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These BTS superfans in the Philippines show you're never too old to be a K-pop stan

BTS swag is raffled off at an in-person event hosted by the Titas of BTS on March 10. Some 40 women gathered at a bar in Quezon City to celebrate the March birthdays of BTS members Suga and J-Hope.
Ashley Westerman/NPR
BTS swag is raffled off at an in-person event hosted by the Titas of BTS on March 10. Some 40 women gathered at a bar in Quezon City to celebrate the March birthdays of BTS members Suga and J-Hope.

MANILA, Philippines — Some may think that stanning over South Korean pop bands and their music, fashion and relationships is only for young people. However, when it comes to the K-pop phenomenon BTS, one group of fans in the Philippines is proving them wrong.

They call themselves the "Titas of BTS."

But before we go any further... What's a tita?

"A direct translation is an auntie, so somebody who is an older woman," group founder Demai Sunio-Granali says. "Even if you're not a relative, you address someone who is an older female a 'tita' out of respect."

Sunio-Granali, 38, started a Facebook group for BTS fans in 2020 with a handful of friends all around her same age. Three years later, that group has grown into an international online community of thousands of women — and some men — in their late 30s and older, all diehard BTS fans.

"It was really just started as a place for us to convene and to share BTS content with each other," Sunio-Granali says, laughing. "We didn't really see everything it would become."

BTS members attend Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest in New York City on Dec. 31, 2019.
/ Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Dick Clark Productions
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Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Dick Clark Productions
BTS members attend Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest in New York City on Dec. 31, 2019.

The Facebook group includes over 14,000 members and is a constant stream of BTS updates, news and discussion. From V's recent Elle Korea photo shoot to Jimin's new solo album, "Face" — if it's BTS news, the group is talking about it. They also occasionally hold in-person events to celebrate birthdays and dance to their favorite BTS hits or just to have dinner and catch up on the latest BTS gossip.

Sunio-Granali says everyone has a story about how they became fans of BTS — short for Bangtan Boys. Some got hooked through friends; others through siblings and children.

Sunio-Granali came across the band after spending time watching Korean TV dramas, she says. After she fell in love with a song performed by a member of BTS on one of the soundtracks, that led to another song, then another and another.

Soon, she realized this group was different from any other boy bands — primarily, she says, because of how they convey messages and tell relatable stories through their lyrics.

"I connected with them because of how they expressed themselves through lyrics, how they told their story and how they describe their struggles," Sunio-Granali says.

Why do Filipinos love K-pop?

K-pop, as a genre, has gripped the Philippines in near-obsession. Korean dramas are a common entry point into the music. And while Korean pop culture may be a global phenomenon, stans — overzealous fans — in the Philippines are on a totally different level.

For years, the Philippines has topped global rankings in listening to K-pop on streaming services and mentioning K-pop on social media. In 2022, the Philippines was the second-biggest audience for BTS, after the U.S., according to Spotify. Meanwhile, Twitter data shows the country also came in fourth in the world last year for tweets mentioning K Pop. In 2021, it ranked third.

"The reason why Filipinos love Korean culture, in general, is because of our shared history," says J.R. Igno, an assistant linguistics professor at the University of the Philippines. "Particularly, we've been colonized by different countries."

This relationship goes back to the Korean War, he says, when the Philippines sent soldiers to fight alongside South Korean forces. But the Korean wave — or Hallyu — really took off in the Philippines in the early 2000s, with the popularization of Korean dramas and their soundtracks.

Because of the history of colonization, Philippine culture has always been fluid and open to outside influences, says University of the Philippines Baguio history professor Zuriel Domingo. "And because of globalization, you have the internet, which is free ... so it's not being forced on us."

Domingo notes that K-pop isn't just music, it's a whole package: visuals, fashion, people to idolize — all backed by a government in Seoul that has prioritized K-pop as a cultural export.

A place to stan without fear of judgment

Titas of BTS member Jabba Tantay, 39, says because the aunties' group is older than other BTS superfans, they appreciate that whole package differently.

"When you're a teenager, it's a different kind of fan-girling, right? It's more about, he's so handsome. He dances so well. There's a different appreciation," she explains. "When you're a bit older, you see other things. Like, we focus more on their relationships with each other and the way they convey their messages."

They can relate, the women say, to members like Jin, the eldest, who has taken over the role of big brother to the rest of the group. Or Suga, who is known for his "hard on the outside, but soft on the inside" persona. And whether it's writing in a raw way about the cost of so much fame or being unsure of whether you've accomplished enough as you get older, they say BTS knows how to sing about real-life, relatable issues.

Kaye Mora, 39, from Cainta, Rizal Province, holds up a poster featuring the members of BTS that she won in a raffle at a recent Titas of BTS gathering in Quezon City.
/ Ashley Westerman/NPR
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Ashley Westerman/NPR
Kaye Mora, 39, from Cainta, Rizal Province, holds up a poster featuring the members of BTS that she won in a raffle at a recent Titas of BTS gathering in Quezon City.

For many titas of BTS, there is no other safe space to stan for the band. Many of the women are professionals who hold high-level positions or mothers with families to take care of.

"There were judgments from their own circles," she says. "The typical statements would be: 'You're too old to fan-girl. Why are you like this? You're too old, you're a mother, you have X number of kids.' "

Tantay says that's when they realized how serious a platform they had. "It was an avenue for people who needed a place to release whatever it is they were feeling, where they would not be judged for it."

And this mission won't change, Sunio-Granali says. The titas will support BTS even while it is on a break, and will keep their Facebook group running until the band is set to return -- hopefully in 2025.

Ultimately, though, it doesn't really matter what happens to BTS, she says.

"I would consider [our friendship] the best gift that we have received from being fans of BTS," she says. "At the end of the day, we're going to be left with this friendship."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 25, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that BTS was short for Batang Boys. It is short for Bangtan Boys.
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Ashley Westerman
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.