Why Anthony Fauci Became the World's Biggest Celebrity

Don Stevenson admits his latest purchase is ridiculous. “I have a feeling that if my wife finds out she’ll kill me,” says the 40-year old, who just so happens to work in the life insurance industry.

The potential flashpoint: a bobblehead doll of Dr. Anthony Fauci, M.D, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which typically retails for about $25. Stevenson lives in Australia—so with fees and shipping shelled out closer to $90. He couldn’t help it and he couldn’t be happier. “I’m getting it delivered to work,” he says sheepishly.

Phil Skar, CEO and co-founder of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, says the company has pre-sold more than 30,000 figurines in 10 countries. “Within a week it became our best selling bobblehead of all time,” Skar says. (That’s nearly twice as popular as the previous best-seller, Sister Jean, the chaplain for the Loyola Ramblers men’s basketball team, which made it to the Final Four in 2018.)

Those Fauci fans are far from alone in their infatuation. Since March, Dr. Fauci has become a staple on national press brief circuits. He’s earned a reputation for fact-based, no nonsense updates about the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, state of our collective national health, and exactly what steps we should be doing to remain safe amid the chaos of the invisible invader. Because of that, he’s emerged as an unlikely and even pansexual crushworthy icon. That says a lot about how we decide who to love in times of crisis.

And to be clear: Plenty of other attempts to pay homage are also going the good kind of viral. Every Monday in Rochester, New York, doughnuts with Fauci’s frosted face are shipped throughout the country. “We did not expect it to blow up on social media,” says Nick Semeraro, owner of Donuts Delite, whose team spent hours finding the right packaging to keep the doc’s likeness from smudging and has since sold over 50,000 of their Fauci-themed comfort food.

On TikTok, admirers create videos set to the tune of “That’s My Type” by Saweetie. Based on a Change.org pledge more than 25,000 supporters want him to be People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” while elsewhere online people rhapsodize the 79-year-old’s intelligence the way Beliebers swoon over their idol’s latest video. “Fauci is a research God,” claims one post on the @FauciFan account on Twitter, which has 25,000 followers and shares fetishistic fan art that includes an image of Fauci as Superman. (He fights COVID-19 with “Lasers of Wisdom” and fights for not just truth and justice but “evidence based policy.”)

When Ryan Desear, a 40-year-old Tennessee resident, created a similarly apolitical Dr. Fauci Fan Club on Facebook in early March, it quickly drew 95,000 people. “I literally just started the group, and posted it on my timeline. I didn’t invite anyone to it,” he says. “Within 30 seconds, the first member joined who wasn’t even somebody I knew.”

There’s no denying that COVID-19 has become more than a health issue as Americans argue whether the White House adequately managed the situation. But Dr. Fauci’s non-political, science-based attitude seems to provide some relief from the squabble. “I don’t care what politicians think,” Desear says. “To me, Dr. Fauci [is] the calmest and most rational voice in the room.”

That’s probably a large part of his appeal. Right now, people are thirsting for honest, straight-forward leaders with plans to keep citizens healthy, says Dean McKay, PhD, psychology professor at Fordham University. “People are feeling anxious and they want to see a measured and clear leader,” says McKay, who notes that in times of unease, we naturally seek others who can offer reassurance that everything will work out.

As McKay sees it, that demeanor can, and sometimes does, transcend party lines. Which explains the growing COVID-19 crush of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (see: #Cuomosexual) and some bi-partison love of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (whose weekday briefings some people have turned into “Wine with DeWine”-style virtual dates). The common factor: These are politicians of opposing parties who guide their states’ response using science.

Cuomo and DeWine are similar to Fauci because they excel in presenting daunting information in a non-alarmist, non-partisan manner. “They seem to be appropriately concerned and can convey a sense of being prepared to handle it [the situation] appropriately,” he says.

Although there’s a level of uncertainty about the future during the best of times, the pandemic has crushed many of our traditional routines and access to others with whom we’d find comfort. As a result, we may naturally cling to some new and comforting constant if it appears in our isolated lives. Overwhelmingly, that figure is Fauci, who seems somewhat inescapable in screens and newsfeeds, says social psychologist Jaye Derrick, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Houston.

“People latch onto him because he is very definite. He doesn’t sound uncertain,” she says.

Rampant misinformation, inconsistent White House messages, and COVID-19 conspiracy theories creates confusion—which stokes the Fauci flame, she says. “He’s almost a foil for some of the anti-science things that are going on,” explains Derrick. As The Atlantic has reported, people may also see spikes of testosterone in times of crisis, which can be associated with sexual and romantic arousal. The question then is who you might fixate on.

The answer seems easy as Dr. Fauci’s fame leads to even more airtime. Yes, Dr. Fauci is a regular at the White House press briefings. But he’s also been proactive about appearing on “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” and makes cameos on Will Smith’s Snapchat. As his heart-throb status has grown, it’s been magnified in new ways. Brad Pitt even portrayed Fauci on an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”

Such high levels of exposure can simulate an intimate relationship, says fandom expert Katherine Larsen, PhD, professor at George Washington University. “It’s like people who used to watch soap operas everyday,” she says. “Eventually those characters weren’t just characters in a soap opera. They felt more like family.” It doesn’t hurt that most of us are stuck inside—and growing tired of our quarantinemates, says Larsen.

Fandom is where you turn to be with people who understand what you’re feeling about something, which explains why thousands gather online to gush over their COVID crushes. “The people you are living with—your family, your friends—they might not get it. We might not necessarily feel that the community we’re in is the one we want to be in at the moment,” she says. “Fandom you choose.”

As more fans participate, it’s not surprising that the fervor has gotten even more extreme. Take Andy Andersen, a 34-year-old artist in LA, who took part in a recent Instagram challenge that prompted the community to create COVID-19 art for two weeks. The final task was to draw the silver lining of the madness. Andersen looked to Dr. Fauci as his muse, depicting the expert as a saint with the year “2020” oozing blood in the background.

“For whatever reason when he talks everyone I know gets googly-eyed. He’s got a swag about him,” says Andersen. “He is very firm, but at the same time seems very compassionate. He makes me feel—and a lot of other people feel—that we can get through this.”

That’s a sentiment that’s going global, as more people read about America’s response to the novel coronavirus in their local media outlets. “I think everyone around the world knows who Anthony Fauci is now,” says Olivia Smibert, MD, infectious disease expert at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne.

She explains that Dr. Fauci will head up a wing at her facility—in bobblehead form. “We created a COVID unit and thought it would be quite relevant to have a ward mascot, which would be good for staff and patients.”

Her colleague Jeff Feldman, who works in data and analytics, found and purchased the bobbleheads. Several weeks ago, Feldman was barely aware of Anthony Fauci. Now, he compares the immunologist to a rock legend. “He’s a superstar. He’s the Bono,” Feldman says. There is one striking difference: even Bono doesn’t have an official bobblehead.

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