Producer Rita Walsh on fangirls, boy bands, thirst and I Used To Be Normal

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Sep 25, 2018, 6:00 PM EDT

There's an insidious double standard in fan culture. But if you're reading this site, you probably know that. Women who love comics, horror movies, fantasy, and sci-fi are too often regarded with suspicion from their male peers. This gave rise to the sexist Fake Geek Girl meme. And while it's totally acceptable, even encouraged, for boys to idolize professional football players, there's a pernicious scorn laid upon girls who idolize boy bands. Well, a new documentary debuting at the genre-loving Fantastic Fest says frak that!

I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story explores the glory of fandom by exploring how a deep love of a particular boy band (be it One Direction, Backstreet Boys, Take That, or The Beatles) shaped the lives of the four self-styled fangirls. Director Jessica Leski rejects the standard disdain that urges women to hide their love for such glossy pop groups, offering a celebration of fangirling and thirst that explores highs and lows that'll feel familiar no matter where your fandom falls.

Ahead of the Australian film's U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest, SYFY FANGRRLS sat down with I Used To Be Normal's producer Rita Walsh to talk boy bands, fandom, and the double standards fangirls face.

"We [as a culture] tend to dismiss what [teen girls] like as fleeting and hysterical and transient, and whatever the pop culture they consume as trash or manufactured," Walsh said. But both Walsh and Leski knew firsthand the wonderful catharsis that could come from fangirling.

"We've worked together very closely for six years. At the age of 31, [Leski] fell totally in love with One Direction, not ironically. She just looked at Harry Styles' hair for too long and adored them. She went online because friends in her real life were a little bit judgmental of that and discovered the amazing world of One Direction fandom online. I don't know if you're familiar with that fandom, but they were so creative, the languages they built. They really were a fandom of the 21st century." Having a background of loving the Backstreet Boys, Walsh related, and soon the pair of Aussie filmmakers were seeking fangirls to interview for a documentary that would give this community the consideration and respect they'd so long been denied.

The title I Used To Be Normal came from the first fangirl Leski sought out, a 16-year-old Long Islander named Elif who'd been the unsuspecting star of a viral video in which she'd broken into tears while watching a recording of a One Direction concert. "Her friends posted a video of her online," Walsh explained.

"Reaction videos were a huge part of that fandom. They've become a huge thing full stop, but her video a was a bit different to many of the others because the camera was hidden. Her friends didn't tell her [she was being recorded]. So, what you see is just pure. It's unbridled, raw, beautiful teen girl emotion… She just starts crying. She said, 'I used to be normal,' which kind of captured what it is to be a teenager in a way when you start feeling things so intensely...[As we grow up], we sort of hold in our feels," Walsh pondered. "I guess it made us a bit sad, like, who wants to be normal?"

When asked why there's such a scorching social stigma over fangirling over boy bands, Walsh offered an anecdote. "The simplistic answer is to say there's a sexism inherent there. I mean, it's interesting, [at film festivals] the Q&As so far—which have been great on the most part. The first question will usually be from a bloke in the audience—and there's not heaps of them there. And he asks, 'Why haven't you got male fans in this film?' He'll take like two paragraphs to ask that question."

For the record, Leski and Walsh don't consider the fangirl experience to be exclusive to those who identify as female, and they did interview some male fans for the doc. But aside from a cameo over the end credits, those dudes didn't make the cut. Instead, the filmmaker chose to focus on the voices of four women who have long been urged to get over their boy band ardor. "Women expressing feelings and emotions," Walsh said. "Man, why are people so threatened with that?"

Asked what she learned about fangirls in making I Used To Be Normal, Walsh gushed, "They're amazing. I mean, the loyalty and creativeness that they have is just wonderful. I think for all four of the girls in our film being a fan has shaped who they are and has shaped the careers that they went into. Sadia [who got her start writing an unsolicited Backstreet Boys newsletter] is now a writer. Dara is in marketing and brand strategy because of the way she loves boy bands."

The doc also depended on fans in its making. I Used To Be Normal was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign and relied on videos from self-proclaimed fangirls to give a wider scope of the boy band phenomenon. "They want to see a story about themselves that is respectful and analytical," Walsh declared, "And—I hope—doesn't totally glorify the experience, but that is ultimately empathetic."

"What we've always wanted the film to do is to connect everyone with their inner teenager, and particularly identify with teenage girls," Walsh added. "In the end, we want to celebrate being a teenage girl and all the pains and pleasures that brings. Even if that means that loving a boy band is a beautiful thing. It can be a really beautiful thing."

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