TINHAT: one direction, conspiracy theories, and the danger of parasocial relationships

TINHAT: one direction, conspiracy theories, and the danger of parasocial relationships


Buckle up, chuckleheads. This one’s going to be a wild ride.

In this post, I’m going to get into some really crazy stuff. We all love a good conspiracy theory and I don’t hold myself above that, but One Direction fans have got us all absolutely beat. I’m going to go into detail on this, but I need to tell you in advance this is all about a supposed hidden relationship, five separate fake relationships, a fake baby, secret communication via teddy bears in BDSM gear, obsession, stalking, absolute nuttery, and what this means for how we’re fans of people now. Also I’m going to talk about Lord of the Rings a bit. So. There’s that going for it too.

Before I can get into that grab-bag of absolute bonkers content, we’re going to need to go back in time a bit. All the way back to the dark era of 2010, when this happened:

“okay, boys, for this shoot, i want you to try to look like teen vampires who are definitely going to eat you but will probably complain about how their mums make them do their maths homework before they’re allowed to play halo on weeknights.”

A band called One Direction was put together on X Factor. If you know me, you probably know the amount of knowledge I can mindlessly spew about One Direction is practically limitless, so I’m going to spare you the wonderful story of hope, late second act defeat, and triumphant victory riding on the wave of the power of teen girls, but here are the basics: five young, cute boys were put in a band together. They did well, and came in third, and then kind of took over the world for the next five years or so, both individually and as a team.

All of them are equally important in the story of my heart, but for the story I need to tell you, there are two at the center of it. Worldwide phenomenon, actor in an Oscar nominated movie, mega superstar Harry Styles; and the little king trashmouth we found digging through garbage barefoot in an Arby’s, Louis Tomlinson. (I’m kidding. Louis is a successful solo singer now as well, and I love him more than anything.) Back in 2010, however, they were just two doofy teenage boys, 16 & 18 respectively, who got thrust into the spotlight and worldwide fame.

Harry and Louis got along very well. Out of the band, they were the two closest friends, which for a band of five idiots who clung to each other like their lives depended on it, is saying something. Like most young men, they behaved a bit homoerotically. The tween girls of the world took note of this, as they do, and began “shipping” them – for those of you blissfully unaware of what fandom is, to “ship” someone is to want them in a relationship with someone else. The fans called them by a couple name, a portmanteau that would eventually haunt my nightmares: Larry Stylinson.

two tiny babymen, ostensibly in love

Louis and Harry became aware of the popularity of “Larry” among their fanbase, and as two teenage boys with no concept of what was about to happen to them, they played along. It was a funny joke everyone was in on to start with – they would joke about dating, about having crushes on each other, playfully slap each other’s asses. You know, like friends do. They thought it was funny, and their fans thought it was amazing, and everyone won and was happy forever and nobody made it super fucking weird, the end.

Just kidding. Before I get into the juicy stuff, I’m going to define a couple things. The most important concept I’m going to get into is the idea of being a “tinhat,” or “tinhatting.” The phrase comes from the idea that people who believed the government was spying on their thoughts or that aliens could read their minds would wear tinfoil hats on their heads to keep their brains protected. This evolved into being any person who believed in any sort of off-the-wall conspiracy theory, but in the fandom sphere, a tinhat became solely someone who believed in a secret, hidden (almost always) gay relationship between two celebrities that only they and a select few true fans knew about. This started with the Lord of the Rings.


The idea of “shipping” people and characters had been around long, long before the Lord of The Rings movies came out, but the term “tinhat” bears a special connotation – you don’t just think the two people would make a cute couple, or think it would be hot if they were, or just like reading/writing fanfiction about them. If you’re a tinhat, you really truly believe in the deepest part of your heart that they are a couple in real life. This term was coined around hardcore believers that Dominic Monaghan and Elijah Wood from Lord of the Rings were in a gay relationship that they were forced to keep hidden from the public. Their portmanteau was “Domlijah” and, though it was before my time online, relics of the Domlijah tinhats remain around the web today. Countless forum threads, blog posts, and emails shared about the way these two men behaved with each other, the forced closeting via their management companies, the hired actresses portraying their “girlfriends” are all still searchable today. Crazy, right?

