If you’re famous, “Stalker Sarah” waits for you in your hotel lobby or outside your favorite nightclub, or approaches you in a restaurant, or backstage at your concert. Each time, she asks you for a picture.
She’s collected almost 6,200 of them in a Flickr account under the name Sarah M Online, which she started when she was 12. Each photo has two subjects: a member of Hollywood’s elite class — everyone from Justin Bieber and Brad Pitt and Kim Kardashian to virtual unknowns like CeCe Frey and Brian Logan Dales — and Sarah, positioned in the right of the frame. She turns her head 45 degrees. She wears a black leather jacket and a classic rock T-shirt. She smiles the same calm, practiced smile.
After five years of striking this pose again and again, Sarah M Online, now 17 and a senior in high school, has achieved her own level of celebrity. She has fans (and haters), passes to movie premieres, a manager, and an invitation to Perez Hilton’s 35th birthday party. She and Miley Cyrus are friends. She dates a sitcom actor.
“I go to events now and I’ll just get absolutely swarmed by kids,” she tells me on the phone. “I’ll sign hundreds of autographs and take hundreds of pictures … Miley Cyrus said one time, ‘When they touch you, they feel like they’ve touched Justin, they feel like they’ve touched One Direction. Meeting you is like an indirect way to meet their idols.’”
Her fans always ask how she does it. How does the home-schooled teen meet celebrities? How does she do it several times a day? “I just approach them,” she told me, deadpan. “If it’s not the right time, I won’t go up to them. I’ll just stay back and watch if there are a lot of paparazzi.”
Though she often embeds herself among those photographers, Sarah doesn’t consider herself one, preferring to be thought of as a collector. She doesn’t make money and isn’t looking to catch a crotch-shot. And while she isn’t the only stalker of this kind, Sarah is undeniably the best. She knows where to wait, where to hide, and how to follow.
“When Harry Styles was here, my friends and I had to figure out, ‘Okay, what time will he have to land?’ We had to figure out the time difference, what time his plane will fly out, how much time he would need to sleep before a concert.” And though she tends not to approach celebrities walking their dogs, for instance, or playing with their kids at the park, the gallery contains as many photos snapped in supermarkets, Baskin Robinses, and Hollywood parking lots as at red carpet events.
One of the earliest pictures shows her posing between Nickelodeon star Vanessa Hudgens and Hudgens’s then-boyfriend, Zac Efron. She is 12 or 13, a shiny, moon-faced kid in an oversized white T-shirt and black hooded sweatshirt. Hudgens wears a purple satin top and a long chain necklace that falls between her breasts. Efron’s cotton T-shirt features an illegible screenprint. They smirk, as if amused by Sarah’s admiration, even though they’re only a few years older. Her caption reads:
Zac Vanessa and I at the California Pizza Kitchen a week after Zac got out of surgery. They were SOOOOO nice! Vanessa is my idol, and Zac is one of my favorite actors. I was so nervous but they were so nice!!
The omission of last names might suggest that Sarah and the couple were actually friends. But what kind of friend calls her friends idols? Videos of Sarah on YouTube show her bowling with a Jonas brother one minute and waiting in the shadows outside Chateau Marmont the next. Witness her drop Miley Cyrus’s name casually before circling the block repeatedly in the passenger seat of her dad’s car to catch other Disney stars. And even if her behavior is stalkerish, stars still call her a sweet kid. “Oftentimes now, the celebrities will approach me because they know that I’ll say something nice about them,” she says. Sarah also protects their fame: In response to negative online attention the Jonas Brothers were receiving, she decided to include them on her site 80 times in one year.
But she’s not immune to her own hate mail: “Stalker Sarah,” which she's reclaimed as her moniker, started out as an online insult. She once read some of the letters she gets in a YouTube video: “Stalker Sarah scares me, to be honest,” one said. Another: “If I get famous and she asks for a picture, that biotch ain’t gettin’ one!” But even as she laughs at these in the clip, Sarah purposely doesn’t share her last name for fear of online predators. She points out that TV shows like The Bachelor keep their contestants’ last names a secret for the same reason.
