There’s a blockade of bronies standing in the way of my intended entrance into the Holiday Inn in Austin, Texas. They're trying to get outside.
"And we will venture our bodies out of doors because it is nice out!" one of them declares when he first steps foot onto the rubber welcome mat outside the hotel. "And the air is fresh!"
The kid who's shouting has a point: It's downright beautiful outside. Not that anybody staying at this Holiday Inn this weekend is likely to notice.
This particular Holiday Inn in north Austin is hosting Texas' inaugural Brony Fan Fair, a weekend-long convention of sorts for willful allegiants (henceforth known as "bronies") of the My Little Pony franchise—a television series centered around a cartoon community of small, furry-looking ponies, all of whom have interesting, mythicized names like Octavia and Twilight Sparkle.
I'm six feet inside the hotel lobby, and I'm already lost. At all points around me, teenagers and 20-somethings wearing jet packs and rainbow wigs flock and prance and jump for joy at the sight of each other. They quote conversations and thumb through schedules together, plotting out their every move for the next 36 hours down to the most infinitesimal detail.
"I'm going to go to the Costume Contest!" one brony says to his friends who've gathered around a table.
"I'll be at the PonyKart Q&A!" another counters.
"We can do both!"offers a third. "Look here, there's an hour in between!"
I grab myself a schedule and curl up inside a doorway.
It only takes a minute for the first brony to nervously nestle himself up right next to me. He's a tall, slender kid, hunched in the shoulders and long in the hair. He's wearing glasses, a cartoonish shirt with some nearly illegible words, and a furry, pink cap, one whose ears protrude from the top like you'd see on Super Mario or Luigi when they’d turn into raccoons and fly.
"What's going on?" I ask the kid, an 18-year-old named Nathan.
"Oh, not much," he says. "Just… thinking…. of a way to answer that question without saying 'Oh, not much.'"
"Well," I say. "What's going on?"
"Oh, well, I guess I need to get myself over to the Opening Ceremony soon," he says. "Then "Vinyl Scratch Tapes: Live!," "Who's Best Pony?," and "PonyKart Q&A.”
I tell him that I have no idea what he just said, but that I'd like to learn.
The kid goes on to tell me that the newest iteration of the My Little Pony franchise, subtitled Friendship is Magic, got revived in 2010 by an artist named Lauren Faust and is more or less an animated, bestial stepchild of Star Trek and Doctor Who.
"The reason that people are into this show is because it's just good," Nathan says.
"The message behind it is just good. A lot of things today are about violence and explosions and death and everything, simply for the sake of gaining popularity through that gore and death. My Little Pony manages to be a good show without falling back on that stuff."
Nathan, who lives outside Pensacola, Fla., and talked his father into driving him all 12 hours so that he could attend his first brony convention, started watching the show a year ago and became a brony "exactly one year after the show came out."
"And by 'became a brony,' I mean that was when my marathon of all the episodes ended," he says. "I watched all of season one and as much as I could of season two in one sitting.
He says that he lured himself in on account of the engaging dialogue and fun-to-follow plot lines but also by the characters in My Little Pony—the unicorned Twilight Sparkle and her friends, Spike, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy—who abide by a certain moral code, one that he says isn't as unique to entertainment and fandoms as one would think.
"The reason why we watch science fiction and fantasy is because we like to see something that's better than reality," he says. "We want our characters to be really good characters. In Doctor Who, the doctor is very moral. His mission is to help others. That's why people like Doctor Who so much. It's really just the same thing."
And thus, things start coming into focus: bronies are Trekkies for the 21st century, less about deep space and more about the pony race. And their conventions, colorful and joyous as they may be, are more or less modern iterations of the Star Trek cons that have become pop culture fixtures.
There's more to that thought, but Nathan's checking his cell phone, and he says it's time to split. Opening Ceremonies start in the Main Events room across the lobby in 10 minutes.
More than 200 bronies have gathered into a room so decked out in costumed glamour and My Little Pony glitz that those shuffling by my plain white T-shirt and grey-toned Nikes must know that I'm a tourist here.
"Where are all my Houston bronies?!" the MC pleads from the front of the room.
"Dallas?! San Antonio?! Austin!"
The room erupts. Everyone in this room is officially 20 percent cooler.
The MC, a brony-centric Crocodile Dundee-looking fellow named Tory Evans, spends the next half-hour introducing major players, forecasting the weekend's activities, and making inside references to My Little Pony culture. Each reference elicits a cheer that's louder than the first: A party with cider, intentional "because Applejack makes cider," Nathan explains; two rules for the weekend ("Cut down on horseplay," he snickers); an ovation for the three bronies in attendance who've put in time with the military.
And with that, the DJ—a bearded man who looks like a cross between Kris Kringle and Zach Galifianakis and maintains the brony-centric online radio station Celestia Radio—flips the switch and the loud speakers play a cheery song called "Smile, Smile, Smile."
Everyone—everyone—sings along, stomps their feet (“hooves”), and intermittently claps to the beat.
"If you get a lyric wrong," Nathan assures, "people will correct you."
