Over the past four seasons, Lifetime's Dance Moms has rapidly become one of the most popular reality shows on television, particularly with girls under the age of 18. Nearly two million viewers tuned into last week's Season 5 premiere, which features Pittsburgh's Abby Lee Miller and a troupe of elite dancers ranging from eight to fifteen years old.
If you aren't familiar with the show, it follows Miller and her team of dancers to competitions across the country. The dancers—Maddie Ziegler, McKenzie Ziegler, Nia Frazier, and Kendall Vertes—are almost a subplot in Dance Moms, which often centers its narrative on the tension between the insufferable Miller and the dancers' equally insufferable mothers. And, unlike other reality shows where the drama is painfully staged, Dance Moms seems to have some legit real-life chaos. Just last month, a Pennsylvania judge dismissed an assault claim brought against Miller by one of her former students and Dance Moms star, Paige Hyland.
I am one of those nearly two million people that have made Dance Moms and its stars a success. I am admittedly part of the problem when we talk about the exploitative voyeurism that comes along with reality television, but I can't help it. I'm deeply sucked in. The show's dancers are incredibly talented; see Maddie Ziegler, made widely famous by Sia and now Shia Leboeuf. (Incidentally, a departed Dance Moms star recently gave a quote saying she "threw up" while watching Maddie in the video.) And while the drama that comes from the show's bossy coach and high-strung moms is entertaining—and certainly emphasized by the show's producers—most Dance Moms viewers are watching because they love the dancers.
Or so I thought. Then I uncovered the strange Instagram world dedicated to the show's barely pubescent stars, and realized that maybe "love" isn't the best way to describe it. "Obsession" is more accurate, and in fact, love barely seems present in the way that, over social media, millions of girls across the globe have carved out a fairly scary niche where they can share photos, chat, fight over, and tell stories about the group of young dancers that they see on their television screens every week.
Teenage girls are, of course, gloriously unhinged when it comes to their favorite celebrities. They always have been. They crowded stadiums and fainted when the Beatles played, and wrote love letters to themselves from Leonardo DiCaprio in notebooks plastered with BOP! cutouts of Andrew Keegan, J.T.T. and Jared Leto's faces. It would be a lie to say that I never scribbled "Mrs. Jonathan Taylor Thomas" in a super-secret notebook. But while the instinct behind this obsession is the same, the degree and type of interactions young fans can have with young celebrities today is undeniably different, and the results can be beyond the pale.
A major factor in young girls' obsession with their favorite celebrities is accessibility, or the illusion of it. I remember in the back of those BOP! and Teen Beat magazines, there were always addresses to mailboxes where you could send letters "directly" to your favorite celebrities. (And I sent them. Did you get all those letters, J.T.T.? LMK.) Still, prior to the Internet, you were unlikely to ever actually pop up in the line of sight of a celebrity unless you ran into them in Hollywood on vacation or something.
But now, the line that that separates young celebrities and their fans online is much thinner. To begin with, the difference between the two categories can be hard to distinguish from an outsider point of view: social media is cluttered with thousands of fake accounts in the girls' names. Some are obvious "tribute" accounts, where the account owner constantly professes their love for the show or a particular star, but sometimes those tribute accounts look no different than the real stars' accounts. There are also plenty of accounts that are clearly pretending to be Maddie or Nia or Kendall, or even girls and boys who just guest-starred or appeared in a short story arc.
And the truly enterprising Dance Moms fans, those with a little bit of technological skill, can obtain unprecedented access to their targets with just a few clicks. Many of these girls—and they all seem to be girls—are impressively good at the Internet. They're able to activate Instagram follower bots and spam hundreds of accounts with comments. They Photoshop images of the girls with ease and generally get up to things that even reasonably-skilled adults might have trouble accomplishing or even understanding.
Which means that as their popularity has risen, intrusions on the Dance Moms stars' privacy have exploded. The girls' Instagram accounts are regularly hacked. On YouTube, there are dozens of videos featuring young girls who claim to have Maddie Ziegler or former show star Chloe Lukasiak's real phone number.
