When Lauren Manecke was about 10, she fell hard for one of her first celebrity crushes. She found herself swooning for John Stamos’s beloved character Uncle Jesse on the sitcom Full House. She tuned in to watch the leather-wearing, Elvis-loving hunk of burning love almost every evening. Have mercy, indeed.
“Aside from the obvious — his good looks — Uncle Jesse was witty and sly, and I liked how goofy he was,” says Manecke, who’s now 26. “He sings, is a family-man, is funny, and he's handsome, what isn't there to love?”
Since speaking to Manecke, I’ve heard from many people, across ages and genders, who echoed her sentiments. There was something about Stamos, or at least this specific role he played, that apparently awakened something in many kids, especially millennials. (For the record, we tried to get John Stamos to weigh in on what this je ne sais quoi may have been, but his publicist said he couldn’t comment by press time.)
It may be funny and even a little weird to recall the celebs, cartoon characters (we're looking at you, Shego in Kim Possible), or random kids in the schoolyard who made up the crushes of our youth. But these early infatuations are surprisingly important to our development. In general, first crushes can be “a healthy and important psychological step in young people’s development,” says Rebecca (Riva) Tukachinsky Forster, PhD, an associate professor at Chapman University and the author of Parasocial Romantic Relationships: Falling in Love with Media Figures. The crushes are mentally preparing kids for dating in real-life relationships down the line. While first crushes tend to be one-sided (a type of bond known as parasocial relationships), they “are an opportunity for people to experiment and try on different romantic identities, to understand better who they are, what they want, what they think, and to develop their scripts and expectations for future relationships,” Dr. Tukachinsky Forster says.
Nadine Thompson, 61, a social worker and president of Soul Purpose Lifestyle, says her first crush was on a babysitter she had growing up in Trinidad. “He was very bright and intelligent, and he would read to me stories such as the Mother Goose tales or Tom Tom The Piper’s Son every time he came over,” she says. “It really instilled in me a love of reading but most importantly the idea of being read to. I have since been attracted to intelligent men who enjoy reading and even married [such a person].”
Like Manecke, Shelby Hall, 23, who uses she/they pronouns, who grew up in central Pennsylvania, crushed on a Jesse — but Hall’s love interest was a character in the Hannah Montana series played by Drew Roy. They say this may have been the first stitch in a pattern of flocking to so-called “bad boys,” an archetype they found themselves interested in through early college. Similarly, Danielle Tancredi, 22, named Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory as her first crush, “My friends were all crushing on Zac Efron and Nick Jonas, and I’d be like ‘But Willy Wonka though!…’ And I’m definitely still into that androgynous and gender fluid look today,” she says.
As part of a survey Dr. Tukachinsky Forster led, she asked 566 people about their first crushes; most reported having theirs when they were 10 or 11, about the same age as Manecke was when she was crushing on Uncle Jesse. Dr. Tukachinsky Forster theorizes that our first infatuations tend to hit around when we enter the first stage of puberty, which can be as young as about six years old, and would indicate that our puppy love was at least somewhat hormone-driven.
But kids’ interests, values, and desires aren’t fully formed. As such, they may be particularly susceptible to adopting crushes based on outside influences — who their friends like, who’s getting the most space in Tiger Beat magazine, who’s being shown as desirable in movies. Hall, for instance, felt innately pulled to Jesse in Hannah Montana — but they also remember crushing on a “jock everyone had a crush on" at one point in early elementary. Greg Smallidge, a sexuality educator in Seattle, calls these “community crushes.” “We often watch others and try to copy them, or be like them, before those feelings, ideas, [or] actions are authentically ours,” he says.
This is another way the lack of representation and diversity in media can be detrimental — to everyone, but especially to young kids who are forming their ideas about what kind of relationships are okay, points out Dr. Tukachinsky Forster. “You take a young child and ask them to describe a date, and they’ll say, ‘The boy picks up the girl and they go to a nice French restaurant,’” she says. “It’s very stereotypical and heteronormative… Representation is extremely important, and research shows that it’s crucial for LGBTQ+ teens in particular to have role models they can identify with and see themselves represented in.”
That’s not to say that queer kids haven’t been figuring out what they’re into, despite the challenges Hollywood’s white, straight, cis-world has created for them. Dr. Tukachinsky Forster says some LGBTQ+ people remember being into characters of the same sex, even if those characters were portrayed as straight. One person Dr. Tukachinsky Forster surveyed for her research said that Jennifer Lawrence from The Hunger Games was her first crush, and part of her self-realization that she was queer. But more media representation of different types of bodies, identities, and relationships can be invaluable to young adults who are on their own journeys with self-discovery and acceptance.
Of course, not all kids who loved Uncle Jesse as pre-teens are into leather jacket-wearing musicians with great hair and hearts of gold as adults. “To what extent [early] crushes help you solidify your preference later in life, and to what extent this is your actual preference or this is just your first opportunity to explore it is unclear,” Dr. Tukachinsky Forester says. “That's the art of experimentation. Some of the people that I interviewed do believe those early crushes segmented their crushes in adulthood, and others don’t.”
Billy Dyke, a 27-year-old in Iowa, sees some traces of his childhood crushes in his current romantic preferences: He remembers thinking a lot about Will Smith, although he didn’t recognize his infatuation as a crush at the time. “I [still] tend to prefer men with stronger personalities and more bravado — so long as they're ultimately decent people, of course,” Dyke says. “I also had a bit of a celebrity crush on Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.”
But, he adds, when you're a child, “crushes just seem like an extreme version of considering someone your best friend, or a celebrity to worship."
"At least, that's how I feel about it," he continues. "In retrospect. I also feel that crushes might feel a bit different depending on a child's personality, and especially if they're LGBT+, as was my case.” Smallidge agrees. “Your first crush might not be on someone you would have a sexual attraction to later, but that’s normal because they’re usually not really sexually based — these early crushes are about feeling warm, special, or delightfully excited,” he says.
While Billy Dyke was crushing on Will Smith, I was crushing on Billy Dyke; we were in the same kindergarten class, and I spent many recesses chasing him around the playground and attempting to kiss him (not cool behavior, looking back on it).
“I remember the playground chasing as being pretty normal, I guess,” he told me. “It just stood out as different because you were the most consistent friend I'd play with on the playground ‘til [you moved] away. Usually other kids would split off and play with other groups, but you stuck by my side and vice versa.”
The main quality I remember being attracted to in Billy back then was his sweetness, and as we caught up, I could tell that not much had changed. He was so kind about answering my questions. I would hope my childhood attraction to the nice guy has persisted into adulthood; I’d be lucky to date someone as good-hearted as Billy someday.
Ultimately, even if your first crush was a total anomaly, they’re still fun to remember. “The coolest thing about childhood crushes is that they’re all yours,” Smallidge says. “You have your memory of it for a long time, and it can be a wonderfully sweet thing to hold on to. Sometimes the person who’s being crushed on gets credit because they’re so pretty or popular. But, really, a crush requires the opening of the heart and an ability to say, ‘Yes, I’m going to access this big, vulnerable feeling of love or desire that’s inside myself.’ Don’t give the crush too much credit for the beautiful feelings because those are all yours, and they were helping you learn what it meant to be loving and care about other people.”