5 Celebrity Deaths That Started Cult Followings

From Selena to River Phoenix, we look at celebrities from the past 25 years who died young and ignited a frenzy postmortem.
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Alisha Miranda
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From Selena to River Phoenix, we look at celebrities from the past 25 years who died young and ignited a frenzy postmortem.

This year Tejano music artist Selena Quintanilla would have turned 44 years old. Her life was cut short at 23 when she was murdered by the president and founder of her fan club on March 31, 1995. Her untimely death caused shockwaves beyond the Latino community, inspiring the 1997 film starring Jennifer Lopez as the late singer, and moving former President George Bush to rename April 12th as Selena Day in Texas. Selena is not the only celebrity to have a profound impact on fans posthumously. Bio looks at four other 20-something celebrities from the past 25 years whose unexpected deaths raised fanatical cult followings.

Selena

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More than 50,000 fans from around the world came to mourn Selena’s death at her 1995 funeral and today millions more continue to keep Selena’s legacy alive through tributes online and in-person. Last year, the Love Selena website founder organized an annual Los Angeles meetup where fans could win rare Selena memorabilia. Though Selena’s popularity predated the Internet age, her talent continues to move fans who have taken to social media to create fan pages posting Rest In Peace messages, Instagram photos, and family news that keep her memory alive. Her looks, her style, and her warm personality won over not only Latinos but the American community at large. There are “lookalike” contests held on a regular basis, moving young women to show off their best Selena looks - after all, this is how Hollywood powerhouse Jennifer Lopez got her start! Currently, more than 13,000 fans are petitioning for a custom Selena beauty line in hopes of recreating her signature red-lip look. With a rise in newborns named after the late singer, there is no doubt that Selena carries on larger than life.

River Phoenix

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Late Hollywood actor and rock musician River Phoenix also passed away at the age of 23 generating a slew of fan clubs from a young generation around the country. With an impressive list of film credits alongside actors like Keanu Reeves, Ethan Hawke, Harrison Ford, and Robert Redford —and not to mention his stunning good looks — Phoenix caught the attention of teenage girls who still pay homage to the young star with slideshows and video clips online. A quick search on Tumblr boasts hundreds of fan blogs and posts with the late actor’s performances in gif form. Despite his tragic ending from a drug overdose, Phoenix lived an otherwise positive life as a proud vegan, supporter of rainforest conservation, and a rebel against Hollywood superficial norms. This attitude has kept fans tied to his memory in an age where too many young stars are caught in the very same struggles.

Tupac

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Perhaps no other artist has caused so much uproar in rumor mills after their death than rapper Tupac. It can be argued that the West Coast icon has seen more commercial success after his death that have people still wondering, ‘Is Tupac still alive?’ His fearless attitude and no-holds-barred storytelling hit home for many black Americans who faced the same struggles of poverty and crime. At his peak, Tupac represented hope, starting his career as a backup dancer with hip hop group Digital Underground before becoming a legendary rapper and budding mainstream actor. His devoted fans admired his tenacity and continue to seek hope in his lyrics with 2pac tattoos, merchandise, and countless fan sites that chronicle the late rapper’s life — and death. In fact, many sites hold their own conspiracy theories on how Tupac remains alive; some even boast first-hand accounts where they claimed to see him in person. It is undeniable that Tupac’s memory is alive and well 20 years later.

Aaliyah

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Dubbed ‘The Princess of R&B,’ Aaliyah took the nation by storm in the late nineties with her soft vocals and belly dancing moves that propelled her into music video and motion picture stardom. At the age of 22 her life was abruptly cut short when a plane carrying her and her team members crashed into the Bahamas. Her ongoing collaborations with music producers Timbaland and Missy Elliott landed her popular music performances on MTV, BET, and the Academy Awards, where she holds the title for youngest performer to take the stage. While other female artists leaned on overt sex appeal and false vocal talents to climb the charts, Aaliyah sported a tomboy look and angelic voice that made her a rare breed of artistry. Throughout her success, Aaliyah remained humble and composed, later inspiring The Aaliyah Memorial Fund where fans contribute to organizations she was passionate about. Fans today remain loyal, and in 2014 took to social media to express their concerns over a Lifetime biopic film which many claim to have falsely represented the late singer’s life.

Kurt Cobain

The 27 Club: Grunge rocker Kurt Cobain committed suicide in April 1994, at the height of his band Nirvana's fame. Cobain had a history of depression and drug abuse, and the Generation X icon turned a gun on himself in the end.

Kurt Cobain. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images


Nirvana defined the 90s grunge era in a way that no other band has. Lead singer and guitarist, Kurt Cobain, introduced the world to a new genre 20 years ago that has paved the way for today’s top rock groups including Green Day, Arcade Fire, Foo Fighters, Blink 182, and Weezer to name a few. With dark lyrics that gave us a peek into his angst-filled life, Cobain immediately attracted a large teenage fan base that identified all too well with the perils of new adulthood. Unable to rise above his demons, Cobain took his own life at the age of 27 and youth culture was forever changed. Cobain was considered a ‘martyr’ of his generation, rebelling against conservative societal norms. His music revealed a brutal reality that other pop music failed to express so earnestly, creating a path of emotional catharsis adopted by young people. For many, Cobain’s music saved their lives, and fans today give thanks through poems, song covers, artwork, and memorabilia that pay tribute to the late rockstar. Last spring, popular musicians Lorde, St. Vincent, and Joan Jett gathered on stage for an impromptu performance of Cobain's "Lithium" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the remaining members of Nirvana. Needless to say, the event refueled fans’ ‘teen spirit.’