As millions of teenager girls prepare themselves for tonight’s US and world premiere of One Direction: This Is Us, we investigate the fear and the fandom of the world’s most devoted Directioners in this cover story from the archives.
Originally published in the Obsession Issue, the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Wonderland.
Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan and Liam Payne, together known as One Direction, are currently among the most adored individuals on the planet. Despite their astonishing global success (and many millions in the bank), they’re keen to hold on to their own normality. But the same can’t be said for their wildly imaginative, obsessive and transgressive fanbase. Or can it? Wonderland investigates…
“Zayn tastes like beer and chips and Liam drops the bag, effectively spilling the garbage he’d thrown in earlier, to cup Zayn’s jaw. He doesn’t know if it’s because he needs Zayn to be closer, or if he just needs something to hold onto. From the way Liam’s body is reacting, he thinks it might be both. For two blissful heartbeats, they kiss, and nothing – nothing – Liam has ever experienced can compare to this.”
Girls, boys, tabloid journalists, don’t get too excited. The above is not what happened when Wonderland met One Direction – you know, the biggest boy band on the planet right now. It’s the work of a 17-year-old American girl who goes under the handle of “Mindless Dreamer” on Onedirectionfanfiction.com. At the time of writing, this site hosts around 30,000 stories (over 200,000,000 words in total) featuring Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan and Liam Payne, the ex-X Factor pop idols who have become the show’s most astonishing success story. Mindless Dreamer is a finalist in four out of fifteen categories in the site’s inaugural best-of awards (best Louis, best Liam, best slash, best alternate universe), the winners of which should have been announced by the time you read this. She has about four long fanfics on the go, one of which, Drunk Texting (a story about Tomlinson accidentally texting a stranger’s phone whose number is similar to Styles’), is over 50,000 words long – and counting. Another, set in a different reality from our own, is about what happens when Malik, working with Tomlinson as an assistant to – wait for it – the grim reaper, is asked to collect the soul of Liam Payne on Earth. Seriously. In her bio she says: “I used to be a normal person. Then I started liking One Direction.”
A lot of “normal” people like One Direction. Yet, they do an awful lot of abnormal things. Recent press coverage of the boys, who according to a biography of Simon Cowell released this year, are now worth more than £100 million collectively, has been peppered with tales of how the band’s fans take to Twitter to issue death threats to their girlfriends, how they make up scurrilous rumours and rail bitterly at fans of other acts, viciously hounding any that would detract from their idols. As the boys’ fame continues to skyrocket (largely because, this February, they did the impossible and broke America, becoming the first UK act ever to debut at no. 1 in the Billboard album charts) the niche activities of their fans are making news of their own. At the beginning of October, the world was turned on to the burgeoning One Direction fan fiction community when 16-year- old Emily Baker had bagged herself a book deal by posting One Direction fanfic Loving the Band on web-publishing site movellas.com. But even this story only really scratched the surface of a fascinating, international online community that has its own laws, its own logic. Of course, illogical, mass-obsession about a bunch of cute guys who sing romantic songs is hardly new. But the buzz around One Direction marks something of a turning point in the history of pop culture. Suddenly, thanks to Twitter, Tumblr and all the internet’s other self-aggrandising personal broadcasting platforms, the obsessive imaginings of millions of lustful teenagers are being played out in a very public forum. Anyone is welcome to stare into the eyes of the madness.
Given that they are surrounded by such a level of hysteria, it’s a little surprising that, in person, the members of One Direction are so very normal. It’s actually quite disarming – each is so much like any regular teenage boy that our interview feels a little bit like hanging out in a sixth form common room. Malik and Horan flick through a copy of Teen Now, sniggering at a cheesy poster of rival boy band The Wanted. “I like to kiss this sort of thing,” says Tomlinson, sarcastically, “I think they look sick in it, don’t you?” Malik joins in, pointing: “Yeah he looks proper good there.” In-jokes fly around the room, causing Payne to chuckle between sentences as he answers questions. Horan fiddles with his phone a lot, and sings little snatches of Chris Brown songs. Styles is attentive but seems a little bit tired.
