Jacie, Jenna, Tori and Savannah have been waiting in line for two hours to meet their idols at Nashville’s Wizard World, where The Fam Tour is being held. They’re nervous and they’re close to tears. “It hasn’t happened yet,” Tori offers. “But I will probably start bawling when I get up to their table and am looking at Nash.” Her friends nod in agreement. Compared to many other fan conventions I’ve been to, The Fam Tour is quite calm. The fans are actually respectful and very little, if any, shrieking has occurred since the boys have started signing autographs.
The Fam Tour is a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for fans to meet Internet sensations Nash Grier, Carter Reynolds, and Hayes Grier and spend the day with them. An autograph signing, panel discussion and photo op have all been planned throughout the day. Teen girls keep themselves herded in the far right hand side of the convention hall, willing themselves closer to their idols. They’re quite the contrast from the grown men and women dressed in Cosplay just inches to their left.
But these aren’t your average teen idols. Nash, Carter and Hayes are self-made celebrities built on 6 second videos from Vine, a cult-like following from the original tour Magcon and their hundreds of selfies. These teens didn’t get their start in a Disney Channel movie or an album produced by Usher. They’ve never played a sold out arena or even acted in a TV series. Their celebrity is entirely built on themselves. Their brand is being Nash Grier, Carter Reynolds and Hayes Griers.
Sometimes that brand is marred by controversy. In the past nine months Nash has received the brunt of criticisms directed at the group. Old videos and tweets of his homophobic views have surfaced. He once made a video with two friends where they talked about what guys look for in a girl. The video was deemed sexist and heavy backlash ensued. Nash has apologized for both and to the teen girls waiting to meet him, that is more than enough. “Everyone is so hard on the boys,” Tori explains in earnest. “But they’re genuinely nice guys and they care so much about us. They’re learning.” In my journey of documenting the boys from the beginning in Magcon (where Grier and co. got their start) to this event, I couldn’t help but question what deserved more criticism: Nash’s ill-informed, often times hateful, views or the public bashing of a sixteen year old too stupid to realize how ignorant he sounded.
On Saturday and Sunday though, the boys were on their best and most calm behavior. Their style of meet and greet has been perfected to a science. Nearly every girl who walks up to meet the boys is greeted with an, “I love you” by one of the boys. A quick autograph is inscribed, usually something like, “Josie! I love you. xo, Nash Grier”. It’s this close connection that has made them so popular and has resonated so deeply with their teenage fans. 99% of whom are girls. “They are there for us when no one else is,” a fan named Makayla explains. “Even if we can’t personally talk to them, it feels like they’re talking to us.” The girls nod their heads in agreement. Emotion rises in her voice. I notice tears are welling up in her eyes. “Just everything they do means so much to us. And just, when they’re there… I always feel like I have someone there for me.”
The idea of the boys caring even if they don’t know many of their fans personally comes up regularly when asked why they love the boys so much. “They’ve always been there for me when no one else would be,” a young girl, who at most is 15, with soft eyes and crimped hair, states. “My dad used to beat me and whenever I would watch their videos it would make me smile. Nash once tweeted, ‘You’re worth it, so smile because I love you.’ and that is one of the main reasons I’m still here and didn’t fall into depression.” It was a passive admission that was almost shocking in how open it was. The girls at these events are completely transparent in their love and admiration for the boys.
“They don’t have to do any of this for us,” a girl named Jillian offers. “They choose to. They are so busy and so famous now, they don’t have to make Vines. But they do. For us.” Jillians friend Sarah agrees, and cuts in. “Yeah, without us they wouldn’t be where they are, and they actually know that.” Without taking a breath she continues, “And they’re not so cocky about it. They keep it straight, and they are genuinely amazing people.”
Many of these fans act as their publicist, best friend and supportive team leader all in one. They’re wary of the press. “We’ve had so many people try to talk to the fandom and twist our words around, ” Savannah recounts. “They don’t want to actually listen to us. They just want to pull our quotes and make the boys sound stupid.”
Many of the girls I spoke with seem poised, self-aware and all but grateful to the boys for as one flatly putting it, “saving our lives.” A common theme among many of the fans is the idea of family. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the girls who told me their stories felt lonely or isolated in their personal lives. The boys in effect are the one constant source of love. “The fandom is a family,” Savannah explains later, after meeting the boys. “Everyone here is like a sibling to me. Even if we don’t know each other, we care for each other.” Many of the girls interviewed offered similar views. “I came here with one friend, and am leaving with two others,” she said happily. “Everyone has just been so nice.”
“Are there any boys who go to these events or is it all girls?” I asked inquisitively.
“There’s, like, two boys here,” Jillian said. “One has been to every single event they’ve had. He was at both Magcons and now this. But I think there’s, like, actually something wrong with him. I talked to my dad about it, who’s a doctor, and he agreed that he has some sort of mental disorder.”
With so many girls, hundreds even, clamoring for just an ounce of the boys attention it makes sense that they love doing this. In their Q&A panel Sunday morning, the boys seemed tired but completely unaffected by the weird requests posed by the entirely female audience. Girls lined up at a microphone placed in the center of the room to ask a question. Every girl who stepped up to the mic held a phone in her hand. She was recording the big moment when she would ask the boys to say “I love you, (x)”. This video would undoubtably be played thousands of times over the next week. The questions were never in-depth or insightful. The moderator was never needed. And yet it was a very intimate, calm environment. The only time screaming and running did occur was when a fan asked Nash to take a picture of the crowd for his Snapchat story. The response was swift: girls jumped out of their seat, shrieking, as they ran to the stage in hopes of being in clear view for the Snapchat.
When questions were asked beyond “Carter, can you say I love you”, they were painfully awkward. “Hayes, how big are your nostrils?”, one young fan inquired in complete seriousness. Laughing ensued. “Hey, that’s mean,” Nash scolded. Hayes looked stunned. “I’m not really sure….”, he said sheepishly. “I can put my pinky all the way in them though.”
Another moment of pure chaos and confusion for those outside of the fandom (this including myself and any adult in the room) was when the teenage girls began pleading for Chad to come onstage. “WHO IS CHAD” the mom next to me wondered aloud. “Is he another one of them??” She began participating in the pleas. “I really want to know,” she laughed.
When Chad did appear onstage, Nash explained this is his father. “Dad’s here!!!”, one girl yelled. This was not what I was expecting. It’s one thing to be obsessed with the boys, but to refer to Nash’s father as “Dad” too? Many fans, including one who I will keep anonymous, refer to Chad as “dad.” This particular fan had spent the entire night before stalking the boys at their hotel room. She sent live tweets of her adventures, including finding Nash’s father and asking him to pose for a picture. “DAD’S HERE EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT” she Tweeted at 11 PM. “Chad told us to stay down here in the lobby,” she tweeted again later in the night. “i love dad.” Later she thought back on the events of the night before and laughs, “I’m running on like five hours of sleep and am so tired. But it was worth it to see Nash again. I’ve missed him.”
And yet, this is the paradox of the fandom: they have an insanely close connection to the boys even if none of them could identify any of their fans in a lineup. The panel continued for forty-five minutes. The style never changed. The boys, still not used to public speaking, sat too close to the microphones and usually talked quietly. When one girl asked them to sing “The Cameron Dallas Song”, they half-tried for five seconds until they gave up. “Hey, we wouldn’t even have that song,” Carter broke in. “If I hadn’t recorded it! I’m the reason y’all have that song.” A wave of, “Thank you, Carter” broke out. “We recorded it right over there,” he said, pointing to the far side of the panel room. Nine months ago, the first Nashville Magcon had taken place in this exact room. “It brings back a lot of memories and is kind of sad,” Carter reflected later.
Magon fell apart six months ago when Cameron, Nash, Hayes and Carter broke ship and left unexpectedly. Truth be told, it was a premature end to what could have have become an iconic moment in pop culture history. Never before has a tour featuring social media stars ignited such pandemonium or popular demand. In the past two weeks a new Magcon has been resurrected much to the boys amusement. “What do I think of the new Magcon?” Nash repeated at one point during the day. He laughed. “I think it’s going to be hilarious.”
For the record, the “new” Magcon doesn’t seem to be having the lightening strikes twice effect. Today an email appeared in my inbox announcing that for a short time, all Magcon tickets would be discounted. Six months ago those same tickets would have sold out in five minutes.
It’s a testament to the boys and their combined star power that they are able to sell out venues so quickly. But just what is it about them that has made them so successful? “It’s his eyes,” one girl said dreamily, about Nash’s baby blue eyes. “NO ONE at my high school looks like them,” another interjected. “Really?” I countered. “They look exactly like the boys I went to school with.” The girls glared at me. “Then clearly you went to a good school.”
Not everyone is so keen on the Fam Tour boys though. Shannen Doherty for one is absolutely baffled. “Maybe I should start a Vine account,” she joked bitterly on Sunday afternoon. “People ask if we’re doing to do a Charmed movie and sure, we’ll do it on Vine and it will be six seconds! Maybe then I can get finally get six million followers and figure out what the hell that Fam Tour is.” She laughs, but clearly she’s bothered by it.
