Welcome To Amy Sedaris's Alternate Reality

Like almost everything Amy Sedaris is involved in, the Greenwich Village studio space where she wrote material for her new truTV show At Home With Amy Sedaris is pleasantly deranged. There’s a side table shaped like a big red mushroom and a “room divider” constructed from green pantyhose hanging from the top of the kitchen window. On the fireplace mantle, which has fake, pink rose bunting draped over it, is a small ashtray filled with knitted cigarette butts.

It’s precisely the setting you might expect for a home entertaining show that begins its holiday special episode with Sedaris in an elegant updo and red lipstick — very Suzy Homemaker — and ends with her being attacked by a cursed nutcracker doll named Colonel Nutley. (The nutcracker then goes on to supposedly kill actor Neil Patrick Harris, who is never seen or heard from, in a six-minute scene that ends with Sedaris covered in blood, missing a tooth, and drinking bitterly in her trashed — but still very adorable and twee! — living room.)

Warner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection

Amy Sedaris in Strangers with Candy, 2005.

When I arrived to interview her in early November, Sedaris was striding around the studio in red stilettos, a polka-dot skirt, and a white sweater covered in pearls. She offered me a homemade stuffed mushroom before settling into one of the two plush, floral armchairs in the living room. “Good vibes over here,” she said, her head propped up on her little fist while an ambulance siren wailed outside her window. In person (and out of costume) Sedaris is all sparkling green eyes, bouncy blond hair, and intense eye contact, hardly the walking overbite she portrayed in Strangers with Candy.

But at 56, Sedaris has made a long, successful (though under-the-radar) career out of playing unhinged lunatics. Maybe you’ve seen her as the über-rich, divorced, and desperate Mimi Kanasis in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, or heard her voice in the animated series BoJack Horseman as the uptight, high-achieving Hollywood agent and anthropomorphic cat Princess Carolyn. She’s appeared as a nightmare apartment broker on Broad City and once did cartwheels in a glittering green onesie on The Colbert Report. Her biggest, weirdest, and, until now, only starring TV role was in Strangers with Candy, a satire of after-school specials that ran on Comedy Central for three seasons (and produced one movie), in which Sedaris played an adult woman who returns to high school after dropping out and becoming a drug addict. The common denominator throughout these disparate roles is Sedaris’s manic energy and her total disregard for reality.

At Home With Amy Sedaris, Sedaris’s latest project, is an expansion of an oeuvre that mixes discomfort and queasiness with Sedaris’s signature charm and unceasing positivity. The show, which premiered at the end of October on truTV, is a cross between sketch comedy and how-to guide for hosting. Tonally, it’s like if Twin Peaks were on TLC. Each 24-minute episode features three or four segments loosely based around the ideas of hosting, crafting, and cooking. (They also include discussions of death, depression, poverty, and shellfish-based cocktails.) It’s derangement under the guise of wholesome entertainment.

KC Bailey / truTV

A still from At Home With Amy Sedaris.

“I like going back to that kind of entertaining rather than trying to talk about prescription drugs or alcoholism or incest. We did that with Strangers,” Sedaris said. “It’s still messed up a little bit, but I wanted that wholesome feel to it. That’s challenging.”

It’s also the kind of show that could have only come from Sedaris’s brain, where everything is saturated in candy colors and seemingly unmoored from any particular era or moment in time. This is arguably true of Sedaris as well. She isn’t on Twitter; her studio doesn’t have a phone or a television or a visible laptop; she only recently got a cell phone, or a “cellular,” as she calls it. “I was best man at Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux’s wedding,” she said. (Theroux, who makes an appearance in one episode of At Home, is a close friend.) “I went to LA and I had to get Uber because I don’t drive, and I was forced to get a phone. I don’t even know my number. Even when the phone rings, I panic.”

In a world where politics has now fully dominated the social discourse, and in which so many celebrities have been consistently and personally disappointing, Sedaris’s work offers a surrealist reprieve from all things “topical” and plunges the viewer into a world where, delightfully and briefly, nothing really matters. It’s the kind of comedy that isn’t guided by pop culture or current events. Instead, she creates a space that’s highly detailed and specific, where everything is about organized chaos. If you want to disengage from the world right now, a visit to her universe might be just what you need.

Suzanne Opton / Getty Images

Sedaris and brother David Sedaris at his apartment in 1997.

Amy Sedaris grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, the fourth of six children: Lisa, David, Gretchen, Amy, Tiffany, and Paul. In interviews, Sedaris seldom opens up about her upbringing or personal life, opting to share minor and often bizarre blips of information instead, such as the fact that her outfits are made by her friend and seamstress Mary Adams, who has nine and a half fingers. Or she veers into fiction, mentioning how upset she is that her imaginary boyfriend Ricky was murdered on their way to the hospital for “a cyst on one of his obliques.” Her online presence is limited to an Instagram account largely populated by retro ads, reposts from other people, and decor suggestions.

