Tweens These Days

How Fans Invented #Hannie, the Ultimate Social Media Supercouple

Hayden Summerall and Annie LeBlanc are basically Brangelina for the next generation. Except this couple started in Instagram fan-fiction first.

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Gen X had Brangelina, Bennifer, and Tomkat. Millennials had Kimye and Hiddleswift. Today’s teens have Hayden Summerall and Annie LeBlanc, better known as “Hannie.”

Unlike the famous couples who came before them, it wasn’t tabloid editors or film executives who forged a relationship between the two young social media stars, it was the internet—specifically, online fans who begged and begged and begged for these two to get together.

The two currently star in Chicken Girls, a scripted YouTube series that has become must-see TV for Generation Z. Chicken Girls documents the fictional romance between the two young stars along with the lives of a group of teens at “Attaway High” as they struggle with friendships, drama, dating, and dance team. The series has already raked in over 55 million views in its first season.

Annie and Hayden are both massive social media celebrities in their own right, but when they first appeared in a vlog together earlier this year, their fans became enamored with the idea of the two as a couple. Admirers immediately coined the ship name “Hannie.”

Shipping occurs when fans become obsessed with the idea of pairing certain people together. It can be in a friendship sort of way, but more commonly it’s referring to a theoretical romance. To say that you “ship” two people generally means that you think that they should date.

Young fans combine the names of the celebrities they ship into portmanteaus like “Hannie” for Hayden and Annie.

People who hope Zac Efron might date Kylie Jenner, for instance, would say that they “ship Zac and Kylie” and might develop the ship name “Zylie.”

Though Hayden and Annie both have their own large respective followings, Hannie captivated the teen internet in a way that neither social media star could have on their own.

From the age of 4, Annie LeBlanc has had every major milestone in her life documented on YouTube. Her parents are what are known as “family vloggers,” and since 2008 they have dutifully recorded every moment of her childhood along with their family’s life on their YouTube channel, Bratayley.

Fans have seen Annie throw temper tantrums, lose her first tooth, begin school, learn to ride a bike, and enter puberty. Naturally, when she began spending time with a boy for the first time at age 12, her online fanbase of nearly 20 million followers across social platforms freaked out.

The boy in question was fellow social media star Hayden Summerall.

Summerall had become huge on Instagram and Musical.ly before posting videos of himself crooning cover songs on his YouTube channel, and he met Annie through their parents’ mutual connections.  

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In a video uploaded to the Bratayley family channel on April 13, 2017, Hayden can be seen hanging out with Annie and her family at a pizza shop doing cartwheels, splits, and grabbing the vlog camera to do silly impressions of Annie.

As the two tweens appeared together on screen for the first time, comments flooded in.

“Annie and Hayden should date..!!!” one fan wrote.

“Did anyone else realize that when Hayden is around Annie is active and Happy!? I ship Hannie,” another posted.

“Can you see Hayden and Annie together like or comment,” wrote another, who received a flurry of replies.

Fans attempted to decode the body language of the two young stars throughout their shared few minutes on screen. “I feel like Annie is showing off to Hayden,” someone said. “Who else saw Annie’s face when Billy mentioned Hayden!?” a fan wrote.

Though Annie has lived her entire life online, even her father, Billy LeBlanc, was amazed at the level of dedication teens showed to perpetuating the idea of a “Hannie” relationship.  

“Fans immediately began sending Instagram edits,” he said. “These kids are very good at Photoshop. While Annie and Hayden’s relationship has always been innocent, the fans would take the two in certain poses and photoshop them together so it looked like an authentic photo.”

Fans constructed an entire false narrative of Hayden and Annie’s life as a couple, photoshopping them out on dates together, at the movies, attending fictional parties.

“They’ve photoshopped them together at prom,” Billy said, despite the fact that neither Annie or Hayden has ever attended prom.

“You’d see these images all over Instagram, thousands of them, and you’re like, I know that didn’t happen!” he said. “In the beginning [the shipping] was driven by a lot of photos that weren’t real, but as they began hanging out with each other in real life, kids would edit photos of them together. They’d take the two sitting next to each other, for instance, and scoot them closer together.”

Unlike slash fiction or some of the more risqué fanfic genres on the internet, Hannie fanfiction is shockingly PG. Most storylines focus on Hayden and Annie’s fictional high school romance, with Hayden being the popular guy at school and Annie the lovable dork.

