"Take That Are The Centre Of Everything I Love": The Life Of An Adult Fangirl

There are no fans like boyband fans. Sure, you’ve got the all-knowing Beyhive, and that video of a supporter’s desperate plea for the world to "leave Britney alone" remains one of the most memorable incidents in pop star fan history. But when it comes to those all-singing, all-dancing groups of emotionally provocative young men, the female hysteria that follows them is a little different.
"Take That, for me, just serves as a safety centre of everything that I love in the world," says Dara. She’s a 33-year-old brand strategist from Sydney, Australia and it’s safe to say that she is probably Take That’s biggest fan. Ever. "In terms of great messaging, in terms of the songs, the kind of lifestyle that the boys appeared to live at the time – travelling around the world, doing media interviews, and singing, talking to girls, doing photo shoots – that seemed like the ultimate life."
The Take That life quickly became Dara’s life, too. She tells Refinery29 that when she was in her early teens, a family friend came back from a trip to England and presented her with two of Britain’s greatest bands of the time: Oasis and Take That. "He says, 'This is now your musical education'," she laughs. "He took me to my first concert, which was an Oasis concert, and because I admired him so much I took Take That under my wing and it was my secret because no one in Australia really got it." Take That stuck, Oasis fell by the wayside, and the rest is fangirl history.
Dara is one of the stars of I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story, a feature-length documentary which premiered at London Film Festival this year. She appears alongside three other women whose obsessions take the shape of One Direction, Backstreet Boys and The Beatles, and though each of their lives was dramatically changed by boyband fandom, Dara tells me that, beyond the immediate attraction of five beautiful men prancing around in the rain in a black and white music video, pleading harmoniously for a lost lover to come "Back for Good", the boyband thing did a lot for her.
"[Take That] were kind of wrapped up in brotherhood camaraderie as well, which, growing up in an isolated area, I didn’t really feel like I had. So looking towards this amazing group of friends who get to do all these fun things together, I kind of really attached myself to that. I suppose in my adult years it’s just something of a safe nostalgia to look back on and be like, 'God I remember those times,' and the music makes me feel so good," Dara explains. Her devout enthusiasm radiates down the phone and all of a sudden, I come to like Take That far more than I remember having done during their prime.
The common perception of a fangirl is, well, a girl. A young woman in her early teens, screaming for Harry Styles' attention amid a crowd of 300,000 other teary-eyed girls, is the image that comes to mind. And though we do meet one of these particular fangirls (16-year-old Elif, whose YouTube meltdown to a One Direction concert video went viral a couple of years ago), the documentary gives us a wider, generation-spanning view of what real fandom looks like in adulthood.
Though Dara’s relationship with Gary Barlow (her favourite), Robbie Williams, Mark Owen, Jason Orange and Howard Donald has of course changed over the years – their surprise split and sudden reformation will do that to a girl – her affection for Take That has never wavered. In fact she describes her relationship with the "manband returned" version as stronger and even better. "I kind of knew why I loved them and everything they brought to me with their early music [but] I actually prefer most of the later stuff they’ve done," she explains. "I continue to idolise Gary and all his music and it probably provides a lot more for me now because I’ve had an extended time to enjoy them. When I was a kid it was, you know, it was like a year max that I could really be into them when I found out about them but now, it must’ve been about 10, 12 years or something of them being back on tour – it’s so much longer and intense."
I ask Dara whether she ever thought Take That and the fangirl lifestyle was something she’d grow out of and she tells me that many people told her that she eventually would, but her relationship with the band has always been very personal. "It was something that I kept really closeted for a long time," she explains. "I came out as gay when I was 23 and it wasn’t a great experience for me. It was a pretty hard time but what happened after is that I started coming out to people as a lover of boybands and I would get such a great reception! People would be like, 'That’s amazing, that’s fantastic, you go girl, I love boybands too!' and even now, it’s kind of like the coming out I wish I had when I was saying I was gay."

I came out as gay when I was 23 and it wasn’t a great experience. But after that I started coming out as a lover of boybands and people would be like, 'That’s fantastic, you go girl, I love boybands too!' It’s like the coming out I wish I had when I was saying I was gay.

"To tell a whole room of people in the cinema that I love boybands and for them to be like 'Yay!' I wish that had been the fanfare when I was coming out with my sexuality, so it’s kind of a way for me now, and why I’ll forever hold on to them. It’s really validating. It just makes me feel like it’s okay to be me, people celebrate that and that’s okay."
Despite the overwhelmingly positive reception Dara has had since being more open about her love of Take That – and starring in a documentary about it – she’s still a little surprised to find that her adoration was shared, even though she only discovered the band perhaps a year before they split in 1996. "We had all this hysteria on the other side of the world but I felt like the only person in Australia who knew that secret of that amazing, awesome band, so I think the reason why I chose them is, it’s like a bit of exclusivity," Dara says. "At the time, it was like, 'I know something you don’t know and I’m way cooler than you' kind of thing. There was Backstreet Boys and the band 5ive were out and I was like, 'Everyone knows them but no one knows Take That and these are my guys'."
If we go down an extra layer, though, it’s Gary Barlow who is Dara’s guy. She hopes to meet him one day, not as a hysterical fangirl but on a mutual level where they can sit down, drink tea and talk boyband strategy. That ability to hone in on an individual within an already appealing unit is half the magic of boyband attraction. The other half is all in the well-crafted message.
"If you dissect it, it’s a lot around, 'You’re amazing just the way you are, you’re beautiful, don’t go changing, I’m gonna love you forever' and at the very crucial moment of 12-15-year-old, volatile, emotional, teenage female hecticness – with so much going on in terms of who am I, am I good enough – you’ve got these beautiful boys looking into [your] eyes saying you’re okay, you’re really okay, we’re going to get through this and there’s nothing about you that I would change. And I think that message is so strategic but is the real intense part for young girls."

I think it’s the emotion – that heart-opening, crazy emotion that you go through, screaming at the top of your lungs.

It’s strangely moving to think about, right? Dara adds: "Because we’re so pliable at that age, it just sort of sticks with us. And I think it’s the emotion – that heart-opening, crazy emotion that you go through, screaming at the top of your lungs." She tells me about a friend of hers, a choir teacher, who said that boyband music is written in a specific key that’s perfect for the range of a young female voice so it’s easy to sing along to. "It doesn’t go too low and it doesn’t go too high," Dara explains. "Which is why Boyz II Men are completely disqualified. They talk about sex too much, the music is too deep and R&B, while for 1D, it’s in a whole other, higher register. It’s all fun and upbeat." I suggest that Boyz II Men were never meant to be for young women; they were born a manband and so were never due that 10-year hiatus followed by a strangely triumphant comeback like our mates Take That, you see.
Ultimately, though Dara's fandom is on the extreme end of the scale, she thinks everyone will have experienced something at least a little similar. "I’ve got a friend who’s completely into horror movies and I’m like, 'That’s not at all part of me, but you go and travel the world, you go to the premieres of all those movies, that’s amazing, you go!' Like, her horror movies are my boybands and I think everyone has a thing to some extent. It’s just I generally take things to the nth degree," she chuckles at the truth in her joke. "I generally go all the way, like being in a documentary, this is pretty much my style – I’m not surprised."

More from Music

R29 Original Series