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Dan and Phil: Lords of the Internet, Masters of Ambiguity

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Dan and Phil: Lords of the Internet, Masters of Ambiguity

by ALLISON GIOVANNI      MAY 22, 2016

 

Dan Howell is six feet and three inches tall, and looks every millimeter of it. In the cramped space of the tiny vegan cafe, he looks like a titan.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says, when he finally squeezes past the two men in mustard cardigans critically appraising the house special vegan, gluten-free brownies. “I promise it’s just part of my branding, it’s not what I aspire to in life.”

He has a sharp, nervous laugh. It echoes around the small room and turns the men’s heads. Dan doesn’t seem to notice them; he’s preoccupied with checking his phone for messages before he shoves it rather unceremoniously into the pocket of his leather jacket.

“This is a nice place,” I say. From where we’re seated, the cafe’s signage visibly and proudly proclaims: Hop Right In. Every dessert here is rabbit-themed and cruelty-free. 

Dan grins, looking rather pleased. “Isn’t it?” he says. “Phil picked it. We weren’t sure if you were vegan, so this seemed like a safe choice. Of course, Phil probably only picked it for the rabbit theme. Also, he’s sorry he can’t be here, but I guess filming for the BBC always takes precedence.”

It’s a nervous ramble, but he’s warming up. I pull up an app on my phone to start recording our conversation. Dan glances at it for a moment, the quirk of his brow almost imperceptible. It ‘s smoothed out as quickly as it arrived, and he smiles at me, brilliant and practised.

“Phil is your…” I lead.

“Flatmate.” Like his smile, it seems practised.

On the notepad in front of me are several scribbled questions and small details to remember. Daniel James Howell is an internet personality. A law school dropout. A BBC Radio 1 DJ. A host of an interesting collection of BBC-produced documentaries. He is one half of a best-selling duo set to tour the United States in a sold-out production of what he and his flatmate, Philip Michael Lester, have named The Amazing Tour is Not on Fire.

The name is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s reminiscent of our Disney Channel childhoods and afternoons filled with The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Wizards of Waverly Place, and The Emperor’s New Groove. It’s simple, to the point, and most of all, Dan assures me, accurate: there are no pyrotechnics involved.

“To the relief of many parents, and to Phil’s extreme disappointment, I’m sure,” he says.

He orders a coffee and stirs it purposelessly when it arrives. We have a lot of ground to cover today, but there is no rush.

“Feel free to text me or Phil at any time if you’ve missed anything,” Dan says, after he looks over my meagre collection of questions. “We’ll probably be up - we’ve been up all night for about a month.”

He scribbles his phone number in the one spare corner of the page, right under where I’ve written romantically-involved? and circled it twice. After a moment’s consideration, he pens down Phil’s entirely from memory.

“That should be it. Any time,” he reiterates, drawing a line under the numbers.

Dan describes himself as an entertainer. Regardless of the medium, he says, his purpose is to entertain. Be it a YouTube video, or a cleverly-crafted tweet, or a spectacular, sold-out stage performance.

Or, I remind him, an hour-long live show on YouNow.

“Oh god,” he says. He laughs nervously. “Did you watch those?”

I did.

“I have to say, I didn’t expect that level of research.” He seems a little put-off, but he recovers quickly. “My live shows on YouNow are a bit of a joke - it’s a good platform to connect with my viewers, but everyone knows not to take me seriously, because everything is unplanned and not a lot of thought goes into it, y’know what I mean?”

“That’s not what people think.”

“Oh?” He doesn’t seem at all surprised.

“Some would say it’s the most candid and honest they’ve ever seen you.”

Dan laughs. “I suppose that’s not entirely untrue,” he concedes.

He walks me through the scope of his occupation as a YouTuber. To many, the term is foreign, but to the young adult demographic, it has become as accessible an occupation as a lawyer. This is something Dan recounts with a small, self-satisfied smile - the significance of this comparison won’t be lost on anyone who knows him.

“I mean, you already know all of this,” he says abruptly. He is midway through his explanation of what he does for the BBC and he’s already restless. “Do I really need to go into more detail?”

