Deena ElGenaidi | Longreads | January 2020 | 15 minutes (3,733 words)
In the second row, we anxiously awaited the band, taking selfies with our VIP lanyards still around our necks, reeling from the high of having just met Adam Levine. Music began to blare through the speakers to our left, and my eardrums rang with the shrieks of other girls in the crowd. We all stood at once, the entire audience one cult-like unit rising together. Adam practically skipped onto the stage as the screams grew louder, his own voice belting out the familiar “Oh yeah” that marks the beginning of the song “Misery.”
The members of Maroon 5 came out all in white, ethereal, and unreal. Just one hour earlier, I’d met Adam, talked to him, touched him. He wasn’t a person in my mind, but simply a projection of a fantasy — of a crush that would never come to fruition. My stepsister, my cousin, and I also had white shirts on, matching the band’s dress code for the night: Friday night whites.
So scared of breaking it that you won’t let it bend.
And I wrote 200 hundred letters I will never send…
Adam’s fingers wrapped themselves around the mic like a snake clutching its prey. He danced in the way only Adam could, his hips sensually twisting to the beat. He was so close we could see beads of sweat dripping down his forehead. I grabbed my camera — one of those digital types everyone had in 2011 — and began to shoot a video, but made sure not to watch through the lens or the camera screen. I wanted to see it all live, without a screen in my face. Adam placed the microphone atop its stand, his hands gliding up and down as he stroked the pole, his body moving in rhythm.
I am in misery.
There ain’t nobody who can comfort me.
I was 22, technically too old to be a “fan girl,” but mesmerized by Adam nonetheless. The way he moved, spoke, exuded sex. I hadn’t yet had sex. I’d never even talked about it because growing up, it wasn’t something we ever talked about in my house. But Adam represented sex, and through him, a public figure so far removed from my own immediate reality, I learned to express desire.
I initially learned about sex in school, through the whisperings of other fourth graders. Cassie, whose mom sometimes babysat me after school, told us gleefully one morning that babies are made through sex. We were all seated on the carpet waiting for our teacher to start our morning meeting.
I was 22, technically too old to be a ‘fan girl,’ but mesmerized by Adam Levine nonetheless. The way he moved, spoke, exuded sex.
“No,” I said in disbelief.
My mom had just found out she was pregnant with my brother, and the idea that she would have had to have sex to make that happen sent a plunging weight into my gut. Of course, I didn’t actually know what sex was — Cassie didn’t go into detail. To me, it was just a dirty word — something adults did, but not any adults I knew. I gathered that married people saw each other naked — got changed in front of each other. That something happened behind closed doors, but I didn’t think much about it. I wasn’t sure whether to believe Cassie, but then I also avoided telling my dad about the pregnancy. If he knew my mom, his ex-wife, was pregnant, he’d know she’d had sex with her new husband.
In sixth grade, the school introduced sex ed into our curriculum. I came home with a thin blue book filled with information about the human reproductive system, with diagrams and info, and I handed it to my mom.
“We have to get this signed,” I said.
The school needed our parents’ permission to teach us about sex, and if they didn’t get that permission, we’d be removed from the class for an hour as our classmates learned secrets we wouldn’t be privy to. Ironically, they gave us the book to leaf through on our own before we even got that permission. My mom called my dad and told him about the book. He was outraged at the idea that the school would be providing us such lascivious material — that they would even consider teaching his daughter the basics of reproduction — about sex, a word that was never to be uttered in our wholesome home.
My parents are Muslim and can be conservative in their culture and beliefs. My mom grew up in Egypt, and sex was not something talked about or taught in Egyptian schools, so this was new to her, and I can’t blame her for her initial response. My dad moved here from Egypt when he was 7 but with the same values ingrained in him. They were both doctors, but nevertheless, they wanted to shield me from knowledge they deemed me too young to need, or be exposed to. I don’t know when, if at all, they ever expected me to learn, as they themselves never gave me any kind of sex talk.
My parents never signed the book, and I was afraid to push it. The next day at school, I told the teacher that my parents forgot to sign, and she said to bring the signature the next day. The next day, she forgot to check, and I was allowed to participate in sex ed. By seventh grade, we didn’t even need permission anymore.
Maroon 5’s first album came out in 2002, just before I started high school, and along with it came the video for “This Love,” in which Adam rolled around naked in bed with his then-girlfriend, model Kelly McKee. An article in The Telegraph described the video as “porno-pop.”
