The Fascinating, Unexpected Super Fans of Twilight, My Little Pony, 2001 A Space Odyssey and More

How unintended audiences became millions of obsessed fan boys and girls.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Antigoni Goni

There’s no accounting for taste. Sometimes, just when you think you’ve got a demographic all figured out, it turns out you missed something. (We’re all marketers here, right? Great.) That’s happened lots of times with forms of popular media. A television show, performer or film is aimed at a group that is expected to love it, and it misses by a mile. Or a bit more rarely, it hits its target, but goes far beyond, drawing in a completely unexpected audience. Maybe you’re trying to get the attention of tweens but you suddenly have a bunch of superfan moms on your hands. Or you’re hoping to get toddlers to notice your product but somehow you also attracted college students. The more the merrier, right? Most of the time this works out pretty well. Sometimes not, but we’ll get to that later.

Here’s a list of seven cultural phenomena and the unexpected audiences they garnered.

1. Twilight and Moms.

For what felt like a long while there, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a sexy teenage vampire, or if your aim was just slightly off, a passably sexy teenage werewolf. The Twilight books and films, featuring a brooding vampire and a 17-year-old girl in a story of repressed teen sexuality in the lineage of Splendor in the Grass, had a fanbase predictably composed mostly of adolescent girls. But there were also an astounding number of adult women—many of them mothers, hence the nickname Twimoms—who got really into it, too. More than one estimate found that, of the almost entirely female Twilight fanbase, more than 40 percent were women 20-25 and much older. Facebook fan pages were made, trend articles were written, confessional pieces were penned, books were published, etc., etc. The stars of the movies even commented on the phenomenon, with Robert Pattinson saying, “The older ones are the far more passionate fans." Taylor Lautner, who recounted the story of a Twimom trying to get him to sign her Team Taylor panties, described Twimoms as “very dangerous.”

2. Morrissey and Mexican-American Fans.

The longstanding popular image of the archetypal Smiths/Morrissey fan is a sad-faced mope who, while possibly involved in other diverse activities (art, record collecting, self-absorption, the poetry of Sylvia Plath), is pretty much always white. That wasn’t actually true, though; for years, Morrissey had a huge Mexican and Mexican-American fan base with its ground zero in East Los Angeles. In 2002 Chuck Klosterman did a piece for Spin titled “¡Viva Morrissey!” focused on Moz’s most ardent fans who also happened to be Hispanic, leading to other articles in outlets from the Economist to the Washington Post.

Morrissey, for his part, is definitely aware of his Mexican fans and has made some acknowledgments over the years. Gustavo Arellano of OC Weekly wrote about the singer’s 1999 “¡Oye Esteban!” tour, which featured the crooner “wearing T-shirts and belt buckles emblazoned with ‘Mexico’ and at times even the Virgen de Guadalupe” and noted that at one performance he announced, “I wish I was born Mexican, but it's too late for that now." (Arellano says those surprised by Morrissey’s Mexican fan base are “morons, and racist morons, at that.”) In 2004, Morrissey, who has said some unmistakably racist and xenophobic stuff over the years, released the LP You Are The Quarry, which included the track “Mexico.” The song features the lyrics, “It seems if you're rich and you're white/You'll be all right/I just don't see why this should be so.” A short documentary, also called ¡Viva Morrissey! explores the East L.A. scene of Morrissey worship.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Hippies.

Stanley Kubrick’s nearly three-hour epic 1968 movie is universally heralded as a groundbreaking cinematic masterpiece today, but at the time of its release, a lot of critics were befuddled, or worse, straight-up bored. Pauline Kael of the New Yorker called 2001 a “monumentally unimaginative movie,” and that’s one of the least stinging barbs in her scathing review. (Tell us how you really feel, Pauline.) The New Republic called it “dull,” Newsday dubbed it “confusing” and the New York Times said it was “[s]omewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.” At the Los Angeles premiere, 241 people reportedly walked out, among them Rock Hudson, who complained, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” as Roger Ebert later recalled. As the film flailed in its initial weeks of release, MGM, which had sunk nearly $12 million into the movie, more than any MGM release until that point, was petrified the movie would tank.

Enter Mike Kaplan, the self-described “resident longhair in the publicity department of MGM,” who was drafted to turn things around. Kaplan, who wrote a lovely recollection of this story for the Guardian in 2007, had friends who had already gone to see the film multiple times, some while “nicely stoned.” Meanwhile, theater owners were reporting heavy youth turnout, with some kids definitely turning up high as kites. Kaplan changed the marketing direction (today it’s called rebranding), creating a new poster that paired the tagline “The Ultimate Trip” with trippy “Starchild” imagery from the film. 2001 ultimately topped the box office for weeks, earned multiple award nominations including several Oscar nods and one win, and became one of the most influential and recognized films in history. Good job, dope-smoking hippies!