I’ve read his Wikipedia page, I tell him.

“That’s got everything you need to know,” he says. “In a nutshell.”

I’m not here for Dan Howell in a nutshell, and we both know this. He takes a sip of his lukewarm coffee and visibly refocuses on the task at hand.

“With YouTube becoming such a massive player in the entertainment industry, it’s become more and more of a priority to attempt to marry it with traditional media - radio, television, even film… the goal of a lot of management companies has been to bridge the gap between the Internet and the ‘Real World.’” He draws quotation marks in the air with his fingers. “And, obviously, this entire effort makes us a lot more corporate, y’know what I mean? The YouTube fans don’t like it; they’ve been accustomed to a very specific, lowkey-sort of entertainment. Is lowkey the right word? I’d say it’s more genuine, but we’ve all seen the Bake Off.”

We begin to discuss the tour and the book - I know that’s kind of the point of this article, he says, and he’s pleasantly surprised when I correct him. It’s a good book and a strong tour, they’ve worked incredibly hard, it’s as self-produced as they’ve dared allow themselves to let it be - all in all an incredible effort. The UK run had been extremely successful and, to their surprise, lacking any horrible injuries.

Still, it’s not without backlash. They’ve been called sellouts, he says. They’re constantly accused of forgetting their roots. Dan takes a moment to recall the worst insult he’s received. Fifteen seconds later, he clicks his fingers and proclaims: money-humping f-ckb-tch.

Dan talks with his hands. He checks my notepad whenever there is a pause in conversation, and eventually decides he should get a notepad of his own. It’s three hours and as many cups of coffee before we reach the end of the page.

“And that’s just the basics?” He whistles lowly. He seems unnerved by the prospect of having to dig deeper. Before he signs the bill for the excited waiter, he crosses out romantically-involved? on my notepad.

The sun sets long before we make our way out of the cafe. A long day of tour rehearsal looms ahead of him tomorrow, and he checks that I have the correct address for the studio before he bids me goodbye and heads towards the corner shop.

His laugh is different when he answers the phone. It is softer, more comfortable. “Yes, Phil, I’m getting the milk,” he says. Dan looks both ways before crossing the street and yet barely angles himself out of the way of a speeding car in time.

It almost seems like a metaphor.

 

Phil is the one who greets me when I step out of my taxi. With his fringe pushed back, and a pair of black-rimmed glasses, he looks nothing like his kid-friendly persona.

“You made it! Hi, I’m Phil!” he exclaims, and it becomes immediately clear that the person inside has remained the same. I surreptitiously glance at his feet - true to his brand, he is wearing mismatched socks.

Still, it is hard to reconcile the AmazingPhil of the Internet with the six foot two man in front of me with a stubbled jaw, who looks like he could easily pass for the father of a kindergartener.

“Found her,” Phil crows joyously when we enter the studio.

Dan rolls his eyes fondly. “I’m surprised she knew who you were, considering you look twenty years older now than you do in the bleeding poster.”

The studio is small, with mirrors lining the entirety of one wall. In the far left corner, a camera is set up on a tripod, ready to record.

“As you can see, it’s great for my self-esteem.” Dan’s sarcasm is biting, but self-deprecation is a large part of his brand.

He informs me later over a takeaway lunch that it isn’t just a coping mechanism. He chews thoughtfully, then says: “My sense of humour is quite dark, in a way, and people tend to look a bit too deeply into it and think, oh my god, Dan’s depressed, he hates himself, he’s just a pile of insecurity… it’s not necessarily true anymore.”

Still, he says, it has become a way for him to connect to his audience. Misery loves company, and Dan’s self-deprecation attracts teenagers from all around the world who share the same worries and commiserate over the same insecurities.

“I think it’s helpful for people to see that, yes, there are days where things are horrible and I feel like the most disgusting human being on the planet, but I’m not going to let that stop me.”

“It’s inspiring,” Phil chips in. Dan swats him away with an eye roll.

