Netflix’s wholesome teen romance Heartstopper rocketed to fame as a rare oasis for positive LGBTQ+ representation. But it’s no secret now that the online fandom surrounding the series has not always matched this positivity, casting intense scrutiny over the private lives of the show’s stars. Now, Joe Locke (Charlie) and Kit Connor (Nick) have opened up about their experience with the dark side of the fandom in a new.
While both had been acting from a young age, neither were prepared for the kind of mainstream success they achieved with Heartstopper. In a recent joint interview for GQ‘s Men of the Year issue, Connor reflected on the expectations of sudden fame, saying it was “like you’ve just got your licence and you’re suddenly asked to be a getaway driver. There are certain things that you’re asked and expected to do, but you feel so unbelievably unequipped.”
But given that Connor had already been appearing on TV for years, he was somewhat prepared for what was to come. Locke had mostly been involved in local theater before being thrust into international stardom. “It was a big change for me,” said Connor. “But for Joe it was literally night and day. It was two very different lives he was living.”
Locke recalled that he went “from 100,000 Instagram followers to 3 million in a week. I realized, Yeah, this is never going to be normal again.”
Social media was where the pressures of fame reached a boiling point. For Connor, his Twitter mentions were a constant source of bullying. Before he had publicly labeled his sexuality, he faced regular accusations of “queerbaiting” from so-called fans. “Queerbaiting” is a term largely applied to media that courts LGBTQ+ audiences by hinting that a character might be queer without ever committing to that storyline. It does not apply to real-life 18-year-olds navigating their identity.
In the face of all of this, Connor quit Twitter months ago. “Social media is not a window into my soul at all… so [it] was the best decision of my life,” he told GQ. “In many ways it’s great, but as someone who’s in the public eye, if you look for people saying bad stuff about you, you’ll find it.”
Ultimately, he found it difficult to tune out the noise. “You want to know what people are saying. Everyone wants to be liked, which is slightly heartbreaking when you’re in the position of someone like me or Joe.”
back for a minute. i’m bi. congrats for forcing an 18 year old to out himself. i think some of you missed the point of the show. bye
— Kit Connor (@kit_connor) October 31, 2022
Last week, Connor temporarily rejoined Twitter to come out as bi. Addressing the trolls, he wrote, “Congrats for forcing an 18 year old to out himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show.”
Locke has faced similar speculation over his dating life from tabloids. “The idea of a tabloid being interested in a teenager’s love life is really gross,” he said. “Someone making money out of rumours about who I – an 18-year-old boy – might be liking or talking to, it’s really gross and perverted. I’m 18… I don’t know who I am yet.”
In spite of all this, the show will continue to give queer audiences reasons to be hopeful as the characters rise to new challenges. Season 2 is set to tackle the aftermath of Nick’s coming out along with Charlie’s struggle with mental health and body insecurity. Locke commented on his own experience with body-image issues. “I feel like everyone sees weaknesses and problems in their own bodies. [For me], they’ve been heightened in the last year because more people are seeing my face and seeing the things that I hate about myself,” he said.
In particular, Locke used to be self-conscious about his ears. “I tried to convince my mum to get them pinned back. But I remember one day my friend [held them back] and was like, ‘Do you really want to look like that?’” he recalled. “Now I really like my ears. I think they’re a defining feature of me.”