Actually, they all seem exhausted, like puppies post-kibble. “They’ve been long days these past three weeks,” says Payne, adding that they rarely finish doing interviews, photoshoots or recording sessions before 9pm. Of course, they try to actually live their lives too: “If you finish late, by the time you go home you can’t fall asleep, not ‘til one or two in the morning,” says Horan. (His nocturnal routine became apparent this September when he and Justin Bieber had a late night noodle sesh after the VMAs). Payne, who shortly after our interview, was reported to be going on dates with Leona Lewis, reckons he gets about five hours shut-eye a night. So does Styles, the ladies’ man of the group (but you can’t help suspecting that it’s rather less than that). Asked what they would do if they had any time off right now, they all reply, “sleep”.
Clearly a little weary of doing interviews, One Direction often get distracted and veer off-topic – one quasi-fruitful digression reveals their favourite club move is “the cardigan dance” – best executed, when “hammered,” by grabbing the lapels of your cardigan and pulling them about in time to the music. Sometimes it takes them a while to get to the point because they’re busy ribbing each other. Tomlinson farts about halfway through the session – all laugh.
This is not the kind of behaviour that’s particularly conducive to a good interview. But then again, it’s all part of the unashamed, run-of- the-mill adolescent schtick that has made them great. It’s got a market value – and the boys know it. When asked to what they attribute their massive success, Payne hits the nail on the head: “I think for us, the main thing is that we’ve just kind of been ourselves, that’s what people like. I think a lot of people get into [our] situation and you hear they’ve changed, but we‘ve just stayed ourselves.” Tomlinson agrees – he stresses that it’s important to them that they don’t dance, or all dress in matching outfits. “In the past, with previous boy bands, I think they felt like they had to meet a stereotype,” he says. “We’re just ourselves: stupid, immature and quirky.” (Meanwhile, as if to prove his point, Malik and Horan playfight on the other side of the room).
One Direction’s untrammelled boy-next- door-ish-ness is obviously one reason they’ve got so massive, why the obsessive fans find it so easy to identify with and fantasise about them. But another force in their favour has been Twitter. “I think [it’s] definitely helped us in terms of getting abroad – spread the word between people and their friends in foreign countries,” says Styles. Of course, it’s also changed the game for One Direction in another way, allowing the band’s followers (between six and seven million each) to have – or rather, perceive themselves as having – exclusive, instant and personal access to the boys. “Back when we were lads there were certain celebrities that we’d wanna get in touch with,” says Payne, reasonably. (True to public perception, he’s the most mature and Dad-like of the group.) “That’s why Twitter’s so useful,” he continues. “It’s nice that fans can get 135 close to us and ask us questions and stuff.” As a reward for the attention and loyalty, the boys often tweet back at their followers. How, when there are so many? “I just do it really randomly,” says Payne. “I dip my finger in and just kind of pick one.”
Unfortunately, One Direction’s Twitter following has not always been as “nice” as they might like: this summer, it began to seem like the fruits of the global obsession with the band were finally beginning to get to them. In August, Malik temporarily deleted his Twitter account, so enraged was he at comments (concerning his relationship with girlfriend, Perrie Edwards) posted by trolls on the social networking site. A month later, Louis Tomlinson lost his cool when his mother was abused by out-of-control fans on Twitter. “Can I ask why this is ok?” he tweeted, “To think someone would speak to my Mum like that sickens me. Grow the fuck up!” Shortly afterwards, Payne split up with his girlfriend, who, apparently, had been troubled by the negative comments she was receiving on social media as a result of being in the relationship.
Does it bother them – the fact that what seemed like the perfect marketing tool for One Direction has actually backfired a little bit? Surprisingly, only a little. “Twitter sometimes becomes a place for people to give opinions on stuff which, sometimes, you don’t really need,” says Payne. Tomlinson chips in: “Sometimes you want to say ‘Have you quite finished?’” At the same time, he maintains, no amount of backchat will make him be too self-conscious about what he puts out there via social media. “You have to be completely yourself,” he says, reinforcing the band’s WYSIWYG stance. “If the papers are going to write something about it, at least you’re being who you are,” he says. The boys show a similar stubbornness when I suggest, perhaps, if they were a little less public about their girlfriends (boybands like Take That, for example, were always encouraged by management to be perennially single in public), then maybe their partners would not have to endure so much attention. “That’s shit,” says Louis. “That means you don’t lead a life that’s real. You wouldn’t be able to go out anywhere publicly with your girlfriend.”