I don’t get the chance to speak to Phil privately until they’re done rehearsing. Dan is checking through the footage of the day’s work and discusses weak spots with the tour manager. Phil looks as if he’s itching to be in on the conversation, but only for a moment; when he turns to speak to me, he’s completely focused.

His professionalism is impressive.

“Sorry to keep you from that,” I say.

“Dan’ll fill me in,” he says. His eyebrows raise slightly, as if to acknowledge the innuendo, but thinks better of it.

“How would you describe your relationship with Dan?”

Phil takes a moment to consider the question.

“Incredibly personal,” he eventually replies. There’s a twinkle in his eye that soothes the chastising tone.

It occurs to me slightly too late that I have made a great misstep.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to make this about Dan.”

He smiles. I instantly feel as if I’ve been disciplined by a school teacher. He waves it off and offers me a coffee. We make our way into the small pantry, where he switches the coffeemaker on.

Phil is a master of small talk. Over coffee, it soon becomes clear that he has long separated his life into two very distinct categories: public and private. He is the ringmaster, and I the lion - despite the notepad in my hand and the questions I had so painstakingly crafted this morning, I eventually find myself telling him instead about growing up with my sisters in the middle of North Carolina. He is empathetic and involved, and yet - incredibly alert; all my attempts at toeing the line he has drawn are rebuffed and redirected with impressive ease.

At the most, he talks fondly of his Northern upbringing. There is nothing new to be learned - he tells me a story about his mother and her attempt to foster cats, which is entertaining but reveals nothing about who Philip Michael Lester is. It seems that what is available of Phil Lester on the Internet is as much as he will make available to me. Despite my best efforts at pushing for more, he doesn’t budge.

“How do you feel about the fact that YouTube has become so much more corporate than when you started?”

He seems surprised that I have abandoned the line of questioning towards his personal life. “It’s been corporate for far longer than people realise,” he says after a pause. “I think people are concerned that YouTube is losing its authenticity, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true.”

It depends what you’re looking for, and where you’re looking for it, he reasons. YouTube can be incredibly single-faceted, it wouldn’t be fair to assume that a person is made entirely their YouTube persona alone.

When I ask him to describe who he is in one word, he falters slightly.

The word he comes up with is performer. Almost immediately afterwards, he shakes his head and says, friend

He pours a cup of coffee for Dan, and we return to the studio. The tour manager has long headed home, and Dan is watching the footage of today’s practice with immense concentration. Phil sets the coffee down and watches over his shoulder. They fit together so naturally that my presence feels almost voyeuristic.

Later, Phil waits with me until my taxi arrives.

“You’re a tough nut to crack,” I tell him.

“Really?” He seems pleased. His smile takes a good five years off him. For an unidentifiable reason, I’m reminded of a child playing dress-up.

 

Dan and Phil’s flat is a wet dream for the modern-day geek. The bookshelf in the lounge is piled to the brim with DVD boxsets and board games. Action figures and tiny plushies stand tall all the way across their mantlepiece. In the middle of it all, a clay Dan and a clay Phil watch my every movement with glass eyes. As Dan gives me a tour of the house, it’s hard not to notice that most of their household items are covered in stickers. There are googly eyes on the light switch.

It’s like someone let a four-year-old loose with a jumbo pack of stickers. 

Dan points a few of his favourites out. There’s a Liam Payne sticker on the maple syrup and one of Madonna on the coffee. As we walk past the kettle, Dan presses a peeling Zayn Malik back onto the handle.

I’m here today to watch them film videos for their shared YouTube channel. There used to only be one camera, one tripod, and one set of lights in the house, so they couldn’t both film at the same time. With the birth of the gaming channel, they’d finally given in and purchased another set of filming equipment.

“Can’t be bothered carting everything up and down the stairs,” Dan says. “As you can see, Phil and I take every opportunity to live a more active life.”

They share almost everything, from filming equipment to bed linen and bath towels. The one thing they don’t share, Dan says, is cereal.

“Not officially, anyway. Phil steals my cereal at least twice a day because he’s literally a demon.”