I don’t remember the first time I watched the video, probably sitting alone at the desktop computer in my bedroom. I wouldn’t have watched it around either of my parents, for they’d have deemed it inappropriate — an example of the sex-crazed, morally corrupt American society we lived in.
My obsession with Adam and the band didn’t begin right away, but even back then, at 13, I felt something for him, though I couldn’t quite articulate it. While I had crushes in high school, I never talked about them openly. I had the impression that desire was seen as a thing to be ashamed of — though I did at one point have a poster of Jesse McCartney hanging in my room, a poster I got for free out of some magazine. The poster hung inside my closet so that I could only see it when I opened the door. While I wasn’t aware of my motivation at the time, I kept even these innocuous celebrity crushes hidden from the world. My parents saw me as a perpetual child, one who couldn’t possibly be interested in boys or sex or anything of the sort, and I upheld that image.
In seventh grade, my friend’s mom left a message on our answering machine asking if I needed a ride to the school dance. My mom was astounded. There were never any school dances for her in Egypt.
“They let boys dance with girls?” she said as she deleted the message.
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I wasn’t allowed to go, and that was the end of the conversation. My mom’s parenting style changed for my brother 10 years later, as she allowed him to go to dances and prom and hang out with girls. It was probably because he was a boy, but also maybe her values had just changed with time. But when I was growing up, my parents maintained their outrage at what they deemed “American” culture, with its loose morals. That attitude, combined with their strict rules, ingrained in me a sense of deeply internalized shame at even the slightest tinge of desire, or the thought of sex. For that reason, Jesse McCartney remained inside my closet.
While I liked Maroon 5 right from the start, it wasn’t until their fame was just beginning to die down that I really threw myself into fandom. I was 21, just out of college, with no real plan for my future other than more school. At first, the band was just a distraction for me — a way to keep my mind off the constant existential anxiety I felt at the time.
That summer, my cousin, stepsister, and I went to our first Maroon 5 concert.
“His pants are so tight,” I said, as Adam pranced onto the stage in a white t-shirt and black skinny jeans.
He swung his hips, moving freely despite the stretch denim clenched against his thighs, his skinny-fit body free-flowing like water to the beat of his music.
Is there anyone out there, ‘cause it’s getting harder and harder to breathe…
I knew every word to every song and sang along, even though I rarely ever sang in front of anyone. I was hypnotized, my eyes locked onto his every movement.
That was the beginning.
I spent most of that summer at my mom’s house in North Carolina, where she moved after I graduated high school. As I didn’t have friends there, I’d spend hours at a time focusing on Maroon 5 alone in my room. I watched everything I could find: Interviews, videos, live performances. I fell into an Adam Levine rabbit hole, rewatching the same clips over and over. I found deep cuts from his earlier band, Kara’s Flowers, and downloaded the songs through some YouTube-to-mp3 converter I found online.
Maroon 5’s videos sold sex, and in my early 20s, sexually inexperienced, I bought into every part of it. I imagined myself as the women in those videos — as Anne V, his supermodel girlfriend at the time, in the video for “Misery.” She straddles him as he lies in the middle of the road, then shoves him up against a chain-link fence as he grabs her from behind, pushing her against the opposite wall. I couldn’t be more different from Anne V. She was white, tall, and blonde, and while I didn’t find her stunning, she was the type of confident woman who would push a man against a chain-link fence after straddling him in the street. Is that what it took to be noticed by Adam Levine? Would he even look twice at me, a quiet, anxious, brown girl who’d never had sex?
Muslims are taught to believe that sex before marriage is a sin. Though I equated my own desire with shame, I didn’t actually believe sex was sinful. A friend of mine once made a joke that I was only 11 percent Muslim, as I declined an offer for pork on the grounds of my religious upbringing, despite not following most of the other religious rules. Even back in high school, when I cared slightly more about religion, I still didn’t buy into all of the rules my parents preached. But I couldn’t shake that internalized shame — that feeling that sex, and even merely talking about sex, was taboo. When friends talked about sex or desire, I usually kept quiet, too uncomfortable to speak. Depending on the conversation, that’s sometimes still the case for me today. Adam Levine, though, provided a safe outlet for me to start expressing some desire. He was a celebrity, perfectly unattainable, which meant there were zero stakes.
