trump, Robert De Niro, Madonna), comedians (Suresh Menon, Sudesh Bhosle, Monica Murthy, etc), besides engaging with celebrities and musicians like Shaan and Shankar Mahadevan.

From being a multilingual, multi-price and multi-star platform with more than 1,000 celebrities to start with, there is a range of interactions starting from as low as Rs 500 for a cartoon character like Chhota Bheem to Rs 50,000 or more for a singer like Kumar Sanu, where a commission per message is shared in a 70:30 ratio between the celebrity and the platform.

“The fact that celebrities sell, and these platforms make your wishes come true, more and more people get attracted to experience stars,” feels Hyderabad-based Rahul Reddy, founder of Stargaze, a platform that launched its beta version in August last year, and has on-boarded over 50 stars from arts, sports, cinema, literature and television, including Abhijeet Sawant, Siddhi Idani and Nitya Naresh, among others. The company has a revenue target of $10 million for the year 2022.

As a major source of business revenue, the start-ups have helped small and medium enterprises (SMEs) directly book a celebrity for businesses to promote, launch brands or deliver services through recorded brand videos or live sessions. “The services fit tight budgeted SMEs to have a star promote their brand. Most television stars don’t have dedicated agencies, and they don’t have to deal with any middlemen, and can earn from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 50 lakh in six months as an alternative revenue stream. We also create social impact by raising awareness and mobilising funds for causes close to their hearts,” says Akshay Saini, co-founder of Tring, a Mumbai based tech-enabled celebrity engagement and shoutout platform with a roster of over 8,000 personalities like Sharman Joshi, Daisy Shah, Saina Nehwal, Viswanathan Anand, Salim Merchant, Chetan Bhagat, Sophie Choudry and Riddhima Kapoor Sahni, among others.

While social media has played a huge role in bringing fans closer to celebrities, today such engagement platforms are turning out to be a big opportunity for fans and celebrities. The ‘icons of change’, a product service of Tring, pursue social missions via the platform, and has also created massive impact through fan interactions. Bollywood actor Vidya Balan, for instance, raised over 2,500 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits for doctors and Rs 16 lakh for those battling at the frontline during the Covid-19 pandemic in April 2020. The actor collaborated with Tring, along with Manish Mundra of Drishyam Films and photographer and film producer Atul Kasbekar.

“A personalised experience and social connection is possible which until now only social media was doing,” says Jaipur-based Nimish Goel, co-founder and CEO of TrueFan, which has an exclusive roster of A-list celebrities like Janhvi Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Kareena Kapoor, Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff.

Stars also like to relate and feel the need to get a sense of what their fans and followers feel or communicate. They update, share details of personal life via social media and such platforms. “I share my work schedule on social media and get involved with fans in many ways. Even if virtually, it feels as if they are part of my life. It is the best way to stay connected, yet personal messages help in being transparent. Personal shoutouts like a birthday or a wedding wish is a one-on-one connection like you are a friend to a fan,” says actor Hemant Kher from the web series, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story.

Telugu actor Flora Saini, who has also worked in films like Stree, seconds this. “I want to give my fans an insight of my life so that they get to know me better than just the characters I play, because my life is beyond the characters I play,” she adds.

However, actors find these platforms safe and lucrative as a medium to host anyone without hierarchy. Hyderabad-based actor, content creator and art therapist Nitya Naresh, who sends messages through Stargaze, says, “We stars are usually worried if a custom-made interaction with a fan is safe as you connect with any stranger in the world but the interaction is particularly taken care of by Artificial Intelligence, which keeps a track of all the messages and transactions. As celebrities, we put up so much content on a daily basis on social media platforms, but here, it’s personalised yet commercial.”

And what is most engaging is the surprise element or direct connection at a time when cinema halls or outdoor events took a beating. Those sitting at home, even otherwise, found this idea engaging in the usual way as interactions were more intimate, sometimes motivational on occasions like birthday greetings or singing a line of song from their favourite singer. For instance, singers Kailash Kher and Shankar Mahadevan share messages on GoNuts and found this a great business opportunity during the pandemic.

From creating digital wedding invitations during the pandemic to creating success stories of his humble beginnings, singer Kailash Kher says, “There is a need to reciprocate the love received from well-wishers and such spaces fill the need.” Musician Shankar Mahadevan, who made a video for a mother on behalf of their daughters, and sang Main kabhi batlata nahi from Taare Zameen Par, also feels, “We have so much to say and so much to express but mostly we are short of time. But such experiences help reach out to a larger audience. When you share wishes on behalf of their loved ones, it brings us closer to them.”

A special bond
With celebrities and famous icons comes an obsession to look, eat, dress and live like them and such fans share a special bond by giving designated names to their groups or fellow followers. For instance, ‘Little Monsters’ is the term used to describe any Lady Gaga fan and this became famous organically during the release of her second album that was on various ‘monsters’ in Lady Gaga’s life. Pop icon Justin Bieber’s fans, the Beliebers, set streaming records, attend sold-out tours and engage with screaming fans everywhere.

Global music sensations like Taylor Swift and Shakira are known to personally connect with fans via Tumblr, a social networking site. Even to pop out of the car to click a picture with fans and without doing crowd control is special, says actor Nitya Naresh. “A career like ours is because of the fans as people enjoy watching what we do, enjoy our movies and so they are a very integral part of this whole experience,” he adds.

But fandom can be dangerous when one starts losing his or her personality and psychology, trying to become what one isn’t, and can’t. At times, celebrities who possess dazzle and glamour tend to become demi-gods and fans start emulating whatever their ‘idols’ do. “In their heydays, we saw fans idolising Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan and Rajnikanth, etc, to the extent of worshipping them. Such admiration starts influencing one’s life deeply in obsessive addictive disorder. That’s because fans enjoy looking at celebrities, at what they do on the screen and off it. To an extent their thoughts and actions get disoriented— they lose touch with their identities and self-esteem,” says Mumbai-based Mickey Mehta, a holistic health guru / corporate life coach.

“For instance, if their favourite celebrity dies, such a fan might contemplate suicide. Admiration is good, but it should be with a ‘witness value’—just watching them, but not getting entangled, and keeping one’s identity sanct,” he adds.

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