Sam was 16 when he found himself becoming completely entranced with La Roux. There was something about the synthpop singer's confidence, her bold and fearless style, that made him want to embrace those attributes within himself. After his dad cut him out his life when he came out as gay, Sam vowed to always look and act exactly how he wanted, and La Roux became emblematic of that inner freedom. He began to style his red hair in the same quiff as La Roux. He legally changed his middle name to 'La Roux' by deed poll. He got someone to tattoo the silhouette of her head on his forearm, and then her name on his upper arm in block letters; constant reminders that, like La Roux, he too could be bulletproof. In a VICE documentary from 2012, Sam talks the viewer through all of this, sitting in his small bedroom in Hertfordshire surrounded by La Roux posters, La Roux mugs and cut-outs from the local newspaper that reported on his love of the singer; a love that was clearly endless.
Except it wasn't endless, because as the years went by, Sam began to feel kind of pissed off. La Roux never seemed to address any of her fans directly, or care that they were so dedicated (though she's since revealed she suffered from severe anxiety and panic attacks at the height of her fame – something her fans weren't aware of at the time). That lack of communication eventually bubbled over into disillusionment. "There was no fan interaction from La Roux at all, so it wasn't too hard to eventually get bored of the whole idea," he says, speaking over the phone today. "I think everyone had enough of the constant let downs, of spending their money to see her, waiting for hours at the stage door and not seeing anyone." Five years on from the VICE documentary, Sam says he barely recognises the young La Roux superfan that he sees on screen. "It feels like it wasn't me!" he says, laughing. "I totally forget about it until one of my friends finds the interview and then I suddenly remember."
At the time, Sam was in regular contact with a bunch of other La Roux fans online, but he hasn't spoken to any of them in years, and no longer follows them on social media. "Life just moved on, and in all honesty I don't think about them," he says. "I'm good at getting over things and just moving on. I think I'm an obsessive person, so I've got lots of different things I'm obsessed with now – just on a totally different level." The La Roux tattoos are still there, but they're surrounded by new ones now. "The tattoos represent all the different parts of my life. I'm not embarrassed at all. I have good memories of that time and I don't regret anything I did."
It's a strange thing, being completely obsessed with an artist one moment, and then utterly bored by them the next. At what point does that obsession begin to sour? And when exactly does it morph into indifference? But also, how the hell do you begin to extract yourself from that? Because, sure, it's one thing spending your teen years rinsing Hot Fuss until the chorus to "Mr Brightside" makes your stomach turn, but if you've built your entire identity around one artist, and all your friendship groups and support networks are also based around that artist, then leaving a fandom isn't just choosing something new, it's basically a total reinvention of your sense of self. In that way, your reasons for leaving surely have to be major. There has to be a catalyst that makes you take a look at the object of your dedication and think, actually… nah.
For Evie, who spent her early teenage years in what she now refers to as the 'Taylor Swift cult', that catalyst was the realisation that the fandom was beginning to feel toxic. For a while, she says, she spent all her time at home scrolling through a carefully curated Swift-themed Tumblr account that the singer herself also followed. But as time went on, she realised she was no longer having fun among people whose whole lives were dedicated to the singer. "It was gradual annoyance at an attitude of just complete worship," she explains today, two years after leaving the fandom. "There's an aspect of hero worship that is very appealing when you're young, but there were people aged like 20 who hadn't grown out of it and the group was becoming an unpleasant space."
According to Evie, anything posted on the Taylor Swift Tumblr that was deemed even slightly insulting to The Pop Queen herself would result in a shower of intense vitriol. "There was a 'right' answer to everything, which was that Taylor is perfect and everyone else is wrong, or you were wrong." she explains, incredulous. Her name, by the way, isn't actually Evie – she asked me to change it in case the stans come for her. Still, even though she looks back on that particular fandom as a pretty toxic arena, she tells me she does still keep in touch with some of those involved, because they played such an important role in figuring out her own identity. "The few Taylor fans I still follow are all gay," she says. "I can say 100% I wouldn't have found out about compulsory heterosexuality without those girls."
