On August 16th, 2016 in a suburb of Milwaukee, a recent high school graduate lay down on her bed and cried. For the first time in seven years, she had no access to the communication channels on which she’d grown to rely for her identity, her community, and her sense of self-worth.
Her name was Sophie. She’d spent most of her waking hours for nearly a decade tracking Justin Bieber’s every movement, friend group fluctuation, relationship status, and emotional whim for her highly trafficked fan pages. And earlier that day, with a few clicks, she’d deleted everything—on purpose.
An Instagram account. A Tumblr account. Two Twitter accounts. Thirteen thousand photos. Fan fiction that had garnered over 70,000 reads. Hundreds of audio files: his songs, in classic form and in live performance recordings.
Her life as a Justin Bieber stan was officially over.
The term “stan”—a portmanteau of stalker-fan—was widely popularized as a noun in 2000, when Eminem released a song by the same name. It featured a man whose obsession with his favorite rapper escalated quickly from a copycat coif to a basement-lair hastily wallpapered with concert posters, and then abruptly to murder-suicide. In the years since, the idea of a stan has since evolved to be somewhat more positive, and an identity in its own right. The Outline reports that its first documented appearance as a verb occurred when a Twitter user declared, “I stan for santogold” in 2008.
Some months later, in 2009, Sophie—then in middle school—got her first iPhone. It wasn’t long before she’d joined the swarm of young people congregating virtually around a recently discovered blonde heartthrob from Canada. And thus began Sophie’s stan-dom. (She does not self-identify as a Belieber—“‘Belieber’ kind of stood for the people who liked him, but didn’t know him,” she says with some disdain.) In the years that followed, she would learn what true devotion looked like—where the performative parts ended and the reflexive, etherizing ones began, and how it felt to throw it all away. What follows is Sophie’s story, in her own words.
It All Began With a Song
I had heard about Justin Bieber online, but at that point I was young, in grade school, so my mom didn’t let me have much access to the internet. I was a Radio Disney listener and they were playing “One Time” nonstop, and I knew all the words and I was like, “What is this magic? I need to know about this.”
One day, I heard my mom shout up to me, “That kid who sings ‘One Time’ is on the Today Show.” I ran down and I got really close to the TV, and there he was with a scarf on, with his swished hair, and I was like, “No way. This is everything.” My dad came home with the album and I put it into a CD player and lay on my bedroom floor. It felt like the first time that I truly connected to music.
Then I found out that I have very severe scoliosis and I was going to have to have a spinal fusion. I had to spend a month at home, away from school, and my mom was like, “You know, it was going to be your graduation gift, but we’re going to get you an iPhone. And I’m going to let you have a Facebook so you can be in touch with friends.” So that’s when the doors really opened. And when I made that Facebook account and realized they were fan accounts for Justin, this whole world cracked open for me. It was overwhelming. I remember the first one I came across was called Team Bieber and it had 35,000 likes, and I thought, I’m going to make one too.
Eventually, my pages spread to other networks. I’d go on to have two Twitter accounts, an Instagram account, and a Tumblr all dedicated to Justin’s every move, with tens of thousands of followers. On Instagram, I was posting probably three times a day. On Twitter, any second that I had free, I was tweeting. I hit the post limit on Tumblr—250—all the time. I would hit the tweet limit (2,400 per day) all the time too, especially on an awards night.
I spent seven years being a Justin Bieber stan. My days were focused on keeping these accounts up-to-date and making sure I was up on all the news. By freshman year, the hype on my accounts was crazy. That year came with so many insecurities, but I knew for sure that this one thing was mine. There’s some sort of ownership that comes with being a stan. To know you have true, deep-rooted feelings for this person.
When I Met Justin Bieber in Person
I only met him once. July 9th, 2013. That is a day I will never forget. I spent months preparing for it—by creating these fake VIP meet-and-greet passes (I couldn’t afford the real ones). When I got in I was like, Holy shit, all these people that I stalk constantly are here. Mike Lerner, his photographer at the time, Kenny Hamilton, his security director, Scooter Braun, his manager, Alfredo Flores, a photographer-director.
Justin was in sunglasses and a snap-back and tank top. And he smelled like so much cologne I couldn’t breathe when we hugged. I said, “Justin, I love you so much.” And he said, “Okay, let’s take a photo.” They snapped the photo and I started to cry. And he grabbed my arm and pulled me back and hugged me and was like, “Please don’t cry. Seriously, please don’t cry.”
He was so clearly stoned. But in that moment, I loved him so much. My heart was so full. I was like, I don’t care if he’s high. I don’t care if he’s never going to recognize me again. I feel so good right now. I walked out of the curtain and they handed me a Justin Bieber Believe vinyl, signed by him.
