Ruth Capps’ reputation as one of the most hardcore One Direction fans precedes her. In the days before I see her in her pajamas under west London's Hammersmith flyover, I’m told by at least three people that she’s an “angel.” At just 19, she has as many tickets to see Harry Styles through 2018 as years she’s been alive. On Twitter, she posts earnest messages of support for her idol to her 110,000 followers. Offline, she projects a calm rationality that belies the reason she’s become so well-known within the fandom to begin with. Five days before the first UK date of Styles’ solo tour, Ruth is one of nearly 50 girls camped outside the Hammersmith Apollo in sleeping bags and foil blankets. When the Daily Mail stops by to interview them, Ruth diplomatically volunteers to be a representative.
“I’ll make us not look crazy,” Ruth assures the crowd of skeptical girls surrounding her. The reporter kneels down upon the sidewalk and pulls a notebook from her bag as Ruth holds court atop the pallet of £6 Primark duvets, and does her best to explain the situation as plainly as possible. “What’s going on here?” the reporter asks, assuming a “fun mum” tone with the girls in an attempt to get them to open up.
“We’re camping out here to see Harry Styles,” Ruth says, unperturbed by the fact that there are five days until he’ll take the stage. Her honesty with the reporter is a rarity among the camp. The truth is that the girls are waiting for the 23-year-old pop star, but if you ask them why, you’ll get a different answer. One fan tells a passerby they’re waiting for Mary Berry. Jacob Sartorius. A hot dog eating competition. All of which provide a simpler explanation than the reality, which is: it is Wednesday, and they already have tickets to the show on Sunday, but they’re sleeping on the street to perhaps – if they’re lucky – be noticed by Harry himself.
This is “camping culture,” an act of stan devotion in (often uncomfortable) pursuit of the rarest and most valuable fandom currency: proximity and access. For many fans on the street, this will be a one-time thing, an anomalous event only made possible by the grace of its novelty. But for some, camping is merely part of “following” an artist on tour. When the house lights rise in the Apollo on Monday, some will pack up their sleeping bags and head to Manchester. Then Glasgow. Then Stockholm. They will spend several hundreds, even thousands of pounds to see the same show over and over again. But what happens when these fans attempt to take the show into their own hands? What happens after – if, when, finally – Harry notices them?
London, Night One
Grace has spent five days camped outside of the Apollo, but four hours before the show, you wouldn’t be able to tell. In groups of two, Grace and her friends pose for photos in front of the bright red marquee. Last night, they cuddled on the pavement in sweatpants; now they’re made up in florals, high-waisted flares, berets. The temperature is 13°C, and Grace wears a crop top. Now 19, Grace became a fan in 2011, when she found solace in One Direction after moving from the US to Italy. “I wasn’t happy in high school, so I kind of invested in myself fully,” she tells me. What is it about Harry in particular that makes him stand out? “He’s just very accepting. He believes you should be whoever you want to be, and everybody’s going to love you.”
It’s this message of acceptance that makes Harry’s shows both empowering and entertaining. For £35, you can buy merchandise that reads, “Treat People With Kindness.” In the crowd throughout his set, hundreds of mini Pride flags – passed out by fans in the queue for free before the show – wave up at Harry as he sings. And when a larger flag makes its way onto the stage, he holds it up and dances, urging the crowd “to be whoever you want to be”.
“It’s not that I don’t have people in real life telling me that, but it’s different when someone you aspire to be like says it,” Grace explains. As anything might, these messages of support feel more significant when delivered from a stage, and echoed back by a crowd who agrees. From Harry's mouth in a room filled with admirers, such messages feel not only powerful, but genuine.
London, Night Two
Harry Styles, notoriously, doesn’t say much. While parasocial celebrity-fan relationships thrive on Twitter, his tweets read as if randomly generated by an extremely grateful bot. His live show is similar: each night, his between-song banter is near-verbatim to the previous, a carousel on which phrases like “I’m Harry, and I’m from England,” and “My job for the next hour is to entertain you,” spin round evening after evening. To see one show is to see them all. But for those in the front row, following Harry on tour feels like the only way to access the person beneath the persona.
“Because he’s so inaccessible online, it means more in person,” Grace says, “We’ve learned to work around that. If you’re first or second row, he’ll interact with you in some way. That’s your accessibility.”
Yesterday, fans attempted to use this access to bring Harry’s attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. Hoping for an acknowledgement similar to his support for the LGBTQ+ community they brought Black Lives Matter signs which – whether intentionally or not – he didn't pull up on stage to wave as well. By the second night Harry’s lack of attention toward these placards has become a big point of contention among fans; the fact he didn’t respond to the signs the previous night felt, to some fans, off brand from his accepting persona. And yet, once again, his eyes passed over the raised signs as if they read a message in a different language and, for Harry, they might as well have. Aside from a small hat-tip to “all the different kinds of messages in the crowd”, the evening passes without note.
