The limits of 2000s-era internet made a safer space for stanning
In late 2002, right after Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was released, a message board of Orlando Bloom fans compiled a care package to send to Orlando Bloom himself. Assuming that everything that was supposed to make it inside did indeed make it in (and there were questions — and ensuing drama on the board — as to whether that happened), the package contained an assortment of trinkets, tokens, and gifts that the board members had surmised he might appreciate, based on various interviews and teen magazine profiles.
The box was sent to his representation in London, with no guarantee it would ever actually reach him, no expectation of a response, no specific hopes attached to its mailing or its recipient. Later, some participants would claim to take issue with one piece of the box’s contents, finding it a bit gauche to include a card with the message board’s URL, “just in case he wants to visit.” Why would he want to? And, more importantly, why would they want him there?
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Viaggio247’s Year of the Ring.
It was hard enough to exist as a Legolas fangirl online, after all. Scrutiny from men wasn’t hard to come by. Why invite a burgeoning heartthrob into your pervy fan community dedicated to him when you could just visit any early aughts film site’s comments section and be embarrassed and ridiculed for much less effort? That was the beauty of curated spaces like message boards (often hosted through places like EZBoards or Yahoo Communities) or websites with URLs like ‘OrlandoBloomFans.net,’ where groups of women and girls could gather to celebrate, lust after, and — very importantly — create around their fascinations without judgment from others.
The streams of fangirl and celebrity crossed so rarely back then, that the internet of the early 2000s felt like a much safer space to be a fangirl than the internet of 2021. When I (a high school freshman with too much unsupervised internet access) donated towards the transatlantic shipping costs of The Box Endeavour, I wasn’t thinking that this was some sort of Hail Mary play to meet and fall in love with Orlando Bloom. The package was simply about trying to gain that tentative thread of connection with a crush. An act that — thanks to social media — is now as simple as pressing “send” to access the star of your favorite film, television show, or TikTok. But we weren’t conditioned to expect that sort of access then.
Which is in part why, when Bloom did respond a few months later, I was titillated, of course. What teen girl wouldn’t have been? But also? I was kind of extremely freaked out.
Image: New Line Cinema
It took until The Two Towers, but when I finally decided that I was indeed a Legolas Girl — approximately 2.5 seconds after he used his shield as a skateboard during the battle of Helm’s Deep — I went all in. We’re talking a full redecorating of my bedroom to make room for a wall entirely dedicated to Orlando Bloom. We’re talking hours spent on fan message boards and many dollars spent on the UK versions of our teen magazines that covered him far more regularly than American publications. We’re talking about a cardboard Legolas standee in my sophomore year dorm room that concerned teachers occasionally inquired about. We’re talking one hundred thousand words of an RPF romance novel about a thinly veiled version of myself falling in love with a very explicit version of Orlando Bloom. This right here? This was a parasocial relationship.
I put a lot of work into my crush on Orlando Bloom. And it was work; a different sort than I had to put into my crushes on fictional characters (which made up 99% of my crushes at the time), where I would largely make up my own details while waiting for, say J.K. Rowling to adequately fill in the details of Remus Lupin’s Marauders-era life.
But IRL crushes meant IRL facts. Wikipedia wasn’t particularly prevalent, so creepily committing details of Orlando Bloom’s life to memory meant poring through magazines, watching every red carpet appearance, and using up all of my parents’ bandwidth for the month because I had to download every one of his international chat show segments. It was knowing facts off the top my head — things like his sister’s name, details about his dog, being able to recount from memory multiple stories about the time the Fellowship actors had spent in New Zealand, or recall the events around the time he’d broken his back — that made me, and the fans I connected with online, feel closer to him.
Those details were our currency. They were how we knew what to put in our package in the first place. Items in the tightly packed box included, but were not limited to, blank journals (“for him to write his thoughts in,” one of the package organizers said), the books The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Internet for Dummies (the latter because he’d once described himself as akin to a Luddite), a Superman t-shirt, a stuffed puppy named “Maude” (because he’d had to give up his own dog named “Maude”), a handcrafted ring, and a spray bottle labeled “Crazy Fan Repellent” (ironic, given the circumstances).
Care package aside, the idea of trying to communicate with Bloom through any medium seemed slightly outlandish. I knew my parents would think so, especially since it involved working with adults I’d met online — stranger danger, and all that. I was online enough too, even then, to recognize the stigma directed toward women who showed any interest in LoTR vis-à-vis the men who populated the Fellowship. I read the boards at Ain’t it Cool News every single day, after all. Even if you were a “legitimate” (as deemed by men) Lord of the Rings fan, admitting a sexual attraction always seemed to work to diminish the legitimacy of your broader fandom experience in others’ eyes.
Orlando Bloom and fans on the red carpet of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003. Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage
So, in addition to not wanting to come off like a Stalker Sarah prototype, crushing at a distance was also about maintaining cred in the more “serious” corners of Film Internet. Places where knowing the basics of Quenya got you cool nerd points, but knowing the basics of Quenya specifically for the purposes of enhancing the sex scenes you were writing about Legolas and the new lady elf character who happened to look and sound a lot like you absolutely did not.
