Bubblegum Pop Music is the Pure, Naked Truth

Finding Claire Flynn Boyle

Michael Lee Richardson

A rude ginger bitch

For a while in the early 2000s I ran a parody website pretending to be the unofficial Australian fanclub blog for UK Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates with a young woman named Crystal.

Crystal and I are still friends.

We’ve never met in person, but I know she’s real.

That blog, Gareth’s Love Pavilion, was part of an ecosystem of sites that were very specific to the early 2000s, a Marvel Cinematic Universe of pop culture blogs all spun-off at various points from the PopJustice forum, where Crystal and I had first started chatting. As teenagers with a similar sense of humour as well as compatible taste in trash, we found a natural comic rapport with each other through our banter on the forum, before going on to collaborate on the blog.

Gareth’s Love Pavilion soon dropped the Gareth Gates part of its remit and became a general pop culture blog. We wrote about TV more than film, 80s, 90s and early 2000s pop music, and a specific sort of low stakes celebrity that was less about gossip and messiness and more about exonerating people who had gone a long way on very little talent.

We’d have themed ‘weeks’ for Britney Spears, Madonna and Take That, and discuss our favourite Minogue (always Dannii). We wrote a lot about tATu, particularly the oddly-translated press releases they’d put out via their official website (on whether the ‘Russian lesbian pop group’ were actually lesbians: ‘Lena loves Julia, Julia loves Lena, they both love mambo’); and Neighbours, the Australian soap opera, specifically about a character named Taj, and specifically about the time Taj accidentally broke a girl’s back horsing around and then started dating her which, miraculously, cured her — a love story for the ages. Top 5s were popular, long before Buzzfeed established arbitrarily numbered lists and took over the market (‘Top five lesbians — real, fake or assumed’ included Lena — but not Julia — from tATu and Calamity Jane from Calamity Jane).

2002 was a different time.

In the mainstream press and online outlets back then, there was a lot of sneering, snarky commentary about ‘lowbrow’ pop music and reality TV, but the bloggers borne of PopJustice took the same approach that Crystal and I did; finding the sublime in the ridiculous, approaching it with a sense of joy and optimism, irreverence rather than irony, with a real appreciation of bubblegum, camp and drama. I remember a time when one of our number cried at hearing a new S Club Juniors song, and it wasn’t presented as a joke.

We liked things that others might term ‘guilty pleasures’, without any of the guilt.

This was the first time I remember being part of an online culture. Previously I’d posted on forums and messageboards, and might encounter a handful of posters from one forum to another, but this felt different, closer to the way we’re all dispersed across a handful of platforms these days. This was a network of people — a community — spread out across a web of forums and blogs, all with a handful of things in common, who all knew and talked to each other.

A lot of the people I know from back then are still good friends, staying in touch through the more conventional channels of Twitter and Facebook.
In those early days, if I wanted to know what someone was listening to, I might check out what they were saying on the PopJustice boards; if I wanted to know who they were rooting for on Popstars: The Rivals, I’d check out lowculture (although I’d probably assume the answer was ‘the girls’). We’d chat to each other on MSN in between commenting on each others’ blogs, and curating our own.

Amongst the best of these blogs was CFB Goes Pop, which had the distinction of being hosted on LiveJournal while most of us were on Blogspot.

CFB Goes Pop was run by an Australian woman with the online alias Claire Flynn Boyle — yes, after Lara Flynn Boyle. She wrote about a very specific blend of bubblegum pop from the 80s and 90s, football and Australian Women’s Wrestling, early competition reality shows like Big Brother and the first series of Australian Idol (always referred to as So Oz As Idol), and a handful of films and television shows.

CFB Goes Pop was funny — ‘high-larious’, as she would say — and it was the specificity of Claire’s posts that made them all the better. ‘Videos to watch instead of the Iraq war’ (again, 2002 was a different time) were as varied as Buffy the Vampire Slayer seasons 2 and 5, Spice Girls Live in Istanbul and Paris, Texas. She dedicated a whole week’s worth of posts to Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch and their sophomore album You Gotta Believe that featured a profile of erstwhile member Hector the Booty Inspector (‘occupation: Inspecting booties’).

She was particularly fond of Liz Phair, Liz Phair’s 2004 pop album, and pop star autobiographies (‘We need more stories like the one in Billie Piper’s autobiography where she describes in tedious detail how her school smelled. A lot more interesting than these drug taking stories’).