After the show, one fan roasts him online with a photoshopped image of a hand that reads like a cheat sheet of his onstage script: “You all look ____ this evening,” it says, alluding to the slight variation in adjective each night. After a parenthetical reminder for Harry to smile, it urges, as if he were in danger of stating the directive instead of acting, “Don’t say out loud!” But Harry doesn’t need the reminder. He doesn’t, after all, say much of anything anyway. He dances his dance, recites his script, then the lights go off.
Manchester, Night Three
Four hours before doors open, Ruth applies makeup in a hotel room she’s rented to store her things, which is littered with tour merchandise, hair straighteners, and phone chargers. When I ask about the second show in London, she confesses that she left the show early in order to join the Manchester queue. “We had to miss Harry in order to see Harry,” she explains. “I was in the back, having a great time, but I would sacrifice three songs to be able to see him closer for the whole set.”
For fans who follow their fave, going to multiple shows permits this type of comparative economics. But tonight, Ruth is worried more about Harry himself. After 16 nights of the same set, she’s concerned that he’s bored. Each night, Harry performs his new single “Kiwi” twice.
Initially repeated at the request of fans on the American leg of the tour, the song’s encore has now become somewhat of a gimmick, as Styles and the band stop and restart the song depending upon the crowd’s level of energy. Tonight, however, Ruth is hoping for a change. “Instead of chanting ‘Kiwi’ again like normal, we’re gonna chant ‘Girl Crush,’ and see if he wants to mix it up a bit. As much as I love seeing it, he must be bored doing the same thing.” Ruth admits that that probably won’t happen. “But I think it’d be nice for him to know that people are interested in change,” she shrugs.
That evening, Harry sings “Kiwi” twice, as usual, and gives the same speech that he gave in London, that he’ll give in Amsterdam and Milan. His job, tonight and in perpetuity, is to entertain us; ours is to be whoever we want to be in this room, and the next, and the next. Injecting variety into this process feels a bit like a Sisyphean task, but the struggle is enough to keep fans coming back each night anyway. One must imagine Harry Styles fans happy. And they are. It helps, in the end, that the show is an entertaining one.
Amsterdam, Night Four
Dani, 21, is showing off her new trousers. After sleeping on the sidewalk, she realised she had nothing fun to wear, and stopped by H&M. Their floral print, she says, reminded her of Harry’s own predilection for flowers and patterns. Though One Direction “weren’t big back then” in her home country of Bulgaria, she’s been a fan since 2010 . Tonight is her fourth and final show, and she compares her three previous ones casually. Night one in London was great, but Harry seemed better the second night – happier, and “less stressed.” Manchester was her favorite because “he was more himself.”
Like many fans, Dani knows Harry’s performance by heart. But she finds the show’s sameness exciting: “He’s so predictable, I love it. I end up talking over him. But you never know what’s going to happen. All you know is, ‘I’m seeing Harry tonight.’ What if he ends up doing something nobody expects?”
Before the show, I’m given a “Black Lives Matter” sign which I hold from my spot in the second row. When Harry sees it, he nearly flinches, either in shock or out of discomfort. Though I expect this, the reaction stings as much as it empowers. Because for a moment, I understand why Ruth, Dani, and Grace sleep on the street – to look at Harry and have him look back is intoxicating. All continues as usual, but Harry Styles and I now share a secret. Few people notice that the show, for a second, teeters on his silence, his adherence to a script that most don’t even realise exists.
Milan, Night Five
Grace has decided against queuing.
“It’s not about the show count. It’s about seeing and being with him. Obviously I’m there for the music, but it’s the same every time. I’m supporting him.”
For Grace, this means holding Harry accountable for what he does and does not say. And though they try to intervene, fans do understand the repetition. When I catch up with Ruth, it’s with the same kind of diplomacy that made them look less crazy back in London that she says, “Concerts are for people to go once, they aren’t meant to go to 500 times.”
In a few hours, the curtain will fall on the European tour without an unscripted word uttered about black lives, the controversy his silence has stirred up amongst fans, or anything else of significant consequence. Instead Harry will wave a Pride flag, silently. Grace will cry when he speaks Italian. For now though she’s visibly frustrated, longing for something that, seemingly, all his travelling fans are waiting for: the moment Harry goes rogue and deviates from the script.
“It’d be nice if he said something you didn’t think he was going to say,” she says, and it sounds a bit like his refrain in “From the Dining Table.” Why don’t you ever say what you wanna say? Styles is the one asking, but fans want an answer.
From Pride flags, to treating people with kindness, a good portion of Harry Styles’ popularity with fans lies in his populism. On stage, he is the embodiment of the will of the fans, the vessel who waves the flag they throw, and in him they find all things from acceptance, to fashion inspiration. But for many fans, his comfortable silence is, to quote the man himself, “so overrated.” For those who see themselves in Harry, urging him to use his platform to speak about issues that matter is as integral to the fan experience as camping and queueing and loving the product itself. The European tour may end tonight, but they will be back in the spring, and in the summer.
“Use your voice, Harry,” Grace sighs. She pauses, then adds, whether in defense of herself or of him: “I’m still here though.”
You can find Allyson on Twitter.