A year ago, Joe Locke and Kit Connor were kids preparing for their exams. Now, courtesy of Netflix’s breakthrough queer sensation Heartstopper, they are reckoning with suddenly being stop–you–in–the street, internet–boyfriend famous.
It’s afternoon at Rowan’s, a bowling alley and arcade in North London. The kind of place where the floors are sticky and the fizzy cola never quite tastes right. As most grown adults are wallowing in hungover states, two of the most famous young men in the country – Joe Locke and Kit Connor, the stars of Netflix’s Heartstopper – are here surrounded by kids’ birthday parties. It’s the closest they now get to incognito, since almost no one their age is kicking around. But while the boys are distracted shooting hoops, playfully competing against each other, a stray teenager spots them and whispers into her mum’s ear.
I wonder what she says. How she tries to summarise the sheer power of Heartstopper, the show that changed the pair’s lives and deeply affected many of the millions who watched it. How she describes these two men who, a year ago, enjoyed their respective normalities: studying for their GCSEs, living at home with their parents, preparing for the release of a queer TV show many – including Netflix – thought would pass by on the cultural calendar as nothing but a mild, if important arrhythmic blip.
In the first month of its release, people spent 53 million hours staring at Locke and Connor’s faces on TV – and countless more on social media – as every moment of the show was TikToked to oblivion (the hashtag #Heartstopper alone has over 7.7 billion views). All of a sudden, you can feel eyes watching them wherever they go.
Neither of them prepared for this: the fans, the following, the bougie social gatherings and ceaseless attention. Connor – who has acted since he was eight, but hadn’t felt mainstream recognition like this before – describes it to me as “like you’ve just got your licence and you’re suddenly asked to be a getaway driver. There are certain things that you’re asked and expected to do, but you feel so unbelievably unequipped.”
“It just gets weirder and weirder,” Locke says, still in a state of disbelief. To keep himself grounded – or from letting fame’s nasty residue rub off on him – he tries to remember this is fleeting. “It’s not at all real.”
On the surface Heartstopper, based on the beloved graphic novel by Alice Oseman, didn’t seem like the kind of story that would catalyse a global obsession. It’s not a hetero–leaning love story like Bridgerton, nor an all–guns–blazing dystopian sci–fi like Squid Game. Instead, it follows Charlie Spring (Locke), a 15–year–old English schoolboy who’s recently been “outed” as gay to his classmates. He has his modest friend group – the stubborn Tao, and Elle, a trans girl who’s just moved to the all girls’ school nearby – and a downlow boyfriend. But Charlie’s eyes are drawn to Connor’s Nick Nelson, a sensitive and open lad on the rugby team, and one of the few who doesn’t tease him for his sexuality. They sit next to each other in class and, over time, their friendship blossoms into a gentle and innocent romance. As sparks fly (one of several visual motifs incorporated from Oseman’s original illustrations), Nick begins to better understand his sexuality, too.
Upon its premiere in April this year, the show was considered pioneering: a joyous and proudly uncynical work of mainstream queer representation, geared towards an audience who had never had it in that form before. Within days of its debut, Heartstopper‘s fervent audience, who had viewed the original webcomics (later published as graphic novels) more than 52 million times, multiplied exponentially. It was estimated Oseman was selling over £1 million–worth of books a month in the UK alone following the show’s success.
“It hits all the niches,” Locke says: queer, feel–good, and open–hearted enough to lead millions to wholeheartedly embrace it. Heartstopper stans – ranging from tweens to folks in their 60s – already queue at conventions and red carpets to catch a glimpse of the cast. The show’s press tour stretched from the daytime TV couches of This Morning to the front rows of Dior and Kenzo at Paris Fashion Week. For a time this year, Heartstopper was everywhere.
Connor has flirted with fame for a long time, just never at its current wattage. Born and raised in Croydon, South London, he’s played supporting characters in primetime soaps like Casualty and TV movies, before, in his late teens, graduating into blockbusters. In 2019 he appeared as a young Elton John in Rocketman and in the indie drama Little Joe. In between shoots he attended a well–performing school, where he was, by his own recollection, the “well–behaved and never really too rebellious” one among his friends.
Connor remembers, aged 11, having to choose between playing the son of Rachel Weisz and Colin Firth in a British drama by a BAFTA–winning director, The Mercy, or joining his classmates on a traditional year–end trip to the Isle of Wight. “It was a real, genuine debate in my head,” he says. He chose the film, and feels like he made the right decision. “When you’re younger, these tiny things,” school trips, he means, “seem huge. I’ve lost a lot of my childhood in many ways, [but] I don’t regret it at all.”
Locke’s childhood had different stakes. He grew up gay in Douglas on the Isle of Man, the last place in the British Isles to legalise homosexuality in 1992. “I don’t think anyone who reads about where I’m from could fully understand it,” he says, calling it “a classic small English town but on an island you can’t escape.” It was bucolic, “safe and sheltered”. When Connor was on his first TV sets, Locke was still making dens and playing make–believe wizards with his friends. “What was I?” he contemplates, when I ask what he thought of himself growing up. “Loud,” he says, “but really quite self–conscious and anxious.” An effervescent exterior covered the parts of himself he was a little more unsure of.