As a result, most of what we know about Sedaris as a person is from her brother, the writer David Sedaris, author of Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Energetic, goofy, endearing Amy shows up in almost all of his childhood stories. In a 1998 episode of This American Life, David recounted how Amy wore a fat suit home as a response to her father’s insistence that his daughters be thin. “She is by far the most attractive member of my family, yet she spent most of her life admiring skin diseases and praying for a hump,” David remembered. “‘It’s not fair that I can’t grow a beard,’ she’ll say, gluing a pebble-sized wart to the size of her nose … She can’t see any benefit to being herself.”

“She is by far the most attractive member of my family, yet she spent most of her life admiring skin diseases and praying for a hump.”

She and David were frequent collaborators, first as children when they played together (Amy told me they hosted a fake cooking show called The Rex and Germalina Show), and later in the ‘90s when they published plays together under the moniker the Talent Family. Those included Stitches, about a disfigured teen who becomes a television star, and Incident at Cobbler’s Knob, about witches and warlocks and a gay beaver. “He’s the best,” Amy said of her brother. “No one works as hard as he does.” David now lives in London, while Amy has been in New York since 1993.

Before she came to New York, Sedaris joined Chicago’s Second City in 1992, alongside Paul Dinello (who would later work with her on Strangers and At Home), Stephen Colbert (a Strangers costar), and Chris Farley. “We both went to the training center at Second City. I went to go see her show, and even though it was 12 people, it was essentially a one-woman show,” Dinello told me. “She was just a force in that show. Her character work was already so mature. I couldn’t believe it.”

In 1999, she got her big break in Strangers with Candy. The Comedy Central show was developed by Dinello, Colbert, and Mitch Rouse, also a friend of Sedaris’s from Second City. It was inspired by the 1970 documentary short The Trip Back, about a former drug addict and sex worker who tries to warn a group of high school students away from the life she led. Sedaris plays Jerri Blank, a woman who dropped out of school and ran away from home to become “a boozer, a user, and a loser.” After she gets out of prison, she decides to clean up her act and return to the exact place where she left her previous life: high school. Every episode was A Very Special one, but no lessons were ever really learned. Nothing about the show anchored it in the existing universe; no one dressed in a way that indicated what decade it was; no action was ever really followed by consequences. Every episode ended with dancing.

Sedaris described the creative process of making Strangers as comfortably isolated. “Nobody was around. We were in the woods making each other laugh,” she told me. In 2015, she told Esquire, “The funny thing is Comedy Central never really got behind it, but that’s what made the show work.” (Never exactly a ratings hit, the show was canceled in 2000.) “You really had to look hard to find it, you know? People felt like they discovered it and I think that’s important. That’s what makes it such a cult show.”

Comedy Central / Courtesy Everett Collection

Sedaris with Stephen Colbert (left) and Paul Dinello (right) on Strangers with Candy.

The same may be true of Sedaris herself. She is a low-profile but influential figure in comedy, an inspiration for writers and actors like Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner who has always been on the periphery of mainstream success. Strangers was canceled in 2000, but in 2005, Dinello, Colbert, and Sedaris wrote and starred in a prequel film, produced in part by Worldwide Pants, David Letterman’s production company. (Sedaris was a beloved guest on Letterman’s Late Night, often appearing with nothing to promote.) The show had always featured some famous guest stars (Winona Ryder, Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofalo), but the movie — with cameos from people like Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Allison Janney — marked a noticeable shift in access to high-profile collaborators. It was the first clear evidence of Sedaris’s industry cache: What other weirdo character actor could get Chris Pratt to spend $3,000 in travel and accommodations just for the chance to play her love interest? On Sedaris’s birthday last year, Sarah Jessica Parker posted nine Instagram photos celebrating her existence.

Strangers solidified Sedaris as a voice for unrooted absurdist comedy that doesn’t require context or known pop culture references to work. She is frequently compared to Maria Bamford, whose Netflix show Lady Dynamite is a fictionalized, surreal rendering of Bamford’s return to LA after a mental health breakdown. But the key difference between the two women and their work is that while Bamford takes direct inspiration from her own life, Sedaris is always looking to hide or morph herself into someone else. Even when she’s technically playing herself as Your Host, Amy, it’s still not really about her. Talking to her in her studio, she’s more present and slightly more serious; on TV, she’s talking about how the best gifts are edible and then biting into a vanilla candle as if it’s a carrot.