It’s interesting to know that the cereal theft isn’t merely a manufactured joke, but it is an island in a sea of catchphrases.

Whilst Dan sets up the cameras, Phil makes me a cup of tea and hauls one of their many brightly-coloured dining chairs up the stairs. He is fresh out of the shower, and with his contact lenses in and a neatly-pressed shirt buttoned to the collar, he could easily pass for twenty-two.

“Sorry Daniel’s such a horrible host.” Phil even brings me a coaster and a tiny table for my tea. “I’ve tried to teach him but it never sticks.”

“Phil missed his true calling as a butler,” Dan tells me. The camera and microphone are all set to go. I have promised to be very quiet.

When the camera starts recording, it’s as if I’m watching a delicate transformation. The pitch of Phil’s voice rises ever so slightly. Dan loses some of his softness, replacing it with mock-exasperation.

They film for a little over forty minutes. The footage will eventually get cut down by half, and a lot of the more risque jokes won’t make it into the final product.

I join Phil for the editing process. He works quickly; he’s able to remember where most of the bloopers are, and he cuts them out efficiently. Some jokes have three different takes, and he watches each take through twice before he finally picks the best one.

It’s still just a rough cut. An hour and a half has passed. Editing is far more time-consuming than I had originally imagined. There remains a lot to be fine-tuned, which they will painstakingly do over the course of the evening.

Phil takes a break to rest his eyes and comes back with his glasses. It’s strange how much they age him, but age suits him too.

We chat about the tour. Dan, under gentle suggestion (read: a Twitter direct message containing two coffee mug emojis), makes us both a cup of coffee - decaf for Phil, who pouts over it for a moment - and returns to his room, where he is attempting to put a new twist into the current tour repertoire.

“I think Dan likes being on stage again,” Phil tells me. “We’re not headed towards a career on the West End by any means, but I’d like to think we do ourselves justice.”

Watching Phil blow steam away from the rim of his mug, I am reminded of my own father. In many ways, Phil embodies a lot of the same values: he is kind but firm, a polite host, and finds the discussion of money unbelievably crass. A mere we’re doing well is all he offers when I ask about the profitability of their book and tour venture.

Conversation with Phil is far from uncomfortable, which is exactly what makes it so hard to cut to the chase. I show him my list of questions, and he scans them through once. For most of them, he awards me with joke answers.

He answers my last question with two words: badger robot. He has his game face on. It’s clear that the lines between work and play don’t blur easily for Phil Lester. Even in the comfort of his own home, my presence brings up a glass wall between us.

Dan reappears to take our lunch orders. His hair is messy and he looks tired, but the smile he reserves for Phil still brightens up the room.

My curiosity has been piqued since day one. One hardly needs to Google effectively before getting entangled in the web of ambiguity Dan and Phil have managed to cast over themselves. The Internet debates and investigates it with unending fervour, going so far as to craft an incredibly detailed timeline of their relationship starting from one of Dan’s (now deleted) very first tweets to Phil: I think i have a crush on you.

It’s not hard to see why people have latched on to the mystery that shrouds them. Even casual bystanders have been pulled into it, and the forums are populated by people of varying ages, backgrounds and interests. Hours are spent curating Dan and Phil archives, combing through old videos to search for clues - or, in their terms: slip-ups.

It’s almost an industry of its own.

Their office is dark to facilitate editing. Even in the low light, the careful distance they place between themselves is stark. They share a pair of headphones, but otherwise visibly keep a distance of about half an inch.

Under the desk, Dan rests a hand on Phil’s knee. In light of how carefully arranged they are, it seems this contact is nothing more than subconscious.

 

We take a detour through a park on the way to collect our vegan, gluten-free lasagnes. Dan is trying to be vegan again - he over-emphasises trying and tells me he’d been crucified for quitting once. By whom, he doesn’t say.

When he asks about the article, it’s carefully worded to seem like an afterthought. Despite Dan’s early bow from the profession of acting, he manages to inject almost enough nonchalance in his tone to make it believable.

