The inner lives of adult One Direction fans

What it’s like to be a grown-up and love a boy band online.

The inner lives of adult One Direction fans

What it’s like to be a grown-up and love a boy band online.

One night this past January, Allyson Gross camped out in front of Rockefeller Center to score tickets for a performance by One Direction singer Louis Tomlinson on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m only 23 years old and I’m still the oldest person here by two or three years,’’’ Gross said with a laugh.

Whether you’re 23 or 34 or 52, loving a boy band can be framed as a shameful pursuit. At a time when you’re expected to be more concerned with achieving varying levels of adulting — paying down college debt, pursuing a career, getting married, securing a 401k — there’s an arrested development in being taken by the member of a current boy band.

Why lay claim to a generational touchstone that isn’t your own? For a fan like me, at 34 years old, shouldn’t I stay in my rightful lane and wax nostalgic about The Strokes and solo Justin Timberlake? It’s hard to say, but different levels of comfort and community for older fans can be found online in 1D fandom.

At the time of the performance, Gross had left Tumblr and was seeking out a platform where she could connect with other adult Directioners. The Tumblr dashboard gave the fandom its GIF sets, fan fiction, and conspiracy theories, rivaled only by adoring accounts on Twitter and their trending hashtags. A fan since 2014, Gross hid her love for the band via a secret Spotify playlist called “‘I Can’t Believe I’m Doing This.” But when Zayn Malik left the band in March 2015, she couldn’t hide it any longer. “I was like, ‘No, I love this thing so much, I can’t be exclusively online about it,’” she said.

For a fan like me, at 34 years old, shouldn’t I stay in my rightful lane and wax nostalgic about The Strokes and solo Justin Timberlake?

One Direction is over 600 days into an “extended hiatus,” which was pre-emptively confirmed by Tomlinson and Niall Horan via Twitter in August 2015. But unlike most boy bands, the members of One Direction now currently exist in their solo pursuits. (Rolling Stone described the band’s last album, Made in the A.M., as its Let It Be: “the kind of record the world’s biggest pop group makes when it’s time to say thanks for the memories.”)

Earlier this month, Tomlinson became the fifth and final member of the band to score a solo top 40 hit with his current single “Back to You,” featuring Bebe Rexha and Digital Farm Animals. Zayn hit it first in February 2016 when “Pillow Talk” went number one, followed in the fall by Horan’s “This Town,” which peaked at number 20 this past January. In April, Harry Styles went to number four with “Sign of the Times,” and Liam Payne’s summer release “Strip That Down” featuring Quavo hit pop radio’s top 10 earlier this month. According to Billboard, One Direction now joins the ranks of The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac in having its five members earning individual top 40 hits in the Hot 100.

All five members of One Direction attend a book signing in 2013.

All five members of One Direction attend a book signing in 2013.

Months into the hiatus, Gross was turned off by the hardcore “solo stan” action in her feed. She found herself using Twitter but disliked its lack of support for lengthier dialogues. She and her friend Nora Biette-Timmons, who both used Slack for work, wondered if a Slack channel would be more conducive to supporting an older, non-Tumblr-like fanspace, where interactions could happen privately and thoughtfully, without going viral. So Biette-Timmons created one, and she and Gross share moderating duties of the 23+ community.

Within eight months, 1D for Olds has grown mostly by word of mouth to just over 100 members. The group has thrived in the fandom’s current transitional moment, using it to share unbuttoned-to-the-navel incidents of Harry Styles stealth cosplay, revel in the intensity of securing tickets to Styles’ and Horan’s upcoming fall solo club tour dates, or dishing recommendations of super-long fanfics.

One Direction has a particularly intense fandom, in part because it was essentially the first boy band of the social media age. For five years, through update accounts and the band’s own distributed content, their fans knew where they were and what they were doing. And because they were a reality television manufactured band, having formed on The X Factor, these fans saw the band become best friends in real time, learn publicly how to construct their populist identities, and wrestle control from the much-shaded 1DHQ, a term coined by its fandom to describe the dreaded Simon Cowell-led management that seemingly tampered with the band’s authenticity. And to many fans, those details are as important as any single or music video.

“As a fat girl, I relate to how I’ve gotten to witness them mature and just become hotter and hotter and grow into their weird faces,” Brenna L., a then-27 year old customs broker analyst, told Noisey in November 2015, the month Made in the A.M. was released.

One Direction has a particularly intense fandom, in part because it was essentially the first boy band of the social media age.

