A pony tale for the blokes
They came in their thousands. Packed into a room at New York's Hotel Pennsylvania, grown men, gawky and bursting with obscure, nittygritty questions, waited with bated breath for a whinny.
It was only then, sitting before 4000 devotees, that the strange truth dawned on Canadian voice actress Ashleigh Ball: she was the unwitting hero to tens of thousands of 'bronies', male fans of the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
And she hadn't done her homework.
"They asked me things like, 'In episode four of season two, when you did this, how did you feel?' and I'm trying to remember for the life of me what the f*** they're talking about," says Ball, who voices two of the show's ponies, Rainbow Dash and Applejack.
"Or, 'Can you sing the song you sang when Rainbow Dash got a pet?', and I'm like, I don't know what that even sounded like, and they know all the words and are trying to get me to sing along with them."
It was, to use her word, weird.
As far as unexpected phenomena go, bronies are an eyebrow-raiser. It started in 2010, with the relaunch of the 80s
toy-turned-TV series My Little Pony, this time with the added 'Friendship is Magic' tagline. The series follows the adventures of six magical ponies living in Ponyville.
Despite being created for young girls, the show became hugely popular among older fans, overwhelmingly men, who would visit imageboard website 4chan after each episode to dissect plots and share pictures.
They called themselves 'bronies' - a blend of 'bros' and 'ponies'. Soon there were brony meet-ups and conventions, dedicated websites and brony radio stations.
And there was Ball, who, along with her castmates, had become an unsuspecting hero to one of the internet's oddest subcultures.
"I thought it was a passing fad or something," says Ball, who first heard about bronies from a colleague in late 2010.
"But, sure enough, I started getting emails, comments on my band's YouTube page and just random bronies showing up wherever I was. It's been..." she pauses, "interesting."
The unusual messages filling Ball's inbox came up in conversation one evening in late 2011 with her friend, Canadian-New Zealand filmmaker Brent Hodge.
"One guy who emailed her wanted to ask his online girlfriend, who he met through a brony community, to marry him [using] Ashleigh's Rainbow Dash voice," Hodge recalls. "I thought, this is so funny, we've got to film every bit of this."
Hodge spent the following year travelling around the US, meeting and interviewing any brony willing to talk.
When Ball was invited to attend BronyCon, the world's largest My Little Pony fan convention, Hodge went along to capture the interaction with her admirers.
The result is A Brony Tale, an 80-minute insight into the eccentric and spectacular world of the brony subculture. The whole project was self-funded and cost just over $100,000.
"When I first met them, I didn't get it. I didn't get anything about it," says Hodge. "I realised very fast that this is nothing to do with a kids' show; this is to do with the community. That's their hook: you come for the show, you stay for the community."
Was there ever a lower-hanging fruit for anonymous online bullies than a group of men fawning over a show for young girls?
From the beginning, bronies have been subject to vicious harassment on YouTube comment threads and online forums.
To haters, bronies are perverts who get off on a show for children. They create pony porn and write erotic fan fiction about cartoon characters. They dress up as horses and have sex with each other.
They're a bunch of paedophiles.
Hodge had read the vitriol before setting out to make the movie, and so knew of the disturbing rumours. But in his year of interviews and research, he saw nothing resembling the behaviour suggested online.
"I never really came across it and, believe me, I did not shy from asking the questions."
Ball believes the contrast between the girly show and its brawny fans gives outsiders the wrong idea. "Haters say, 'They're into a little girls' show, they must be perverts or paedophiles or they're all crazy homosexuals.' That's not the case."
In reality, your average brony is a young, straight, Caucasian man. A worldwide survey of more than 21,000 bronies, titled 'State of the Herd', was released in March, finding roughly 80 percent of the fanbase is male - women, too, identify as bronies - and the average age is 21.
"Just under 85 percent of bronies report being either mainly or exclusively heterosexual, while just over four percent claim to be mainly or exclusively homosexual," the report says.
The fans have taught Ball not to judge people so quickly. "You see a man in a pink pony wig and you're like, 'Woah, what's up with this guy?', but you talk to him and he's just really sweet and he wants to connect and share his love for the show."
Misunderstood they may be, but bronies are fervent fans, and Ball sometimes finds the attention overwhelming. She gets regular letters, art and presents from admirers, some intensely personal and mostly bizarre.
"I've been given quite a number of wood carvings of the character or [of] me as a pony," she says. "There's this one fan in New York, he was really into wood carving and he stopped doing it because it wasn't lucrative. [But then] he watched the show and, all of a sudden, he started carving ponies. It started bringing him joy again, so he has been gifting all my cast-mates wood carvings of their characters."
"It's pretty crazy," she adds. "A lot of the time they want to hear you say something in your [pony] voice - 'Can you give a message to my aunt in Rainbow Dash's voice?' You feel like a bit of a monkey sometimes - 'Do the voice, do the voice.'"
Yet, despite the attention Ball receives, bronies aren't really interested in her, says Hodge. Not like that.
"These guys don't like her, they like her voice. It's really odd. They like the characters she creates."
Perhaps the hardest thing for outsiders to comprehend is just why bronies care so much about the show. What is it about My Little Pony that appeals to older men?
The question was put to bronies in the State of the Herd report, and the most common reason for tuning in was for the characters, followed by the art style and animation, the stories, and the music.
The question of 'why' was one Hodge wanted to clarify, and he put it to the dozens of bronies he interviewed.
Among the best answers was that from Dustykatt, a bulky, trucker-moustached, motorcycle-driving mechanic, who looks more like a bodyguard than a brony. He watches My Little Pony because he finds it to be a well-written TV show with compelling characters.
"Each individual character is so well rounded," says Dustykatt. "People can see themselves as a Rainbow Dash, a Rarity or an AppleJack. That is the basis of excellent storytelling.
"Don't think of it as six little ponies," he continues. "Think of it as six friends learning from each other. I'm just a guy who happens to like a TV show. I like what I like. I don't need society to tell me what I like."
Hodge believes the disturbing reputation bronies have belies something far more innocent.
The bronies he met are brave, genuine and relentlessly kind. They are often socially awkward individuals, brought together by a TV show society thinks they shouldn't watch.
Despite knowing they will be taunted online and in real life, they're unashamed to be fans of a show aimed at little girls, because it makes them happy.
"They all just want to find a place," he says.
A Brony Tale screens in Auckland and Wellington as part of the Documentary Edge Festival. For screening times, visit