Alison Cohen Rosa / truTV

At Home With Amy Sedaris

At Home has been a decade in the making, a project Sedaris always wanted to work on. It was inspired by a childhood favorite TV series: At Home With Peggy Mann. “Growing up in North Carolina, this woman here had a local hospitality show,” Sedaris told me, holding a framed photo of Mann in her studio. “She would do cooking and crafting, and she would have local people on to talk about their businesses. It was very boring and I was obsessed with Peggy Mann. I liked the idea of pretending you had a show happening in your home.”

She shrugs slightly, saying of her Peggy Mann approach to television, “It’s probably not for everybody. But it’s kind of mindless, isn’t it? All the inspiration from it, from growing up, from Galloping Gourmet and Frugal Gourmet and Lawrence Welk and Ernie Kovacs and Julia Child and Two Fat Ladies and Mister Rogers. All of that is what this show is.”

You might assume that At Home is just a comedy series masquerading as a show about home decor or cooking; after all, it includes advice on how to hide that you’ve sliced off the tips of your fingers by covering them with empty peanut shells. (Cheap!) But Sedaris insists that it’s more than satire. “All those crafts I do, I’m really trying to do those crafts,” she said. “I’m in the moment and I’m sincere.”

Dinello confirmed that Sedaris takes an interest in real-life entertaining. “She’s a really good cook and she’s good at putting interesting people together,” he said. But, almost predictably, there’s a hidden catch. “It’s not a free ticket. A lot of times you’re asked to do something like fix a shelf or get her DVR working or paint a wall.” When we met, Sedaris told me she had someone coming over for dinner that night, actually; she needed some light bulbs changed.

“What Sedaris offers comedically is an oasis from all the other madness going on in the world.” 

Even with all this inspiration, however, Sedaris couldn’t get the show off the ground. Dinello has been working with Sedaris for decades — they’ve been talking about At Home for 15 years at least. Every time they got close to selling the show, Sedaris would pull back.

She ended up going to a therapist to get help with two things she was struggling with: First, the 2013 death of her sister Tiffany, and second, why she was stalling on the show. (She also went to a woman who talks to the dead to get closure on her sister’s death. “I think I was so vulnerable and so open to the information that next day, I got shingles,” she said. “First thing I thought was, Ugh, get me a shingles commercial.”)

It was only in the last few years that Sedaris felt ready to move forward with the project. “It wasn’t entirely clear what [the show] was at that time, but it was clear that it was a passion project for her — she and Paul had a strong point of view of what they wanted to do,” said Marissa Ronca, executive vice president and head of programming at truTV. The network, which is owned by Turner Broadcasting, originally launched as Court TV and specialized in documentaries and legal drama series. Later, it was revamped to focus on reality television, and two years ago pivoted again — to comedy. (A promotional spot from last year features an actor getting crushed to death by the truTV logo.)

Evan Agostini / Getty Images

Sedaris and Paul Dinello in 2005.

Ronca says At Home fits in with what the network is trying to do with its comedy slate at large: Provide a platform for creator-driven shows that only a specific writer or actor could pull off, like Billy on the Street or The Chris Gethard Show, which are both very much shaped by the personalities and sensibilities of their creators.

It’s clear that no one other than Sedaris (and Dinello) could create something like At Home, which was developed as an offshoot of Sedaris’s very specific and visually stimulating world. Sedaris said visual details are so crucial to her in part because of a former neighbor of hers in Chicago who was deaf. “My whole life changed because the way she saw things was so interesting,” she said. “I used to go home and watch Strangers with Candy with the volume down to see if a deaf person could still laugh at this show.” The set is based off Sedaris’s real Manhattan apartment. “I was obsessed with it,” she said of designing the set. “Fringe and tassel and rickrack.”

According to truTV, the show has been a success. Since its Oct. 23 premiere, its audience has grown 52% among people aged 18 to 49. Nearly a quarter of those are new viewers to the network. “There’s a lot of people out there doing really timely political comedy right now that I love and I appreciate,” Ronca said. But, she added, “Sometimes at night, you just want to be wildly entertained and watch something that’s clever and funny and isn’t screaming back at you from the TV. What [Sedaris] offers comedically is an oasis from all the other madness going on in the world.”

Alison Cohen Rosa / truTV

Sedaris and Paul Giamatti in At Home With Amy Sedaris.

At Home is apolitical, but not in a way that feels willfully ignorant or withholding — see Jimmy Fallon playfully neglecting to talk to Donald Trump about his racist comments, or Taylor Swift refusing to make a clear statement of who exactly she voted for last year. Instead, the show lets viewers temporarily live in a completely different dimension. “She’s not shepherded by popular culture,” Dinello said. “You’ll seldom see a cell phone or computer on our shows, or specific references to modern or to current events.”

