An Oral History Of Taylor Swift's '1989' Secret Sessions

In 2014, 89 fans were invited into Taylor Swift’s home to hear 1989, events now known as the 1989 Secret Sessions. Nearly a decade later, we caught up with seven of them to find out definitively what went down.

by Kelsey Barnes

When Taylor Swift released 1989 in October 2014, it was more than just a new era. After dabbling in pop sounds across its predecessor, Red, Swift fully pivoted from country to pop, leaving the genre she’d started in behind. She had moved from Nashville to New York City, and chopped her long, curly blonde locks. Change was here.

But amid all that change, there was still one thing Swift was committed to: connecting with her fans. Longtime Swifties will remember how intimate she used to be on social media — during the end of her debut album cycle and into Fearless and Speak Now, she would feverishly comment back to every fan on MySpace with her at-the-time-famous “LoveLoveLove -T-” signature. Even as her fame and audience grew, she still met with fans after shows and kept up with them online, confessing to Barbara Walters in a 2014 interview ahead of 1989’s release that keeping up with fans online is “the only thing that keeps me not feeling overwhelmed by the abnormality of my life.”

This is where the concept of the 1989 Secret Sessions was born. “I decided that I wanted to play this entire album for the fans long before it came out,” she replied when Walters mentioned she’s the only artist who invites fans into her home. “I wanted it to be this whole secret society gathering in living rooms. And so I decided to have them in my houses.”

About a year before 1989’s release, Swift began scouring the internet, hand-selecting the 89 lucky fans across the U.S. and U.K. who would be the first to experience 1989 — in one of her homes or, in London’s case, her hotel room — before anyone else. Many of the stories from those sessions have become fandom lore, like the fan who stole the soap from Swift’s bathroom and the “Died, Dead, RIP Me” meme, born from fans’ reactions. Nearly a decade later, on the eve of Swift’s 1989 (Taylor’s Version) re-release, NYLON caught up with seven of those attendees, who were at sessions across the U.S. and in England, to find out definitively what went down those many years ago, from the selection process to the memories they still hold today.

The 1989 Secret Sessions: The Selection

The selection process was simple: Swift lurked social media platforms to find her diehard fans, watching them “for months and months.” She learned about their lives and who they were as people. After getting selected by Taylor, her fans would get contacted by her fan club, Taylor Nation, with a DM, phone call, or email sent in confidence to invite them to a session.

“I got a follow and direct message from Taylor Nation,” says San Francisco-based Kayla Clark, who was 18 when she was invited to attend the Los Angeles session. After that, every invite process varied, but here’s how they generally went: For security purposes, the Taylor Nation representative would take down their details: age, location, and if they’d met Swift before. Then, at the rep’s discretion, they’d receive a phone call from someone in Swift’s fan club inviting them to a “top secret” event happening in a specific city. “I thought it was fake, but [I] was less suspicious of being kidnapped once [a woman named] Sierra from Taylor Nation called me,” says Clark of her invitation.

The 1989 Secret Sessions: The Sessions

The first secret session occurred at Swift’s Los Angeles home on Sept. 20, 2014.

After getting her invite, Clark received more details through Taylor Nation, specifically where to meet, which was typically an unassuming parking lot. Once there, she checked in, signed NDAs, and piled on a bus headed to an “undisclosed location.” All fans had to leave their phones in bags where they would be kept by security at the final location.

“We were the first sessioners so it was all truly a surprise,” Clark says. When they arrived at Swift’s home, there was tons of food and drinks outside including the now-famous pumpkin chocolate cookies that Swift made herself, which Clark deems “the best pumpkin thing” she ever had.

Before fans would hear the album and meet Swift, they were able to mingle while Taylor Nation employees took professional photos and videos of them. “When we went inside, I could tell we were in Taylor’s personal home,” Clark remembers. “My stomach dropped when Taylor came around the corner and said, ‘Hi guys!’”

After the listening party wrapped (more on that later), fans were placed into groups for the meet-and-greet portion of the evening. While they waited, they could hang out in other rooms, meet new friends, and discuss the album they’d just heard for the first time.

Once their group was called, fans entered the living room one by one to have five to 10 minutes with Swift before a sole Polaroid camera would be used to capture the moment. The fan and Swift would think of a pose — her giving them a kiss on the cheek, them holding candles together, or making a conjoined hand heart. Sometimes, Swift would already have a pose in mind based on what she knew about the person. Fans under 18 were able to bring a parent along and became one of the lucky few who got two Polaroids — a solo one with Swift, and one with Swift and their parent. Often, Swift’s parents, Andrea and Scott, would also be there, mingling, sharing stories, and taking Polaroids with fans. Her father became famous in the Swift fandom for giving out guitar picks.

Kayla Clark was 18 when she attended the L.A. Secret Session.

Clark was the very last person to meet Swift that day. She remembers Swift noticed her breast cancer ribbon tattoo, which she got in honor of her mother, and asked about it, prompting Clark to start crying. “She held me so tight. She wiped my tears and assured me I was going to be OK,” Clark remembers. “I thanked her for being there for me through music, and she told me how much that meant to her and gave me the longest and sweetest hug.”

On Sept. 28, eight days later, another secret session happened at Swift’s mother’s home in Nashville. Liz, who was 17 when she was invited after getting an Instagram comment from Swift in April 2014, also didn’t really know what to expect because, in true Swift fashion, anything could happen.

“I don't think it fully sunk in for me what was happening until I saw Taylor in the doorway of the living room,” she says, now 26. “I remember when it was my turn to meet her we both just skipped up to each other and she said, ‘I'm so glad I get to finally meet you!’ and I was like, ‘Meet me? I get to meet you!’ When my time was over I just hugged her and cried. She didn't let go until I did and that still sticks with me to this day.”