The next term I’m going to get into here is the idea of a parasocial relationship. It’s a fancy word, but it basically boils down to a one-sided relationship a person has with a celebrity. It’s the feeling that a celebrity is your friend, even though you don’t know them. You feel a special connection with them, and feel like there is a mutual understanding between you. This sounds a bit crazy, but most of us have some variation of parasocial relationships with celebrities – you KNOW you don’t really know this person, but it feels like you do, and you’re fond of this person the same way you’re fond of your friends. This has been exasperated by social media – we can follow a celebrity on twitter or Instagram like we follow our friends, and see their sense of humour, personality, and life up close on a personal scale like never before. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can have some dangerous implications.

Which brings us back to Larry. In the early days of the band, the concept of Larry Stylinson was relatively harmless, albeit a bit frenzied.  Harry and Louis played into it, and why wouldn’t they have? Their fans loved it, and it was just a bit of fun between them. Surely it wasn’t about to go off the rails, right?


The problems began where most problems begin in fandom spaces – with a woman. I could get into the problem with misogyny in fandom, but that’s for a different time. What happened with One Direction is that Louis got a girlfriend. Her name is Eleanor, and she’s very nice. Harry introduced them. That’s a very sweet story. Unfortunately, it kind of throws a wrench into the whole ‘Harry and Louis are in love’ narrative the fans had been telling themselves for so long that they’d started to believe it.

Out came the theories. These were familiar theories to anyone who had followed along at home with Domlijah – Eleanor was a hired actress to make Louis look straight to the general public, and Harry and Louis were being forcibly closeted by the contract that they’d signed as a band with Modest! Management. Let’s ignore the ridiculousness of that theory and the fact that it’s illegal to forcibly closet someone via contract and dig right in.

As with most times a popular male celebrity gets a girlfriend, Eleanor was harassed immediately and practically non-stop. Tinhats phoned the university she was attending and told them one of their students was part of a homophobic coverup. Her twitter was flooded with insults. Theories floated around that she didn’t even really exist, and was a character made up by Modest! played by twin actresses. This was determined by ruthlessly analyzing and critiquing photos of her, by herself and with Louis.

i’m not making this up.

The Larry tinhats (henceforth I shall refer to them by the moniker they’ve chosen for themselves in recent years: larries) were cruel, relentless, and their numbers were in the millions. Whenever Louis, Harry, Eleanor, or any of the girls Harry would later be linked to romantically would tweet, post on Facebook, Instagram, or anywhere else, their comments would be flooded with thousands upon thousands comments of righteous anger, rallying cries of “LARRY IS REAL”, and condemnations of involvement in keeping Louis and Harry closeted.

The anger, of course, was never directed at Louis or Harry themselves – always at the women, or at the shady and vague bad guys in “management.” Louis and Harry, as the larries theorized, were fighting just as hard to be free of these shackles as the fans were for them, and communicated with them specifically in secret codes they developed. If Harry wore blue (the colour of Louis’ eyes) or Louis wore green (vice versa), it was a signal to the fans that they were right about them being together. Every tattoo they got individually was secretly a matching tattoo that told the story of their epic love story. Every time they looked at each other on stage or spoke in an interview, they were dropping a secret hint about their struggle and undying love for each other. Perhaps the most egregious was the “Rainbow Bondage Bears” – two teddy bears that the touring crew for the band would set up around the stage before concerts. One was big and one was small, so obviously they represented 5’11 Harry and 5’9 Louis, and they were wearing bondage gear, which is… obviously… a gay thing? Apparently? And they had a blue and a green sticker on them. To the larries, this was all the proof that they needed to determine these bears were being set up by Louis and Harry themselves as a way to communicate with their true fans who understood the code.

real grown ass adult people believed these two bears were speaking to them in code about superstars from the biggest band in the world.

This went on for over five years. This is actually still going on today, but I’m going to get into that in a minute. It didn’t take long for this frenzy surrounding Larry to make Louis and Harry uncomfortable. Louis consistently asked fans to stop harassing his girlfriend, often getting into heated spats on twitter, which lead to larries assuming that Louis’ twitter was actually being run by management, except for when he tweeted things they agreed with, in which case it was Louis. When friends and family of the boys, including other band members, would state publicly and empathetically that Larry was NOT real, and to please stop insisting that it was, they would receive death threats and thousands of tweets in backlash. Explicit fan art of Louis and Harry was often sent to them, their friends, and even Louis’ younger sisters (if you’re keeping track, sending porn to a minor is not only super fucked up, but illegal, so great job on that one, girls). Despite their best efforts, Larry would not go away.

only two years after the last tweet. oh, how the tables have tabled.

