When Lauren Adkins moved to Las Vegas three years ago, she discovered there are really two sides to Las Vegas: Where we all live, and the fantasy.
This is "Vegas."
Adkins is into fantasies, their creation and the reaction to them. The people who indulge in them, and figuring out why.
Because Adkins is one of those people. Which explains why she is about to marry a life-sized cardboard cutout of Edward Cullen, the swoon-worthy and sparkly vampire from the "Twilight" books and movies.
"Edward Cullen is really tied to the idea of Vegas for me," says Adkins, 24, who is staging the wedding as her thesis project for her master's degree at UNLV. "The fantasy behind it can never be achieved. It's the ultimate facade."
Adkins has already got the Viva Las Vegas wedding chapel booked for Jan. 26. She is picking out a wedding dress. Planning a bachelorette party. A cake, even. There will be photos and a wedding reception, just like there would be if she were marrying a real person instead of a flimsy paper version of a fictional character.
Of course it's ridiculous. That's the whole point.
THE BIRTH OF AN IDEA
Adkins was just a girl who liked art when she went to the Memphis College of Art in her hometown. She had learned a lot about photography in high school and wanted to keep going.
When she graduated with a bachelor's degree, she decided to pursue graduate school. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas offered her a good deal, so that's where she chose to go.
She had already joined the considerable "Twilight" fandom at that point. A friend of hers had recommended the first book.
She loved it so much, she finished all four books in a week.
Like many women, she was drawn to Edward, a dark, impossibly beautiful vampire who falls deeply in love with the book's protagonist, a staggeringly normal teenage girl named Bella.
Adkins knows Edward isn't real. Of course she knows that. Just like James Bond isn't real.
But if there's nothing wrong with fantasizing that you're Bond, then there's nothing wrong with fantasizing that the world's most beautiful man is in love with you, right?
Along with millions of other women, she threw herself into the fandom. Delved into fan fiction. Attended premieres .
"Really," she said, "I've just been trying to figure out the psyche behind it."
Jordan Reynolds, a friend of Adkins' who graduated from UNLV last year with a master's in creative writing, said Adkins isn't an obsessed super-fan with no life.
"She's very level-headed," said Reynolds, who is now working in Idaho. "She's sort of challenging the stereotype of the crazy, obsessed Twlight fan.
"She uses her art as a way to amplify her voice," he said.
As Adkins' school life and her "Twilight" life began to collide, she made a comment to a friend. "If I love him so much, why don't I just marry him?" she said.
And an idea was born.
GENDER AND FANDOM
When she came here, one of the few things Adkins brought was a cardboard Edward Cullen.
One of her first assignments in school was to gauge her initial reaction to Las Vegas. She thought it would be fun to show Edward the town. She toured the Strip, downtown. Had a blast with it.
Fake Edward, meet Fake Vegas.
It turns out, one of the requirements for a master's is a thesis project. That means you must produce a piece of art. Performance art counts.
A "wedding" would be perfect.
She could make a video of the ceremony. Do an exhibit later on, include the cake and bachelorette party paraphernalia, the guest book, the champagne.
It's just crazy enough, she thought, that it could work.
"This is a really smart, fascinating project," said Lynn Comella, a women's studies professor at UNLV who is on Adkins' thesis committee.
She said the project could touch on fan culture, women in modern society and idealized notions of romantic love - all areas of academic study.
"We live in a culture where female fandom in particular gets dismissed," she said.
The women who love "Twilight," and consequently Edward Cullen, are called crazy or unbalanced or sad or lonely or all of the above.
But what about the NASCAR fan who plasters his car with Dale Jr. decals? Or the Crimson Tide fan who will only buy a red car, who wears championship T-shirts and baseball caps, who sits around depressed all day after his team loses? He is rarely treated with the same scorn.
A NARRATIVE CREATED
Adkins did not set out to become an Internet sensation.
But the tabloids in Great Britain got wind of her plans. She doesn't know how. She agreed to an interview, anyway. Monitoring the reaction to what she's doing is part of her plan.
"Obsessive 'Twilight' fan to marry cardboard image of Edward Cullen," a typical headline screamed. They ignored the art of it. Of course they did.
"If they ignore the fact that it's an art project, then you're just another crazy fan and there's already a narrative for that," Comella said.
The Huffington Post got hold of it. Blogs. Twitter. Facebook. The whole thing sort of exploded.
A TV station in her hometown picked up the story and got it right.
Either way, online reaction was vitriolic. People called her a dumb girl. Trash. Much worse.
She wonders whether it would be that way if she were a guy who loved action movies instead of a girl who likes "Twilight."
"It's almost like they hate it because they hate what it says about what women want," she said.
"If you do something over the top, it gets people's attention," Comella said. "If you get their attention, maybe you can make your point."
So what point is Adkins trying to make with her crazy stunt?
She said she's exploring ideas. Disney movies. Romantic comedies. "Twilight." They all have perfect, happy endings with perfect, happy couples. We've been fooled, to an extent, she said.
"It's just so embedded in us, it's part of our language," she said.
Ask Adkins what the purpose of art is and she quotes contemporary American artist Bruce Nauman, who created a piece with the phrase, "The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths."
Is that what Adkins is doing? Revealing "mystic truths" by staging a fake marriage to a fake person?
"The whole thing is just me exploring this female experience," she says. She sees herself making commentary on a social phenomenon that she herself has become a part of.
It is a phenomenon she indulges in while also despising it.
She's trying to figure out why the facade is so intriguing.
She's doing what millions of college students do every year.
She's trying to figure out herself.
Contact reporter Richard Lake at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0307.