'BTS saved my life': How a K-pop obsessed teacher bounced back from rock bottom

Jon San
Supervising Producer, Yahoo Entertainment

When you think of fans of the massively popular K-pop group BTS, you might imagine mobs of screaming teenagers. It’s no secret that the BTS fandom, called ARMY, is among the most rabid, going to extraordinary lengths to show their appreciation for each of the group’s seven members: Jin, Jimin, RM, V, Suga, J-Hope and Jungkook.

But one of their biggest fans is in fact 48-year-old Mary Russell, a mother, a grandmother, and a kindergarten teacher from Chesapeake, Virginia in the United States — something you’d probably never guess, if not for her BTS-inspired dyed hair and wardrobe, that is.

The BTS fandom, called ARMY, goes to extraordinary lengths to show their appreciation for each of the group’s seven members: Jin, Jimin, RM, V, Suga, J-Hope and Jungkook. (Photo: AP)

Russell grew up on 1980s acts like Depeche Mode, the Cure and Duran Duran, and admits that she could never have foreseen herself falling down the K-pop rabbit hole. But, like many obsessions, it all started with a breakup —albeit not hers.

“I first got into BTS when my daughter [broke up] with a serious boyfriend. She was sad [and] asked me to take her to a concert, so I bought her tickets to BTS because I knew it would cheer her up,” Russell tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Her then-teenage daughter tried to preemptively “educate” her by inundating her with BTS videos. It didn’t work. She remained puzzled by the group’s popularity and went to the concert reluctantly. But once the show got underway, she recalls, everything clicked. “About halfway through, I looked at her and I said, ‘I get it. I totally get it,’ Russell says. “This is the happiest place on Earth. This is better than Disney.” She was officially the newest member of the BTS ARMY.

From there, her BTS obsession became all-consuming. She and her two equally obsessed daughters, Paton and Nicole, eventually turned a room in their home into “BTS HQ,” complete with posters, photo cards, stickers, official and custom-made T-shirts, Funko pops, all of their albums, all of their packaged merchandise, and much more. Total cost? “Well over $25,000,” Russell says, adding, “My husband’s going to kill me.”

The BTS HQ room consists of hundreds of BTS photos, albums, merch, plushies, and more.

The BTS HQ room consists of hundreds of BTS photos, albums, merch, plushies, and more.

As for her husband, he’s a merchant marine, meaning that he’s away at sea for much of the year and avoids much of the BTS “insanity” at home. But he does permit his wife to have a “shrine” in their bedroom devoted to RM, her favorite BTS member. Photos, memorabilia, and his signature scent (Eau de Bois from L’Atelier des Subtils) litter the converted vanity mirror. “I do wear it,” Russell says of the scent. “I have it on right now.”

Even when her family’s on the move, Russell reps BTS, as each of their three vehicles have custom BTS plates. She drives the NAMJOON car (real name of RM), Paton drives the YOONGI car (real name of Suga), and her “poor husband is stuck driving the BTS JIMIN car until [Nicole is] old enough to drive,” she explains. “His name is Jim, anyways.”

Not even Russell’s kindergarten classroom can escape BTS, as it’s decked out in decor of BT21 (a kind of extended universe that features the members of BTS as cartoon avatars). And if her students are well behaved, they celebrate by watching — and dancing to — the BTS music video for “Idol.”

Her BTS-inspired joy is a far cry from where Russell was several years ago, before becoming a teacher, when she felt unmotivated at her government job. But the demands of the classroom were at first overwhelming, which led her to feel like she was “failing” at home.

“Not realizing it, I had fallen into a very deep depression and a very deep anxiety spiral. Everyday was a struggle just to get up,” she recalls.

At rock bottom, she found herself in the bathroom, holding around 250 pills. “I was going to take them all and just go to sleep or whatever happens,” she admits. “I didn’t know what happens after [but] I didn’t care.”

But during that darkest moment, the BTS song, “Epiphany,” came on her playlist. The song includes lyrics like, “Not so perfect but so beautiful / I’m the one I should love.” Russell also remembered watching an old video of RM reading hate mail from fans and saying to the camera, “I will show you all.”

Russell has an "Epiphany" tattoo as a tribute both to the BTS song of the same name and her own life-changing moment.

Russell has an "Epiphany" tattoo as a tribute both to the BTS song of the same name and her own life-changing moment.

She recalled thinking, “If this young man can rise above in the face of all this hate and negativity… then somehow I need to find the strength to keep going.” She dropped the pills, noting now, “BTS saved my life.”

What had initially been an obsession had now turned into a life lesson. Or maybe, a lesson about life. “I’m 48 years old and I’m still growing,” Russell says. “And I’m growing because a ‘boy band’ taught me how to value myself.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call the Samaritans of Singapore 24-hour hotline at 1800 221 4444. You can also email pat@sos.org.sg.

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