“Phil’s not nearly as mysterious as he tries to make himself seem,” Dan tells me when I mention my concern. “He’d love to hear that you think he’s an enigma. No, actually, don’t tell him that, it might give him a complex.”

We turn the corner. I ask him if he knows that there are forums full of people dedicated to investigating his relationship with Phil.

“I try not to think about it,” he says. “Once you Google yourself, it’s game over.”

It’s a scary thing to come to terms with, he explains. The idea that there are people watching your every move, waiting for you to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, scrutinising your facial expressions, and, bizarrely, passing around private photos of your family.

“It’s not as if a photo of my grandmother is going to prove that I’m gay, or bi, or pan - whatever the general consensus is these days. Not-straight, maybe. Now that’s a label and a half.”

Phil would never get within twenty kilometres of such a thing. Dan jokes that Phil blocks these sites like paranoid mothers block porn. It’s with an almost religious fervor. They’re no strangers to this, and they’ve had more than enough time to shape their own ways of coping. 

At one point, Dan says, he took it like therapy.

“I’d just found out about them, right, and for about a week I was really disturbed by it - not gonna lie, still am - but I found myself going back there, over and over again. They’d come up with all these reasons why I might’ve said something, and I’d find myself thinking: is that why I said that? Man, how do I really feel about this situation? It’s like a thousand therapists, y’know what I mean? And then they post a picture of my mum and it gets creepy again. Or, you know, desperately trying to prove if Phil and I are hopelessly in love with each other.”

“Are you?”

“We’re not talking about that,” he says. The resolution is impressive. Ironically, it only serves to amplify the ambiguity.

 

Dan and Phil sit one space apart from each other on their sofa. In ten minutes, Dan will have to leave so that Phil can begin his live show.

Presently, they discuss dog names. The possibility of owning a dog is becoming more and more real; once their Worldwide Tour ends they will have a lot more time to think about seriously adopting an animal. Phil’s looking for breeders but Dan’s adamant on going to a shelter; Phil tells me later that it’s likely Dan will get his way this time.

Wolf Howell-Lester is the top of the board. Dan claims he hates it, but the glint in his eye says otherwise. The other options are Winston, Dog Susan, and Rebecca.

“We could do a joint one,” Dan says, when Phil’s alarm bleeps. “Then I wouldn’t have to get up and leave.” 

Phil rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “We have this argument every week,” he tells me. “Daniel -” he punctuates it by digging his socked toes into Dan’s thigh, “- is very committed to his sedentary lifestyle.”

“I have a brand to maintain,” Dan says, but he’s off the couch. From here, he’ll retreat to his room, pull up the live show web page, and watch along.

This is not a weekly occurrence, Dan hastens to assure me. He’s brought a chair in from the lounge for me so that we can share his desktop screen. 

On the screen, Phil begins to greet his viewers. Dan watches him briefly, and then he’s pulling up his messages and texting reminders to Phil. Talk about the tour. Don’t spoil anything. Do you want to bring up the dog thing?

For many, the dog will be a confirmation. It’s unfathomable to some that two adult men who aren’t romantically involved would ever invest in a commitment as large as a dog. It’s a lot like starting a family. However, the implication that adopting a dog confirms anything opens up doors towards issues that are a lot more intrinsic and problematic. Dan’s brow wrinkles when I mention it and he wears himself out on a diatribe that lasts several minutes. The crux of his frustration is why does it matter. No one would bat an eyelash if they were two women. It’s clear that it’s still a sore spot, and likely will always be.

“It’s all very unfair,” he says. Onscreen, Phil is reading premium messages - a feature of the website where viewers can pay to give their messages a higher chance of being noticed. “How does having a dog confirm anything? Oh, look, Dan and Phil have a dog now, that means they’re endgame.”

“Well, what happens to the dog if one of you develops a serious romantic relationship with someone else and moves out?” I ask.

Dan looks perplexed. “Knowing our social lives, that’s probably not going to happen.”

“There you go.”

He snorts, equal parts irritated and amused. “They don’t need a dog to know that me and Phil aren’t going anywhere.”

“So, does that mean you're ‘endgame’?”

