huns set against a black backdrop with stars
Photos via Karwai Tang/WireImage/Getty Images; Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images; Jo Hale/Getty Images
Entertainment

Huns Weigh In on Hun Culture

The UK online phenomenon—which deifies soap stars, girl group members, and terrible 2000s fashion—offers a welcome alternative to traditional celebrity culture.
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
CV
illustrated by Cathryn Virginia
March 29, 2021, 11:55am

This is part of a special series, The Future of Fame Is the Fan, which dissects how celebrity became so slippery. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here

In 2017, Gareth Howells, a former entertainer who’d swapped the stage for a corporate job, had an idea. It came to him one night, as these things tend to, in the smoking section of the nightclub G-A-Y, one of London’s largest and best-known gay bars.

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“You’d be in the smoking area, and you’d hear people laughing about things that your group of friends thought you were the only ones laughing at,” Howells said. “We were laughing at the best bits of Celebrity Big Brother, and we’d hear other people quoting the same things.”

All the chatter sparked an idea: Perhaps there were people in smoking areas all over the UK laughing at this stuff. Perhaps they represented a captive audience.

A scroll through Instagram at the time confirmed this to be true. Pages like the now defunct @hunofficial (as in: “You OK, hun?”)—which venerated the former Girls Aloud pop star Nadine Coyle, and posted funny clips and images of British celebrities from the noughties highlighting fashion choices so terrible they were also somehow amazing—were gaining dozens of followers by the day. Howells decided to join the party, and his account @hunsnet was born, its name a tongue-in-cheek hybrid of the notoriously conservative British parenting website Mumsnet and the burgeoning online subculture known as “hun culture,” characterized by pages like Hun Official.

In 2021, “hun culture” is less a weird corner of Instagram for pop-culture-addled girls and gays, and more a part of mainstream British internet humor. Howells’s HunsNet is now a registered company, complete with events and merchandise (their branded coffee cups, Howells told me, have helped pay the mortgage on his home), while the Instagram page boasts over 130,000 followers. Though their audiences are still predominantly young women and gay men, hun accounts have become a legitimate part of meme comedy. They appeal so widely because, in a nutshell, they represent the fun side of British celebrity culture: the deification of women who offer an alternative to the world’s dominant conception of fame as perfect, preened, and mostly American.

The intense relatability of hun culture has been fuel for its growth—it’s diva worship for millennials sick of having glossily groomed girlbosses and gym-fit Insta models shoved down their throats. And as pages like HunsNet and @loveofhuns have seen their follower counts balloon, particularly over the course of successive COVID-19 lockdowns in the UK, they’ve become more and more beloved, and the celebrity subjects of the accounts have started to take notice. Rather than take offense, many celebs have latched on to hun culture’s shared sense of humor—where the jokes are so affectionate that celebs feel in on them, rather than the butt of them—and embraced their hun status.

“Being memed by a hun account is a badge of honor, I think,” Amy Hart mused when we spoke over the phone on a sunny Friday afternoon in February—and if anyone knows about being memed, it’s Hart. Almost two years ago, she appeared on the fifth season of the UK’s biggest reality TV show, Love Island, and became the subject of countless tweets and articles after she made the decision to leave the program early.

Once Hart had returned to the UK (her season of Love Island was filmed on the Spanish island of Majorca), she began to make her way through the mountain of press and social media posts about her. In doing so, she stumbled upon HunsNet. “I only found out about HunsNet after Love Island because obviously they started memeing me,” she recalled. But a scroll through the HunsNet Instagram page introduced Hart not only to good-natured jokes about her time on the show, but an entire strain of humor that resonated with her straightaway. “I was like ‘Oh my God, this is totally my thing!’” she said, laughing. “And I am a bit of a hun! I love a rosé; I love going out with the girls.”

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Indeed, as Hart suggests, to be a hun is to be what Americans might think of as a “basic bitch” of any gender—a lover of cheap cocktails, resort holidays, and the use of “hun” as a term of endearment. Huns communicate in reaction pics (the “glorious technicolor” of our day!) featuring soap opera matriarchs, reality stars, and girl band members from the 2000s. The anonymous poster behind the popular page Love of Huns—which has 460,000 followers and counting—tells me that they see hun culture as “appreciating ‘jeans and a nice top’ as a STUNNING fashun statement. It’s a lifestyle and behaviour.”

To cast the net a little wider, you could say that hun culture is “low” culture reveling in its own self, as it uses a mix of nostalgic throwbacks and topical TV and music references to talk about the various debasements of life in your 20s and 30s: Think hangovers, dating indignities, and pandemic isolation. One early 2021 Love of Huns post, featuring a picture of the former UK X Factor judge Tulisa wearing a pair of flat shoes onstage, is captioned “Me arriving to the club in 2022 after two years of not wearing heels.”

Hart is one of many British celebrities who’ve found the funny side of their appearances on hun accounts—precisely because the jokes the accounts publish match her own sense of humor and cultural touchstones. The singer, songwriter, and TV presenter Jamelia (full name Jamelia Davis) feels the same, and told me that she first became aware of hun memes during the UK’s first lockdown last year.

“My daughter, who is 20, had been DM-ing me the memes from hun accounts like Love of Huns,” she explained.“I love the hun accounts because it’s very me. I think it’s so uniquely British. American humor is seen as sort of universal, and British humor is a bit more niche. To me, hun culture is like the British history that you wouldn’t see in an encyclopedia, but it’s the stuff that everyone remembers and loves. It’s an intersection between British history, culture, and humor.”