She shares limited biographical info on Twitter, Instagram, and in occasional interviews. She is home-schooled per an agreement with her father that, if she got straight A's, he would drive her to “as many events as he possibly could.” After Instagramming a picture with Robin Roberts, she told the Good Morning America host that her first celebrity encounter was with Robert Hayes, when she was 12.
She and her boyfriend, Angus T. Jones — the actor who told viewers not to watch Two and a Half Men, the show he’s on — attend church together every Sunday. “Since Angus came into my life,” she tells me, “it was something that we were able to, like, truly bond over.” From this relationship, she says she knows how hard it is for her celebrity friends to live “under a microscope,” as she calls it. “I’ve seen it, the first time with Angus … when you say something and it’s taken out of context.”
Production companies have noticed her — and even offered TV shows — but she knows, unlike Angus or Miley, she’s not truly famous. Sarah’s rise happened accidentally, when she started posting her photos on Flickr for her family. Before that, she would keep them in a book. “I had this big purse that I’d carry everywhere with me, and when I’d see celebrities, they’d say, ‘So who have you seen lately?’” She’d pull out her book and show them.
Soon, she started noticing her Flickr hits go up. She wasn’t sharing the photos herself; she didn’t have a Facebook or a Myspace account. But some of her earliest fans were passing them around. “One day, over 24 hours, I got a million hits.” So she decided to build up her Twitter following. Four years ago, when she started her account, it was private; now she has 70,000 followers. “Justin Bieber requested to follow me!” she remembers.
Her earliest pictures were taken on a disposable camera and developed at Walgreens. They’re grainy. Their temperature is uneven, skin tones on the red side. The ones exposed correctly still show us where the camera’s flash reflected off the oil on her subjects’ faces. Bodies are stiff, as if frozen in the silver grain of the paper.
Sarah is especially awkward in these photos: a slightly chubby, plain-haired 12-year-old who strikes the same expression in every frame. Eventually, she graduated to a better camera and started wearing makeup. Straightened bangs accentuate the thick eyeliner she wears under the same Lenscrafters-brand wire-framed glasses she’s had since she was 12. Her fashion has matured into a signature look: She has a closet full of leather jackets and black jeans. One fanblogger calls her a “fashion icon.” Some of her negative commenters just tell her to change clothes. “I don’t think people realize how hard it is to get the same, exact look every single day,” she jokes, as if she’s becoming a brand.
Once she finishes high school, she wants to work in the entertainment industry. At this point, she’s already dipping her toe into the work of a publicist; if she’s at an event and sees paparazzi she knows prints negative stories, “I’ll be like, ‘Let me call and get this person out here. I know who to call because I know who’s going to write a good story.’”
This is especially true if Bieber’s in town. She has met him over a hundred times and attended every one of his tours. “Every time I see him, he’s just like, ‘Sarah! What’s new? Oh, man, you’re growing up on me!’” Sometimes, she says, she’ll show up to Justin’s concerts and his publicity team will meet her at the door.
One YouTube video from last summer shows Sarah approaching a minivan in a parking lot with a group of three or four other young women. They sweet-talk Justin’s bodyguard and Justin climbs out of the van. One girl demands to see his new tattoo. “Uh, not right now,” he says. “You guys want to take some pictures?”
Sarah is up second, and is chewing gum, as usual. She hands her camera to the girl behind her. She steps into place next to Justin and stops chewing. They put their arms around each other. Justin thanks her and she quickly steps away. A brunette replaces her. The whole exchange takes five seconds. Neither Sarah nor Justin remark. It’s as if she’s just another girl in the throng.
Just before the video ends, Sarah slides back into the frame. It happens quickly, and interrupts a younger girl’s request for a hug. We see only the back of Sarah’s head as she holds the camera. The viewfinder is reflected black in the van’s window. Justin kisses Sarah’s cheek. She thanks him. And he’s gone.