When One Direction do go out in public, they, naturally, get mobbed. They’re obviously very bored of talking about crazy things their fans have done (a couple of days after our interview, theyinfactgetinabitofbotheronaNew Zealand radio show by including this in a list of 12 topics they would rather not be asked about), but they feed me a couple of good stories. There’s the legion of bare breasts that assailed their car on a recent trip Sweden. There’s fans who took Tomlinson’s hat, others who nearly pulled Payne’s hands off, another lot who, when he lost a shoe, bought it back off the tramp who picked it up, and gave it back to him. Alongside the fans, there’s the paparazzi, but they don’t seem to mind that. “We kind of get on with them,” says Styles. “If you just be nice to them, they’re really nice to you,” says Horan.
I ask them if they read the mind-boggling stuff written about them online. Malik says he tries not to. Tomlinson gets a bit agitated again: “Some people just literally make up stuff that’s not true. When do you just sit there and think ‘You know what, I’m going to make up a really horrible rumour.’” Payne is drily understated about the fan fiction and the blogs: “Some of those are quite naughty. Quite graphic.” He’s not lying. Among the innumerable One Direction blogs out there, most of which are hosted on accessible microblogging site Tumblr, many simply collect animated GIFs of the boys looking especially cute, but a sizeable amount are also about catching them out in what looks like rampant homoerotic flirting.
The idea of them all getting it on with each other has almost universal traction among fans, with a slew of blogs devoted exclusively to coverage of hypothetical One Direction pairings (not to mention many, many “slash” or boy-on-boy erotic stories). “Larry Stylinson”, the descriptor for the imaginary relationship between Tomlinson and Styles (which Tomlinson has vigorously denied in the press, claiming that such talk has damaged his relationship both with his girlfriend, Eleanor Calder and Styles himself) is the most popular topic. However, every permutation – whether it’s Lilo, Zarry, Larry, Niam, Ziall, Nouis, Narry, Zouis or Ziam – has its own niche following.
A lot of the blogs are aggressively sexy: the description on DedicatedToZiam.tumblr. com reads “Basically just two teenage girls releasing their One Direction sexual frustration and impatiently waiting for the Ziam sex tape.” Another Tumblr, Shower of Cunts (a reference to a derogatory remark Horan made to some fans in July at Dublin Airport), opens with: “I just want to fuck the shit out of Harry Styles and Niall Horan… :)) That’s pretty much what this blog is about.” On the same site, a section collects images of the band that have been overlaid with animated images of stick figures performing sex acts on the boys (each one is labelled with an arrow and the caption “ME”).
Other blogs can just seem plain odd to outsiders, in particular, those that focus on romantic, literary creations. On these, bloggers write short “ships” (in which they pair a fan with a member of the band, detailing why they get on and what their favourite song is), or “imagines” (more extended colour pieces envisaging fantasy situations), and their readers send in requests to be featured in specific scenarios. Some requests are straightforward, such as “my first date with Niall”. Others are bizarre – on theWonderfulWorldofUs.tumblr. com there’s a short story about Horan helping his (imaginary) wife through a traumatic miscarriage.
What motivates this strange behaviour? I manage to get in touch with a couple of the girls who run these sites, and of course, like the boys, they seem pretty normal too. Harsharan Malinao, the Virginia- based 18-year-old who operates “Shower of Cunts” is blasé about her purple prose. I ask her what she’d think if One Direction actually had a look at her blog. “Oh man, haha, I’d be a bit embarrassed,” she writes. “I try not to put anything too weird on there. It doesn’t really matter though because it’s all just for fun haha.” Does she think it’s OK to objectify these boys? “I don’t try to objectify them,” she replies. “And if someone ever did accuse me of aggressively objectifying them I wouldn’t really know what to say besides ‘I’m Sorry.’”