She hated Hayley Evetts from Pop Idol, who even at that point in time was a reality show also-ran who we’d never heard from since. Claire had a commitment to pettiness I still aspire to today.

Her taste in music was almost entirely the exact sort of anthemic, female-lead pop that I was (and still am) into, bands like Kenickie, Girls Aloud and, yes, tATu. She had a particular affinity for the Pokémon: The Movie soundtrack which featured Emma Bunton, Billie Piper and Vitamin C (all absolute bangers, and still worth checking out).

I still think about her mishearing the lyrics to Sarah Whatmore’s single ‘Automatic’ as ‘she’s a one-legged bass-lovin’ lady’.

There was always an air of mystery about Claire herself, and only ever hints at what her life was like.

At 29, she was slightly older than most of the fledgling bloggers in her orbit, a bunch of kids in school and college, or gay men and straight women in their early 20s working office jobs and aspiring to entry-level media gophering.

Claire lived in Melbourne, and ‘worked in television’. She had a boyfriend. She was a member of the LBH (long blonde hair) sisterhood. She wore go-go boots, and was the sort of character screenwriters would refer to as ‘takes no prisoners’.

She’d been in an indie band in the 90s, and had lived in the UK. Her band had played King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut with Oasis. She hated them, as much as she hated her own band’s music, and often brought up an altercation she’d had with Noel Gallagher over a Britney Spears t-shirt she was wearing that ended with her calling Noel Gallagher a cunt.

She split her time between Melbourne, London and Paris, and would retire to vaguely Scandinavian places whenever she felt fatigued.

She would often hint at being in or having been in rehab, though it was never clear what for other than a general malaise brought on by her cosmopolitan lifestyle.

It’s easy to see why a young, awkward gay kid who spent most of their time on the internet would be attracted to someone like Claire.

It all seemed impossibly glamorous.

Can I make it any more obvious?

About 2 years after I met Claire I met Alyson.

Claire’s best mate, the two of them were polar opposites in a lot of ways.

Where Claire was haughty and aloof — the word ‘mardy’ was bandied about a lot — Alyson was bright and bubbly, almost obsessively cheerful.

Claire and Alyson had grown up with each other, and had kept in touch when Claire had moved — briefly — to Scotland. Where Claire ‘worked in television’, Alyson designed surfboards for a living, and worked part time in a shop.

Alyson began to post on the blog and would frequently pop up on Claire’s accounts — first on MSN, later on Google Chat — with her signature greeting, ‘Hey Tiges!’

Claire and Alyson were a good double act. They would ‘argue’ between posts, with Claire always threatening to change her password and take away Alyson’s posting rights.

Alyson went some way to build up the legend of Claire Flynn Boyle, with most of her posts being about Claire’s diva-like demands.

Later, new members joined the team.

There was Jessica — Bad Girl J, as she was known — Claire’s six year old cousin, who would post in all caps about her cat and Avril Lavigne.

Their friend Tina Thomsen — ‘Tina T’ — had spent a stint playing Fin in Home & Away in the 90s. Tina T’s posts would mostly be about hats, and would often feature the same handful of screenshots of her in an episode of Farscape from 1999.

I can’t stress enough how funny CFB Goes Pop was. Alyson once took advantage of Claire’s ‘mardy’ nature to conduct a ‘social experiment’ where Claire left her outside various shops and cafes so she could find out how it really felt to be left outside alone, a la the lyrics to the song ‘Left Outside Alone’ by early 2000s chanteuse Anastasia.

I still think about lines from their ‘script’ for Sk8er Boi: The Movie and laugh:

Friends: (sticking up their noses) We have a problem with your baggy clothes.

‘Sing When We’re Kilwinning’, a sort of prose sitcom about Claire’s early life in Scotland, was another highlight, set mostly in an Ayrshire leisure centre called The Magnum (the Magnum often turns up in interviews about the early life of Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, too).

I loved Claire and Alyson and everyone from the blog.

I don’t think any of them were real.

An artist’s impression of some detective work underway

About a decade ago — and about 5 years after I’d stopped hearing from Claire or Alyson or anyone from the blog — I was added to a Facebook group:

‘I will not rest until the mystery of Claire Flynn Boyle is solved.’

It was a reunion of the fledgling bloggers I’d known in the early 2000s, most of whom now worked, in some way, in the media.

It turned out, most of us had always been slightly suspicious about Claire, Alyson and The Pop Girls.

The early days of that group were a flurry of amateur detective work.

