What should celebrities do with fan mail?

Letter, Taylor Swift, postcards, Johnny Depp, card, Ringo Starr

Fan mail sent to singer Taylor Swift was found unopened in a recycling bin. What do celebrities do with the mountains of post they receive, and why do their admirers bother sending it?

There are few more melancholic sights than a pile of fan letters, lovingly decorated with glitter and felt-tip drawings, languishing in a bin.

The sparkly envelopes were addressed to Taylor Swift, a pop star much beloved by teenage and pre-teen girls.

"Dear Taylor," read one discarded message, "I love you so much!! You're the best [love heart] And you're really beautiful and cute [two love hearts] I'm really enjoying your songs."

This, along with hundreds of other similar missives sent from around the world, was discovered in a Nashville recycling disposal unit by a local woman.

Swift's management was quick to reassure her legion of admirers that they had been thrown out accidentally.

"Taylor gets thousands of fan letters every day and they are delivered to her management office," spokesperson Paula Erickson said in a statement. "After the letters are opened and read, they are recycled."

The response may come as a disappointment to any devotee who imagines, as they compose their letters that Swift makes time to view each one personally.

Dealing with piles of fan mail is, however, an administrative burden for most celebrities.

An assistant sifts through the Beatles' fan mail in 1964 Fan mail has long been an administrative burden for public figures

The quantity involved can be staggering. At the height of his fame, Johnny Depp was said to receive up to 10,000 letters a week.

The dawn of the digital age - in which public figures with a Twitter account can be messaged directly - has made the process easier. The White House says it processes 20,000 messages addressed to President Barack Obama each day.

Some celebrities have given up on fan mail altogether. In 2008, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr announced he would be throwing it all out in the future, because he had "too much to do".

Start Quote

Ringo Starr

I'm warning you with peace and love I have too much to do - no more fan mail”

End Quote

Others do attempt to get through it themselves. Robert Pattinson, star of the Twilight films, claimed in an interview that he read "tonnes and tonnes" of letters from fans.

Most, however, appear to conclude that acknowledging correspondence from fans is part of the cost of fame. As a result, they often outsource the task of opening, reading and replying to correspondence.

Sylvia "Spanky" Taylor, 58, has run a fan-mail answering service, in Burbank, California, since 1987. She and her six staff process up to 20,000 items of mail a month on behalf of 26 celebrities. Over the years, her clients have included Depp, Rob Lowe and Michael J Fox.

Typically, correspondence is acknowledged by a fan letter and a photo with a printed "autograph".

Television actors tend to generate more mail than film stars, Taylor says, because "if they're in your home every Sunday evening, you feel much more familiar with them".

Most letters from fans are simply declarations of affection and admiration, she adds. A few beg for money. A small number contain disturbing material or threats which require her to contact the celebrity's security team and law enforcement.

"Some of them contain quite bizarre sexual perversions," says Taylor. "I really wouldn't want the celebrities to see them. You get quite a dismal view of the world sometimes."

The biggest logistical headache for Taylor is working out how to dispose of the correspondence that passes through her office - including gifts like chocolate and stuffed animals.

While some celebrities do like to go through their mail personally - Fox, she says, always made an effort to read as many as possible - the majority simply do not have time.

"With candy, it gets thrown out - I don't know if someone's stuck a needle in it," she says.

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger answer fan mail in 1963 Some fan mail does reach celebrities

Presents such as soft toys are distributed around local hospitals, she adds. As for the letters, most "just get shredded and recycled".

To most disinterested observers, this may be unsurprising.

But the fate of their correspondence is something most committed fans will not wish to dwell on, says Lynn Zubernis, an expert in the psychology of fandom at West Chester University.

Start Quote

People have a tremendous need to connect with the person they are idolising”

End Quote Lynn Zubernis West Chester University

"There's this little bit of every fan that thinks theirs will be the one that stands out - it's not an expectation, but a hope that theirs will be seen by the celebrity."

While the relationship between the fan and the celebrity may exist only in the mind of the former, it stems from a deeply-rooted human need for community and belonging, Zubernis believes.

As a result, even receiving a mass-produced letter of acknowledgement and a photo stamped with a reproduced signature can be a powerful experience.

"People have a tremendous need to connect with the person they are idolising," she says. "They can't ring them up and say, 'Can we have coffee?'

"It's not about the autograph. It's about the moment of connection."

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features & Analysis

  • Cerro RicoSatanic mines

    Devil worship in the tunnels of the man-eating mountain


  • Nefertiti MenoeWar of words

    The woman who sparked a row over 'speaking white'


  • Oil pumpPump change

    What would ending the US oil export ban do to petrol prices?


  • Brazilian Scene, Ceara, in 1893Sir Snapshot

    19th Century Brazil seen through the eyes of an Englishman


Elsewhere on the BBC

  • SailingGame on

    BBC Capital discovers why certain sports seem to have a special appeal for those with deep pockets

Programmes

  • Prof Piot, the first person to indentify Ebola virusHARDtalk Watch

    Ebola expert warns travellers could spread the disease further if it is not contained

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.