He considers it for a moment. We’re both on our toes, hyper-aware that what he says in the next few moments will be extremely important.

Dan shakes his head as if to clear it, then says, “Would you like a cup of tea?”

It would’ve been naive to expect any other answer.

 

The next few days are a flurry of activity. On one particularly harsh day, they rehearse their tour for hours and immediately fly off to separate countries to film separate documentaries. I have been given permission to tag along with Phil’s film crew, all of whom are completely enamoured by him. It’s not hard to see why; he treats them like family and is the epitome of a professional.

A true performer, but at the same time: a friend.

There are probably plenty of things to do in Austria in the middle of March, but for some reason we end up in the cameraman's hotel room and a game of cards is started. A bottle of wine is opened, and the persona begins to crack at the edges. Being around Phil is fun; he is quick to react and doesn’t take himself too seriously at all. He remembers everyone’s names, apologises smoothly when he doesn’t, and pulls everyone into the spirit of having a good time.

In the midst of a winning streak, Phil takes a Skype call from Dan and leaves the room. The atmosphere sobers when he leaves, and one of the crew members leans over to ask me in hushed tones if Dan and Phil are romantically involved.

The cameraman gives me a warning look and shakes his head before I can answer.

“I don’t know,” I say. It’s the truth, and it’s disappointing, but nobody seems to expect any better.

There seems to be something about Phil Lester that inspires people to feel protective. From young teenagers online who try to shield him from probing tweets to fifty-year-old cameramen who attempt to protect his privacy, there is something about him that keeps him somewhat safe from the investigative attempts of the curious.

He pops back in after a tense twenty minutes.

“I have to go,” he says.

“Yeah, we should probably pack up -”

“No, I mean -” He stops, shaking his head. “See you tomorrow.”

By chance, I pass Phil in the hotel lobby. He’s speaking to the concierge in low, urgent tones. He’s booking an immediate flight to Budapest. The concierge promises to try his best, and Phil sinks onto one of the overstuffed armchairs in the lobby and stares up at the ceiling.

The lobby is too small for me to escape without notice. He catches my eye and smiles sheepishly.

“I’m being ridiculous,” he says. “I know.”

I ask if Dan is okay.

“Probably. I don’t know.”

His eyes are red-rimmed and irritated, but he refreshes his Twitter feed incessantly just for something to do. Every so often his gaze flickers towards the concierge, waiting for an update. It’s excruciating to watch.

Eventually, the concierge finds a flight. It leaves in an hour, and Phil blinks at his hands as if he doesn’t know what to do with that much time. I am desperate to figure out what’s going on, but it’s as if his jaw has been wired shut.

He leaves in a pair of glasses and an oversized yellow hoodie. Ellen, the project manager, waves her phone disbelievingly in my face when I enter our shared room.

“Is he crazy? Have you seen this? He’s gone to [expletive] Budapest! It’s the middle of the bloody night! What’s he doing?”

The text says: Gone to Budapest on an emergency! Will be back by noon, sorry - Phil.

Ellen fumes for the next hour, but there’s nothing she can do about it. Phil Lester is as protective as he is protected. In the universe’s system of give and take, it makes perfect sense.

 

True to his word, Phil is back by noon. There’s a worried furrow between his brows that doesn’t quite leave his face, and the makeup artist clicks his tongue at Phil’s reflection while he dabs concealer under his eyes.

“You look like you’ve aged ten years,” the man complains. We’re in an otherwise empty classroom, and Phil examines the drawings tacked to the bulletin board from his undersized chair.

His expression is instantly neutralised when the camera starts rolling. They film for just over an hour, and he checks his phone almost obsessively every time there’s a break. Frustrated, Ellen marches over to him and ends up with his phone in her pocket.

With nothing else to do, Phil socialises with the Austrian children. Somebody finds him a large, English children’s book, and he’s soon surrounded by children who listen closely, enraptured by his story-telling. At the end of the day, he hugs each and every single one of them goodbye.

The headmistress tells Phil he should’ve been a teacher. She gives him her business card and a firm handshake. If you ever want to teach English, she says.