But even though At Home transpires mainly within an alternate universe, there are occasional moments that resonate here on Planet Earth. In the first episode of the show, Paul Giamatti plays an important businessman who sexually harasses Sedaris over the course of a nautically themed dinner party. “That was written and shot long before the Weinstein scandal broke, and I had concerns about it and even thought about maybe cutting it,” Dinello said. “I didn’t want us to come across as flip. Amy’s [character] is usually in control, which sort of protects us.”

When At Home does descend into the truly dark and disturbing, Amy Sedaris somehow make it okay to laugh.

When At Home does descend into the truly dark and disturbing, Sedaris somehow makes it okay to laugh, by cheerfully persevering through uncomfortable scenarios. In “Gift Giving,” Randy Fingerling (Nick Kroll, in an awful long wig and black turtleneck) comes over to help Sedaris bake a cake. While she tries to fill an angel food bundt cake with ice cream, Kroll lights candles, plays romantic music, sits directly behind her (Sedaris reminds Kroll, and us, “I do have a knife,” her eyes flicking back up to the camera), and fingers the cake while moaning. The segment ends when he mutters, “I’m gonna fucking come.” The segment is uncomfortable, a commentary on how unsafe it can feel to be a woman, but it doesn’t feel heavy or anxiety-laden the way a lot of satire often can be. Sedaris is so at ease, so ready to laugh instead of cry, and so happy living in an alternate reality. It’s infectious, this darkness cloaked in cooking segments and crafting suggestions, and a successful integration of a real-world problem into a segment about how to improve an angel food cake.

truTV / Via trutv.com

Sedaris and Nick Kroll in At Home With Amy Sedaris.

“It’s funny to create a show during this time,” Sedaris said. “So many bad things were happening, and we’re over here trying to write something funny.” Being funny right now (in this economy?!) is hard to pull off: Play too ignorant and you end up seeming glib and unfeeling; play too world-weary and you might come off as a huge drag. Sedaris is one of the few performers who can strike the right balance. Her entire public persona has been rooted in ignoring the whims of the world in a way that feels comforting, rather than condescending and privileged.

I watched the first episode of At Home the afternoon the first New York Times story about the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations broke. This was a few days after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, which was two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, which came on the heels of the hurricanes in Texas and Florida, which happened around one of the times that President Trump raised the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea.

In a segment called “Crafting Corner,” Sedaris told viewers she was going to make “Potato Ships,” a baked potato with a wooden skewer mast, a cheese slice sail, a construction paper flag, and a mushroom cap as a crow’s nest. She assembled them with fake fingernails taped to her fingers, slathering glue on the stick to adhere the flag and trying to poke the cheese gently enough so it wouldn’t rip.

The end result was a crushed potato slathered in sour cream and pierced with a sail made from a crumpled cheese slice, a flap of pink construction paper, and a wet mushroom cap. Covered in glue, it was wholly inedible and didn’t remotely resemble the Potato Ship she had shown at the top of the segment. And on that day, it was also maybe the only thing that helped me stop — just for a few, blissfully confused moments — thinking about the state of the world. ●





Scaachi Koul is a Culture Writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.

Contact Scaachi Koul at scaachi.koul@buzzfeed.com.

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This Is What The 11 Original “Pop Idol” Contestants Look Like Now

Hayley came fifth on Pop Idol and went on to do a bunch of presenting and TV work after the show, including a role in Coronation Street. She played Sandy in Grease the Musical on the West End and she entered The X Factor a couple of times, even making it through to boot camp on 2007. Most recently, Hayley was selected as one of the finalists hoping to represent the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2016.

Prince Harry Is Engaged To Meghan Markle

Prince Harry is engaged to be married to US actor and humanitarian Meghan Markle, Clarence House has announced.

The announcement said: “His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales is delighted to announce the engagement of Prince Harry to Ms. Meghan Markle.

“The wedding will take place in Spring 2018. Further details about the wedding day will be announced in due course.”

The announcement confirms months of speculation, stating that Prince Harry proposed to Markle earlier this month. The Queen and other close members of the Royal Family have been informed.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge congratulated the couple: “We are very excited for Harry and Meghan. It has been wonderful getting to know Meghan and to see how happy she and Harry are together.”

Markle’s parents, Thomas Markle and Doria Ragland, released a statement through Clarence House and said they were “incredibly happy” at the news.

“Our daughter has always been a kind and loving person. Ro see her union with Harry, who shares the same qualities, is a source of great joy for us as parents.

“We wish them a lifetime of happiness and are very excited for their future together.”