Nathan and I are standing in the back while all of this revelry goes down up front. He's cheering, sure, but he's not entirely comfortable jumping into the thick of things quite yet. This is his first convention, and while he attests to having more than 800 brony friends on Facebook and other online forums and communities, he's only developed a personal relationship with one brony, a girl in his hometown who he helped turn on to the show. So while the bronies rightfully have a reputation for being a friendly, inviting crowd, he's still getting himself to that point.
Evans sends the bronies on their way, and all 200 immediately rise and file out of the main room in search of their next sight or seat. Nathan and I walk into the lobby and quickly get ourselves into a line to reenter the room. The Vinyl Scratch Tapes: Live!—a live dramatic reading of My Little Pony fanfiction, stories that have been written in homage to stories—starts at 1pm sharp, and Nathan has already made it known at least four times that he will not miss this event for the world.
We settle into line and Nathan starts chatting up a brony who's dressed up like a Changeling, a character of MLP lore that can assume the identity of any other pony.
"In the beginning, I didn't even like this stuff at all," the Changeling, a 20-year-old Austinite named Alex, says. "I actually openly despised it.
"Basically, what I did was I saw it and then went over to the Internet and said, 'Let's see what the Internet says about this.'
"I ended up finding all of this music that I immediately enjoyed and wanted. The bronies got me into techno. They got me into rap. They got me into everything that I enjoy. As a result, I said, 'Well, I guess I'm stuck with you guys.'"
Alex has seen every My Little Pony episode and can likely recite every line. Throughout the weekend, he's carrying a handheld speaker system that's playing brony music through a bluetooth connection on his phone. He's like this guy, except he's just dressed up like this thing called a Changeling.
I'm feeling like an overbearing mother and Nathan needs to make some friends. I turn around and find a casually dressed 49-year-old named Gordon.
"I was watching Star Trek back when I was a kid," Gordon says. "Back when that was all there was.
"Both communities are there for the outliers. It's an ongoing thing. Time moves on."
He says that he came to My Little Pony for the story and stayed for the art: the music and the dolls and the posters that fans will create, package, and sell for sometimes $150 a pop.
"I like the art," he says. "The whole community is a reaction to the… well, to the show, which is pretty good itself. But the fact that it's a good show has inspired the community to create such an overwhelming artistic response to it.
"People have their own imaginations. They have their own talents. And they get into the show in such a way that it gives side characters new life. It allows for the fans to fill in the blanks and make primary what was once secondary."
That, in essence, is the motive behind this Vinyl Scratch: Live!, the fanfiction reading that Nathan's put such a premium on. The performance, put on by that Kringle/Galifianakis-looking cat and his buddies from Midnight Magic Productions, follows the adventures of Vinyl Scratch, a background unicorn character who gets a job as a DJ at radio station that plays rock music, and Octavia, another background pony who accepts a job as Vinyl Scratch's assistant despite her affinity for classical music. (Seriously.)
For the next hour, I'm in a chair and listening to six people read scripts about ponies and places that I have never heard referenced before. They bring fans onstage for portions of readings and switch characters to create funny dichotomies. They make references to scenes, and other panelists interject with corrections. The crowd shouts and stamps and hollers and laughs. At one point, one of the panelists makes mention of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird," and my ears perk up because it is the first pop culture reference that I've fully understood all day.
The rest is somewhat of a blur. At some point, Vinyl Scratchand Octavia end up on some strange planet, and there's another reference to "Freebird." I start to wonder what else this Brony Fan Fair has to offer when the session breaks.
Nathan and I agree to split up for a spell so I can survey the scene while he holds our place in line for the PonyKart Q&A. Around the floor, I find exhibitors selling art and patches and badges and figurines. I find photographers snapping photos of goblins and regal figures, guys with fake guns posing next to boys in pink shirts who clutch tightly to My Little Pony dolls.
In the lobby, kids play Magic: The Gathering and watch My Little Pony episodes on YouTube. They drink 12-packs of Mountain Dew, and a few take post by the televisions around the bar broadcasting the football game between the University of Florida and Texas A&M. They make reference to their times together in the Aggie band. They sing songs and compliment each other on costumes.
I fall back in line with Nathan, who's stood largely in place and struck up conversation with a 20-year-old Austinite named Justin, a devout Christian who just recently bought into the message behind the show.
"It's clean," he says. "If it's clean, I have no problem watching it.
"I started watching it and immediately got really into it. And what I noticed was that the fandom for the TV show is alive and growing and everyone loves it. And then you look at Christianity, and it's going nowhere. A fandom like this is what Christianity should be."
Nathan tells Justin that his father was a Christian before he became an atheist and that he thinks a lot of religions have become very corrupt.
"It's because they're starting to interpret their religious texts in a way that's kind of wrong," Nathan says. "Not everybody, just their leaders."
"The only thing I can think of in terms of the brony message is friendship," Justin replies. "To a true Christian, Christianity is not about a religion. It's about a relationship.
"It's not my job to judge people. It's my job to love them and treat them kindly. That's what a Christian should be. And that's what the bronies do. They treat other people kindly."
Across America and Equestria, bronies abide by the golden rule.
Correction: The name of the MC at the Brony Fan Fair was Tory Evans. Michael Loredo worked mostly behind the scenes.
Photos by Chase Hoffberger