When the Netflix series Stranger Things took off last summer, Shannon Purser experienced a peculiarly modern form of overnight success. Then an 18-year-old from Atlanta, plucked from obscurity for her very first screen role, Purser went from total unknown to Internet meme as fast as binge-watchers could tear through the show’s first season. As “Barb” Holland, best friend and intrepid protector of Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), a popular girl whose virginity (and life) is at stake amid supernatural threats, Purser turned a minor character into a nerd icon – her face festooned on t-shirts and fan art and at the center of a passionate (if ill-fated) campaign to bring her back for Season Two.
“I’m just in a constant state of shock now,” Purser tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t even know what my life is anymore. Like, in the best way. All these incredible opportunities and things have come my way that I never would have anticipated.” Adding to the shock: this past Thursday, Stranger Things picked up an impressive 18 Emmy nominations, including one for Purser for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama. “I am so honored and humbled to be a nominee along with these other amazing actresses,” Purser says. (Those impressive women are Handmaid’s Tale’s Alexis Bledel, Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, The Leftovers’ Ann Dowd, How To Get Away With Murder’s Cicely Tyson and The Americans‘ Alison Wright.) “I can’t wait to be at the awards to support Stranger Things.”
Asked why Barb took off in the culture, despite being deep down the cast list, Purser believes that viewers instantly related to her on two different fronts. “Everyone has been an outcast at one point in their life,” she says. “It’s also a rarity to see more fuller-figured women on TV. People connected to her because she looks out of the ordinary, at least by Hollywood standards.”
Now that she’s out of high school herself, Purser has been able to parlay her success on Stranger Things into a recurring role as Ethel Muggs on the CW series Riverdale (of the cast, she quips, “They’re all super-hot. If I had known people like that in my high school, I would have freaked out”) and supporting turns in the summer horror film Wish Upon and the upcoming Melissa McCarthy vehicle Life of the Party. But she’s also using her increased profile, including over 120,000 followers on Twitter, to advocate for suicide prevention and sexual assault victims, as well as other forms of political action.
“I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety several years ago,” says Purser, “so it’s something I’ve been battling most of my life. I think society has come far within the last few years, but there’s still so much more work that needs to be done when it comes to getting rid of the stigma against people who are suffering from mental health issues.”
On the day she spoke to Rolling Stone, Purser cast her vote for Jon Ossoff in the special election in Georgia’s sixth district, where she grew up and currently resides. Though Ossoff’s bid to win a seat in this traditionally Republican area failed, Purser sees reason for optimism in the future. “I’m thankful for the change I already see happening,” she says. “Things like the Women’s March have been just so encouraging, and I’d like to see that continue. There’s definitely some troubling aspects to our current administration, and I fear what everyone else is fearing. But I always hope that people will get the justice they deserve and more marginalized voices will get heard.”