Louis has gone on record stating that the Larry phenomenon severely impacted his and Harry’s friendship. They began avoiding each other on stage and refusing interaction in band interviews, leading to an almost desperate outcry that they were being kept apart by management. Every time they looked in the others’ direction, it was torn apart and analyzed to shreds by crazed fans. Desperate for any sort of “proof,” larries began to theorize that Louis and Harry “disappeared together” and would assume that any day they were not photographed in separate places, they were obviously cuddled up somewhere secret together. Every single tweet was a coded message begging for release, every song was analyzed line-by-line for lyrical confessions of their tragic love, and every move they made was scrutinized to death.

I’m going to fast forward here, but it’s not because the larries got less crazy. It was more or less consistent craziness – Louis and Eleanor broke up, which caused frenzy among fans who were sure Larry were about to come out, the band split up and they all signed solo contracts with different management, causing frenzy among fans who were sure Larry were about to come out, Louis and Harry made brief and uncomfortable eye contact in an interview, which caused frenzy among fans who were sure Larry were about to come out, and so on, and so forth. But something happened in 2015 that rocked the fandom to its core, and sent the tinhat fans spiralling into a darkness from which they have still not returned.

Louis Tomlinson knocked a girl up.

whoops! uh oh! oh no! oops!

When the pregnancy was announced, it was met with an immediate insistence that the story was fake, planted to make SURE the casual audience knew Louis was straight, and there would be no baby. The mother of the baby, a girl named Briana who had been involved with Louis for only a couple of weeks, was called every name in the books – a golddigging slut, a whore, a literal porn star, a famewhore so desperate for attention she’d agree to closet poor, helpless multi-millionaire Louis Tomlinson in exchange for a bit of celebrity. Eventually, as evidenced by the picture above, a baby WAS born. His name is Freddie.

Larries were at a fever pitch. They insisted that the baby in photographs was actually a doll (let me repeat that for you: they insisted. The baby. In the photographs. Was. A. FUCKING. DOLL.  THEY BELIEVED. LOUIS TOMLINSON. WAS PUSHING AROUND. A DOLL. IN A BABY STROLLER. FOR PAPARAZZI TO TAKE PICTURES.), and that any day now Louis was going to publicly demand a paternity test, and the results would come back that he was not the father (of the baby they insisted was a doll), and in the resulting media frenzy Louis and Harry would quietly reveal that they were in love and it would all end happily ever after. This was referred to as “Babygate” and there have been and will continue to be desperate pleas for the powers that be to “end it” and “free them.”

a man’s face at a similar angle looks similar: stop the FUCKING presses, this image is photoshopped and that baby is a DOLL

Freddie is now two years old. Despite knowing, deep down, that Louis Tomlinson likely had a paternity test done well before ever announcing to the world that he was going to have a baby with esssentially a one night stand, and despite knowing that he had signed the birth certificate declaring his own paternity – oh, hold on a second. Do you know how they knew that? Because a couple of them took a six hour road trip from the midwest into California to go to the public records office and ask for a copy of the birth certificate.

Think about that. These women were full on adult women with drivers licenses and the freedom to go on road trips to California and they truly deep down believed there would be no birth certificate for a baby they believed was a doll, only to get there and be handed an actual signed copy of a birth certificate. Forging a birth certificate, by the way, is a federal offense, and even if they WERE right, the romance of finally being able to be free and come out would probably be dampened by Louis going to prison for the next fifteen years.

Anyway. Despite knowing all that, the larries have not been deterred. Louis and Eleanor are back together, and a group of fans cornered them at an airport last year and physically assaulted Eleanor out of anger, forcing Louis to physically pull them off of her. Freddie, as mentioned, is two years old, and visibly not a doll, but they insist he’s an unrelated baby actor being exploited by the fame and/or moneyhungry mother. Louis and Harry have not so much as been seen in the same room in three years, but that doesn’t matter, because fans know that they’ve “disappeared together.” Their passion and determination is almost admirable if it wasn’t so destructive – one larrie made it backstage at a 1D concert near the end of the run using the Make-A-Wish foundation (she was legitimately sick, and also a teenager, and so I have cropped her out of this photo) and strategically asked for them to pose for a photo holding hands.

faces of, i guess, unbridled passion and endless love

Okay, I hear you. “Why, Rae, have you spent almost 3000 words so far telling me about these crazy fans?” Part of the answer is I am obsessed with the absurdity of these people and am constantly astounded by the way they bend the truth to fit their own narrative, but the other part is that this kind of behaviour makes me so incredibly worried about how we as society are becoming fans of things now.

