“You're [sic] employee is a FAKE! Getting jobs for favors. You should be ashamed. Do you know what she gets up to on twitter?”
My manager forwarded me the email, prefaced with a wry “?”.
It started, as so many online flaps do, with a thoughtless tweet. A starstruck friend and I had bumped into the popular actor Benedict Cumberbatch and his pregnant wife, and I made a faintly ironic tweet about it. Mentioning Cumberbatch would prove uneventful. Mentioning his wife would prove a mistake.
A couple of friends favorited it, as expected. Then the replies started. “How do you know it was his wife?” “What's his wife like?”
Then, “SHE'S NOT PREGNANT."
I thought it odd but shrugged it off, unaware I was slowly becoming low-level infamous on a dark corner of Tumblr.
Members of the self-named “Skeptics” (a group of exclusively female Cumberbatch fans who believe that his wife is, variously: a prostitute, a hired PR girlfriend, a blackmailer, a con artist, a domestic abuser, mentally ill, and apparently the most brilliant criminal mastermind of all time, and that the marriage, his wife's pregnancy, and very existence of their child have all been faked in a wide-ranging international conspiracy orchestrated by a 30-something British opera director in an attempt to force a naïve and helpless movie star to pretend to be married to her) had discovered me, and they were not impressed.
As a result of my tweet, I discovered my entire career and online footprint being pored over in an attempt to find evidence that I was yet another person involved in the conspiracy. Being British was a strong sign. Having tweeted about celebrities before was even more suspicious.
Having once worked for the same company that once employed Sophie Hunter, now Mrs Cumberbatch, proved it: I was evidently being paid to tweet in order to convince dubious fans that Benedict Cumberbatch has a pregnant wife.
Intrigued, I dug deeper, and found this was not an aberration but part of a growing trend.
Robert Pattinson's girlfriend, the rapper FKA twigs, has been subject to extreme racial abuse from "Twihards," fans of the movie series Twilight who believe that Pattinson and his former co-star Kristen Stewart are secretly married with two children (in fan-land, pregnancies are easy to hide even if you're a constantly-photographed celebrity, while publicly announced pregnancies with bumps are automatically suspect). Beyonce, Kate Middleton, and Katie Holmes have all been accused of faking their pregnancies.
Both male stars of TV drama Supernatural are apparently in forced PR marriages with grasping hussies in a homophobic attempt to deny their true love for each other. Ditto practically everyone who was in Lord of the Rings whose name is not Ian McKellen. The same goes for the wives and girlfriends of the leads from 50 Shades of Grey (with Jamie Dornan's long-time wife being cast as the scheming villainess faking a pregnancy in order to keep him away from his true love, Dakota Johnson), Poldark, Vikings, Outlander, and more or less all of One Direction.
These hate campaigns follow the same lines: There is always a shadowy omnipresent 'PR' (run by a management company or movie studio or record company) secretly controlling everything. However the woman is the chief villain. She may be just a "hired hand" paid to play a role, but she, not management or PR, is always the true evil genius secretly controlling everything. The male star is inevitably naïve and innocent or just plain abused and in need of rescue.
There is usually a wronged true love in the background, though the true love may be a male or (or more rarely a female) co-worker, or an idealized hypothetical future love. Within each fangroup, leaders and followers emerge, sometimes with internal factions. The leaders always have anonymous and fiercely protected insider sources who confirm all their theories. Those "in the know" are superior to the sheep who buy mainstream PR, and firmly believe their brave attempts at outing the truth are being closely monitored by the star's panicked management.
You are either a friend or an enemy, with us or against us, no one is neutral, and each new photo, sighting, interview or role is quickly embroidered into the conspiracy tapestry.
The CumberSkeptics do seem to have taken it to another level, though. Where else could you see an A List celebrity being accused of walking around London carrying a plastic Tiny Tears doll, in a desperate attempt to persuade an apparently extremely gullible paparazzi that he is the father of a baby? Or a beard-girlfriend theory that has both the Queen and the Church of England participating in the conspiracy?
So why do so many seemingly normal fans – people with spouses, children and jobs – end up devoting thousands of hours to proving fantasies about celeb's love lives? Some fans fixate on their favourite celeb being available (one common theme among the Cumberbatch skeptics is the belief that he engages in casual sex with every woman who crosses his path, but he is ready to settle down and commit himself when he meets The One), presumably because they have cast themselves as that celeb's true love. Others project their romantic desire onto on-screen couples, defending the fictitious relationship.
Is it just envy? Erotomania? A desperate need for attention? The buzz of feeling important? A desperate need to equal an inherently one-sided relationship and become significant to someone important to them? These are questions psychologists and pop culture observers have been speculating on for decades. As Internet fandom continues to spread and become increasingly mainstream, we have certainly not seen the last of it. How long such things will remain in the relatively safe space of online, remains to be seen.
In October, months after my minor brush with Internet infamy ended, Benedict Cumberbatch called the police over a stalker who had been repeatedly visiting his home.
A week later, one of the leaders of the skeptics posted Sophie Hunter's “current home address” (fortunately actually the publicly-listed business address of her theatre company, Boiler Room), followed by this chilling message: “We definitely made someone nervous when we figured out where she really lives. I wouldn’t put it past Sophie to try something stupid. But time is running out…and we are closing in on her. We not only know she doesn’t live with Benedict, we know where she DOES live. And I almost hope she tries to drag the doll out again. In fact, I DARE her to do it.”
And as for me? My manager, who fortunately is a good friend with a great sense of humour, brushed off the emails. Tumblr forgot about me, as more tweeters met or saw Benedict and his family and needed to be investigated and explained away.
And as happy (and obviously, glowingly pregnant) as Sophie Hunter was when I met her – I've never been more grateful not to be famous.