Why Fans Join 'Cults' of Music Stars: Groupie Experts Explain

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R. Kelly performs on Nov. 6, 2015 in Las Vegas.

Legendary rock groupie Pamela Des Barres doesn't know any of the women in the alleged “cult” surrounding R&B singer R. Kelly detailed in a BuzzFeed report this week. But she does have some insight into how women get swept under the the control of star musicians.

Though Kelly's camp has denied the allegations, Des Barres and a range of other experts on groupie psychology told Billboard that big-name acts can seduce fans by doing everything from promising to boost their careers to providing financial support or escape from reality, and their power of persuasion is only increasing in the celebrity-obsessed age of social media.

“Imagine if the celebrity that you have always crushed on shows you some attention in some way,” says John D. Moore, Ph.D., author of Confusing Love With Obsession: When Being in Love Means Being in Control. “You are already coming into it infatuated and vulnerable and maybe even have imagined this relationship in your mind with him. The celeb asks, ‘Hey, would you want to stay with me this weekend?’ and you do. And now you are with him for the weekend and maybe you do things with him -- in and out of the bedroom. Then another request comes. And now the celebrity is letting you live there and taking care of your finances or food. It really doesn't take much to have that happen,” he explains, noting that the power of celebrity and fame is deeply woven into the American psyche. “We want to attach ourselves to something more than who we are to make us more than just the average.”

Des Barres, who authored I’m With the Band after years of flying on rockers’ private jets, standing onstage with bands and once hitting Vegas to see Elvis with Led Zeppelin, tells Billboard that “it is a very addictive lifestyle -- so I can see why someone wouldn't want to leave it.”

Aspiring female musicians themselves can “think maybe this is a way in,” while others find “themselves in this situation with someone who has a whole lot of money, everything is free,” Des Barres adds, noting that groupies can get also hooked because they “don’t have very thrilling lives -- they’ve escaped something. And this is really kind of a dream compared to what they came from. They want to be around that energy. It is a very exciting energy!”

Moore, the psychologist, says that the type of women who end up in such cult-like situations “are probably unestablished, vulnerable and have low-self esteem.”

“The psychopathology of it is they don’t typically have a lot of experience with healthy relationships, so unfortunately they can be taken advantage of and brainwashed,” he tells Billboard. “And oftentimes, women who find themselves in these types of scenarios are lacking a strong male figure in their lives.”

Moore explains that while these situations can be abusive, the women can still justify their lifestyle for a number of reasons.

“They think they are getting their emotional needs met, they are feeling valued and they are feeling desired and attractive. And the ultimate compliment is if someone of stardom wants you and finds you attractive,” he says. “They don’t see that they are being used and psychotically scarred by a codependent relationship.”

But such situations are a two-way street, he says.

“We can’t just look at a group of women who are groupies and say, ‘Hey, they brought this on themselves, they are totally to blame here, they are just dumb,’” he explains. “That’s so unfair, because when it gets to this kind of a level, they were absolutely encouraged to do that.

“People who encourage groupies and encourage that kind of worshipping are definitely exhibiting narcissistic personality behaviors here. There is no question about that,” he adds, adding that a textbook narcissist does not have regard for other people’s feelings and emotions. “They only care about themselves. And so by having someone continually affirm them physically, sexually or both, that feeds into their need to be adored and worshipped.”

Grief recovery specialist Anne-Marie Lockmyer is concerned about the long-term effects that superfans can suffer. “There is potential for a loss of control, identity, self-worth, important relationships, loss of freedom, trust and safety, loss of control over their body and, of course, loss of hope,” she explains. “Each one by themselves can be stressful or traumatic. Put them all together and the person is overwhelmed with grief and pain, which can cause serious emotional and physical illnesses, which can also explain why it is hard for them to get out and also why it is hard for them to recover.”

Another downside, according to Des Barres: having to share a celebrity’s affections with others. “There were times I wished that I was the only one, but you’re willing to accept a situation because that’s just the way it is. If you want to spend time with an incredibly huge musician, you know there are also other women who are doing that. It’s something you expect,” she explains. But “sometimes people don’t mind sharing. If they are not in love with the guy, they are probably having a really fun lifestyle and enjoying it, for all we know.”

For her part, Des Barres, who is currently promoting her latest book Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin’ Memoir, said she would like R. Kelly’s female houseguests to attend her upcoming memoir-writing class. “These women should come to my workshops. They could figure some stuff out!”


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