Shannon Purser is admittedly an introvert. It was probably this trait that lent the shy, soft-spoken 19-year-old from rural Georgia the greatest tool to embody her first big role: That of the doomed Barb, a beloved character on the Netflix smash hit Stranger Things. Her portrayal of the hapless, wounded outsider inexplicably touched upon something tragic and universal in the human experience: vulnerability. Immediately embraced by gays and nerds alike, she became a poster child (read: meme) for the outsider that we all see in ourselves. Now, alas, Barb is no more (as of this writing), and with the character’s demise, Purser was firmly enshrined in cult TV history.
“The idea of being a cult icon is still so odd to me. Winona [Ryder] is brilliant and I don’t think I’d ever compare myself to her, but I’m so glad Barb has resonated with the audience the way she has,” Purser says. “The response from the gay community was also very unexpected, but I have a special place for them in my heart, and I’m so glad that they saw themselves in her.”
Purser is now transcending the role that made her famous, and in the process becoming a Hollywood starlet of a rare breed. Not only is she an active, outspoken advocate for mental health, but she also empowers her fans with body-positive affirmations and anti-bullying messaging. Tweeting happily to her haters with a smile emoji and all, she’s defying the odds of what it means to be an It Girl in the modern age.
With three coveted parts in major productions already in the bag, she’s poised for a long and successful career. Not only has she wrapped roles for the CW show Riverdale—a very modern (and queer) adaptation of the Archie comic book series—but also a starring role in the upcoming horror film, Wish Upon.
Another notable role, and arguably a game-changer, is in the upcoming Melissa McCarthy film Life of the Party. McCarthy, whose husband directs the film, handpicked Purser for the part. “I still can’t really believe it happened,” Purser says. “Melissa is not only one of the most hilarious people in comedy these days, she and her husband Ben [Falcone], are some of the warmest and most loving people I’ve ever met.”
With her windfall of success, it is important to remember this actor isn’t just about the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. She knows she’s been granted a very rare and important platform from which to share her positive outlook on some very hard topics—namely, self-acceptance. She takes to Twit- ter daily, and though some of her tweets are what you would expect from an average teenager, she’s capable of dropping some larger-than-life truth bombs.
In a tweet from mid-February, to no publication in particular, she wrote, “If you’re so proud of your size inclusivity then why do I keep seeing the same kinds of girls in your magazines?”
“I’m certainly disappointed in the fashion industry,” says Purser. “Obviously, they’ve made great strides, but to me, it’s not good enough to see may- be one plus-size model for every 100 ‘normal’ sized models. If you’re going to talk about how all bodies are beautiful, then prove it. Diversity is important and representation is important.”
Purser was also in the news last fall when she revealed on Twitter that she was a reformed cutter, or self-harmer, and even showed her her razor—a shockingly candid and personal moment. She acknowledged her struggle with depression and anxiety, and like many others, self-harm was a way for her to deal with things. “I feel so grateful that I was able to stop,” she says. “I wanted to share that with my followers to give them some hope.”
As with Barb, we can expect a sense of “ride or die” loyalty from Purser—to her fans, her causes, and her work. Leaving us with a last bit
of wisdom, she says, “To those with depression, your mind is telling you lies, and I know how easy they are to believe. But please know that you are not alone, unwanted, or unworthy of love. You can survive this hell you’re going through.”
Barb may only live on in our hearts, but thankfully Purser is here to stay.