Markle, 36, has reportedly finished filming her final scenes on the TV drama Suits, which she will be exiting after seven seasons playing paralegal-turned-lawyer Rachel Zane. The couple met in London through mutual friends in July 2016 and quietly began dating.

Following reports and rumors of a new royal romance, Prince Harry confirmed their relationship in a statement condemning the media’s “wave of abuse and harassment” towards Markle in November 2016.

In an interview from September, Markle described herself and Prince Harry as “two people who are really happy and in love.”

In the Vanity Fair cover story, Markle described the fifth in line to the British throne as her “boyfriend” and talked about how they kept their relationship private despite the intense media interest:

“We’re a couple. We’re in love. I’m sure there will be a time when we will have to come forward and present ourselves and have stories to tell, but I hope what people will understand is that this is our time. This is for us. It’s part of what makes it so special, that it’s just ours. But we’re happy. Personally, I love a great love story.”

The couple made their first public appearance that month, watching a wheelchair tennis event at the Invictus Games. The international sporting event was established by Harry for injured soldiers.

Following the announcement, the couple were congratulated by the British prime minister, Theresa May. In a statement, she offered her “warmest congratulations” to the pair.

“This is a time of huge celebration for two people in love. On behalf of myself, the Government and the country, I wish them great happiness for the future,” she continued.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates and follow BuzzFeed News on Twitter.

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19 Times Paris And Nicole Altered The Course Of Human History

“No, she said ‘laundromat’ which means you wash your own clothes.”



“You take your laundry somewhere to wash your own clothes?”


“What does that mean?”

“A laundromat is where people who can’t afford a washing machine clean their clothes. Like, you go and put 25 cents in and like, clean clothes. You never heard of a laundromat? You go there and put in a quarter. I’ve seen it in movies, like in 40 Days and 40 Nights. Remember?”

“Oh, yeah!”

“That’s what it is.”

Why Lesbians And Other Queer Women Love Harry Styles

Three days after the release of his self-titled debut album, and six days after he wore a now-iconic pink suit during a Today show performance, lesbian pop-rock twin bandmates Tegan and Sara tweeted a confession about Harry Styles from their account: “I have a very real crush on @Harry_Styles. Loving the new album and the high waisted wide leg pants.” Check the replies to this admission from mid-May to find a smattering of solidarity from Tegan and Sara fans: “Same.” “Same.” “Same.” “You’re not alone.” “Lesbians for Harry Styles Unite (LHSU).”

The entire internet had a crush, really. And while Tegan and Sara may be the most famous queer women to make their love for Harry (and his style) public, they’re just the tip of the iceberg that is the gay-lady Styles hive. The Great British Bake Off’s Ruby Tandoh wrote a recipe for “Harry Styles’ Dutch Baby with Cinnamon Rhubarb.” Former BuzzFeed writer Katie Heaney (along with current BuzzFeed Books editor Arianna Rebolini) wrote a whole damn book inspired by their love of Harry. My girlfriend has a One Direction wall calendar, and wholeheartedly plans to re-up for 2018. As a queer woman with lukewarm feelings toward the singer, I kept finding myself thinking, What the fuck is up with queer girls and Harry Styles?

Queer women have always rallied around their likeness in pop culture: Ellen DeGeneres, Joan Jett, and pretty much the entire US women’s national soccer team all sit squarely in the elite category of lesbian celebrity icons. It’s not terribly common for queer women to rally around a cis man in the same way. Sure, people love to joke that Justin Bieber and Cole Sprouse look like lesbians, and queer women have harvested fashion inspiration from James Dean and Marlon Brando for decades. But it’s much less common for a cis man to be the subject of a full-blown lesbian pop-culture obsession.

John Lamparski / WireImage

Harry Styles performs on NBC’s Today in May 2017.

Once he went solo, folks who hadn’t paid attention to 1D started eating up what his fans had obsessed over for years: Harry’s sexual ambiguity, androgynous style, boy band appeal, and relatively progressive social awareness. It’s what many women I spoke with characterized as Harry’s “magic.”

I found that Harry Styles means something slightly different to each of his fans. He possesses an ability to be whoever you want him to be. When the lines are blurred between stage persona and social media persona and real persona, when it’s unclear what’s fact and what’s fiction, when his sexuality is an open question, a character is born. Fans can project their own desires onto Harry, in the quiet of their imagination or in their own fanfiction or in group iMessage threads with fellow fans. That’s the magic of Harry.

And that’s the Harry that queer women get so obsessed with. That’s the Harry who has even inspired some women, in becoming infatuated with him, to recognize their own queerness.

Men herald Cher and Whitney and Gaga as their gay pop idols. Have queer women chosen Harry Styles?