At that time, when I was in my early 20s, my dad started becoming more religious. If sex had been a taboo subject before, it was certainly even more so now. My dad hated Adam Levine, and while it eventually became funny to my family that I was so obsessed with him, my dad didn’t actually want to hear about my attraction to Adam. I was to remain virginal, pure, and without any semblance of desire.
I remember a conversation once in which my dad made a comment about men objectifying women, and it had something to do with what I had worn one day. Maybe my shorts were too short, or my pants too tight.
“Whatever, I objectify men,” I said. “I objectify Adam Levine all the time.”
“I don’t want to hear about that,” he said, immediately shutting down the conversation.
My obsession with Adam, my open expression of attraction to him, shattered the role I’d grown so used to playing all my life.
The following summer, my cousin, stepsister, and I shelled out $300 each for meet-and-greet tickets, which guaranteed a photo-op with the band and seats in the first five rows. This was it: my chance to get face time with my crush. My chance to make him notice me. I could be like Anne V.
My cousin S and I debated what we’d say to the band, how we’d make ourselves memorable. A tiny part of me hoped that maybe I’d come up with something so witty that Adam would be charmed enough to — I don’t know — invite me backstage, break up with his girlfriend, take me home with him…
My parents are Muslim and can be conservative in their culture and beliefs. My mom grew up in Egypt, and sex was not something talked about or taught in Egyptian schools.
Around that time, too, fans, for whatever reason, had started buying superhero underwear for Adam, which he would sometimes wear on stage, or post on his social media. Sure, others were doing it too, but imagine Adam wearing the underwear I had bought him as he sang to us. S and I decided to follow in the footsteps of other fans and made a trip to Target. We stood in the men’s underwear department, where Batman, Superman, Spiderman underwear hung on racks.
“What size should we get?” I said, lost amid the many racks of men’s underwear.
“He’s definitely not a large,” said S.
“He might be insulted by small,” I said.
We opted for medium and purchased two or three pairs and a gift bag to put them in.
When the day finally came, we left early, gift bag in hand. We arrived at the proper location, and the band’s manager, who had sent us his phone number the week prior in case we couldn’t find him (a number I still have saved on my phone) showed up and shuffled us away to a tent backstage. He explained that the band would be sitting at a table, but that they wouldn’t be standing for the picture, and they wouldn’t hug anyone because it would take up too much time that they simply didn’t have. The manager then lined us up and led us outside.
I was mid-sentence when I caught a glimpse.
“He’s right there,” S said.
I turned my head, and the sight of Adam’s familiar face literally stopped me in my tracks, my legs buckling into a strange dinosaur pose, my entire body reacting to the sight of him.
“Oh my God,” I said, grasping onto S’s shoulder.
I regained my composure half a second later, but my family, whenever they remember hearing this story, like to make fun of me, going so far as to joke that I fell down at the sight of Adam. I might as well have, because I forgot my own body entirely, consumed by the reality of Adam’s. He was real. Right there in front of us. A whole person and not just some projection of my fantasies. And we were about to talk to him.
Adam sat in the middle, looking tired and bored in his white t-shirt and skinny jeans. He didn’t have as many tattoos back then, but the ones he did have stood out — a tiger prominently displayed on his arm, an inked-on chain slipping out at his neck, visible just above his shirt. My legs were shaking slightly. What if I blew it? What if whatever I had to say wasn’t good enough?
When it was our turn to talk to the band, I handed Adam the underwear and told him what it was, my voice miraculously steady and confident like I’d practiced. He laughed and thanked us halfheartedly. We talked to the keyboardist and guitar-player, making sure not to leave anyone out, but in the end, it was all about Adam. My stepsister asked Adam if she could give him a hug, even though the manager had just explained that we couldn’t.
“I can’t,” Adam said apologetically. “If I gave you a hug, I’d have to give everyone a hug, and it wouldn’t be fair. But you can come up and put your arm around me in the picture.”
The three of us moved behind the table and crouched down, smiling. I put my arm around Adam’s shoulder, my whole body charged by the touch, my skin against his. The photographer snapped a quick couple of photos and led us on our way. I was euphoric.
“This is the best day of my life,” I said at some point that night. “I think we talked to them longer than anyone else.”
We made an impression. He’d remember us for sure.