Like Connor, drama played a part in Locke’s life. The Isle of Man had what he calls “a really strangely high calibre” of amateur theatre and, as one of the few boys interested in it, he was, he says, almost guaranteed the good roles. But it never seemed possible to him as a real–life vocation. “Acting was always my passion,” he says, “but I think I’d resigned myself to the fact it wasn’t going to happen.” Older friends had left to pursue careers in drama in London, “and then they’d not be lucky in the right ways, or not find the right things and then not be able to sustain living [there]. The way that people trying to break into the industry are treated by society is so shitty and hard.” So he knuckled down and lined up a different future, planning to go to university, then perhaps law or journalism.
By the time they were both preparing for their GCSEs, Heartstopper had started to bring them together. The show’s casting director, Daniel Edwards, had auditioned Connor before and initially thought of him to play Charlie. But when Connor did his Zoom audition (most of the casting process happened in early 2021, during the pandemic), Edwards recalls that “his maturity was screaming Nick”. Locke responded to an open audition call on social media. “Joe sent us a self–tape from the corner of his bedroom with his posters on the wall,” the show’s director, Euros Lyn, recalls. “He felt so authentically like Charlie: a 15–year–old who would apologise for breathing. There was a quality that Joe had, a humbleness, that spoke of that.”
The pair met face–to–face for the first time at Locke’s final audition in London. “Kit was aware I had no idea what I was doing,” Locke remembers, “and so he made me feel at ease.” Fast forward to today and, after months of filming and public engagements together, both are relaxed and confident. Locke jumps at the opportunity to try his first slot machine, and Connor and I watch on and stand guard, waiting for an attendant to pop up and pull us away from them. While their romance is palpable on–screen, in real life you could call their relationship more of a reliance, leaning in on each other like a two–person human triangle. They have the energy of two deeply trusting and platonic best friends.
Locke left the Isle of Man, only telling his family and his two best friends (“Sorry Netflix, I did break the NDA”), where he was going. Then, in April 2021, the casting for the show was announced and the webcomic fans followed them on social media en masse; for the first time they felt like the ground had shifted beneath their feet. Locke describes that moment as “the mini tidal wave of life changing”. The shoot wrapped later that summer. Both boys went back to school, and for a few months the intrigue abated.
Then, when release day came, all previous routines became obsolete: existing, as 18–year–old boys, was no longer quite so simple. “It was a big change for me,” Connor says, whose acting experience had at least prepared him for what was coming. “But for Joe it was literally night and day. It was two very different lives he was living.”
The week after the show came out, Locke went “from 100,000 Instagram followers to 3 million in a week,” he recalls. “I realised, Yeah, this is never going to be normal again.”
Suddenly the pair were being invited to dinners and parties that guys their age seldom get to attend. When Connor arrived at his hotel for Paris Fashion Week that summer, he wept. “It was the first time it felt like a new world,” he says. “I did not deserve it at all.”
At these events, he was often the youngest, sometimes by a decade or more. “I felt like a little kid,” he says. “You’re doing it on a big stage for people to see and you’re just not prepared.” His anxiety would amp up when he’d walk into those rooms. He wished he was 25 – an adult with more stories to tell.
It’s taken some getting used to for both of them: they share deep bouts of imposter syndrome. “I think I got off easy,” Locke still says, doubting himself in spite of the show’s success. “I just managed to get the first part I auditioned for.”
Connor recognised Heartstopper‘s significance on set, looking around at the predominantly queer cast and crew. The show, he says, “was for us and the representation we never had.” Queer representation of the scale Heartstopper offered was a rare thing to him and Locke, despite growing up in the progressive enclaves of the Gen Z internet. Connor saw it briefly in the TV that, in some cases, pre–dated his birth: relationships like Willow and Tara’s in Buffy, or the horny teenagers of E4’s salacious Skins.
But it was the summer of 2018 when Locke first properly saw himself in a queer work of art. Under the covers at night during the school holidays, he had found a link to watch Luca Guadagnino’s gentle, queer love story, Call Me By Your Name, online. “Porn ads telling me, ‘There are 40 women nearby wanting to meet up,’ kept popping up,” he recalls, laughing. “I was like, I’m trying to watch the gay stuff!” Locke had had what he calls a “summer dalliance” and found the film drew parallels with his own life. But at that age, that’s where the positive queer art he saw himself in – unfettered by the AIDS crisis, not wholly shaped by sex – started and ended.
I’m nearly a decade older than Locke, and when I was his age the only gay men I remember seeing on mainstream television were comedians like Alan Carr. “And when you think about it, they were accepted as queer people because they were taking the piss out of themselves,” he says. “Now they’re allowed to be unapologetically them. But at the time the only reason they were accepted was because their jokes involved self–deprecation. That made it okay.”
People loved laughing at gay people in that way, I say. Locke responds soberly, without missing a beat, “They still do.”
For its young fanbase, Heartstopper is a significant act of representation. Euros Lyn, the director, considers it to be “a political drama” about the possibilities of queer happiness. “Joe and Kit have taken that political message to the public,” he tells me. “I’m proud of them.”