As a recently converted fan, I understand that to love One Direction fully is to be acquainted with the pain and pleasure that comes with that complicated celebrity worship commitment. One of the ways the intensity of the fandom manifests is through shipping, or wishing for a romantic relationship between their favorite characters or celebrities. To be a “Larry,” for example, is to have intense feels for Louis and Harry, an imagined coupledom owed “to the pair’s close friendship and European approach to man-on-man PDA,” wrote Amanda Hess in 2012 for Tomorrow Magazine.

In 2013, the now-defunct Livejournal fanfic recommendation community The Crack Van surveyed the 1D fandom, and its ships. They included “Larry Stylinson,” the ship between Styles and Tomlinson that was drawn from their then-Twitter flirting before management purportedly shut it down, to “Ziam,” the pairing of Liam Payne and Zayn Malik, justified by Payne’s admission that they snogged each other once.

In some ways, I want to believe Zarry is real. The namesmush to describe the one true pairing that is Malik and Styles was initially captured in GIF sets of sliced illicit concert footage of them whispering into each other’s ears on stage and the interplay between their personas in the “Best Song Ever” video, off of One Direction’s 2013 Midnight Memories album. In the video, the band confronts film studio gatekeepers, like balding execs, dorky A&R marketers, and an attractive personal assistant. The twist is that these Hollywood freaks are played by the boys themselves. In one sequence, Harry aggressively hits on Zayn as Veronica, the personal assistant: he bumps up against her, and then grazes his index finger seductively along Veronica’s jawline. “Everytime I log onto my laptop now i cry and scream because harry and veronica,” posted a Tumblr fan in 2013, sharing a screenshot of her laptop’s desktop background.

Sharon Olivo, a recent Tufts University film and media studies graduate, became a fully committed Directioner when Zayn left the band. The 36-year-old fan, who loved the Backstreet Boys when she was a high schooler, is a long-time commentator on the Livejournal pop culture community Oh No They Didn’t!, and was drawn to the band via the celebrity drama that came with it. “They [were] messy,” she said matter-of-factly in a Skype call. “Zayn was cheating on his girlfriend. So that’s when I started following their Twitter and reading their tweets and seeing what they were up to.”

Fireproof, her 2017 documentary short, is the result of that interest deepening to consider the psychology of adult boy band fans. It follows Patty and Jennifer, two committed 45+ “Larries” who each swing between fan fiction and tinhatting in how they engage with Louis/Harry.

Zarry fan art is incredibly popular on Tumblr.

Zarry fan art is incredibly popular on Tumblr.

“I wanted to spotlight why older women gravitate towards this. And it’s not even to say that it wasn't a reflection of myself, because I'm also older and into One Direction. I have questioned a lot of this in myself. Why am I doing this?” said Olivo. “So I sort of explored that through the lens of these other women [to understand] what was going on with them. That they [are] overly attached, not just [to] a pop band or group — which is one thing on its own — but a pairing. Why are they so attached, and why is it so important for them to believe that these two men are together?”

Fireproof begins with Patty and Jennifer talking about how they each discovered One Direction, and then fell down the YouTube click hole of their music videos, old interviews, and fan-uploaded concert footage. “Someone put together [a video of] their time on The X-Factor, and I’ve watched that probably five, six, seven, eight, ten or twelve times now,” says Jennifer, a 48-year-old single mom based in Portland, in the film. Patty, 52 and a “huge Louis fan,” lives in a Dallas townhouse with framed Larry fan art and prayer candles artfully displayed on the mantel.

Many adult women ship because it’s their “way of accepting straight men as being good in their lives.”
Sharon Olivo

While both women share an intense, obsessive, age-defying pleasure in these modern-day Tadzios, Olivo explores with nuance and levity the psychology of a certain kind of older boy band fan. Jennifer talks about how her discovery of One Direction coincided with losing a job she’d held for 11 years, and helped her process the accompanying bitterness and pain. Patty talks about dating in her early thirties, and befriending a 17 year old whom she started seriously dating when he turned 18. They were together for five years. “I always liked younger guys,” she says. Olivo later grounds this bravado: in another interview, Patty, red-faced with tears, haltingly admitting to an incident of sexual trauma by an older male. She was 16.

“A lot of it is anti-typical straight male behavior,” said Olivo, pointing to the way some Larries disapprove of Tomlinson’s current Kappa-wearing-lad solo persona, and allege is being forced upon him by management. “‘They’re making him masculine, and he’s not masculine.’ They say that,” said Olivo.

Olivo believes Patty and Jennifer, like many adult women, ship because it’s their “way of accepting straight men as being good in their lives,” she said. “I think, especially after my film project and getting to know Patty, a lot of it stems from earlier to somewhat being let down by straight men in their lives. Which I identify with, big time.”

Fans wait for One Direction in Rome, Italy, in 2014.