On the plane back to Heathrow, Phil seems to seriously consider it. Ellen tells him he’s being an idiot, but he bookmarks several pages of information on teaching English in Austria and slides the business card into his Marvel-themed wallet for safekeeping.

When we reconvene in London, Dan has a bandaged left hand and a very worried flatmate.

“Healthcare in Budapest... not too bad, actually,” Dan says. “I had to keep my hand conveniently out of shot for the entire day to avoid continuity errors, and they were furious at me - reasons why Dan’s a fail, I guess.”

He won’t tell me what happened, only that he’d done it to himself - “again, Reasons why Dan’s a Fail, am I right?” - and that it had hurt a surprising amount.

“My pain tolerance is about negative five thousand,” he says. “Doesn’t bode well, considering my stupidity levels are about five trillion.”

It’s my last night in London, and Phil has booked an incredibly fancy restaurant. It overlooks an impressive view, the waiters have gold bow-ties, and the food is beyond words.

Dan struggles one-handedly to cut his steak and just barely manages. Phil keeps a steady hand on Dan’s wine glass to prevent incident. His offer to help Dan cut up his food is rewarded with a deathly glare and an indignant I can handle it.

Over dinner, I broach the topic of their first meeting. For such a momentous occasion, it’s rarely talked about, if at all.

“Dan bought train tickets to Manchester and we met up.”

“That’s the kid-friendly version,” Dan says. “In reality, I told my mum I was visiting a friend in Manchester and that I’d take the opportunity to scope out the campus, and then did absolutely none of that - I spent the entire time in Phil’s house.”

“Good times though,” Phil says fondly. They share a knowing look, and Dan snorts. “Not that I would condone lying to your mother,” he hastens to add.

“I remember thinking that I should leave a Twitter trail just in case Phil turned out to be a serial killer and chopped me up for organs.”

“I knew your Twitter password at that point, that wouldn’t have worked.”

“I wasn’t a very forward-thinking eighteen-year-old.”

Their branding is simple. They are best friends and flatmates. They host a radio show together, and film themselves doing ordinary, day-to-day things. None of it is extraordinary. Yet, strangely, it’s hard to pull up a comparable duo.

Their chemistry is magnetic. In an interview with The Guardian in January, Dan describes their relationship as solid and reassuring. It’s a stunningly apt adjective - watching Dan and Phil interact feels a lot like running into your parents’ bedroom on a dark, stormy night. It’s safe. Dependable.

They fit together like two halves of a preteen’s BEST FRIEND necklace. Dan jokes that they should sell that as merchandise, and we raise our glasses to the success of their Worldwide Tour.

 

Over the past year, several YouTubers have spent weeks and months writing, filming, editing, deleting, rewriting, refilming, and re-editing their coming out videos. Several videos never make it out of the camera’s SD card. Dan Howell’s coming out video is a five minute, low resolution clip from his YouNow live show.

It’s not even on his channel.

He picks up my call on the third try. He’s been fielding messages all day, he says. There’s no real time to talk, he has to write several thank you tweets. It’s kind of nauseating, he admits. Overwhelming. He’s completely inundated.

“But you know what? It really isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.” He laughs, sharp and nervous like the first time we met. “Maybe not yet.”

The video is of such poor quality, it’s hard to believe it’s recent. In it, Dan is lounging in his chair, reading questions from the chat sporadically. After the fifth person of the day asks how his day was, he straightens, clearing his throat.