 4. The Wiggles and Moms.

In the world of children’s music, the Wiggles are both the Beatles and the Stones. The band, whose hits include Hot Potato and Yummy Yummy, reportedly made $45 million at its peak in 2004, outranking AC/DC as Australia’s top band. (More recently it's brought in closer to $17 million, which, you know, just move to Skid Row, already.) Also, did I mention the ladies apparently love them? In 1999, Anthony Field (the one with the tattoos wearing nothing but short shorts here) won Bachelor of the Year in Australia’s Cleo magazine. Ten years later, describing some particularly aggressive Wiggleheads (the band's adult female fans), Field mentioned a woman who mailed him “a piece of a puzzle, once a week, which was parts of her body that would turn into a nude photo of herself” and another woman who camped out in the lobby of their hotel. One Australian outlet wrote during the Wiggles' height of fame:

“Desperate housewives in the US have besieged the Wiggles with sexually suggestive letters and comments...Insiders from internet chat rooms on sites including AOL have reported a number of adult women becoming so physically suggestive about the Wiggles, they need to be chastised by website moderators. (Some of the statements from female fans were so sexual, we can't actually reprint them in) The Wiggles' Australian spokeswoman, Dianna O'Neill, said the Wiggles had no comment about the attention of female fans.”

Scandalous! The whole thing even earned a mocking plotline featuring a band called the Woggles on a 2012 episode of 30 Rock. More recently, after undergoing a few lineup changes, including the addition of a woman named Emma Watkins to the band, two of the Wiggles announced they had fallen in love.

5. My Little Pony and Adult Males.

You may have heard of bronies, the loud and proud fanbase of men who love "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic." (Bro + Ponies = Bronies.) The group grew out of 4chan’s /b/ board but has since taken on a life and visibility of its own, and supposedly numbers between 7 and 12 million. Bronies have a pretty healthy web presence, and an annual Bronycon convention is now in its seventh year, featuring mostly—though not exclusively—male bronies engaging in cosplay and just generally showing love for their personal favorite characters. Though plenty of bronies are into "My Little Pony" because of how lovely the show is, others have futzed with the original wide-eyed innocence of the pony culture and created something that is decidedly more sexed-up. 

In a Baltimore City Paper piece from last year titled “The Problem with Bronies: A Look At the Corruption of 'My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,'" Gianna DeCarlo bemoaned the “usurping of a safe space for young girls and distorting it into a hypersexual and toxic environment.” She cites “pony porn” and clopping (that’s bronyspeak for, um, pleasuring yourself) as proof that some sectors of bronyism have gone off the rails. Presumably, we’ll learn more about this sort of thing at the conclusion of The Brony Study, an actual research project on bronies.

6. Lionel Richie and the Middle East.  

Like Jerry Lewis in France or Kevin James in Germany (I had no idea either), Lionel Richie is mega famous in the Middle East. According to a few sources, including Richie himself, when Americans arrived in Baghdad in 2003, Iraqis were blaring “Dancing on the Ceiling” in the streets. Former ABC News correspondent John Berman wrote in a 2006 article that one of the most salient lessons he learned over the course of nine trips to Iraq is that Iraqis love Lionel Richie. “I have seen bombs and blood, I have seen rebuilding and restructuring, and I have seen death and democracy. So what have I heard? That's easy: Lionel Richie,” Berman writes. “Grown Iraqi men get misty-eyed by the mere mention of his name. ‘I love Lionel Richie,’ they say. Iraqis who do not understand a word of English can sing an entire Lionel Richie song.”

That adoration has been a pretty good moneymaker for Richie, who was paid $250,000 by the Sultan of Brunei’s son for a single performance. Richie also appeared at a concert in Tripoli in 2006 along with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. “The Sunnis and the Shi'ites can't agree on anything, but they're all getting married and partying to my songs,” Richie told the Guardian in 2012. “When the war in Iraq broke out, shopkeepers in Baghdad wanted to let the Americans know they were welcoming them in, so they played ‘All Night Long’ and the Iraqi battle song was ‘Dancing on the Ceiling.’ Go figure.”

7. Teletubbies.

Technicolor landscapes of rolling, grassy hills and flower patches; free-roaming bunny rabbits and invisible tweeting birds; a sun with an animated baby face in the middle; and four roly-poly, primary colored aliens who babble and giggle and have functioning television screens embedded in their bellies. These visions hold the attention of two distinct types of people: babies, and people who are super-duper high. That explains why Teletubbies, already a hit with toddlers in the late 1990s and early aughts, also caught on with college students, stoners and people tripping balls. They may not have been the target audience, but they quickly made their love for the show known. Despite their differences, both babies and stoners were perfectly happy with this setup, and the only person who seems to have had any problem with the Teletubbies was the late Jerry Falwell. In 1999, the Rev. complained that Tinky-Winky—who is purple, with a triangular antenna and a red handbag—was ''modeling the gay lifestyle.'' Kenn Viselman, president of Itsy-Bitsy Entertainent, Co., which licensed the children’s show, calmly responded, "He's not gay. He's not straight. He's just a character in a children's series."

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Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.