Fans wait for One Direction in Rome, Italy, in 2014.

Owen G. Parry, a London-based performance artist and associate lecturer in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins and Goldsmiths, is fascinated with shipping as a way to subvert heteronormative narratives but also in questioning notions of queerness. He sees this mainly in mpreg Larry fanfic — stories written by fans that envision male pregnancy.

“One of these images that is really poignant for me is the strange domesticity of this Larry family image by Karukara, which looks like this white middle class heteronormative family,” he explained. “It’s really problematic in so many ways, but, at the same time — can we really say this is an imitation of heterosexual life when, for example, Harry is pregnant?”

It was Parry’s interest in slash, or same-gender romance fan fiction, and that it’s mostly authored by women that drew him into 1D fandom. “For me, I'm really honest in saying that I didn't come to One Direction because of their music or them in any way. It was literally purely through discovering Karukara's Larry Stylinson fanart,” said Parry. He interviewed the artist, and then referenced her work in his 2016 installation Larry!Monument at Jerwood Visual Arts in London, a multimedia installation and live fan fiction roleplay with Larry lookalikes. The work has since led him to found the Fan Riot research project, which includes a fan club series with invited artists, fan contributors, and publications.

Directioners attend the band’s first performance in South Africa, at Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium in March 2015.

Directioners attend the band’s first performance in South Africa, at Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium in March 2015.

A recent mainstream portrayal of the older boy band fan was Rock This Boat, the Donnie Wahlberg-produced 2015 reality series about Blockheads on a New Kids On The Block cruise. A couple of my co-workers, who know of my fandom, recommended I watch the show on Netflix. Our problematic fave was Amanda, a fortysomething hair metal throwback surburban mom who gleefully flashes her breasts at New Kids member Danny Woods at an autograph signing. Woods freaks, and promptly exits with bodyguard in tow. Amanda’s eventual mortifying embarrassment culminated in a Blair Witch Project-like apology video to earn his fealty. Given that the show is officially sanctioned fan product, it’s an oddly ageist and pathetic depiction of an older woman being shamed for being too public and lacking boundaries about her desires.

But, interestingly, there are a lot of fans that are actively theorizing and creating spaces for its adult fans to consider what this all means. While the mainstream has made it seem as if 1D only has teen fans, there have always been older fans — and, at this point in its “extended hiatus” moment, there’s clearly an appetite for more like-minded dialogue. Gross, who co-created the 1D for Olds Slack channel, also runs an email newsletter curating 1D-related essays. Earlier this year, she wrote a piece for the Fansplaining podcast about how 1D slash and the band’s extended hiatus has led to a current boom in boy band YA lit. In the fall, she’ll begin an MA in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, where “obsessive” fannish activity will continue to fuel her research. Her undergraduate thesis, which she’ll expand upon further in graduate school, explores One Direction through post-Marxist Lacleau theory, as a “populist, collective object.”

I don’t want to actually fuck Zayn or Harry, right?

Shipping by adult 1D fans (and I include myself in this) is both a survival strategy and a methodology. In a way, it’s essentially a realization of the “queer female space,” a term coined by fandom academics Alexis Lothian, Kristina Busse, and Robin Anne Reid in 2007 to describe the construction of a “fannish fantasy space as a place where women can experiment and explore” within slash fan communities on Livejournal. I think this applies to adult 1D fans, but on a much larger scale.

Ultimately, adult Directioners are really questioning how we perceive adult female desire. Everyone I talked with experienced a “shaming” period where they were scared to talk openly about their 1D love because they felt challenged in explaining how their love didn’t fall into preconceived notions of boy band fandom. Or thought it was something that was totally for pleasure, until they realized that their engagement as a fan is “having this opportunity to say something back,” as Parry pointed out.

As a Zarry, I don’t want to actually fuck Zayn or Harry, right? I don’t think I can handle even meeting them. I love Zayn’s voice, his style and attitude. I think Harry is a compelling public figure, talented songwriter, and yes, I also love his styles. I vibe to some of his music, but I probably love the most how he’s — to borrow from Gross’s concept — a textual object or avatar in so many fanworks. Zayn is a character onto whom many women of color project their issues with classicism, racism, Islamophobia, etc.; for Harry, it’s the way he challenges masculinity. I don’t actually believe they’re in a relationship, but I dig this collectively shared fantasy of women making boys maddenly slowburn to realize their love and affection for one another. Sure, we’re projecting an idealism for masculinities that are expressive, fluid, touchy-feely, and not hurtful. But it’s a fantasy we continue to uphold for each other.

Rea McNamara is an artist, writer, curator, and public programmer in Toronto focused on the on/offline statuses of niches and subcultures.