My Life, On Screen

Illustration by Sara Wong

I am not a fangirl. I may have camped out in Central Park once to see the Backstreet Boys perform for Good Morning America. I may have started my own BSB email newsletter and fan site in the sixth grade. I may have spent $3,000 on a BSB cruise and written about it publicly. And I’m a lot of things—the black sheep of my family, a decently successful professional who struggles with adult relationships, a cultural and political Muslim who fasts one day out of thirty, a friend who is great in person but terrible at staying in touch, a media junkie who is always talking about the podcast I want to start but never starting it. But fangirl? Nope. Not my tribe. 

So when, in 2013, I was contacted by Jessica Leski, an Australian filmmaker who wanted to talk to me for a possible documentary about boyband fangirls, I balked. For one thing, I had never been interviewed before. (I’ve always preferred to poke at other people’s business or to control my narrative with my own writing.) More to the point: Even if I was cool with being interviewed, did I really want it to be for this? That week also just so happened to be my first at a fancy new tech job in San Francisco. I wasn’t sure I wanted to out myself to my colleagues. Then Leski asked if I would be interested in flying down to Los Angeles for a night—all expenses paid. Sure, I thought. I decided it would be fun and harmless, a few hours in sunny LA talking to a stranger with a camera. The conversation would probably go nowhere. 

In a previous life, I had been a reporter for a regional newspaper in North Carolina. So when I sat down with Leski, I thought I knew what I was doing. As an interviewer, I’d known how to share just enough about myself to get sources to feel comfortable and share even more about themselves with me. Give to get. Now that I was a source, I told myself to stay dispassionate. Don’t say anything that might be edited later to make you sound stupid. You’re on camera, so wear Spanx.

But no one had ever asked about the BSB part of my life before. I’d loved them since I was 11, and I’d never really talked to anyone about it. Aside from the one essay I’d written about the cruise, I had kept my fandom to myself and rarely looked at it up close. 

In the interview, I unraveled. When Leski asked how being a fan helped me through hard times, I could think only of a major depressive episode I’d had in college, during which I attempted suicide. In the moment, on the spot, I made the connection that the Backstreet Boys had often served as an antidote to the down moments of my life. “The Backstreet Boys are like mac and cheese,” I told her. “They’re my comfort food.” (What happened to not saying anything stupid?)

We also talked trivia, including the fact that Nick Carter—once my favorite among the Boys—is an Aquarius from Tampa who loves being by the water. Offhandedly, I shared a childhood fantasy: Nick teaching me how to swim. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

At the end of the conversation, Leski told me to put on a pair of headphones and listen to my favorite two BSB songs: one that was upbeat, and one ballad. Then she walked out of the room, leaving the camera to record. “Oh, no,” I thought. I knew this was a ploy to get me to express emotion. I did as instructed, but I refused to lose myself on camera. I did not shed a tear. At least, not at first. 

 

During the third year of filming I realized I was a subject. Jessica, as I now called her, visited me while I was at my parents’ house during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims. She somehow got my family on camera to offer their takes on my fandom. She filmed me visiting my high school. She had already filmed me at my job, with my friends, in my San Francisco studio. It seemed like a lot of footage for a movie in which I was just one of many participants.

I started to ask questions of Jessica. How many fangirls would be in the film? (Four or five.) Are you interviewing psychologists or boyband members? (No.) Where would this be shown? (Not sure.)

My mom was concerned. I was nearing 30 and had agreed to let her set me up for an arranged marriage, since my own efforts were so clearly failing. The mother of a prospect had called her and asked about my Backstreet Boys obsession. The family had Googled me and found my BSB cruise article. My mom didn’t know what to say. They never contacted us again. My mom said to me: “Are you sure this movie is a good idea? Do you trust the director? What if they’re going to make fun of you? What if a guy finds this?” I asked Jessica and Rita Walsh, the producer, not to include my last name, saying I wanted to preserve the sanctity of my search results. (They obliged.)