One Direction came to fame in 2011 and 2012 by offering a near-24/7 window into their lives, thanks to social media. Twitter and Tumblr livestreams gave fans access to whatever the five cute teens were up to at almost any given time. Fans had an insurmountable pile of content to consume: photos and videos of the boys just pallin’ around backstage on tour, or performing for packed arenas, or pondering their endearingly silly teenage thoughts aloud. No boy band before One Direction roared to fame in such an all-consuming and intimate way, as the technology wasn’t there yet. That near-constant barrage of content gave their OG fans (mainly teenage girls and young women) a feeling of truly knowing the boys. And with that, a sense of ownership over their rise to fame — a sense of ownership of the boys themselves.

Fans immediately fell for the youngest of the group, Harry Styles. Raised in a tiny village equidistant from Liverpool and Manchester, he wields a relentlessly British charisma. Even from the get-go, Harry publicly radiated charm. His boyishness, his ease on camera, his frog prince face — it’s almost unfair how easy it was to love this kid. He exuded, as many celebrities and so few 16-year-olds do, a complete ease in his own skin. According to fans, he seemed to genuinely not give a fuck what people thought about him.

Splash News / Alamy Stock Photo

Styles (in front) with One Direction bandmates Niall Horan, Zayn Malik and Liam Payne in 2011.

Harry’s either a very reserved person or is incredibly well media-trained — likely some combination of the two. He rarely shares personal details in interviews, which, as several women I spoke with concluded, makes him very easy to project an imagined personality onto. Compound that mystique with his enigmatic androgyny and surreal level of fame, and Harry is a perfect blank slate.

And thus, a fandom was born. And with every good fandom comes fanfic. And lots of that fanfic is gay. Very, very gay.

Slash fanfic is far from unique to One Direction, but 1D fans took up slash fic in a major way. The main coupling shipped in fic was Harry Styles and bandmate Louis Tomlinson, coined “Larry Stylinson.” Fans went so far as to speculate a real-life romance between the two lads. Though, it didn’t stop with Larry. From stories of Harry and bandmate Niall Horan hooking up on tour to a sentimental imagined romance between Harry and British radio personality Nick Grimshaw, there is a near-infinite trove of gay fanfic involving Harry Styles. In One Direction’s heyday, especially from 2013 through 2015, Tumblr was ablaze with stories of trysts between the boys. This, of course, says more about the fans themselves than of Harry’s own real-life sexuality.

The One Direction fandom really latched onto the Larry slash fic. Julia, a 32-year-old Harry devotee, told me she would read Harry fic “half turned-on, half, like, academically.” This phenomenon, too — of women being into gay male porn — is a well-established one. (Remember that scene in The Kids Are All Right where two wives watch porn, and how people lost their damn minds they were so confused?) Taking heterosexuality out of the equation in porn complicates gender power dynamics in a way that really works for lots of women. So, it makes sense that that phenomenon would translate to 1D fic. Those cute British boys were like queer-girl sex bait.

Let’s make one thing clear: Harry Styles looks like a hot lesbian. With a wiry frame, effeminate features, a shaggy mop, and an enviable wardrobe of floral prints and eye-popping suiting, he’s an absolute Shane. If you’ve never noticed this, perhaps you should hang out with more lesbians.

His fashion sense — that is, fashion not designed to flatter only men — is central to most queer women’s admiration for the pop star. I mean, come on: Those suits! Harry’s bottomless cache of dazzling two-piece suits and patterned blouses has made him a bit of a lesbian fashion icon. “I don’t wear suits often, or hardly ever — but I always want his suits,” says Katie, noting his penchant for sporting outfits that would look great on men and women alike. My girlfriend, Fran, asserts her “personal fandom is rooted in all of his outfits.” (Good answer.) I’m not sure if queer women are suddenly running out and buying Styles-esque suits, but they’re certainly fun to drool over.

Harry came to adopt his now-notorious personal style throughout 2015. It was at this time, too, that he grew his hair down past his shoulders, which amplified his androgynous looks. This androgyny piqued his queer fans’ affection. Even Sara Quin admitted to GQ that she grew her own hair out to look like Harry’s. For many women, long-haired, end-of-One-Direction Harry was a glory age of sorts. “There was a specific moment from late 2014 through early 2016 where he had this long hair and was wearing all YSL, where he was for me, in some magical witch way,” says Julia. He wasn’t a little boy holding hands with Taylor Swift anymore — his presentation had matured into something much more interesting. Something a little queerer.

Kevin Mazur / Getty Images; Steve Jennings / Getty Images for Sony Music

Styles wears printed two-piece suits while performing in September 2017.