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RuPaul’s Drag Race UK contestant Baga Chipz, a mainstay of hun memes since her appearance on the show in 2019, thinks that there’s a focus on a very British type of banality that explains why she resonates with hun accounts and audiences in particular. “I love it—it’s my humor and comedy,” she said, exhaling cigarette smoke between responses, ever on brand. “Unfortunately, a lot of drag queens don’t believe in this, but I always say this: The number one rule to be a drag queen is you need to be able to take the piss out of yourself.

“You see the drag queens on the show and they’ve all got mad makeup and wigs. I’m more Carol that sits on the couch having a cig and a cup of tea. They do a lot of memes of me emptying the bins. There’s one of me just walking down the street with a cig in my mouth.”

The Love of Huns founder told me they think of their account as “a place where we can all laugh at ourselves equally,” adding that they have “had quite a few people saying it’s been their life ambition to appear on the feed, so obviously we make dreams come true.” Indeed, when Jamelia saw that Love of Huns had posted the music video for her 2003 single “Superstar,” she was extremely excited. “Nobody wants to be a meme, but when my video was posted, the first thing I did was message my daughter like: ‘Oh my God, I’ve made it.’” Keen to see how followers of the account would receive the post, Jamelia went straight to the comments section. “The main ones were about my fashion,” she said, laughing. “I’ll be honest, when I did the ‘Superstar’ video I thought I looked AMAZING. I’ve got these pointy shoes and boot-cut jeans. I was poppin’! And there were people in the comments saying ‘I loved this video—I tried to emulate her look.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

“99.9999 percent of people we feature on the page, we absolutely have nothing but love for, and it’s a way of expressing that.”

Part of the reason why stars prefer being memed by hun accounts rather than on social media in general is the palpable warmth that radiates within hun culture, as exemplified by the response to Jamelia’s video. This, for Howells and HunsNet, is an important energy to maintain on the page. “We say with our thing—and this is from experience really, and learning and realizing that a platform comes with responsibility—99.9999 percent of people we feature on the page, we absolutely have nothing but love for, and it’s a way of expressing that,” he explained. “If you’re in a HunsNet meme—unless it’s something topical, like, some days I’ll write something about [the Conservative Home Secretary] Priti Patel pissing me off—it’s all from a place of love.”

In the early days of hun culture, however, accusations (often rightful) of misogyny plagued various accounts, and some smaller accounts do still create memes that cross a line into personal insults. Chipz, who has followed hun culture on Instagram for years, said, for example, that she has seen memes that have shamed the reality star Gemma Collins for her weight. “As long as it’s not body shaming—they’re human beings, they’re going to see them—and they’re more funny, then that’s fun,” she argued.

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In general, however, hun accounts have a large and happy celebrity following who enjoy their content alongside the hun masses. This makes for an interesting contrast with other areas of the internet that pay attention to celebrity—stan culture is viewed by many, including famous people themselves, as toxic; tabloid culture is routinely dehumanizing. As much as anything else, hun accounts seem to argue that it’s possible for celebrities and the people interested in them to coexist, as long as we’re laughing “with” and not “at.” Howells counts the morning TV presenter Ruth Langsford and Drag Race judge Michelle Visage among HunsNet’s famous fans, while Love of Huns divulges that their “most iconic celeb comment has to be Katy Perry commenting ‘hun’ on a video of Shaughna Phillips from Love Island.”

With such large and sometimes influential audiences, it’s no wonder that hun accounts are seen as the place to be by some celebrities. Chipz, for example, says that she happily indulges her hun status, telling me that she has engineered setups for memes in the past, by “sitting on a park bench eating a [British, pastry-based, god-tier fast food] Greggs in drag.”

“I embrace it,” Chipz said. “If you see my tweets, I’m like, ‘I’m the most famous woman in Britain.’ If anything it’s just more exposure, because some of these accounts have thousands of followers. And when people see something funny, they follow you.” As such, hun accounts that post nostalgic content have also had a hand in revitalizing the careers of some celebrities who’ve been out of the public eye for decades. Howells remembers a recent podcast interview with Michelle McManus, who won the singing competition show Pop Idol in 2003, but has shied away from publicity since.

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“Michelle said in the interview that it’s pages like HunsNet and Love of Huns that keep people relevant,” he recalled. “She said that it’s just a way of going, ‘Hey, I’m still here, doing my thing,’ without having to court reality TV.” In a world where youth—particularly among women and woman celebrities—is routinely viewed as the most vital currency, this buoying of more mature stars whose work remains meaningful to a generation is a happy consequence of the surge in popularity that hun culture has enjoyed.

For Jamelia, her involvement in hun culture has brought her full circle. “It’s been a long time since I released music now, and now I’m just a normal mom living my life,” she said. “And I’m fine with that—I’ve done things that millions of people never have, and had the most amazing experiences!” But when her video was posted by Love of Huns, and she saw the outpouring of love for her work, it helped to catalyze the realization that people still want to hear from her, particularly about her music.

“During lockdown, I’ve been on Instagram more, and it’s been amazing to see that people really connected with my music, and that it had a place in their hearts,” she said, clearly genuinely touched by the support. “I started thinking, ‘Maybe I should share more from that time.’” She’s since posted a throwback to her “Money” music video, where she wore Regency-inspired costumes, because of her new love of Netflix’s Bridgerton. The feedback, she said, has been great.

Wildly silly, often bizarre, and always hilarious, hun culture is ultimately probably best described by Howells when he calls it “a safe space where we can all take the piss out of each other.” Because the people you roast hardest, after all, are often the ones you love the most.

Follow Lauren O’Neill on Twitter.