I can remember exactly where I was when I heard Natalia Kills for the first time. I was 16 and I’d recently gotten into the habit of watching the music channels while getting ready for school. From what I can remember, there was a lot of One Direction and occasionally some Pixie Lott. But one day, I saw a video that I’d never seen before. There were hazy images of a woman with blood-red lipstick, kitted out head to toe in leather. At one point she held an axe; at another, her fringe covered her eyes and she swung around on a chair miming the chorus to what might just have been the best song I’d ever heard.
“Turning the lights out / Burning the candles / And the mirrors gonna fog tonight…”
And that was it. One song about having sex so hot that a mirror would fog was where my obsession with the pop artist formerly known as Natalia Kills began. Unknowingly, my fascination would help shape my identity as a gay man and my voice as a writer, despite the fact that Kills was never a household name. Her biggest hit in the UK was “Mirrors,” the song I’ve just mentioned, and it reached the heady heights of number 101. Her career as a pop star would end not with a fizzle, but an almighty bang in 2015, thanks to a viral attack on a contestant on X Factor New Zealand, where she was serving as a judge.
Being dazzled by the brilliance of everything your favourite artist does is inherent to the concept of ‘stanning’ them – even when they're not, actually, all that breathtaking. Without a doubt, there are elements of delusion embedded in stanning, but this delusion is armed with a sense of righteousness and protectiveness. Deeply devoted fan culture is one built upon fans recognising and celebrating the success of their favourite artists. So what does it mean to stan a musician who fails to succeed in almost every way possible? Where there’s a failed pop star, there are no doubt an army of stans lying in their wake, deflated by their idol’s fall from grace.
“I think an underdog narrative probably makes for a better story and a more impassioned fan,” says Adam Byrne, a Tinashe stan from Ireland. “Your support shouldn’t hinge on them becoming a massive star – they don’t owe you that."
What Adam says is true – Natalia Kills didn’t owe me anything, but from that first moment I’d head “Mirrors,” I was obsessed. I wanted her to succeed more than anything, and I wanted everyone around me to love her as much as I did. I told everyone I knew about her and forced them to listen to her too. I made a boy I was speaking to add her music onto his phone. I played “Mirrors” to my English teacher, who gave me a look and asked me if it was appropriate that she had just listened to this in a school.
Natalia Kills became a part of my identity for four years or so – and these just happened to be the years where I was actually discovering who I was for what felt like the first time. For a burgeoning young homosexual like myself whose only real interest in pop culture up to that point had been learning the choreography to “Bad Romance” and watching Glee, this was a revelation.
I did, at one point, re-name myself GEORGE KILLS on Twitter which, looking back with hindsight, was probably not my wisest decision. Although it may sound cliche to say, there is an connection between gay, male pop music fans and the musicians we adore. We often see ourselves in our favourite pop stars and sometimes, defending them can also feel like defending yourself; they’ve helped form your identity, after all. “I think gay men that love pop music can’t be casual listeners,” Sami Baker, a self-confessed pop fanatic and Becky G stan argues. “So when we stan someone, we stan hard.”
“I think female pop stars in particular mean so much to gay men,” Adam agrees. “As kids, before we even know why it is we’re different, we can feel so alienated and intimidated by traditional masculinity, that when we see these amazing women fully embracing something that’s not hyper-masculine with such confidence and power, I think it makes us feel safe.”
The failure of your favourite artist can be a heavy cross to bear. Like Sami, you can look on the bright side; where Becky G failed as a commercial pop star, she’s traversed successfully into Latin pop, performing at last year's Latin Music Awards with Bad Bunny. And Tinashe is still relatively successful, having finally releasing her mythical second album Joyride while also debuting as a contestant on Dancing With The Stars in the US. But I don’t think you ever get over your first impression of your favourite artist; there’s the promise of something great on the horizon for them, and when that doesn’t happen, it can be devastating – presumably as much, if not more for them, as it is for their fans.
I cried three times over Natalia Kills: when she followed me on Twitter, when I heard “Saturday Night” for the first time and when she ruined her entire career live on television in New Zealand. I can remember the acute feeling of terror creeping into me as I watched the video of her ripping some poor Kiwi man in a suit to shreds over and over again. I wasn’t just invested in her career – I had sunk hours of my time into trying to make more and more people aware of her, of how brilliant she was. And then suddenly that was all over.
Everything Kills did was un-touchable because I was fighting for both her and myself. This goes for Adam with Tinashe, and Sami with Becky G. These women helped from an intrinsic part of our identities as young, gay men finding their place in the world. Maybe we originally tried to find validation for ourselves in their success – maybe, if people could listen to our favourite pop star, they could listen to us too
I sometimes still think about Natalia Kills. That makes it sound like she’s dead, which she isn’t, but following her (very, very good) second album, Trouble, which bombed and that career-ruining live television controversy a few years ago, Natalia Kills is no more. She’s still around – she wrote Rihanna’s best Anti single “Kiss It Better,” was nominated for a Grammy because of it – and still writes for other artists. But she dropped her stage moniker and now goes by a combination of her nickname and adopted married surname: Teddy Sinclair.
Everyone has their own Natalia Kills. Someone who may not have succeeded as the international pop superstars we thought they could be, but their legacy is perhaps something much more than that: the impact they’ve had on the lives of their stans, the ones who defended them and bought their music when seemingly no-one else would. You can fail at many things; job interviews, driving tests and exams, but you can only fail as a stan if you stop believing – which I don’t think I ever did.
You can find George on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.