Lizzie Renaud was expecting a little pushback when she posted an offer on Twitter to remove Hedley tattoos for free. What she wasn’t expecting was a death threat, which came hours after Renaud’s Tweet. The response was from a complete stranger, who warned: “This Ontario tattoo bitch is going to get lit up on Monday.” Shocked and a bit worried since the address of her downtown Toronto tattoo parlour would be easy to find, Renaud reported the threat to the police who advised her to avoid unknown customers and to take screen grabs of any other threatening or obscene tweets she received. She has been busy.
Renaud has her own Hedley connection. A prominent Canadian tattoo artist, she had become friendly with the band’s front man, Jacob Hoggard, after doing his tattoos for a music video in the early aughts. In February, several women began sharing stories of alleged sexual mistreatment by Hoggard and his fellow band members. In some cases, the accusers said they were as young as 14 when the incidents in question took place. Since then, two women have claimed Hoggard forced them into non-consensual sex and, last week, Toronto police announced its sex crimes unit was investigating him. When Renaud first heard the allegations, she wanted to help. “I’m not lawyer, I’m not an investigator,” she told me when we met for coffee recently. “I thought this was one way I could do something for some of these people who are really struggling.”
So far, a dozen distressed Hedley fans have taken Renaud up on her offer. She jokes that she has become an amateur therapist, doing her best to help these fans work through their feelings. She has also become a major target of social media vitriol. “Ugly cunt,” “hoe [sic]” and “FemiNazi” are just a sample of the obscenities that have been directed at her. Renaud has been accused of being jealous, fame-seeking and a pathetic liar who is “crying rape” even though she “wanted it.” (She has never made any allegations against Hedley.)
Renaud didn’t invent the idea of offering free tattoo removals after a band has been accused of sexual misconduct. Last year a tattoo artist in the UK made the same offer following similar events with the band Brand New and others have done the same. A couple of those artists have reached out to Renaud over the last couple of weeks. They follow her on Twitter and can’t believe what’s she’s been going through. “They didn’t experience anything like this,” she says. “The were like, ‘What is going on with Hedley fans?’”
It’s a good question, and one that speaks to the most fascinating aspect of Hedley’s recent downfall. Because while sexual harassment and assault allegations against powerful celebrities have become a depressing new normal, the reaction of Hedley fans has been anything but. In the brief history of #MeToo, there is arguably no individual on the planet who has received the ferocious support that Hoggard and his band mates are receiving from their hard-core fan base, largely made up of girls and women. These fans continue to attend packed concerts and pre-show VIP meet-and-greets — they hold up signs of support from the audience, they have circulated petitions and called for boycotts against the radio stations that have stopped playing Hedley’s music. At Winnipeg show earlier this week, one female fan handed out 1,500 paper hearts, each emblazoned with the hashtag #IStandWithHedley, which has become the group’s rallying cry in the face of allegations.
It’s a hard thing to fathom for the many Canadians who had written these guys off as a poor man’s Blink 182, or that band with the Canadian Idol guy. But Hedley has spent the last 15 years building up one of the most devoted fan bases in modern music. And, as allegations have surfaced, so too has a previously contained subculture of Hedley mega-fans who make Bieber’s Beliebers look like a band of baby kittens. They are hurt, they are angry and frankly, they can be pretty scary.
I remember Jacob Hoggard as the best and most memorable part of Canadian Idol’s second season, or any season for that matter. He came in third, but was a lock for the spirit award, an irrepressible and magnetic man-boy who performed “Space Oddity” in a blue one-piece unitard — he was an outsider, and proud of it, which was a huge part of the charm. Promoting that brand of non-conformity has been essential to Hedley’s success from the start. (The band, which existed before their front man’s Idol stint, reformed afterwards with all new members except Hoggard himself.) So while their music has never been much edgier than your average boy band, their image has always been darker, counter-cultural, a little dangerous. “They have definitely done their best to project that punk image,” says the Toronto Star’s music critic, Ben Rayner, who admits he has been mostly mystified by Hedley’s appeal. “They are basically your textbook third-rate CanCon band,” he says. And yet, their fans respond to the music like they were Leonard Cohen or Lou Reed.
That a lot of Hedley’s fans are (or were) young women and girls is a big part of their success. It’s easy to be dismissive of facile lyrics like “find a way to smile and never let it get away,” or “even the beautiful lose control” (both extremely popular Hedley tattoos). But for adolescents in the throes of teenage angst, songs about feeling misunderstood, not fitting in, or falling short of perfection but being brave enough to keep trying aren’t a cliché, they’re a life line. And while his lyrics make fans feel understood, Hoggard himself has been the ideal vessel for their budding sexuality: a tank-topped, tattooed PG-13-rated bad boy. He’s a little bit crude, but also sensitive and funny — basically the ideal boyfriend for the angsty, misunderstood misfit who is every teenage girl ever.
That all changed on Feb. 12 when a Twitter user called @_cndnpscyho (who has since identified herself as 21-year-old former Hedley fan Taylor Bowman) asked people to share their “creepy Hedley” stories. Bowman claims Hoggard grabbed her bum outside a bar in Manitoba in 2015. She and her friends had heard rumblings that this was not an isolated incident and wanted to see who else might have stories. Still, she says she had no idea that one tweet would be the catalyst for Hedley’s downfall. In the week or so that followed, Bowman says about 60 women reached out to her with stories of alleged harassment, intimidation and sexual impropriety — made more disturbing by the fact that many say they were underage at the time. Then, on Feb. 25, a 24-year-old Ottawa woman accused Jacob Hoggard of raping her multiple times when she met him at a Toronto hotel in 2016. A few days later, a second women from Toronto shared a similar story — an encounter in 2013 during which she says Hoggard forced her into anal sex even as she was saying no.