Of course, Justin Bieber was the original “looks like a lesbian” pop star of the social media era. If you’ve never noticed (again, see my above note about hanging out with more lesbians), mid-puberty Justin Bieber looked a lot like an androgynous-leaning woman. Internet lesbians embraced this comparison, and in 2010 the blog of viral fame Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber was born. Women would submit photos (mostly selfies) where their looks were particularly reminiscent of the then-teenage Biebs. (The Tumblr’s most recent post is from April 2017, so it’s not officially dead, just past its heyday.) The account posted masses of photos between 2009 and 2012; it was a truly excellent meme.

But IRL, Justin Bieber appears to be — what’s the phrase? — oh, aggressively heterosexual. He very publicly dated Selena Gomez, joined a church that “does not affirm a gay lifestyle,” and has a habit of sliding into random women’s DMs like a true 23-year-old dumbass. Honestly, Bieber’s severe straightness is the perfect punchline after years of Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber. While he may sport effeminate features (even post-puberty), the star doesn’t represent any sort of queerness in the pop sphere.

Harry Styles, on the other hand, prefers to publicly retain a level of sexual mystique not dissimilar to Bowie and Prince. In the six years that Styles has been in the public eye, his own sexuality has remained an enigma. Even though fans have long speculated about a romance between Harry and Louis Tomlinson, Louis has outright denied any romance between the two — but Harry never has. On the whole, he prefers to keep his own sexuality undefined.

Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic

Styles performing at the KIIS FM’ Jingle Ball in 2015.

On a 2014 press junket, the British singer said being female was “not that important” a quality in someone he would date. In an interview with the Sun this past May, Harry declines to label his sexuality, seeming to confirm a fluidity fans had long sensed. Since their 2015 On the Road Again tour, it’s become a bit of a tradition at shows for Harry to parade around stage with pride flags brought by fans.

But, hey, coyness doesn’t equal…well, anything. For all we know, Styles has no interest in men whatsoever. He might reach Justin Bieber level on the Het Dude scale behind closed doors. My cynical side suspects he knows that coming out as straight, now, could very well alienate a large portion of the singer’s fanbase. Instead, he gets the best of both worlds by keeping things vague. Having his rainbow cake and eating it too, as it were.

But it ultimately doesn’t matter whether Harry Styles is gay or straight or one of the many other iterations of human sexuality. What’s important is that he appears to publicly champion non-definition.

Generally speaking, women tend to exist in a state of sexual fluidity more often than men do. A 2015 study from the University of Notre Dame found that women were three times more likely than men to report a shift in their sexual orientation, and more likely than men to identify as bisexual. What’s more, younger generations of LGBT people have been embracing fluidity and rejecting traditional labels of sexuality. A 2016 study found only 48% of Generation Z identified as exclusively heterosexual, compared with 65% of millennials.

So then, perhaps it’s Harry’s refusal to conform to mainstream sexual terminology that makes him so appealing to queer women. For many, seeing a pop star of extreme fame not only embrace a refusal to label, but appear to thrive in that gray area of sexuality, might be a relief. Sure, his private life could very well be less fluid. But publicly rejecting the notion of being “gay” or “straight” or “bisexual” — all of which have clear meanings — could be, for many non-straight women, something to celebrate.

But that, too, is an oversimplification of why queer women go fucking bananas for Harry Styles. After all, plenty of other celebrities keep their sexuality shrouded in mystery, or just choose to remain in the glass closet. So, still, why Harry?

On the topic of sexual fluidity, let’s get another thing out of the way: It’s not that queer women necessarily want to fuck Harry Styles. Sure, women tend not to adhere to gendered boundaries of attraction as rigidly as men do. But the Harry Styles obsession, for most gay women, is not “He’s so hot that I’d go straight for him,” nor is it “He looks like a lesbian, so that turns me on even though he’s a dude.” This love is not anchored in wanting to bone Harry. (Though, yeah, some would love to bone Harry.)

Hug? Yes. Flirting? Definitely. Engage in a drawn-out, rom-com-esque love affair that ends in kissing? Surprisingly, yes. But it’s not about sex in a straightforward sense.

“Addie” (who asked not to be named), a 29-year-old queer writer, would put wanting to sleep with Harry at, “like, number 17 of the reasons why I’m intrigued by him.” For Addie, “it’s more of a kindred spirit situation, and I’d rather be him, or be like him, than sleep with him.” This feeling’s pretty common for queer people; think about gay men with Madonna or Beyoncé or Carly Rae Jepsen. Queer kids, before really tussling with their sexualities, often conflate these feelings of admiration with sexual attraction.

Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic for Sony Music

Styles performs onstage with a Pride flag in Los Angeles in September 2017.

Julia has sexual fantasies starring Harry Styles, yes. But she clarifies that if the real-life Harry Styles made a move on her, she’d probably reject the advances. She then goes on to detail, “basically I want to watch him get fucked, then also zip his skin around me in a suit.” So, suffice it to say, these feelings are sexual, sure; but none of the women I spoke to were lusting after the real Harry Styles. Just the fanfic-born idea of Harry.

For some women, like Katie, their crush on Harry Styles is like a middle school crush: pure, nonsexual, anchored in cuteness and kindness. The kind of crush you had before you really understood your own sexuality whatsoever. “I can give myself flies thinking about Harry Styles flirting with me,” says Katie. “But my imagination ends there.” Similarly, Fran describes her ideal, real-life relationship with Harry to be “someone I see at four to six parties per year who I always flirt with, and who reciprocates, but literally nothing [sexual] ever happens.” (Again…good answer.)

And it’s not strictly about the music, either. Some women connect to the music itself, while others love it merely as an extension of Harry’s existence, like the “magical” era of long-haired Harry, mid-to-late 1D — once he was no longer the squeaky teen he was on The X Factor — holds a special place in the hearts of fans. Several fans cited the band’s 2013 album, Midnight Memories, in particular. Solo Harry falls more into the category of mom-like pride in their grown-up boy: “I love it because it’s Harry.” As Julia says, “Does a mother like her child’s macaroni art? Objectively, no. But yes, it’s the best thing she’s ever seen. I listen to [One Direction’s music] because I like to have them in my ears, but not because I like it.”

Fandoms are a funny thing. They can elicit such intense and unexpected joy, and the resulting friendships, more often than not, come to overshadow the thing itself. It’s like sports: It’s nice to have a thing, completely out of your control, that’s fun to talk about and obsess over without any actual, real-life stakes. A bizarre interview prompts an inside joke, a trek to a concert in New Jersey prompts another, and over time real-life, intimate friendships have been stitched. Addie tells me her life as a Harry stan brought her a whole new slate of queer women friends, including Julia. The One Direction community is far from the first one queer women have bonded over online: Everything from Buffy to The Social Network to American Idol has had rabid, fanfic-penning queer fans online. But still, it’s had quite a robust impact on the lives of many queer women.

For some queer women, the particular joy unveiled in the Harry Styles fandom is and was a newfound sense of connection to one’s own body and sexuality. Perhaps the strangest and most notable part of all this is the women who attribute their realization that they’re gay, in some part, to their love for Harry Styles.

Julia remembers the exact moment she realized she was gay, at age 29. It was early 2014, and she’d been consuming as much Harry content as possible over the previous two months — photos, videos, fanfic, the works. One evening, she and a friend were exchanging emails about Harry (you know, normal things), when she was sent an email of about a dozen GIFs of Harry Styles (naturally). Something struck her.

“I remember so clearly looking at those GIFs of Harry and being like, ‘I’m gay,’” she recounts. “I can’t really explain why… Something about this has unleashed a reality within me that’s like, I know myself now.” Julia attributes her sudden connection to herself and her sexuality to her love for this androgynous-leaning, charismatic pop star. It was wrapped up in her realizing she had a crush on a woman, who she now realizes she was conflating with Harry.

CW / Via youtube.com

Styles performing at the iHeartRadio music festival in 2017.

A similar thing happened to Katie Heaney. Her love for Harry, which peaked in 2014–15, “was much timed to my sexual awakening in my late twenties. I was completely obsessed with a boy band — for the first time in my life — at the exact moment that I’m turning away from men in general.” Julia and Katie’s stories are not identical (as no two coming-out experiences are), but are both inextricably linked to their fixation on Harry. Both women also describe feeling a sort of “second adolescence” during their coming-out periods. (Imagine feeling all that crazy, intense horniness and obsession, but with a parent-free apartment, a 401K, and a decade’s worth of weird pseudo-exes. That’s what coming out later in life is like.)

Perhaps Katie and Julia’s unapologetic love for a teen boy band sparked that second adolescence, or vice versa. In any case, the near-crazed feelings of boy band fandom and teen-esque sexual discovery can go hand-in-hand.

There’s no crystallized explanation for why so many queer women love Harry Styles so achingly. I’ve learned that the avenues by which fans arrive at Harry appear to be as multifarious as those to arrive at one’s own sexuality. I guess all I’m saying is, perhaps more lesbian bars could stay in business by adopting Harry Styles cosplay nights. If given the opportunity to exist as Harry, as this idealized prism of confidence and androgyny and fluidity and glitter and youthful joy — well, who wouldn’t come out for that?