Fans construct elaborate storylines that play out in the form of fake text message exchanges among Annie, Hayden, and their other social media celebrity friends like Maddie Ziegler on Instagram.

Throughout the summer, the Hannie fandom spread like wildfire across Instagram, Tumblr, Musical.ly, Twitter, and even YouTube, where teen fans have edited together hundreds of videos offering “proof” of Hayden and Annie’s secret love for each other.

One video opens saying, “If you have any doubts that Hannie isn’t real, wait till you see these clips,” before cutting to images of Annie sitting on Hayden’s lap, Hayden giving Annie a hug in front of her mother, and Hayden casually throwing his arm around Annie’s shoulder outside a haunted house.

In June, Hayden and Annie co-released a music video in which they covered the song “Little Do You Know.” It’s since been viewed more than 30 million times.

As the Hannie fandom grew, entertainment executives took notice. Rob Fishman, founder of Brat, a media company that develops scripted shows for Gen Z, said he first became aware of Hannie in late summer and immediately saw an opportunity to capitalize on the mania.

Fishman already had several shows in the works for fall, but he set writer Janey Feingold to work on rescripting Brat’s headliner show, Chicken Girls, to include a plot line about the theoretical Hannie romance.

While the show still generally covers the lives of a group of teens as they navigate fall semester, it launched with the name “CHICKEN GIRLS with Annie & Hayden” and actively promoted itself to the Hannie fandom.

Hannie stans went wild when the show launched. They felt like they had willed the show into existence through months of work online. Millions turned in to watch their “ship” romance play out on screen during the show’s first season.

Fishman has been thrilled at the show’s runaway success. Though teens are notorious for their short attention spans, fans were glued to Chicken Girls episodes, and the show saw record completion rates on each episode.  

“One of the words that gets thrown around a lot in writer’s rooms is ‘rootable,’” Fishman said. “It basically means having someone that viewers can root for. I think that Hayden and Annie are really rootable. They embody a lot of the #relationshipgoals that a lot of younger kids aspire to.”

Though neither Fishman nor Annie nor her father would confirm whether romance has actually blossomed between the tweens offline, the Hannie shippers have undoubtedly brought the two closer together IRL.

Hayden’s Instagram account is littered with photos of Annie, and the two have collaborated on more and more projects together. In December, Hayden and Annie announced they’ve even begun filming a movie together.

“Where do I start.... I met this girl almost 8 months ago and in only 8 months we have traveled the world, recorded songs, filmed some amazing music videos, filmed shows, and about to film a movie together. How do I get to be so lucky to have so much fun in such a short time. I feel like I’ve known you my whole life,” Hayden recently captioned an Instagram photo of the two of them lying in the grass.

But with YouTube life often imitates art imitating life, and the lines between fantasy and reality can become blurred. YouTube stars ultimately make a living on generating views, and young stars have become acutely aware of the boost in viewership a fake romance can generate.

Jake Paul, today’s most infamous teen influencer and YouTube superstar, with more than 30 million followers on social media, has, for months, carried on a fake relationship with Erika Costell, a 24-year-old fellow YouTuber and model.

Paul has monetized the “relationship” by selling merch emblazoned with their “ship name,” Jerika, and even staged a fake wedding between the two for YouTube views.

“We’re not actually dating,” Paul told The New York Times this summer. “It’s like the WWE. People know that’s fake, and it’s one of the biggest things of entertainment.”

Annie’s father, however, stressed that above all else the two share a real friendship.

“I’m just glad that they’re happy that I’m happy,” Annie herself said of the Hannie fandom.

Annie’s brand is also much broader than her relationship with Hayden, and if things fizzle out, her father is confident that she’ll be fine. “You have to realize we’ve been doing this since 2008,” said her father said. “People have watched her grow up on screen.”

Hayden also has his own dedicated fan base, which has seen him cycle through numerous relationship rumors. Just earlier this year he was romantically linked to Mackenzie Ziegler, a YouTube star who previously appeared on the show Dance Moms.

“At the end of the day, these kids are 12 and 13 years old,” Annie’s father said. “So they [Annie and Hayden] are not having what us adults would even consider a real relationship.”

“But,” Fishman added, “people can tune into the show and see what happens!”