When a Teenage Celebrity Crush Dies

Amanda Peterson in 'Can't Buy Me Love' (Everett Collection)
Amanda Peterson in 'Can't Buy Me Love' (Everett Collection)

Amanda Peterson wasn't a Paul Walker with a thriving film franchise or a Cory Monteith with a hit TV series. But the death of the Can't Buy Me Love actress gave a jolt just the same. Like Walker and Monteith, she was once somebody's teen crush.

"There's something about that time in your life when you're in high school, when you're a teenager," says Carla Sofka, a professor of social work at New York's Siena College who has specialized in grief research. "There's just something about that time in our developmental history that makes… such vivid memories."

Peterson, whose credits included Explorers and the early Sarah Jessica Parker series, A Year in the Life, was found dead in her Greeley, Colorado, home last weekend. Scott Foley (Scandal), Donald Faison (Scrubs), and comic Dane Cook were among those who tweeted condolences that doubled as confessions: Peterson, these teens of the 1980s all said, was their long-ago crush.

This abiding affection for those we loved from afar in adolescence has been noted before, and demonstrated before. In 2012, the passing of the Monkees' Davy Jones prompted children's author Sandra Boynton (Moo, Ba, LA LA LA!) to share how she "dreamed, along with everyone else, that he could be my Personal Penguin." A couple of years before that, Corey Haim's death prompted Tamera Mowry-Housley (The Real) to address the Lost Boys star directly: "[Y]ou were my first crush!"

Corey Haim in his heyday (Getty Images)
Corey Haim in his heyday (Getty Images)

In 1977, eons before the dawn of social media, Elvis Presley's death led to tied-up telephone lines. That the 42-year-old Presley at the time was nearly a decade past his last No. 1 hit and even further away from his former hip-swiveling self mattered not. What mattered was that Presley once mattered — deeply — to the generation that grew up under his sway. Even by the early 1990s, on the occasion of a commemorative stamp issued in the icon's likeness, Sofka says she spoke to Presley fans who could recall going on a date to one of his movies, or enjoying their first kiss to one of his songs.

"The things that are happening in someone's life [in the teenage years] are very intense," Sofka says.

To John Mayer, a clinical psychologist who works primarily with adolescents, children, and families, our celebrity teen crushes aren’t as crushing as the loss of long-ago classmates: They're more so, he says.

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"We actually grieve harder for the celebrity because they have been a more active part of our lives than an old or long-lost friend," Mayer said via email.

"Our minds create incredible attachments to these people, often even stronger and more positive than friends or relatives," he continued. "Let’s face it, we see friends' and relatives’ flaws and failings, but we see what we want to see in the celebrities we idolize."

Peterson arguably was an ultimate case in projection. Her last film was released in 1994, and she remained out of the public eye for roughly a generation. Not even a series of drug-related arrests in the 2000s and 2010s came to light — not until Wednesday, at least, the day she would've turned 44, when People uncovered them.

Peterson and co-star Patrick Dempsey (Everett Collection)
Peterson and co-star Patrick Dempsey (Everett Collection)

To the former teen admirer, Peterson could always be the Cindy Mancini of 1987's Can't Buy Me Love, blonde, curly-haired, and 16. She could remain that way to her former co-star, too.

"In my memory," Patrick Dempsey tweeted of Peterson, "she will always be vibrant and young."