“Right, so some of you might know that I’ve been filming another documentary with the BBC - yeah, yeah sneaky Dan, I know. It’ll be out at 7pm tomorrow; I finished filming about two months ago, but they had to make it all beautiful and not-horrible in post-production. I mean, they got me to host it, so it’s kind of - they have their work cut out for them, definitely. And it’s a little bit different this time than the last one I filmed; this one is a lot closer to my heart - I know, what’s closer to my heart than gaming? - and okay, you all know how I feel about spoilers so I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that it tackles sexuality and youth and the Internet and all of those confusing, confusing things… Things that I went through, am still going through now. I mean, it’s not a documentary about me, obviously, because who in their right mind would want to watch that? Probably you guys, ha - it’s not about me, but it was an important one for me, in my position, to film - is it Brokeback Mountain, said somebody, ha, no… Am I coming out? I don’t know. There’s another thing to be discussed, isn’t it? What constitutes a coming out? Everyone comes out in different ways. I don’t think people realise how hard it is to come out when you don’t really have a proper label. Maybe I’ve been out for awhile. Maybe - god, sorry I’ll stop, don’t listen to me. Anyway, what I wanted to say was, I’ve filmed a documentary, it’s really good, please watch it tomorrow, on BBC One, 7pm. It’ll probably be on iPlayer for about a month, so you can check that out whenever you want...”

Dan says he’ll never watch the video back again. He doesn’t even know what he said, he admits. The whole thing is kind of a rushed blur of words. He hopes the documentary will contain a more coherent explanation. He has no plans to film anything concrete for his channel - it’s just not what his channel is for. It’s not the point.

Soon after Dan and I exchange goodbyes, Phil tweets: So proud of @danisnotonfire! Excited to watch the documentary when it’s released, I’ve wiped the TV down for the occasion!

At 2pm on a Friday, my colleagues and I gather in an empty boardroom, where someone has kindly set up a video link to a friend at the BBC. The documentary follows the lives of five teenagers from across the globe who run gender and sexuality resource blogs and YouTube channels on the Internet. It opens with a poignant voiceover, and we watch with bated breath.

In Budapest, Dan sits on a hard, blue plastic chair. Beside him, a young teenage boy, no older than thirteen or fourteen, fiddles nervously with the bandage on his forehead. The story behind it will slowly unfold later into the hour.

The boy looks at his shoes, then up at Dan. “How did you know?”

“I didn’t,” Dan says. His left hand is swathed in a large, white cotton bandage. “And then, as it goes, I met a guy.”

 

The next time I see Dan and Phil again, we’re backstage at their very first Worldwide Tour show in Boston, Massachusetts. Getting in here was a lot more effort than I’d anticipated - the fans are lined up right out the door, cat whiskers stenciled onto their faces. I squeeze past a girl who looks like a walking advertisement for the Dan and Phil merchandise store and find my way into their dressing room.

It’s been over a month since Dan’s documentary debuted on BBC One, and Phil’s is due to be completed some time over the next two months. True to his word, Dan hasn’t addressed his sexuality on his YouTube channel, a fact that the Internet is still lamenting.

“It’s just - I don’t think it’s definitive of him,” Dan says, when I ask him if he’ll ever consider filming a coming out video. “As far as danisnotonfire - or Dan from Dan and Phil - is concerned, his sexuality isn’t something to talk about. He’s no one’s queer idol.”

Phil keeps a similar mentality. It’s irrelevant, and, he tells me with a wink, incredibly personal. Quite frankly, he says, it doesn’t matter.

Before I leave, Phil pulls out his phone. He scrolls through his camera roll before he finds what he’s looking for: a screenshot of an adoption page for a dog - a Great Dane named Clarkson.

“Isn’t he beautiful?” Dan says. He’s already hopelessly in love with Clarkson, and they’re in the midst of sorting out the paperwork to bring him to their London home.

I come to the end of my time with Dan and Phil with a hundred more questions than when I began. As the cheers of the audience grow louder, I watch Dan and Phil take their places behind the curtain. In the darkness, it’s hard to tell if Dan’s hand on the small of Phil’s back is merely a figment of wishful imagination.

Dan and Phil embody ambiguity, and, like the comfortable green hoodie they seem to share, they wear it well. The world may never know if Dan and Phil are ‘endgame’, but they may find solace in the fact that in a geeky, colourful apartment in the heart of London, you will always be able to find a Dan, a Phil, and soon, their Great Dane Clarkson.

The Amazing Tour is Not on Fire - Worldwide Tour will be performing in selected theatres across North America until July. For more details, see www.danandphiltour.com.