She isn’t the only one. Another celebrity I spoke with, who I’ll keep anonymous as it was completely off the record, seemed angry about the boys’s success. “There’s no creativity anymore,” he said. “These kids make a six second video and now they have hundreds of girls lining up to meet them. Who are they anyway? Why would anyone want to meet someone who makes a six second video?” He continues, brushing off what fans had told me earlier. “Saying they saved your life? No, they did not. They’re just teenage boys.” The only celebrity at Comic Con who didn’t seem to feel threatened by the boys presence was Eliza Dushku. When I asked her what she made of the industry going from turning out film stars to Vine stars, she struggled for a minute to come up with an answer that wouldn’t offend anyone. “I remember when Twitter first started, I had no idea what it was,” she recalled. “I was one of the first ones to sign up and I watched it grow substantially. And now, everyone is doing social media. It’s a huge marketing tool.” She ponders for a minute on just how many networks there are today. “The thing is, there’s a new app coming out every single day. I can’t keep up. I’m not into Vine–for one, I’m not a filmmaker–and I have no idea what’s going on with those kids but… I feel like there’s something out there for everyone.”
I still haven’t found the real reason the boys are so successful. The ultimately telling part of these boys’ success is that teen girls put them in this position. Unlike contemporary counterparts like Justin Bieber or One Direction, the boys from the Fam Tour were not pushed into the public by a record label or crafty PR person. The internet found them and made them into who they are now. Ask any girl at the Fam Tour what she thinks of Justin Bieber and she’ll scrunch up her face in disgust. Teenage girls like feeling as if their idol is accessible. They like having him be wholesome and clean cut. Carter, Hayes and Nash fit this template fairly well. There appears to be, at the root of it, a genuine authenticity to their homespun success. “Looking at them makes me believe I could be up there with them someday, doing the same thing they’re doing,” one fan told me. I’m still searching for the answers on why they are so famous, but I’m beginning to believe the insanely close relationship the fans feel towards them via social media is unlike anything experienced in teen idol-land before. Twenty years ago fans could connect with the Backstreet Boys by writing them a letter. Today teen girls can send a Tweet and instantly receive a direct message, favorite, retweet or reply. They are always available to fans, even if they don’t reply.
♡ ♡ ♡
An hour before the Comic Con closes on Saturday I receive a message from Savannah. “Hey, do you want a fill in on the photo op?” She then tells me, along with Tori, that it was awful. “We only got in there for thirty seconds at the most and I wasn’t even ready to take the picture. They wouldn’t let me redo it and I wasn’t able to tell them I love them.” She is deeply hurt. “Tell everyone not to waste their money on the Fam Tour,” Tori agrees. “I barely even got to say anything to the boys. I’m so sad.”
I, of course, was not surprised by this development. Photo ops and meet and greets are notorious for not being long or meaningful. But for the fans who were expecting a moment of intense connection, it is bitterly disappointing. It is even more upsetting when the boys brand is built on this connection. But with the ever-growing fame of Magcon boys, the chance to have this personal relationship becomes smaller and smaller by the day.
So what are you paying for at the Fam Tour? Sure, an autograph and photo op are guaranteed. As is a seat at the Q&A. But what I found most unexpectedly was the friendships and bonds the fans made with one another. This has nothing to do, at the heart of it, with anything the organizers have done. It’s the power of teenage girls and their ability to share their story with anyone who will listen and engage. A common interest of boys bonds them, and their insatiable need to be noticed; to feel worthy, and most of all to feel loved. For many girls this will be a phase in their life that they’ll look back at fondly. Teen idols remain crush-worthy forever in the back of our minds. But I do hope, most importantly, that friendships made between girls at fandom events like this remain a constant thread. This, in my opinion, is what drives the popularity and mobility of the Fam Tour boys success.
Perhaps I had begun sipping the kool-aid, but by the end of Sunday I was beginning to appreciate the girls love and devotion to these Viners. When I asked Tori how the fans seem to know at any given time where the boys are, she laughed. “Well, Snapchat is an easy way,” she explains. “You can look at their picture and sometimes see a name for where they are. Beyond that we all can talk to each other and figure it out. We’re like really good detectives.” Teenage girls should never be doubted in their ability to get whatever they want. And in packs of hundreds, their power is staggering. The Fam Tour, on first glance might appear to be about three boys, but the story really lies within their fans: adolescent girls who’s power to shape and move pop culture together is impossibly felt.