And thousands of comments on Instagram claim to have the girls' private phone numbers, email addresses, and FaceTime information. According to Dance Moms fandom lore, Maddie Ziegler isn't even allowed to open the front door of her home without a grown-up anymore.
The fandom accounts interact constantly, promising "facts" or "secrets" about the Dance Moms girls in exchange for followers on Instagram. Many of these "facts" are mundane, like McKenzie's astrological sign or Nia's preference in sour straws, but others are intimate and personal. One account, username maddiezieglerpregnant, gained 1,500 followers in just a few hours by promising "posted proof" that 12-year old Maddie Ziegler is pregnant. The mundane facts may, of course, be equally untrue.
Other accounts have offered to release "sex tapes" featuring the girls, dressing room photos, and private SnapChats. There are others that offer to put users "in a DM" (whatever the hell that means) with one of the stars so they can talk in real time. Mostly, though, the comments maniacally promise to trade gossip about the girls in exchange for social capital, with all-caps headlines like "FOLLOW SO I CAN TELL U WHAT KENZIE SAID THAT MADE NIA CRY."
None of these girls actually know the Dance Moms stars. They just really, really want to be friends with them. Or else they just really, really want to be noticed. Or else they just really, really want to dangle the made-up "account password" for a fellow tween in exchange for a few followers.
It is both less and more creepy that most of these accounts seem to be run by real, actual teen and tween girls. If you glance at their profiles, you'll find their Dance Moms love right alongside swooning over One Direction, selfies with their friends, and cat photos. There are undoubtedly some spam-bot accounts, but for the most part, the content seems to be generated by human beings who haven't quite made it to high school English class yet; girls at a notoriously tough age, one at which you're socialized into a world of expectations about being a girl and a woman without necessarily understanding what these expectations mean.
The character of their fandom has been determined by their particular moment. These girls have grown up at a time when many of their favorite celebrities have had their nude photos leaked. Sexting is increasingly common (a recent Drexel study found that over half of their survey sample reporting that they'd sent explicit texts as minors). The idea of trafficking in leaked or explicit photos of their peers is, probably, to these young people, somewhat less of a big deal. Trolling and catfishing are part of the wide cultural vocabulary, and making up lies on the Internet seems (and is) less consequential than lying in real life, especially when these lies are as seemingly harmless as a fake fight between two reality TV stars or an obviously-doctored photo of a pregnant 12-year old girl.
I don't want to sound like a fuddy-duddy talking about "kids these days." "Kids these days" are probably the same as kids any other days. But what's different is the type of behavior that's being rewarded, and how. Assuming a fake identity and pretending you have a tween's sex tape gets you followers. "Leaking" Photoshopped images of a pregnant 12-year-old gets you even more. There are regular "contests" within the Dance Moms fandom for "free" Instagram accounts that already have tens of thousands of followers. All you have to do to enter is: spam lies about the stars on their official accounts, fan pages, and your own social media.
The Dance Moms girls don't have to react to any of this unless they're actually hacked—and a few of the widely shared "Dance Moms Facts" on Instagram revolve around the short amount of time that the show's stars are actually allowed to spend on Instagram. With the acknowledgment that the tween stars they're idolizing will probably never notice them comes an increased aggression: the comments get more outrageous, the facts get faker. What emerges is this weird blend of fandom, trolling, and a never-ending desperation for online attention, whether it's from famous kids or their peers caught in the same fandom web.
And the saddest aspect of all may be the futility of it. The stars of Dance Moms—who, before they fully hit puberty, have had to deal with strangers threatening to "leak their nudes"—almost never respond to unsolicited Instagram comments or tweets from their fans. They are in actual physical contact only at scheduled Q&A events and occasional contests. They reward only the fans that will plunk down money (upwards of $50, often) for a ticket to be in their presence. Online currency won't pay for their attention. The follower-trolling, fake secrets and "leaks" are never going to be enough.
Amy McCarthy is a writer living in Dallas, Texas. She enjoys lipstick, cooking, and fighting with celebrities on Twitter.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.