We made our way to our seats, VIP passes still hanging from our necks, and watched as the band came out, their clothes changed to all white. I pictured Adam wearing the underwear we’d purchased underneath his white pants — something he’d done at previous concerts — strutting onto the stage in nothing but a pair of Superman boxer briefs. To my disappointment, he didn’t show the audience his underwear at our concert.
Instead, he called an audience member named Katherine out onto the stage — some friend of a friend. Of course, she was white, with blondish hair, not unlike Anne V. She had been in the meet and greet line, too. This was some elaborate plan on the part of Katherine’s boyfriend, and Adam sat her down, the opening notes of “She Will Be Loved” beginning to play. She sat on stage as Adam serenaded her to my favorite song, and it was like someone had clenched my heart in their fist and ripped it out of my chest. Katherine won. She had made the impression, not us.
“I hate Katherine,” I yelled half-jokingly over the music, my cousin and stepsister chiming in in agreement.
As the concert ended, and the lights in the crowd went up, we began to make our way out.
“I was really hoping he was wearing my underwear,” I said.
At that, my cousin and stepsister burst into laughter. As we passed the VIP party tent, we debated sneaking in.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” I said. “They kick us out? We’re already leaving.”
We did not sneak in, but I still wonder whether Katherine was invited to the afterparty.
In some sense, my obsession with the unattainable Adam Levine taught me about sex. He taught me that it was okay to want it without any accompanying sense of shame. That was something I understood but hadn’t experienced.
Adam Levine gave me a safe outlet for expressing desire — the first step in an ongoing journey for me. I would argue that he even shaped my idea of what I find attractive today.
Not long after that meet and greet — while still at the height of my Adam obsession — I met at a guy at a Halloween party who looked exactly like Taylor Lautner and was even dressed as Lautner’s werewolf character in Twilight. He had rock hard abs and asked my friend for my phone number. I suddenly found myself expressing desire for a real person who had entered the sphere of my reality. Sure, he looked like a well-known celebrity, but he wasn’t one. I was dressed as Sookie Stackhouse, a character who dates a werewolf on True Blood. He insisted on posing for a picture as he held my hand dramatically, and suddenly, my infatuation for Adam Levine felt like just that — nothing more than an infatuation.
“I just want to touch his abs,” I said to a friend one day, as I texted the Lautner look-alike agreeing to a date.
I surprised myself with that sentiment, said out loud, and without shame, about someone who was not a celebrity.
Adam Levine gave me a safe outlet for expressing desire — the first step in an ongoing journey for me. I would argue that he even shaped my idea of what I find attractive today, imprinting a set of characteristics that I seek out in real people rather than projections of a fantasy. I often find myself attracted to people with the same childish personality, the same sense of unwarranted confidence. I fall for people with his skinny-fit body type, his nonthreatening, effeminate mannerisms. I’m turned off by too much overt masculinity, a trait that to me screams danger and toxicity, though I’m aware that’s not always the case.
There’s something about fandom that offers a safe outlet for developing ourselves and our sexuality. Celebrities in many ways are the perfect foil for our own projections. I’d gone to a total of 11 Maroon 5 concerts. I met Adam once, and the other band members two to three times, by waiting at the right spots after certain concerts. I spent an entire night outside in 19-degree weather camping out for Saturday Night Live tickets when Adam hosted, and I sat in the audience for the live taping. I’m even in the Maroon 5 music video for “Daylight” at seconds 3:46 and 7:59 because my cousin and I submitted a video to a fan contest. When I say I was obsessed, I’m not exaggerating in the slightest.
For about three years of my life, I put everything into Adam Levine, and I came out of it a different person. Sure, I still have celebrity crushes — many, in fact — but sex and desire aren’t insurmountable ideas tied to shame anymore. A few months back, while visiting a friend in the city I used to live in, I sat up after midnight debating with her whether or not to text some guy — to tell him I was in the city and ask if he was around — a late-night text that could obviously only mean one thing. In my early 20s, I wouldn’t have thought myself capable, but at a distance, Adam Levine helped me shake loose of the repressive notions ingrained in me since childhood. Today, as I rewatch his old music videos, and the old videos I took at concerts, I remember those feelings I once had — that intense and passionate devotion for this figure so far removed from my own life — and I realize how much he helped shape me.
* * *
Deena ElGenaidi is a writer based in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a novel and a web series. You can read some of her work in Nylon, MTV News, Oprah Magazine, Electric Literature, Lithub, Bustle, and elsewhere.
Editor: Sari Botton