How the Height of Stan-dom Really Felt
His music was very important to me—I think that still holds true to this day—but outside of his music, I was in love with his world. I loved knowing about him and the inner workings of that kind of stardom. I was fascinated by it, and I still am. Sure, he was this untouchable person, but I did so much research and I had been so invested. I felt like I knew him better than anyone else, and that felt so good. But it was all so fleeting. When he would say, “Oh my god, I love all my fans!”—he didn’t know any of us by name. It wasn’t real. But I couldn’t see that then. I was blinded.
In truth I was using my standom to cover up things in my life that I was insecure about or felt fearful of. I used it as an escape. It felt like something that defined my personality. I spent a lot of time in my younger years thinking that I was fat, and kids would make fun of me when I was little about being fat. To have something that people thought of me before they thought of something else felt really important. Being open about stanning Justin felt like freedom to me—freedom from being thought of as the fat girl.
Also, being a stan of anything, there’s a community around it. I think that creates a sort of love bond. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Glossier in the comments on one of their posts or anything else, you have a common passion and that can bring you joy.
The Month Before I Decided to Get Rid of Everything
My family had been planning this trip to New York City, which had always been my favorite place. And it just so happened that Justin was playing the last two shows of the first leg of his Purpose tour then. So I was like, “Oh my god, I’m going to be able to see Justin at MSG. Holy shit.” But I kind of kept that on the down-low because I knew my parents were like, “This is fucked up. She can’t keep doing this.” But when our tickets to New York were booked, I spilled that I wanted to go. I have a very vivid memory of my dad being like, “This is over. You can’t do this anymore. I’m sick and tired of this.”
The entire time I was in New York, I was on Twitter wondering where he was and what he was doing. I wish there were words to describe the mental anxiety and panic I would feel over knowing I could be near him but not being near him. It was a weight on my chest constantly—not having enough of him. I was distracted the whole trip. On the day of the show, we were having an early dinner, and I was having this tearful, silent moment, thinking, I’m going to miss his show after all. Right then and there, my mom and I bought two tickets and went directly to Madison Square Garden.
A couple days later we were back in Wisconsin. That month, I could feel that my parents were disappointed in how I’d acted leading up to the trip, and then the whole week in New York until they finally relented and let me go to the concert. I could handle their anger, but their disappointment let me know things had gone too far.
The Day My Life Changed for Good
It was August 16, 2016—a little less than a month since I’d seen him and I felt so empty. I’d been doing it for so long, I genuinely didn’t know who I was without it. But it got to the point where I was like, It doesn’t matter, because I can’t continue on with this. The night before I pulled the plug, I texted a friend: “I don’t think I can do this anymore. It’s ruining relationships in my life.”
The next day I woke up, looked at Twitter, and wanted to throw up. That’s when I did it: deleted every social media app from my phone and put blocks on my computer so I couldn’t access Instagram or Twitter. I think I had 13,000 photos on my phone—screenshots and photos and fan theories other things I’d been collecting—and I needed to rid my life of it. I deleted all of his music from my library.
It was just silence. And I felt like I hadn’t heard that kind of silence in so long. It felt strange, almost out of body, that I was existing without those things near me.
Then I laid in bed and cried. I cried and cried and cried. I physically felt like I couldn’t move. When dinnertime came around, my mom came into my room and said, “You have to get up. You don’t have a choice.” And when I finally sat down, my dad asked me what was wrong and I broke down and said, “I got rid of everything today.” They all hugged me. They had known that this thing had been running my life.
The Three Years Since That Day
It took me a really long time to feel like myself again—to go on the journey post-Justin toward self-love and understanding my worth and who I am as an individual. If I walked into a store and his music was playing, I’d walk out. I was very strict with myself. I wrote a YA fiction novel in an effort to get over Justin. The story is about a girl who is completely infatuated with her boyfriend, but he treats her in a very cold, distant way. He leads her on and never lets her in. It helped me understand that the way I was allowing myself to be treated wasn’t fair. I was putting myself through this suffering, thinking that this was the kind of love and treatment I deserved.
Today I kind of think of it as a breakup: Okay, we’ve been “broken up” for a year and a half now, I am allowed to look at a picture of you or scroll through Twitter and not be scared when I come across something that has you in it. I don’t follow him or anything, but I’m also so much stronger now, so those things don’t affect me.
I was living back home when Justin and Hailey got married at a courthouse. A friend texted me saying, “Oh my god, did you see Justin and Hailey are married?” It felt really strange and I cried a little. But it was more happy tears, because in a way, I was like, “Oh thank god, we’ve both moved on.”
*Interview has been edited for length and clarity
Feature Photo via Getty Images.