Seventeen-year-old Canadian Blogging duo KandM, who take requests for ships and imagines on “The Wonderful World of Us”, are more philosophical. Why do they think people ask them to write these stories? “Because they want to feel included in the boys’ lives in some way. Through requesting things like ships and imagines, it brings you a little closer to the boys because you are a character in the same story as them.” I have to bring up the story about the miscarriage – it’s pretty gruesome. Isn’t this supposed to be about wish fulfilment? “I guess the whole reason why we chose to write that one was because people need to know that life is not all perfect and it doesn’t always go the way we want it to go,” they say, speaking as one via email.
Every fan I write to is united on one front, that One Direction’s unique appeal is their approachability. “There’s a feeling when you watch the boys that makes them feel like your friends,” says Alice Crosbie, an Australian fan. “They’re relatable and they don’t act like they’re untouchable.” Malinao agrees: “I really like how they seem so genuine and they’re just weird and funny.” I ask the boys if they, in turn, feel close to their fans. “Definitely, yeah,” says Styles. “There’s fans that have been coming to see us since the first week on X Factor that we still know now. It’s nice seeing them on a first-name basis and having a chat with them.” In their experience, what do the fans want from them? “A [Twitter] follow,” says Styles. “I think they just want to be noticed,” adds Tomlinson. Payne remarks “I think there’s a bit of competition between all the fans as well…”
It’s easy to get absorbed in the weird and wonderful world of One Direction’s obsessive fanbase and forget that what they’re famous for, ostensibly, is music. Their new album, Take Me Home, is out early November, and, judging from the success of lead single “Live While We’re Young,” is going to be huge. They recorded the record in “three weeks” (according to Styles, “a month” according to Payne), and say the intense experience made sure the album is all killer, no filler. “There were tracks that we thought ‘oh it might be ok, it might be really bad,’” says Styles. “But because we didn’t have time we could just focus on the songs that worked. Now, looking at the album as a line-up, we’re really happy with every song.”
After the album is released they’re going on tour for most of 2013. This pretty much derails the question “Where do you want to be in a year’s time,” so I try for 10. “I don’t know,” says Styles. “If someone had asked us two years ago, I don’t think we’d have imagined we’d be doing this now.” Does the adulation vary from country to country? “To be honest it’s surprising how similar the fans are in different places,” says Styles. “You’d expect there to be a bit more of a change. [They’re] really supportive, everywhere and they’ve been amazing everywhere we’ve been.”
Having sifted through the blogs, the fiction, the “bullshit” trolling, the counter-bullshit (there’s a Tumblr group called “Directioners Against Bullshit,” which Malinao is a member of), it’s not exactly clear how much the fans care about the reality of the boys, what they’re actually like. Instead, images of these gleeful, shiny-eyed individuals have become a platform for a global, unadulterated fantasy that, as it gets more and more extreme, gets more and more fascinating. Given that the boys swear all they want to do is present themselves as honestly as possible, is there a sense that some fans have missed the point? “I think there’s a lot of things that the fans don’t know about us,” says Payne. “I think our relationship doesn’t really play out as much as people think. People still ask whether we really get on or not, and we genuinely do. A lot of people don’t believe that, they think it’s some fake thing where we have to get on because of the position we’re in.”
Overall, the most surprising thing is how little One Direction are bothered by the extent to which their images and personalities have been manipulated, reappropriated and dissected by their fanbase. But then again, they’re part of a generation for which all this kind of life- as-brand activity is thoroughly normal. In fact, let’s be honest, it wasn’t so long ago that they were X Factor-watching superfans themselves. “If I was a fan and found out that I’d been lied to the whole time… it would be like, ‘how do you believe anything they say?’,” says Payne, justifying the carefree way in which the group live very public private lives. “We’ve always, from the start, wanted to show the fans us, as people,” says Styles. Presumably, there will come a point where they’ll have to be a bit more careful, a bit more afraid. But, then again, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon.
One Direction: This Is Us premieres worldwide Friday, 30 August.
Words: Adam Welch
Images: Michael Hauptman
Styling: Julia Sarr-Jamois