Somewhere on the brief walk from the Macon Mall's Spencer Gifts to rue21, a bright discount store glittering with pageant-level tackiness but no pretensions of refinement, somebody farted. Loudly. It was in the potential earshot of the staring kiosk workers in the Georgia mall, the mass of people who were trailing the nine of us, and even the paparazzi 20 yards ahead.
If they'd heard, that last group was likely used to it. They have their cameras trained on every public move of the Thompson-Shannons, the family profiled on TLC's controversial Here Comes Honey Boo Boo for the past two months. The show's first season finale airs tonight.
I didn't see the paparazzi laughing, though, so maybe the fart just sounded mortifyingly loud to me, or maybe they didn't think it was as funny as the rest of the group did. The resulting laughter was an even louder comotion. This was the eight-person parade I tagged along with for the day: 33-year-old "Mama" June Shannon; 17-year-old Anna aka "Chickadee;" 15-year-old Jessica aka "Chubbs;" 12-year-old Lauryn aka "Pumpkin;" and 7-year-old Alana aka "Honey Boo Boo" (though no one ever actually calls her that), plus their two security guards and their TLC publicist. They all cackled about the fart for the duration of the time we spent in the off-brand store, searching for accessories for Anna and Jessica's upcoming high school Spirit Week.
June was eventually outed as the culprit. She explained to me that they were having a contest to see who can fart the loudest, which basically summed up what they've been doing in pop culture for the past two months. This is the reality of the reality show about people whose realness was so palpable, so pungent, it offended the nation.
Not to be outshined, Alana sat in rue21's shoe department, looked up from the bracelet made up of silver-dollar-sized plastic gems on elastic that she was coveting, and asked me, "Ew, you smell it? I did it that time." Alana is the show's ostensible star (her appearance on Toddlers & Tiaras led to the spin-off and her hyperactive mugging and campy sassing gave the show its title). She is a diva fit for the job — her sense of humor and smell confirmed it. Her mother's emphasis on Alana's agency and independence allowed for it.
For example, when anyone asked for a picture with Alana that day — and dozens of people did — June left the decision up to her daughter, and Alana usually declined. Before the mall, we fueled our gas tanks at the restaurant Cheddar's. We sat at a large table in the middle of the chain's dining room, seemingly out to court attention, though the management assured us that this was the only place that could fit our group of nine. Later in the day, after several more people had approached her her, I asked Alana what she thought about all the attention. She just shrugged.
In Cheddar's there was such a demand for the pictures Alana was refusing to pose for that June had Pumpkin (everyone calls her that) go out to the car to retrieve a bunch of Alana's 8-by-10 glamour shots, which the child then signed for people after she had them write their names on pieces of paper. In practice, it really wasn't very different from normal kid behavior: instead of scrawling with crayon on a children's menu, Alana scrawled with a sharpie on pictures of herself to occupy her time. It was similar to the way that Alana goes to the bathroom accompanied, just like any 7-year-old would do — except Alana and whatever sister takes her are usually walked there by a bodyguard. It's just an incremental life alteration that could seem like not much at all if you're experiencing it, but it is utterly surreal to observe.
In electing to autograph instead of pose for pictures, the family kept their fans at bay, controlling the attention directed at them. (June did, though, successfully encourage Alana to pose for actual pictures with what I concluded were special cases: babies, elderly people and a little person who approached in the clothing store Justice.) The interested made their requests and were sent away, to be delivered their autograph when Alana was ready to deliver it.
At one point, after visiting the bathroom, Alana decided she wanted Pumpkin's seat, which was vacant because Pumpkin had just taken her sister to the bathroom. "I wanna sit right here!" Alana shouted. Pumpkin moved over to the next seat without flinching. Later I asked Pumpkin why she didn't react in the way the usual 12-year-old who'd been just displaced by her much younger sister would (screaming and fighting, in my personal experience), she told me, "Because we were in public, and I didn't really care."
The family is aware of the attention they receive, though they are selective in how it dictates their behavior. While we waited for our food and then ate, the family was not exactly quiet – One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful" prompted a sister sing-along – but they were polite, in the way that people who loudly fart and accuse each other of doing so can be polite. Both Alana and Pumpkin bit into mozzarella sticks and pulled the cheese so that it stretched from their mouths to as far as their right arms would go. The only time I saw June reprimand Alana, whose "Mama! Mama! Mama!"s scored our lunch, was when she was singing loudly while twirling her knife: "People are looking! Stop-stop-stop," pleaded June.
