If you want to truly appreciate the deep and divisive reactions that One Direction have the power to provoke, try walking around Dubai for two days with life-sized cut-outs of the band members.
OK, it's not the easiest trick to pull off, but after The National's photographer Pawan Singh and I did just that, I'm certain there can be few better ways to gauge grass-roots public opinion than confronting passers-by with the four faces who make up the biggest boy band in the world. And the other one.
[ Click here to see our photo gallery of “One Direction” in Dubai ]
The passionate outpourings of appreciation and outright abuse that greet our cardboard copies of Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson and the recently departed Zayn Malik suggest something more akin to a bona fide phenomenon.
On the one hand, there are the hyenas. Hyperventilating super-fans who emit piercing shrieks before galloping gamely towards their prey, often planting a kiss on Harry’s face before leaning in for a selfie.
“I’m so excited,” says the 23-year-old Irish primary-school teacher Darina Lynch. “I love them. Zayn is my favourite, because he’s cute. Taking these photos has made my day.”
Little did she, or we, know that Malik would quit the band on Wednesday last week, just a few days after our little stunt. Why? Because it was “what feels right”.
“They’re so famous — I love all of them,” says 26-year-old Filipino photographer Emilyn Bagni. “Their songs are so nice and they’re pretty boys.”
Then there are the haters. The people who could have so easily ignored our playful prank and kept walking, but instead chose to take time out of their day to tell us how worthless the band are and how worthless your reporter’s life is for carrying around life-sized cut-outs of them.
And occupying the middle ground between the two extremes are the simply curious and bemused — those who recognise the band, but aren’t quite sure why.
“I don’t know, maybe they’re singers? I’m too old for them,” says Ludmila Kazantseva, a 33-year-old Russian face painter who works on Marina Walk. “Of course I’d love to have a picture with them. I’m still pretty — are they coming here? Can you give my number to them?”
Jean-Marie Schlömer is curious enough to stop jogging, but keeps his distance, with an amused expression on his face.
“Is it One Direction?” asks the 31-year-old French-German expat with a look of derision. “My opinion? I ignore them. Successfully so far — this is my closest encounter.”
Brushing aside my fear of jeers and derision, we drag the cut-outs around Dubai relentlessly, documenting the results as if on a makeshift sociological study.
We take the boys to chill with tourists on JBR beach and to ambush commuters in DIFC; to wander the Al Fahidi Historical District and to cruise the modern, man-made Palm Jumeirah.
On our travels — and travails — we encounter wind, rain, rush-hour traffic and hostile security guards.
We introduce the quintet to some of Dubai’s most iconic sights — from the Burj Al Arab to Deira’s Clocktower roundabout; Atlantis to Emirates Towers — and also experience a slice of everyday life with trips to Spinneys and a ride on the Dubai Tram.
We look on as they watch the Dubai Fountain spurt gloriously. We even take Harry and Zayn across the creek on an abra, twice, much to the confusion of fellow passengers and passing boats.
Everywhere we go, the opinions come thick and fast. As do the selfies.
“It’s not that I don’t like them, I’m just not crazy about them,” says Victoria, a Romanian administrator visiting Dubai on holiday. “I want a picture with them anyway. Why? So I can tell people I met One Direction. Why don’t you bring the real guys next time?”
“My niece is a big fan, we’re a bit older — well, a lot older,” says 54-year-old British tourist Jenny Moledina, who bumps into the boys on the tram. “They can sing. One of them — Zayn I think — looks like my nephew.
“I do listen to them. Well, I wouldn’t change stations if they were on the radio.”
One thing that our encounters makes clear is that 1D are clearly a global phenomenon.
“They are very famous in the Philippines — everyone knows their songs,” says Filipino textiles seller Ferdinand Matias, 47. “That is why everyone loves them.”
“They are nice, I like their music, they are young,” says Ethiopian sales worker Mimeomer Mona, 26, as she leans in for a photo. “I just wish I could go to the concert.”
Perhaps the most amusing reactions come at Deira’s Spice Souk and Gold Souk. Stallholders and shoppers alike are captivated and we fast-attract a merry band who follow us around the district’s winding, indoor corridors.
It quickly becomes apparent most of the people are far from clear on exactly who they’re stalking.
“It’s Justin Bieber,” says Yousef Khan, a 24-year-old Afghan shop assistant, a misidentification we hear repeated many times.
Despite previously coming face-to-face with a living, breathing member of the band, one British Marina resident, Lynn McGuirk, still struggled to identity the boys.
“Yes, no, yes ...” she says, uncertainly. “I was in Shoreditch [in London] and we saw one of them having lunch in Orange Pekoe, a famous lunch spot — it was the one in the middle. Harry? He had a hat on.
“I might have been a fan if I was 20 years younger. They’re very popular in the UK — before I left, all the young girls in the office between 20 and 24 absolutely loved them.”
While we aren’t short of intrigue, appreciation and derision, one thing few people could offer was an explanation for the fascination and strong feelings provoked by the band.
When it came to giving a coherent reason why these five young men have taken over the world, in a musical sense, we turn not to the young superfans, but to the parents.
“Their appeal is Harry Styles — it’s as simple as that,” says Louise Hutchings, a 41-year-old British mum. “It’s become a whole brand. Their songs are pretty good and I think they write them themselves, or have a hand in them anyway.”
Her 17-year-old daughter, Freya, has seen the band perform in Britain and, through a mutual friend, got her hands on a signed CD that is now her “prized possession”.
“They’re a good, clean-cut band,” Hutchings adds. “Mums like them, daughters like them. I like them from a mum’s point of view — I wouldn’t have a problem having tea with them. I’d invite them round, actually.”
A tram passenger, Australian tourist John Costa, echoes those sentiments, as he tells how his daughter, Elise, made a 1,800-kilometre round trip from Melbourne to see the band perform in Sydney.
“I think it’s an obsession,” says the 50-year-old. “Why does she like them? Because she’s 20 years old and they’re attractive, famous, young, successful men — which is exactly what young women want.”
So, the big question — did his daughter think the show was worth the trip? Or do Dubai gig-goers risk being disappointed on Saturday at the Sevens Stadium?
“She loved it, it lived up to all her expectations,” he said. “I suppose it’s a bit like The Beatles for someone my age.”
By the end of my second day in the company of the cut-out heartthrobs, having battled the elements and braved the abuse, our cardboard heroes aren’t looking half as bright and sprightly as they had 34 hours earlier, when I ripped them shiny and new from their plastic packaging.
Zayn, in particular, is visibly exhausted — his head nodding uncontrollably forward after a nasty knock in the souq. We should have guessed that he was ready to call it a day.
As I remark out loud that Harry, the most harangued of all our 2-D 1D stars, can no longer stand upright at all without an industrial amount of Sellotape, I hear a voice respond.
“It’s nothing new, Harry looking worse for wear,” says Tracey Spicer, a 50-year-old British holidaymaker, with a grin.
• The real One Direction perform at the Sevens Stadium on Saturday. Tickets are sold out