When speaking to various people who decided to leave various fandoms behind, one common thread began to emerge: the idea that as well as being a supportive network for fans to express themselves, those same spaces can quickly become nasty, particularly when a cult-like mentality begins to thrive among something that's inherently based on exclusivity. Like Evie, Max (who also requested that we change his name) became heavily involved in an online fandom, but instead of Taylor Swift, it was the effervescent world of Marina & the Diamonds that he immersed himself in. Over the years, everyone in the Marina fandom began to know about Max, because he achieved things the rest never managed, becoming known to the singer and occasionally partying on her tour bus after gigs.
But what was initially a positive experience began to curdle when other fans became jealous. "When Marina started to develop a US fan base, things turned nasty," he explains. "The new fans weren't happy that someone was getting special treatment and wasn't outwardly grateful about it 24/7. I was getting a lot of abusive tweets, mainly from teenage American fans. I suddenly found myself in a position that I didn't want to be in, and nothing I could do or say could ever change the perception of me people had created." Understandably, this constant barrage of online abuse led Max to feelings of anxiety associated with being in the fandom. "A lot of the earlier fans stuck up for me, but by that point being a fan was no longer enjoyable," he explains, "it actually caused me a lot of anxiety."
And then for some reason, at the height of the abuse, Marina decided to unfollow Max on Twitter. "This resulted in yet more vitriol from fans who saw it as my 'just desserts'," he says. But strangely, Max says that when Marina unfollowed him it felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "I actually was so relieved. It allowed me to fade away back into obscurity, and I was eventually able to just enjoy the music in its own right without having to play an active role in some sort of community that I no longer felt part of. Looking back, I'm so glad to have made some fantastic friends, but it's definitely made me a lot more cautious to get actively involved in a fan community again. Now I just prefer to enjoy the music and have fun at gigs, without engaging much with a wider fandom."
Occasionally, though, the reasons for ditching a fandom are much simpler than feeling disillusioned or even hemmed in by it. When Alex was in his early teens, he was such a huge Kelly Clarkson superfan that he "essentially lived" on a forum dedicated to the singer. Not only that, but he spent his evenings calling up the local radio station 80 times to vote for her songs in their nightly countdown, co-organised what he calls 'thank you projects' for tours and birthdays and catalogued audio recordings from live gigs. When Kelly Clarkson's ex-boyfriend, Evanescence's David Hodges, broke up with her, he even signed him up to email spam just to piss him off. But as the years went by, Alex just couldn't keep up with the way fan culture was changing.
As social media became ubiquitous and the popularity of message boards waned, the way Alex was interacting with the Kelly Clarkson fandom became dated. And so, he started detaching himself from the community. "Social media was just starting to become a thing, and the whole landscape of how to be a fan was changing," Alex, now in his mid-20s, explains. "The message board, which was the hub of the fandom, started receiving less traffic as people were going into Facebook and Twitter and whatever, which was a bummer because I loved the congregated space of the message board. I try to get a grip on how fan communities gather in 2017, but it seems very spread out and nebulous. I wish we'd return to a message board culture, honestly."
Like Sam, after leaving the fandom, Alex retrained the focus of his enthusiasm onto other things. "The obsession I had with Kelly just morphed into obsessions with many other artists, television shows and films," he says. "That fervour that I nurtured and trained during my time in the Kelly Clarkson community stuck with me and just received more subjects of focus." Even though the Kelly Clarkson years are well into the past, Alex still looks back on it as a "genuinely foundational" time in his life. "I think fans are the coolest because they're lovers and they're archivists. I honestly learned very tangible skills during my time in the fandom that I still use today."
It sounds obvious, but fandoms aren't necessarily just about having a joint love of one particular artist. They're also about having a support network of people who are just like you, and a vessel in which to channel your energy and enthusiasm. But if those people are making you feel shit rather than positive, or if that dedication finds a different subject to land on, the fandom no longer serves its purpose and can very quickly become redundant. In the age of the internet, leaving that space is weirdly easy – log out of the forum, unfollow the Tumblr pages, delete your Twitter account – but it can also be as disorienting as suddenly packing up and moving house. Particularly when once upon a time, you thought you'd live there forever, and you've still got the tattoos to prove it.