The lengths that Larries went to in order to out who they believed to be two closeted gay guys were extreme, and I didn’t even get into half of the shit they said or did in this article. If I wanted to go step by step into all the fucked up, invasive, and downright cruel behaviour they’ve exhibited over the past eight years, it would take up a hundred thousand words and all the bandwidth on the internet. Despite the boys involved explicit and desperate begging for this treatment to stop, it still goes on. Check out their most recent instagram posts – still, eight years, many girlfriends, and a whole ass baby later, a good 40-50% of the comments are relating to Larry (which is impressive, given that Louis has actually gone to the trouble of blocking the word “larry” from his comments – fans get around this by using a capital i instead of an L), and their twitter mentions are full of fans demanding that they come out and reveal the truth behind babygate.

And as insane as all this is, it’s not unusual. This is becoming what fandoms are. While Larry is notable for its size and intensity, it is nowhere close to being the only tinhatted ship out there. Fervent fans believe Benedict Cumberbatch has also been forced to fake babies with a hired wife to hide his relationship with Martin Freeman. Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are, according to some people, actually secretly married with multiple children. Taylor Swift is actually a lesbian in a relationship with model Karlie Kloss. Daniel Radcliffe & Emma Watson. Adam Lambert & Kris Allen. Tyler Posey & Dylan O’Brien. Sometimes celebrities are tinhatted as being in the closet without necessarily having another “half” to the ship – Taylor Lautner, and Shawn Mendes have been actively hounded and scrutinized for any sort of hidden clue or code about their sexuality.

a real shirt you can own for $10 that will not only allow me to, but legally obligate me to kill you on sight

Thanks to the evolution of the internet and the ease at which one can access a fan community, parasocial relationships with celebrities are at an all time high, and that is at the root of this behaviour. We want to believe that we know our favourite celebrity better than anyone, and in fact, we know them so well that they actually do know about us, and they communicate with us in secret code, and we can behave invasively and relentlessly to prove this, and it doesn’t matter what they actually tell us with their mouths because we KNOW that they love and support us.

This dehumanizes celebrities. If you believe that Louis Tomlinson has a fake girlfriend (six years and counting) and a fake child (two years and counting) and fake homes that are decoy houses and fake friends who are hired to make him look more masculine and is willing to commit felonies in order to hide his secret relationship with his ex-bandmate, then you’re really just a fan of the story you’re telling about the Louis Tomlinson you’ve basically entirely made up. He’s no longer a real person, but a prop, and that makes it easy to send him disgusting messages where you tell him you hope his son gets dropped on his head and dies. It’s easy to send his mother death threats when she posts a picture of Freddie on her instagram. It’s easy to back his girlfriend into a corner at an airport and attack her. It’s easy to take Harry Styles’ showing support for the queer community and twist it into fitting your own story with no respect for what he might really be saying about himself.

It’s easy to forget that these celebrities are people. It’s easy to forget that the way you treat these people effects other people, and it also effects yourself. I have seen larries on twitter in full-scale panic attacks when Louis’ tweeted a photo of his son, or when Harry is spotted with his girlfriend. That’s not healthy. I mean, none of this is healthy, but if you’re having a breakdown over a celebrity you’ve never met spending time with another person you’ve never met, maybe you need to take a step back from your relationship with that celebrity.

Maybe we all need to take a step back from our relationships with celebrities. While I’m obsessed with larries and constantly pour over the shit they do and say, I would love for Louis and Harry to be able to live normal lives without worrying that someone is going to threaten their children or assault their girlfriends.  I would love for people to accept Kristen Stewart’s sexuality. I would love for people to stop calling the police on Benedict Cumberbatch’s wife because they think she’s complicit in his closeting and exploiting the children hired to pretend to be theirs. That actually happened, by the way.

I would love it if we could all just be normal for once. Can we all agree, collectively, together right now, that we are going to be normal going forward? Please? For my sake?

a completely normal comment to leave on an instagram post two years after its posted

Or we can keep doing shit like that. It’s up to you.