It strikes me that the Thompson-Shannons have the perfect level of fame, if we are considering fame to be an ideal. The attention that they get is steady and manageable – a stream and not a flood. They can go out in public, do what they need to, and they have the added bonus of people approaching them with praise and requests for pictures. The interactions slow them down considerably (our visit to three or four stores took over two hours), but none of them seemed to be in a hurry, anyway. I got the feeling that if they weren't at the mall, they'd all be sitting around somewhere anyway, undoubtedly having fun while not doing much, just as they routinely do on their show. I asked Jessica (I couldn't call her "Chubs") if they're ever not having fun. "No," she said.
"I like meeting new people. We like socializing," June told me.
That's understandable. The kindness with which they are regarded IRL is a sharp contrast to how anonymous people on the Internet have treated them (to summarize it roughly, with condescending venom that sometimes attributes this family being on TV to a sign of the impending apocalypse). It's common wisdom that on the Internet, people are less likely to openly respond to something they enjoy, and the opposite is probably true in real life: those who are not amused by this family are probably inclined to avoid them. Aside from a past incident in Walmart, in which a woman's ardent shadowing prompted June to summon security, and one time at a meet-and-greet when a little boy ripped up a headshot that Alana had just signed in full view of the family, the Thompson-Shannons can think of no other negative interactions they've had with strangers, face-to-face. I witnessed about 30 of these exchanges that day, and all 30 were with people who appeared to be merely tickled by the presence of this family. The Thompson-Shannons incite glee, like the novelty of an extremely adorable pack of dogs.
Alana's the only one who shows signs of wariness over the attention, which makes sense since she receives most of it. When we entered Cheddar's, the family set off gasping and whispers as soon as they entered. As we waited for our table to be prepared, a mother encouraged her toddler to walk over and say hi. The peanut of a child hovered around Alana, excitedly hesitating, as if Alana was a mall Easter Bunny. More and more eyes turned toward the 7-year-old, the din grew. Alana sighed, and lay down on the waiting bench.
At the table, I sat next to June, and before she'd received her meal of a loaded baked potato, corn, and steak (which she decided midway through was too peppery for her delicate taste buds), I talked to her about her show and, by extension, her family. I pointed out the foremost way that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo deviates from the reality TV genre: it is a domestic show that runs on its stars' ability to get along, as opposed to the fighting that defines so much of the medium. June told me that she was familiar with reality TV before appearing on it, but she didn't seem to have many theories regarding it, or how its tropes did and didn't apply to her family.
On the way into the restaurant, June had remarked that her family is "like the biggest thing to hit pop culture right now," but she hadn't even watched Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer impersonate her and Alana on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update. That being satirized on SNL signified another benchmark in the family's increasing profile was news to her. "We've been on the top charts for weeks. Is anything new?" was all she said about it.
During my time as a blogger for VH1.com from 2006 until last year, I talked to hundreds of people who appeared on reality TV, but none of them seemed less fazed by it than this family. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo debuted with fewer than two million viewers in August and leapt up to three million a few weeks later, where it has been hovering around since. It's a perpetual source of tabloid, blog and mainstream media chatter: Jimmy Kimmel joked about it to a room full of people on much higher brow TV during the Emmys. June says that she largely avoids the Internet (really, she says she avoids "the negativity," treating it like a synonym for the Internet), but that she sees what people post on her Facebook page.
It would be misleading to say that she is determined to keep her family from being changed by fame; she doesn't even acknowledge it as a possibility. She's refused to sign on a manager for fear of booking gigs that will take her away from her kids. She assures me that they know where they came from, probably because they're still there. She won't discuss in specifics how much money her family has received from the show, but they have put some of the payment towards a new car and a four-wheeler. The rest, she says, has been put into trust funds for each of her daughters, so that they'll have something to show from what she refers repeatedly refers to as an "adventurous ride." Otherwise, they still live paycheck to paycheck on Sugar Bear's chalk mining salary. (Sugar Bear, Mike Thompson, is Alana's father and the rest of the girls' father figure – he didn't attend our outing because he had hurt his leg in a four-wheeler accident and was in a Macon hospital.)
"Reality TV don't last more than three years," June said. "People have a good run for about three years. Some people fizzle out within a couple of weeks. We've had about 10 weeks and if it stays for the next three years, great."
Treating fame like a bonus, and not a goal, seems to cut out a lot of June's potential stress. She didn't freak out, for example, when Alana's frequent interruptions and face-making derailed their interview a few weeks ago on the season premiere of Anderson Live.
"That was Alana being Alana," June says now.
Just being has done well for this family. Of course, even at its rawest, reality TV is orchestrated and edited – very few people, with the exception of maybe Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, get away with merely existing and not getting any direction from production. Still, June says that such interference is minimal in their case: when the show wanted to portray a family dinner, they asked June what she would make. The result was a televised how-to on the butter-and-ketchup sauce over pasta meal that the family refers to as "sketti." When Sugar Bear wanted to take the family out to eat, the producers asked for a list of restaurants that the family frequents and chose from that list. Pumpkin says that the game "Whose Breath," in which each family member was blindfolded and forced to guess who was breathing into his or her nose, was suggested by a producer, but only after she'd been joking about the concept.
"Our life isn't scripted like other reality shows," said June. "Yeah, there are some things we've done that we wouldn't normally do, like, that day, but it's pretty much our lives. Honestly."
This summer, the show shot Wednesday through Sunday, about eight hours a day. When school started in August, filming would begin after the girls returned home. Should the show be picked up for a second season, which seems likely given its profile, it will continue to film that way. I asked Anna (she hates to be called "Chickadee") and Jessica if that felt overwhelming and they said it didn't – they claim that that filming doesn't feel like work at all.
June said that she's yet to be made by production to do anything that feels unnatural. Later in the mall, Jessica told me that she wasn't used to saying lines. I wondered what kind of lines she was being made to say, but she explained that she was referring to pickups – a usual occurrence in reality production when participants are made to repeat things they'd said that were garbled or not said "in a good tone."
That is not to say that the family has been able to control everything, like the airing of their dirty laundry. Just this week, the National Enquirer ran an item about June attempting to give Anna up for adoption before Anna landed in June's mother's house (June, 32, was 15 when she had Anna). Anna confirmed to me that her grandmother "basically" raised her and she did, in fact, move back home from her grandmother's for the sake of the show. The onslaught of gossip about her family has made June wary of press. Initially, she was wary to even participate in this interview. She also told me of "security issues" at their house that she wouldn't specify, but she said weren't dangerous enough to make her reconsider the show.
"The network took care of it before it got anywhere," she said, referring to the family's security, which includes one bodyguard who is with them 24/7, and even accompanies the girls to and from school.
Before leaving the restaurant, June asked me if I wanted to go shopping. I told her I wanted to do what they wanted to do, observing them in as natural of a setting as possible, since we couldn't visit their home (they didn't want to go too far from the hospital where Sugar Bear was staying).
I didn't want them to do anything out of the norm for my sake - not that they were interested in impressing me, anyway. When I met them at their hotel, June wouldn't say hi to me, even when her publicist pointed out that we'd be spending hours together. "I don't give a fuck," she said grinning. A few minutes later in the car, we started talking about the family's open acceptance of gay people (or "poodles," as Alana affectionately refers to them) and June asked me if I was "top or bottom or versatile." As I answered, Jessica, who was sitting behind me in the minivan, plugged her fingers in her ears and said, "No no no no!" "I'm not even listening," added Alana.
When we decided on the mall, the show's publicist wondered if they'd be bombarded.
"It doesn't matter where the fuck we go. They may or may not. If they do, they do," June said. And so, without a care in the world, we set off to the mall. It took us 20 minutes to get to the car because so many people stopped to ask for pictures. The paparazzi waited outside and captured it all, and then I captured them, taking pictures of the people who were taking pictures of June, Alana and the rest of their family.
"This is my best friend," said Alana, who was holding hands with her publicist as we approached the Macon Mall. It was spoken like a true celebrity. And then: "We have so many security guards, I get their names mixed up."
Wearing a pair of heeled sandals, she regularly came off as the "Princess" her T-shirt had labeled her. With paparazzi following her family everywhere, you can see how she'd get that idea. ("Paparazzi in tow" is the phrase June says the most after, "It is what it is." In at third is, "What you see is what you get.") When she was in the bathroom, I asked her sisters if Alana ran the family – the decision on whether to go to the mall or Walmart came down to her, after all.
"No, Mama does," said Pumpkin.
At 12, Pumpkin strikes me as having it the hardest. Imagine, with the burgeoning self-awareness that comes at that age, regularly being subjected to the nation and the nation's opinions. This might help explain why Pumpkin is the most mischievous of the siblings – it was she who was photographed giving Anna's weeks-old baby Mountain Dew about a month ago. Throughout the afternoon, she repeatedly pinched me on the back of my legs and she told a stranger who was hanging out with the paparazzi that the TLC publicist wanted his number. I watched her draw on her tongue with a pen willfully, like she was out to provoke a reaction. When she isn't making trouble, she's quiet, like she's working to contain the pathos that compels her to act out.
I asked if she wanted to do the show and she told me that she "did and she didn't." Anna mostly didn't at first, because it meant uprooting her life at her grandmother's home. Now she's "neutral" about the show and about her newborn daughter (and her extra thumb) being the subject of Internet gossip.
"It is what it is, as long as they're not bombarding her," she told me in Justice, with paparazzi crouched around the corner. I asked if the constant surveillance bothered her, but she told me that "these are the good ones." The bad paparazzi "get in your face," and create hassle.
I wondered what it's like to have a sister who gets a disproportionate amount of attention. June told me that her daughters aren't jealous of Alana's profile. Anna told me that she was at times "aggravated" by it, "but we know the show is about her."
If the show has affected Alana's sisters, they are mum on just how. Jessica told me that their lives haven't changed very much. "It's still the same, it's just like everyone knows us now." Pumpkin said that she's had just one incident with someone referencing the show to degrade her: "There's one girl in all of my classes, and if I do anything, like if I drop my pencil, she's like, 'Stop acting stupid like you do on the TV show.'"
Jessica told me that she doesn't experience any jealousy as a result of the show. "Everybody thinks it's cool that they're friends with a celebrity," she said, matter-of-factly. I wondered if she found it traumatic to be known by Chubs, which was once just a family nickname. "I mean, it's a nickname. Everyone's got a nickname," she said. I asked if it was insulting. She told me no.
"It doesn't show us in a bad way. It shows us in a good way," Jessica said of the show, which the family watches "all the time. Even when it's not on." In contrast to the family's down-to-earth regard of newfound fame, this is exactly what I would expect given my experience with people on reality TV.
After spending an obscene amount of time in Champs buying Nike's slogan-heavy T-shirts (Alana wanted one that said, "Skilled in Every Position," but settled on "Haters Gonna Hate"), posing for pictures and basically shutting down the store as mall security looked on, we retreated to the car. Alana, who grew crankier and more withdrawn as the day wore on, asked me why I had to ask questions. Because, I told her, it was my job. "So?" she asked.
I told her she didn't have to answer anything she didn't want, and her publicist taught her the concept of "No comment," which she then exercised ad nauseam. I asked where her neck-rolling "Honey Boo Boo" invoking came from. I wanted to know whether she was imitating anyone (specifically anyone black, as has been charged) and she squawked like a parrot, "No comments! No comments!" as June shuffled past the question, just as she did when she first appeared on Anderson. (The official comment, if it qualifies, is that it came from Alana's "mouth" and that there's no impersonation involved.)
I asked the car if they thought their family was special before they were on TV.
"Special ed!" said Anna from the back, provoking laughter throughout. Then she asked who farted and the publicist jokingly suggested it was me. It wasn't, but I said I wouldn't hesitate around this family. The ability to fart whenever and have it chalked up to you being you seems like the family's greatest luxury. These people are free.
"You met us today. You'd been with us for five minutes and it was as if we'd known you for 10 years," said June. The level of comfort this family has with itself defines their profile, and June knows it. "They're real, they spend time with their family, she loves to do things with her kids," is how June sums up their appeal, basing it entirely on what she's heard from others.
"I wouldn't call us extraordinary," she had told me during lunch. "We're awesome to ourselves."
I wondered what she thought of the less accepting interpretation of her show, the one that she probably doesn't associate herself in her vigilant avoidance of "the negativity." There's an argument perpetuated in condescending think pieces that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is effectively exploitation. Ostensibly, those pieces stick up for the profiled family while hypocritically implying that these people are too pathetic to be shown on TV and that they should be embarrassed of themselves. There exists the belief that by portraying them at all, TLC is doing them a disservice.
"I don't feel like I should be embarrassed about anything," June told me. "I didn't say I am representing Southerners. I'm not representing people in Georgia. I didn't even say I was representing people in our county. I'm just representing our family. People will say, 'You're white trash.' Whatever. You don't even know me. But it is what it is. You've got critics. You've got people who love you and people who hate you."
But she acknowledges that people are laughing at them. "We're laughing at our asses, too," she says – and they literally get to the joke before anyone else does. June reviews every episode in advance of it airing, which gives her an uncommon amount of approval over her family's image. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo isn't the work of a network that has bamboozled a group of people who are too dumb to know it; it's a collaborative expression, a family-approved presentation of its own portrait.
"My main thing was I didn't want to be taken advantage of," June told me, after explaining that she mulled over signing the show's contract for a month and a half after it was presented. "I don't feel that with TLC. If they are, they sure are hiding it well."
When the car had reached the Macon Marriott, where the family was staying, I thanked everyone for answering my questions.
"I didn't answer none of them," Alana told me.
"You did earlier. At lunch," I said. I'd asked her very basic questions about her enjoyment of this experience and, come to think of it, got very noncommittal responses.
She shook her head.
"You did," I assured her, though slightly less sure myself.
Alana just shrugged.