Hedley was midway through their tour when the scandal broke, and the band was immediately dropped by its management and booking agency. They were relieved of their duties performing at this weekend’s Juno Awards, and removed themselves from consideration for three Junos, including the Fan Choice Award. CBC, Corus Radio and more than 100 Bell Media stations have banned their music and two opening acts left their tour, which continued despite the allegations.
The band responded to the initial wave of accusations via a statement on its Facebook fan page, calling the claims “unsubstantiated” but admitting to having “engaged in a lifestyle that incorporated certain rock ‘n’ roll clichés.” Then, after the first rape allegation, Hoggard posted a statement on his Twitter feed, in which he denied having ever engaged in non-consensual sex, but admitted to “[behaving] in a way that objectified women” and treating them in a way that was “reckless and dismissive of their feelings.” He announced that following the tour, which ended Friday with a final show in Kelowna, he will be stepping away from his career indefinitely.
Even for fans who aren’t standing with Hedley, reconciling the band they loved so much with the crimes Hoggard has been accused of has been hard. Seventeen-year-old Emily McCarthy was excited to attend the PEI show with her sisters, but that changed after she heard about the allegations. “I was so upset and angry” she says, but ultimately decided the show could be an opportunity to stand up for something she believed in. And so, while a lot of fans showed up at the stadium with “I Stand With Hedley” signs, McCarthy’s poster read, “Sexual Assault Isn’t Rock Star Behaviour. It’s Sexual Assault.”
There were protests outside the shows in Sudbury and in Thunder Bay. But this small brigade of objectors (who gather on Twitter under #OutHedley2K18) are vastly outnumbered by the Hedley army, and have become targets for the fans. Taylor Bowman, who called for the creepy Hedley stories, has received tweets with knife and gun emojis in them. One young female fan tweeted a picture in which she (the fan) is holding a soap on a rope and told Bowman she hopes she enjoys her time in jail. McCarthy was told, “you’re just mad because they didn’t want to sleep with you.” Other dissenters are told they are “too ugly” or “too fat” to get raped. Or, in some cases, it’s fans posting that they only wish they were lucky enough to get raped by Jacob. One woman noted a potential bright side to the current crisis in that it might, “weed out the less loyal fans. Maybe we can go back to small venues and general admission. More intimate — some of us can handle it.”
I spoke with one former fan who compares Hedley’s extreme fans to Manson girls in their blind devotion and willingness to lash out in a misguided display of loyalty. She recently had her tattoo removed by Lizzie Renaud. When I asked her to describe the tattoo she said she didn’t want to tell me because to do so would be to identify herself within the fan community. She is glad she “got out,” as she puts it, but still feels extremely conflicted and lost. Speaking to her it’s obvious that she has not only lost a band she really loves, but also a community and, in some ways, her identity.
The relationship between Hedley and its fans has always been intense. Back in the early years, they would perform in small venues: dive bars, mini malls, universities. They would hang out after shows, sign posters, chat. It made their fans feel like there was a real connection. “We would literally spend hours every day talking about them,” says one fan who was part of the Hedley fan message board community, before Twitter and Facebook existed. A typical conversation might centre around Jacob’s new shirt, bassist Tommy Mac’s hair-cut, whether one of the guys might have a thing with that girl who’s been showing up at the show. They’d compare “stats,” meaning interactions with the band. So maybe Suzie’s had gone to 32 shows and 25 meet-and-greets. But Angie has met Jacob three times and Dave kissed her on the cheek once. There was a lot of support in the fan community, but there was also a lot of competition and bullying, particularly if one girl was perceived to be getting more time or more attention.
I tried to spot these mega fans when I went to see Hedley in Oshawa earlier this month. They must have been there because they talked about it on Twitter, but they blended in with the rest of the crowd, which included lots of teenage and twenty-something women and girls, but also older women and drunken frat boys and parents with children dressed in matching Hedley merch. I chatted with a family of four (two parents, two tweenage daughters) who told me that Hedley is “the only band [they] can all listen to together.” Three female nurses in their fifties — who were well into the merlot — told me how unfair it was to see “poor Jacob” made an example of.
If Hoggard was upset on that night, he didn’t show it, dancing around the stage, changing costumes three times, at one point shaking his booty at the crowd. And if this behaviour was in bad taste given the circumstances, I seemed to be the only person in the stadium who felt that way. I had expected the allegations to cast some kind of pall over the event, which was in all likelihood, one of Hedley’s final performances, but it went by like any other show. When the band opened with “Better Days,” (a song about how those days are just around the corner), I first took it as pretty glaring subtext. But as the show continued I noticed that most of Hedley’s songs are about loyalty, persistence, getting up when you’re down and never losing faith. I am here, I understand what you’re going through, I will stand by you when the world comes crumbling down is the underlying message behind the catchy licks and swoony piano solos.
Now that the world has come crumbling down around Jacob Hoggard, it’s possible some of his fans feel compelled to return the favour. And perhaps defending Hoggard is easier than contemplating the fact that he might have fooled them. In that Facebook post, Hedley told its fans that they planned to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Maybe it’s time for their fans to do the same.