At the same time, I kept sharing. On each filming trip, a few days at a time, Jess, as I now called her, would tell me about her life, including the unexpected love she’d found for One Direction at the age of 31, which is what started her on the project. We weren’t friends, exactly, but I liked her. She asked me questions that no one had ever asked. She asked me things that forced me to look at myself. 

Given the nature of the music (95 percent love songs), it was nearly impossible not to talk about my own love life. I told Jess about my bad dates, my unhealthy patterns with unavailable men, my growing loneliness. “Are there any Backstreet Boys lyrics that resonate with you as an adult?” she asked. “Hmm,” I thought. Then I quoted one: “I don’t care who you are / Where you’re from / What you did / As long as you love me.” As I get older, I just want to love and be loved. I care less and less about people’s pasts. I’ve been hearing “As Long as You Love Me” for more than 20 years, I told Jess, and somehow I’m just now hearing it differently. (What happened to not saying anything stupid?)

I saw things I’d forgotten I had said. In an early scene was an animated illustration of my fantasy swim lessons with Nick Carter.

This movie couldn’t possibly come out after I turned 30, could it? Jess and Rita saw me getting anxious. They tried to reassure me, telling me how all the footage made me sound thoughtful. After each shoot, we’d lose touch for months and months; the team would run out of funding and I’d forget about the project. Then they’d appear again, pumping me up, marveling at what they’d seen in the editing bay—how their team struggled to cut all my clever sound bites. 

If there’s trust, there’s more vulnerability, and that will always make for a better story. I knew that. And I trusted Jess. In 2017, after four years, she filmed me for a final time. I had just started taking swim lessons, and she wanted to watch.

 

I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story premiered at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival in April 2018, five years after I was first interviewed. I was one of four subjects. I attended, along with two of the other fangirls, for a walk down the red carpet. Before we stepped out, Jess and Rita sat us down to give us a pep talk. They acknowledged that it would be weird to see ourselves on the big screen, that we might not always like what we were going to see, and that it might be difficult to watch our story arc’s “low” moment. As they spoke, my heart sank. What were they talking about? I had the same job and life the whole time we filmed—what was my low? Was this a warning for me? Or for all of us?

When the lights went down in the (inexplicably) packed theater, I saw myself. Heard myself. My chubby face; my weird, Invisalign-addled speech patterns. My accidental cleavage when I bent over to open a box of memorabilia that included a 300-piece BSB jigsaw puzzle. “My mom will not be happy,” I thought.

I saw things I’d forgotten I had said. In an early scene was an animated illustration of my fantasy swim lessons with Nick Carter. In another scene, I discussed my low, my collegiate suicide attempt. 

But here’s the thing: I loved it. I loved hearing the other women’s stories. The movie was clearly about way more than just boybands. Also nice: people in the audience laughed at my jokes!

Later, I brought family and friends to see the film when it played in New York. One said, “This movie filled in some gaps of my understanding of you.” I realized that was true for me, too. Jess was able to see things I couldn’t see about myself. Like how the Backstreet Boys represent unattainable fantasy—and how, in my twenties, that related to a pattern of falling for unattainable men. I’d never made that connection before.

In the weeks that followed, I read reviews. There’s nothing quite like reading about yourself in a review of a movie that’s 25 percent about you. You know the writer is reviewing the film, but it feels like they’re actually reviewing you. When a reviewer said that my story resonated, it felt as though she was saying that she liked me. When a reviewer barely mentioned me, I wondered why he didn’t like me more. One reviewer argued that the filmmakers were making fun of fangirls. I wondered if that could be true. Had I been used?

There’s a lot of suspicion aimed at journalists these days. Despite having once been a reporter, I’ve sometimes found my esteem for the industry flagging. When I became a subject, the documentary reduced the complexity of my life to a single narrative, yes. But I believe that Jess had no idea what story she was going to tell when she started filming. She went in with an open mind, asked thoughtful questions, built trust, edited and re-edited. In the end, I’m glad to have had a part of my life captured. The movie is a true portrait of me. It’s just not all of me.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Sadia Latifi is a writer based in San Francisco. She leads writing and content strategy for Airbnb Experiences. A long time ago, she was a reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh.