Shannon Purser: People have actually had Barbs face tattooed on their bodies

When the 19-year-old landed her first acting role, as Barb in hit Netflix show Stranger Things, she didnt expect the Barbmania that sent her career soaring

To say 2016 has been a big year for me is an understatement, laughs Shannon Purser, 19-year-old breakout star of the years best TV drama. Its been madness. And totally unexpected. I didnt even have a career before Stranger Things it was my first acting job, my first time on a professional set, and my character wasnt even supposed to be a big deal it all just exploded.

Explode indeed it did. All eight episodes snuck on to streaming service Netflix in July to little fanfare. Other shows this year had more hype (see Game of Thrones, The Grand Tour). Other shows had bigger budgets (The Night Manager, The Crown, Westworld). Other shows were more critically acclaimed (Fleabag, Planet Earth II). Yet no other show got a stronger, more sustained fan reaction and, to borrow that well-worn phrase, broke the internet like Stranger Things.

The 1980s-influenced horror thriller, created by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, seemed to come from nowhere to become the most talked-about TV event of the summer. This pleasingly under-the-radar success story was driven not by A-list names or ad campaigns but word of mouth and slow-building buzz. Stranger Things wasnt just the TV show of the year. It was one of 2016s biggest pop cultural phenomena full stop.

A big part of that was down to unknown actor Purser and her character: bespectacled high-school swot Barbara Holland. Or Barb to her friends. OK, friend singular. Before we get too deep into the cult of Barb, though, lets recap where she fits into the Stranger Things story.

Shannon Purser as Barb in Stranger Things: People related to her personally. It was sweet. Photograph: Netflix
When 12-year-old Will (Noah Schnapp) mysteriously vanishes one night in 1983, his Dungeons & Dragons-playing, BMX-riding buddies intrepid Mike (Finn Wolfhard), goofy Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and sceptical Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) team up with telekinetic fugitive Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) to investigate their small Indiana towns supernatural secrets. In the process, they stumble into a sinister government conspiracy involving a monster they dub the Demogorgon, which resides in a parallel dimension called the Upside Down.

In parallel to and eventually joining up with the gangs adventure is a teen rites-of-passage plotline about Mikes pretty-but-insecure older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and her long-suffering best mate, Barb: sarkily straight-talking, slightly dowdy, fiercely loyal and worried their friendship would be threatened by Nancys burgeoning romance with school stud Steve. He just wants to get in your pants, said Barb, to cheers from sofas worldwide. Come on, Nance, you are not this stupid. And no, I dont want to shotgun a beer.

Everyone really took to Barb, says Purser down the phone from Toronto, where shes filming teen horror flick Wish Upon part of the flurry of roles she has landed post-Stranger Things. Warm, witty and effusive, she conveys a combination of incredulous delight at her sudden success and steely determination to make the most of it while she can. Barb was written to be a throwaway character but really resonated with people. I was barely on the show, just the opening three episodes, but viewers latched on to her. I guess everyones had an experience when they felt overlooked, ditched, hurt or taken for granted. Where they felt like the only one behaving with common sense but still got the short end of the stick. We all feel like the odd one out at some point.

Watch the trailer for Stranger Things.

For Purser, schoolyard politics and frustrations are still a fresh memory. Eighteen months ago she was at high school in Atlanta, Georgia, aspiring to an acting career while working evenings in her local cinema: I was going for auditions but nothing clicked, so I figured if I cant be in movies, Im going to be as close to them as humanly possible. Her parents are a Delta Airlines pilot and flight attendant who met in the air, and Purser is one of four daughters. She still lives at home when shes not working, although shes toying with the idea of moving to Los Angeles. And shes now doing a psychology degree via online tutorials because, since Stranger Things, shes never in one place long enough to attend lectures.

It wasnt just Barbs personality that struck a chord with fans. Her wardrobe did too. Sporting Deirdre-from-Coronation Street specs, a sweep of red hair, normcore blouses and mom jeans, she became a stealth style icon. A geek girl hero in the lineage of Lisa Simpson, Enid from Ghost World, Velma from Scooby-Doo or 30 Rocks Liz Lemon. Fans began hailing Barb as their favourite character. Buzzfeed crowed her Queen Barb. US website The Ringer proclaimed Everyone needs a friend like Barb. Barbmania was born but it was about to go to the next level.

When Nancy wearing a new bra, as the ever-vigilant Barb noted (I get teased about that line all the time, says Purser, but it was a really nice bra) went up to Steves bedroom, she told Barb to go home. The faithful friend instead decided to wait outside by the pool, sitting on the diving board, and well, strange things happened. I didnt think anybody would care, says Purser. I mean, Barb was cool but then she died a horrible death and everybody moved on.

Except they didnt. Quite the contrary. Barb became an online craze clbre as fans decided shed been unfairly forgotten after being killed off. Theres a cartoon on my Twitter profile, Purser grins, which says None of my friends care that Im dead but at least the internet likes me. That pretty much sums up Barb, poor thing. I was blown away by the reaction. When the show premiered, I told myself: Well, thatll look good on my rsum. But within a week, Id gathered thousands of followers on Twitter and Instagram. People all over the world were messaging me, asking: What happened to Barb? People related to her personally, so they got mad. It was sweet.

#JusticeForBarb trended on Twitter and tribute memes went viral. Stranger Things unsung heroine began inspiring graffiti murals, gifs and listicles saluting her strong look, loyal friendship and all-round aceness. Fans designed missing person flyers and posters demanding Barb for President. A Brooklyn pizzeria served Barb slices (choose from Barbeque, Barbohydrates or Barbroiled). Jimmy Fallon did a Barb-themed sketch. Barb provided the punchline in a Charlie Brown parody (Purser cried laughing at that). Soon #justiceForBarb was joined by a new hashtag: #WeAreAllBarb. People were dressing as her for Halloween and sending me their most Barb-like yearbook photos, laughs Purser.

The Stranger Things gang, left to right: Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown and Gaten Matarazzo in season 1.

There was even an RIP Barb rap from hip-hop duo Dr Chorizo. That rap was so funny, says Purser. I watched it assuming it was about the show in general but when it became apparent it was all about Barb, I was like, Wait, what? It went: Im sorry Nance ditched you for that douchebag Steve/ Why didnt you just get in your muthafuckin car and leave? But thats just not what Barb would do, even if she ended up paying a heavy price for it.

Other Barbarians went one louder. Ive been sent several pictures of Barb tattoos, says Purser. People have actually had my face tattooed on to their bodies, which is so odd. One person got a little tombstone with Barb written on it. Im so thankful because as a movie nerd whos gotten very attached to characters myself, to have people connect that deeply with yours is all any actor ever wants.

Stranger Things isnt just an excellent escapist drama in its own right. Its also a loving, playfully postmodern homage to the Duffers youth. The plot has echoes of Stephen King novels and Steven Spielberg films. The Grammy-nominated soundtrack adopts the atmospheric synths of John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. Scenes reference everything from ET, Stand by Me and The Goonies to video nasties.

The Duffers tapped into this fond nostalgia, says Purser. The 80s werent perfect and people made some questionable fashion choices but in terms of music and movies, it was revolutionary and wonderful. A time before cellphones, the internet and everything at your fingertips, so you had to seek out entertainment for yourself. [It seems that] everything felt more personal and friendships were super-important. Viewers loved looking back on that, remembering their own childhood and old friends.

For someone born in 1997, Purser sounds quite the 80s aficionado. I wasnt around unfortunately but wish I was, she agrees. I like to think I wouldve fitted in pretty well. I grew up with 80s music, its just what we listened to as a family. And all those John Hughes films were so iconic. I loved Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club is one of my all-time favourites.

It wasnt The Breakfast Clubs female characters, Molly Ringwald (the princess) or Ally Sheedy (the basket case), with whom Purser identified: No, I was totally nerdy Brian (the brain, played by Anthony Michael Hall). I loved him. Whats so brilliant about that film is that they start off as stereotypes but you find out theres much more to them. Stranger Things did that too. Nancy had this awesome character development. At the beginning, she wanted to be popular, needing that attention and validation. By the end, she was shooting monsters and didnt need a man.

Winona Ryder in Stranger Things: To see her work up close was a dream come true. Photograph: Netflix/Everett/Rex/Shutterstock
Fittingly, Stranger Things helped revive the career of another 80s starlet. Winona Ryder staged a comeback as Wills mother, Joyce. For Purser, landing a debut acting gig opposite one of her heroes was a thrill. Oh my God, Winona was such a heroine of mine.
Edward Scissorhands is one of my favourite films and because I have three sisters, we watched Little Women all the time too. At the first table-read, Winona was a few seats away and I couldnt stop staring. To see her work up close was a dream come true.

Pursers not the only Stranger Things alumnus who has been catapulted to fame. The four kids who formed the shows ragtag Scooby Gang have also seen their profiles soar, appearing on talkshows and performing at the Emmys. Im so happy for them, says Purser. They deserve it. We all follow each other on social media now and DM each other. Theyre like my original work family. They were great fun on set always joking around, pulling pranks and singing. So talented but man, theyre growing up fast. Gaten Matarazzos voice dropped so much by the time production ended, the sound team couldnt use him to record additional dialogue. We catch up at comic-type conventions and Im like: Whoa, what happened? You look so much older. Itll be fascinating to see how the Duffers deal with them growing up in season two.

Stranger Things returns for a feverishly anticipated, nine-part series in 2017 but Purser cant confirm whether shell be involved. I have no idea and thats an honest answer. Of course, everybody wants to know. Trust me, I want to know too. But nobodys gotten in touch yet. Co-creator Matt Duffer has promised her character wont be forgotten well make sure theres some justice for Barb. I have no idea what that means, laughs Purser, but I totally trust their judgment. If Barb had a funeral, that would be nice. If Winona Ryder cried, that would be even cooler!

Purser has recently followed the lead of Adele, Lady Gaga and Cara Delevingne in candidly speaking out about mental health. Last month she used her newfound fame to open up about her former struggles with self-harm, tweeting a pic of her holding a razor blade with the caption: *TRIGGER WARNING* I havent self-harmed in years, but I kept this around, just in case. I forgot it was there & now its in the trash.

Shannon Purser as Barb, far right, in Stranger Things Photograph: Netflix

Mental health is an important issue for me, she says. Its something Ive struggled with personally, and a lot of people close to me have dealt with it too. Its not discussed enough, which keeps people in a state of isolation, feeling they should be embarrassed about it. I want to help in whatever way I can and Im thankful to have this platform. It was a personal moment, and just felt like I should share how far Id come in recovery. I know how vital it is to have somebody you can look up to, to feel like youre not alone and find encouragement that you can make it out OK. The response I got, with people telling me their stories and struggles, was so beautiful and powerful. Shes since been offering support by responding to fans tweets directly, urging fellow sufferers: Please dont give up on yourself.

Next up for the newly in-demand Purser is another youth-driven TV series, titled Riverdale: Its a darker, moodier take on the Archie comics [strips about teenager Archie Andrews and his high-school pals, created in the 1940s and still going strong]. I play Ethel Muggs. Shes a bit more sassy than Barb and she survives more than three episodes, fortunately. Movie roles are rolling in too. This autumn, Purser shot sorority sister romp Life of the Party with Melissa McCarthy (Shes like the queen of comedy right now and pretty much the coolest person ever).

Purser is looking forward to returning to relative normality when she finishes work on current film Wish Upon. Luckily, we wrap a week before Christmas, so Ill be able to get home and spend it with my family. We always watch Elf together and go carolling at a local nursing home. Christmas Day itself is magical my favourite of the year. And Ill be reunited with my rescue dog Penny. Shes my pride and joy. Im guaranteed to cry.

And for new year? Thats not such a big deal for me, mostly because I still cant legally drink in the States. But well get out the sparkling cider and stay up until midnight to watch the Times Square countdown. Who knows what 2017 will bring? Another TV hit. Big-screen stardom, perhaps. Along with, we hope, some overdue #JusticeForBarb.

Stranger Things series one is available now on Netflix

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