EW goes behind the scenes — and screams! — with the chart-topping U.K. phenom leading the current boy-band revival

By Melissa Maerz
April 06, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Can we use Nerf guns out on the field? That’s the question being discussed by One Direction (or 1D, for short), the British and Irish lads who happen to be the biggest boy band in the universe right now. Packed into a van headed toward the Dr Pepper Ballpark outside Dallas, Zayn Malik, 19, Louis Tomlinson, 20, and Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Niall Horan, all 18, are each busy checking their smartphones, trolling through Twitter for signs of #nerfguns.

”No Nerf guns in the park,” commands their publicist, Mike Navarra. It’s 10:30 a.m., and he already looks tired.

”What about Silly String, then?” asks Zayn.

”No Nerf guns, no Silly String,” Navarra says firmly. ”None of that junk.”

Immediately Zayn starts tweeting: Hope there’s lots of silly string and nerf guns at the signing today ! :) x. (Whenever 1D want something, they just ask, and the Internet grants their wishes. Once, Louis joked that he likes girls who eat carrots, and fans started FedExing bags full of his ”favorite” vegetable.) If Zayn’s being cheeky, well, that’s his job. 1D pride themselves on being slightly less clean-cut than the spit-polished, elaborately coiffed tween dreamboats who rode in on the last major boy-band wave in the late ’90s. 1D have tattoos. Some of them have publicly dated older women. Most of them drink (in England, it’s legal at their age).

Perhaps the biggest thing separating them from the boy bands of yore is that they don’t need some Svengali to connect them with their fans. True, two years ago Simon Cowell handpicked 1D’s members from a group of hopefuls competing on England’s X Factor and turned them into an ad hoc group. (They came in third.) But having amassed millions of fans on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, 1D might be the first boy-band phenomenon created entirely by the Internet. Before they even released their first single, ”What Makes You Beautiful,” in the U.S., they were uploading video diaries and encouraging their followers to compete to win a concert in their hometowns. (Hence our presence in Dallas today.) By the time they released their debut, Up All Night, in the U.S. in March, the whole blogosphere knew the difference between the Irish one (Niall), the ”mysterious” one (Zayn), the ”sensible” one (Liam), the ”funny” one (Louis), and the ”charming” one (Harry). Even the First Family wants them: Michelle Obama recently invited 1D to perform at the White House Easter egg hunt. Alas, they had to decline due to a scheduling conflict.

Boosted by the Directioners, as their fans call themselves, 1D just became the first British group to debut their first record atop the Billboard 200 chart — and they did it without a top 10 hit, a testament to the power of social media. This may be a new kind of British Invasion, but in some ways it still looks a lot like the old one. Thousands showed up at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City to watch 1D’s first televised U.S. performance on the Today show March 12, and their in-store signings have reportedly caused fainting spells. (Their publicist insists that these rumors are overblown. ”There was only one girl,” he says, ”and I think she had asthma.”) This afternoon, 9,000 fans join together in one massive meltdown at the ballpark. ”I can’t believe that they’re real!” 15-year-old Sofie Gonzalez wails. ”They’re so beautiful! I even got to take a picture with Paul!” (Paul Higgins, a middle-aged guy with a paunch, is 1D’s bodyguard. He’s got his own fan club, the Higginators.) Behind her, a dozen other girls will break down too, tears streaking mascara, until one mournful voice in the crowd will ask, ”Why are we all crying?!?”

These girls feel like they created 1D, and now they want payback. ”It’s very different from what used to happen 10 or 15 years ago,” Cowell tells EW. Instead of marketing teams, ”it’s the artists and the fans who have the power.” And to push back at that power, 1D are going to need all the Nerf guns they can get.

Inside the clubhouse, Louis is pitching fastballs at Harry’s head (don’t worry, he’s grabbed a helmet). But they’re soon pulled away for an interview with nationally syndicated morning-radio host Kidd Kraddick, who has a little gift for Niall. Earlier this week, Niall tweeted at Khloé Kardashian, and now Kraddick plans to get him on the phone with his crush.

The radio host begins his interview by pulling out his cell and dialing the reality star. Niall’s mouth hangs open in shock. Kraddick’s first mistake is putting her on speakerphone. Harry blurts, ”Niall looks at pictures of you before he goes to bed!”

”That’s a lie!” yells Niall.

”I hope you’re not alone when you look at those pictures,” Kardashian quips.

”He is!” shouts Harry. ”Always. And he’s naked!”

”I’ll send you some, like, dirty photos,” she says.

Everyone bursts out laughing. But 1D’s handlers groan. Within days the interview will be posted on YouTube.

Meanwhile, the crowd outside is whipping itself into a frenzy. Of the 9,000 girls who are chanting ”1-D! 1-D! 1-D!,” approximately half of them are holding signs that say things like ”One Direction Gives Me an Erection” and ”Let Malik You.” Keep in mind that these are teenage girls. (There is one lone boy in the crowd, wearing a Teletubbies costume.)

1D don’t exactly discourage this behavior. This is how they and fellow Brits The Wanted distinguish themselves from other rising boy bands, like Nickelodeon stars Big Time Rush: They come from the U.K., that mystical land where there’s nudity on network television and the drinking age is 18; they don’t dance; they don’t wear matching outfits. They’re not G-rated — maybe more like PG-13. Or as Zayn puts it, ”We’re not squeaky-clean.” Some say their publicity team is trying to change that. Rumor has it that Harry, then 17, was pressured to break up with his 32-year-old girlfriend, reality TV host Caroline Flack, and a British tabloid recently reported that 1D have been ”banned from sex,” though their publicist denies this.

The Directioners don’t need actual contact, anyway. Online, they have created imaginary ”bromances” between the members, posting sexy fan fiction or slow-motion clips of knowing glances between the guys. This is the safest sex these girls can imagine: the kind that doesn’t include them at all.

When 1D finally take the stage, the crowd is practically panting. ”It’s hot out here today,” Harry shouts. ”Sunbathing weather. Naked-sunbathing weather!” A high-pitched sound erupts from the audience, like a million velociraptors descending.

As prerecorded music blasts from the speakers, the boys sing their rainbow-colored pop hits, trading verses on the slow puppy-love ballad ”More Than This,” the upbeat puppy-love anthem ”One Thing,” and their breakthrough puppy-love hit, ”What Makes You Beautiful.” True to form, there’s no dancing, but they do get at least one jump kick in.

The girls drink it all up, clinging to the chain-link fence that separates them from the band. Because they learned of 1D through YouTube, that great cultural equalizer, the crowd is fairly diverse. Many of the girls are wearing head scarves and appear to be Muslim, like Zayn’s family. (Later today, a white girl with a Southern drawl will beg Zayn to say ”I love you” in Arabic.) Others have come all the way from Mexico. ”I have only little words,” says 12-year-old Clareth Mota, who’s still learning English. ”They are so beautiful!”

The Directioners sing every word until the set’s over. And tonight they’ll go home and Facebook-update the hell out of this day. But for now they remain in their seats long after 1D leave the stage. Then something happens: Silver spray cans start to emerge from their pockets. Suddenly all these kids from all these different backgrounds are spraying Silly String together. Just like Zayn wanted.

Good girls. Give him something to tweet about tomorrow.