This has led to intense scrutiny of the young actors’ private lives. Days before we met, Connor had deleted his Twitter after photos of him holding hands with a female co–star from a new project went viral. He was accused of “queerbaiting”, a misused term that insinuates straight–presenting people in the public eye are twisting the aesthetics of their work to pander to queer people. The assumptions were enough for Connor, who had questioned the pressure to declare his sexuality, to quit the platform.
“Social media is not a window into my soul at all… so [it] was the best decision of my life,” he says. Now he’s well known, people tend to invent narratives he can’t control. “In many ways it’s great, but as someone who’s in the public eye, if you look for people saying bad stuff about you, you’ll find it.” At times, he’d “almost” find himself seeking out the negativity. “You want to know what people are saying. Everyone wants to be liked, which is slightly heartbreaking when you’re in the position of someone like me or Joe.” (A few weeks after our interview, Connor went back onto Twitter to say: “I’m bi. Congrats for forcing an 18–year–old to out himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show. Bye.”)
The show’s success has brought unwanted intrusion on Locke’s side, too: he’s had to unfollow friends and family who were receiving messages from his fans; his mum has changed her name on Facebook after his baby photos were leaked online. Recently, the tabloids have started to hypothesise over who he might be dating. “The idea of a tabloid being interested in a teenager’s love life is really gross,” Locke says. “Someone making money out of rumours about who I – an 18–year–old boy – might be liking or talking to, it’s really gross and perverted.” His hands curl in on themselves, but he’s saying it now because he feels like it’s important: “I’m 18… I don’t know who I am yet.”
They have each other, which helps. “Joe’s really been such a lifesaver in so many ways for me; as a support system and a friend to go through everything with,” Connor says.
“I’ve tried to do the same for him,” Locke agrees, smiling. “I don’t think Kit really understands what an incredible person he is.”
Locke has a strong bowling game. He’s hitting strikes and spares, and every time the ball hurtles down the centre of the lane, obliterating the skittles, he turns his slight frame back towards Connor and me and pretends to tuck his hair behind his ears, jokingly braggadocious. Connor is less successful. Every time he throws a gutter ball – which is a lot of the time – he swoops his red, handsome, curtained hair through his hands. “You’ve just got to aim it, Kit!” Locke reassures him. “Follow the arrows.” Rightfully enough, when he takes that on board, Connor’s game sharpens. We all agree that using the medium–weight bowl – designed to resemble a magic eight ball – is the best route to success.
Though it’s supposed to be hush–hush, Heartstopper season two is in its second week of shooting. Details are being kept watertight, but fans will be glad to know the show isn’t opting to shy away from the more, what Euros Lyn calls, “existential” themes of the source material. In it, Nick is expected to reckon with coming out to his schoolmates. Meanwhile, the minutiae of Charlie’s mental health problems come to the fore: owing to the secretive nature of his past relationships, he’s deeply insecure. Now, the gentlest TV show is dealing with issues of self–harm and disordered eating.
“We grow up with the characters, but we’re also growing up [as people],” Locke says. “Their views of the world are changing, and those changes happen quite quickly when you’re a teenager because of hormones and school being horrible.”
The show will also delve into Charlie’s battle with body dysmorphia, an issue prevalent among young people who seldom see bodies like theirs represented on screen, where conventional heartthrob muscle prevails. “Part of that is because most teen shows have 30–year–olds playing 17–year–olds!” Locke says. “They have actual adult bodies; 17–year–olds don’t look like that!”
It’s a subject Locke can relate to. “I feel like everyone sees weaknesses and problems in their own bodies,” he adds. “[For me], they’ve been heightened in the last year because more people are seeing my face and seeing the things that I hate about myself.” He has learned to dissociate from reading people’s opinions on his appearance, like his ears. “I tried to convince my mum to get them pinned back. But I remember one day my friend [held them back] and was like, ‘Do you really want to look like that?'” He learned quickly that little things that once felt like big things to him cease to matter as soon as he switches off. “Now I really like my ears,” he smiles. “I think they’re a defining feature of me.”
Connor is excited to play his part again: Nick’s character trajectory for season two is similar to Oseman’s story, with some minor changes. “We realise that it means a lot to a lot of people, but that’s an amazing pressure to have,” he says. “It’s on our shoulders now.”
This year, the majority of their friends went off to university, starting their own paths without such very public pressures. “Maybe I would have enjoyed going to freshers’ week and getting absolutely hammered,” Locke says, laughing. “I can’t do that any more and not stress about waking up in an alleyway.” It would be a Daily Mail article, he observes, only half–joking.
As we leave the bowling alley, a girl in a Disney shirt and cropped hair runs out of the nearby Finsbury Park station flustered and showing the pair a tattoo of autumn leaves – Heartstopper‘s cartoon insignia – on her forearm. She had got it the day before, the pastel colours rich and her skin still raw. Her mum – a teacher at an all boys’ school – chimes in from afar, praising them for the part they played in helping the young, queer boys there feel seen and represented. “Thank you,” Locke and Connor say. “Of course you can get a picture.”