Claire and Alyson shared MSN and Google Chat accounts, so people were pulling up transcriptions, pointing out ‘inconsistencies’ between the characters, like times when Claire would open with Alyson’s signature ‘Hey Tiges!’

The ‘legend’ of Claire Flynn Boyle was under some scrutiny, too.

One poster recalled a time when Alyson told them about Claire doing Bertine Zelitz songs on karaoke. ‘When I enquired what karaoke place has stuff by an unknown-outside-of-Scandinavia songstress, she said ‘Claire just asks and it happens’.’

Someone knew someone who knew someone who had once met Tina Thomsen and asked her about Claire, and she didn’t know anything about her. They’d shown her the site, and she seemed creeped out.

There was only ever one picture of Claire, a low resolution photo of a blonde woman in cargo pants and a crop top, standing on a bridge looking windswept and interesting. Looking at the photo now, it looks like it’s been taken from a catalogue, or a women’s magazine — a 90s Dolly magazine, Crystal says — but that was the sort of person Claire was, or the sort of person she presented as. It seems strange to think about it now that we have Snapchat and Instagram and selfies, but only having one photo of yourself online was the sort of thing you could get away with in those days. This was just on the cusp of MySpace and, later, Facebook. My own photo of choice was a heavily photoshopped number, taking at the jaunty ‘MySpace angle’, with my (dyed) black fringe sweeping across one eye. The photo was in black and white.

2002 was a different time.

Theories abound over who The Pop Girls had actually been.

The most common theory — and the one that probably feels closest to the truth, for me — was that ‘Claire’ was real and writing under an alias, and she had made the other girls up as a joke that had gotten out of hand. Claire had her own LiveJournal — which Alyson would refer to as ‘the mardy blog’ — separate to CFB Goes Pop, with a handful of posts on it, all with a much more serious, world weary tone.

Crystal posits that the original Claire had been real, ‘and that a second person (who was insane) took over.’

Some amateur Nancy Drews admitted to having tracked the IP address they assumed to be Claire’s down to a National Australia Bank building in Melbourne. It was somehow determined that maybe Claire’s boyfriend worked for NAB, or a friend who’d predated CFB Goes Pop who occasionally commented in the early days of the site, but it was inconclusive. Either way, either of them might have ‘been’ Claire, Alyson and the rest of the girls.

We’d sometimes, jokingly, insinuate that one or the other of us had ‘been’ Claire, in a way that wasn’t really a joke at all.

The one thing no one was really able to answer is why The Pop Girls would fake who they were.

There was almost nothing at stake.

It was a long time before meeting people from the internet wasn’t at least a little bit weird, for a start.

There was never any insistence that anyone should meet them or hang out with them, so if they were ever cat fishing they were playing a long game.

Our conversations on MSN and Google chat were fairly innocuous, and I never felt under pressure to tell them anything I didn’t want to tell them.

All told, I often felt more like whatever I said was more of a conduit to one of their stories than anything else.

It’s a weird feeling to think that someone you spent so much time with — even if that time was spent online — and cared so much about might not be real.

I remember specifically chatting with Alyson when she told us she was pregnant, and being genuinely happy for her when she had her baby. When Alyson told me clear was ‘unwell’, and was taking some time out from work to travel and get better, I was genuinely worried about her, and wasn’t sure what to say when she popped up on Google Chat.

In Crystal’s words, it would be fair to say that most of the members of the ‘I will not rest until the mystery of Claire Flynn Boyle is solved’ group have, indeed, rested.

The Pop Girls have a YouTube account, with three blurry old recorded-from-the-telly-style video clips on it — two of which are songs by Melissa Tkautz — all of which were uploaded 13 years ago.

They still occasionally ‘favourite’ videos about video games.

They haven’t responded to any of my DMs asking them to come clean (particularly gutting, given the oblique reference to Hilary Duff’s seminal ‘Come Clean’, a top 17 hit in Australia and a favourite of The Pop Girls).

There’s no trace of Claire anywhere online since 2011 (‘Claire’s Favourite Songs 2011’ is a playlist on the CFB Goes Pop YouTube channel).

The last example of Alyson posting anywhere is in 2013, when her comments on a wrestling blog (about Australian Women’s Wrestling) are picked up by the blog itself.

But I still think about The Pop girls, and the mystery of Claire Flynn Boyle.

I’d give anything to find out who she really was.

BAFTA award-winning writer. Familiar with candle, with book and with bell. Rep’d by Louisa Minghella at Blake Friedmann

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