All of this — the good, the bad, the lack of social media, and the sexism — worked to create an environment for adolescent crushing that I remain somewhat thankful to have grown up in. For me, lusting after celebrities was like being a dog chasing a car. I wouldn’t have known what to do with any of my crushes if I had managed to catch them, and at age 13, that was more than appropriate. I’ve long advocated for people (especially parents and teachers) to understand that things like unattainable crushes and writing steamy fanfiction about the objects of those affections are some of the safest ways for young girls to explore their budding sexualities. These hubs of fan activity were safe spaces, semi-secretive corners of the internet that have existed since the early days of listserv Star Trek slashfic.
It’s the fantasy of these crushes, my own on Bloom included, that makes them both special and safe. But in 2021, that veil of fantasy feels motheaten. With daily looks into people’s everyday lives granted via Instagram, streams of consciousness available minute-to-minute on Twitter, and the straight-up stalker content that accounts like Deux Moi provide, there’s simply a lot less fantasy about the idea of celebrity as a whole. And the same is true in the reverse. Fandoms are loud now; some might argue that the hives surrounding certain celebrities are even louder. It’s as easy for celebrities to find us now as it is for us to find them — just a hashtag away.
It’s certainly quaint, now that being incredibly Horny on Main is more acceptable, to think of shocking a celebrity with lusty message board posts being written about them — as Graham Norton did to Orlando Bloom on his show in those early years of his burgeoning fame. I mourn the privacy the early 2000s allowed the various Hive factions; I long for a smaller internet.
While I was probably the earliest adopter of being Extremely Online within my group of school friends, those digital interactions still felt very insular. The Graham Norton incident could be seen as a blip rather than something that might happen at any given moment. In the same way that I never thought the creatives behind my favorite shows would ever stumble across my fanfiction, I never really worried about the romance novel-length story I’d written making its way to the story’s real subject.
I often wonder what it’s like to write real person fanfiction in a world where you know people are so much more Internet literate than ever before. There was no mechanism for snitch-tagging then, thank God. I would have been mortified if someone had slid a hashtag or an @ into the comments of one of my chapters.
Funnily enough, it was in the fandom I entered soon after my Orlando crush began to wane — I sobbed through the credits of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, despite being fully 19 years old — where I first noticed the veil begin to fray. I was a lot less Horny on Main about Supernatural (that is, I kept it mostly to a locked account on InsaneJournal.com), because it began to feel like the people in charge of making the show were also Extremely Online. I wasn’t super comfortable with that. Not out of prudishness, as I hope is obvious by now. I simply enjoyed that fundamental separation of fandom church and state.
I’ve always been that way, to some extent. When it came time to participate in that first care package, and at least two subsequent birthday package attempts, and several more months of drama after each, I happily donated a few allowance dollars to the cause — for the trip to Michael’s for decorations for a bottle of “crazy fan repellant” spray, for example — but I never saw the need to buy or make anything myself. I liked the idea of making an ocean length’s distance of contact, but never wanted to fly too close to the sun.
Image: New Line Cinema
Six months or so after it was sent, Orlando Bloom thanked our message board for the gift.
In addition to including the message board’s URL, the woman who ultimately mailed the package out had also (and I’m still not sure how) gotten her phone number to Orlando’s mother. And so, when he wanted to thank us for our very strange box of gifts, he simply picked up the phone late that Spring and called her from England. It was 4:49am Eastern.
After speaking for a moment he asked her to record a message for the board. “I just wanted to say a big thank you to everyone at the site just for the box, the care package. It was really sweet. I’m really touched. It was very thoughtful. And I’m sorry that the response has been so long. I’ve been so busy with work and I’m not very good at responding to everything. I’m sort of figuring out ways of responding to fans and to the sites and stuff. But that is something that got to me. And I’m really and truly appreciative and all the best. Thank you.”
From the author’s notebooks.Photo: Kendra James
As asked, the call’s recipient recorded the message. She then transferred it to her computer, and painstakingly uploaded it to a personal server (this was not a simple process back then), so that she could post a link on the board, accompanied by a lengthy list of instructions to members on how to download it to their own computers. In 2021-speak, they amounted to little more than “right-click + Save As.”
I burned my copy onto a CD-RW and took it to school to show off to all my friends. But the fallout from that first package marked the beginning of a steady decline in participation. A bout of arguing had ensued after the fact, all based around one faction’s belief that the wrong organizer had been awoken by the pre-dawn call. Typical of early aughts fandom/hive in-fighting. But what really soured the taste in my mouth was the knowledge that Orlando Bloom’s mother could very well be aware of our message board — the place where I posted sexually explicit fanfiction about her son.
That URL, now shared, was no longer a safe space to explore what it meant to be a teen girl with a crush and a wild imagination, and I began my migration back to LiveJournal and its magical feature — the ability to lock your posts. By the time I sent my final message, I’d posted on that Orlando Bloom fan message board nearly 300 times. But the package organizers had flown too close to the sun.