After LA and Nashville, fans started catching on to what was happening. A few days later, a then 15-year-old Paige Hettinger, now 24, found herself in Swift’s iconic New York City apartment. Hettinger was an avid Tumblr user and had a follow from Swift when she joined the platform, but she ended up getting her DM on Twitter — a platform she didn’t use much. She initially missed the DM, which was an invite to the Nashville session, but Swift’s team was kind enough to accommodate her for the NYC event. “I'm exceedingly lucky,” she says. “I know others who missed that first chance and never got to go to a session.”

What stood out most to Hettinger about the NYC session was how many personal details Swift knew about them, a point many other fans brought up while I reported this story.

“Taylor started pointing to people by name and referencing their Tumblr URL, telling them she loves them,” Hettinger remembers. “And once again just chatted with people with a kind of casual affection and awareness of who they are that still makes me emotional.”

Halfway through the NYC album listening, Swift stopped to let everyone take a break and passed out homemade treats like toasted coconut and chocolate chip cookies and the chicken nuggets Hettinger remembers everyone from the Nashville session raving about. “I distinctly remember everyone who attended wanted to know where they were from and how they could eat them regularly,” she says. “I can confirm I am asking myself that to this day.”

Paige Hettinger, who attended the NYC session, still remembers Swift’s homemade pumpkin cookies.

Many assumed that NYC might be the final stop, but Swift kept them on their toes. Kyle Smith remembers getting a phone call from someone “stating they were from ‘taylorswift.com’” inviting him to a top-secret event that was happening in Providence, Rhode Island. “I almost didn't answer the phone because I didn't recognize the number but something told me I should pick it up,” says Smith, who was 21 when he got the invite. “My initial reaction was a somewhat intense mix of excitement, shock, and panic. I was trying to remain calm while on the phone but internally my mind was going a mile a minute. We were allowed to tell our parents about what was happening but nobody else.”

On Oct. 4, Smith was inside Swift’s Rhode Island residence (yes, the same one from “the last great american dynasty”), mingling with other fans, indulging in food, and taking in the interior. “I was very aware of the fact that I was only getting one opportunity to be inside of Taylor Swift's home so I really took in all my surroundings: the homey decor, the photos on the wall, the sprawling windows with breathtaking ocean views in all directions anchored by a lighthouse,” he recalls. “I even touched a couple of piano keys so I could always say I ‘played’ Taylor's piano.”

Aside from it being in Swift’s home, the biggest difference between the Secret Sessions and a typical listening party held at a record label office was just how personal she made the experience. Everyone remembers she played 1989 directly from her iPhone, explaining each song and including personal anecdotes, like who she worked with and what she hoped to achieve by writing each one.

Smith remembers the moment she played “Clean” at the Providence session. “It was an emotional song for a lot of the people to listen to and she made a point to look many of the fans in the eye, holding prolonged eye contact, as a gesture that she understood and was there for us.”

Stephanie, who was 28 and also at the Providence session, says she shared a special moment with Swift after listening to “Out of The Woods.” “She looked at me and asked, ‘Are you Steph?’ After I replied, she said something along the lines of how she thought so, but wanted to make sure because I post a lot of my son, Leyton, but not much of myself.” Stephanie received her Secret Session invitation after Swift replied to a post about her son and the fertility struggles she experienced — and it turned out Swift remembered. “I was in awe,” Stephanie says.

After Stephanie’s meet and greet, Swift took her to the kitchen and handed her a bag full of homemade treats, including the now-famous chai cookies, with the label “For Leyton! Love, Taylor.” “My son still has this baggie framed in his room today.”

Kyle Smith was 21 when he attended the Providence, Rhode Island session.
Sophia was 15 when she attended the Providence session and has been invited by Taylor Nation to more events since.
Sophia was “one of the lucky few” who received two Polaroids with Swift that night.
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(A few months later, Swift would show up at Stephanie’s door for “Swiftmas,” an occasion when she sent fans personalized packages full of handpicked gifts. “She stayed for two hours, playing with Leyton and spending time chatting with us,” Stephanie recalls. “People often ask how we didn’t faint, but the truth is she acted and treated everyone as she would a friend.” Since then, Swift has gone out of her way to have more moments with Leyton: a barricade hug during the reputation tour and, most recently, being selected to receive the “22” hat at the Eras tour. “I am a very, very regular everyday person. I am absolutely nothing special. I’ll never know why she continues to go out of her way to show us both such kindness, but whatever the reason we are eternally grateful and it really is a testament to the kind of person she is,” Stephanie adds.)

The final 1989 Secret Session happened in London on Oct. 10. Holly, who was 21 at the time, finds herself appreciating most of all from the experience that Swift trusted people enough to invite them into her home and life. “When we met her, it felt like she truly knew us inside and out,” she says. “She knew my name before I’d even introduced myself. I got to speak to her about my dream of becoming a nurse one day and she was so encouraging of it. Now, nine years later, I’m a children’s nurse and some of that I probably owe to Taylor.”

Following the meet-and-greets, fans received a goody bag full of merch, including “Shake It Off” shirts, a mini 1989 calendar, and a personalized commemorative keychain that said “#1989secretsessions” and the specific city, all inside a 1989 tote bag. They then regrouped on the bus, waiting for everyone to wrap up, and headed back to the original pickup location.

Holly, who attended the London session, believes she partly became a nurse because of Taylor, “She was so encouraging of it.”

The 1989 Secret Sessions: Nine Years Later

As the past Sessioners reflect on the nine years that have passed, they mostly remember the sacred connections they made that night. “I made some lifelong friendships at her house that night,” says Liz, who attended the Nashville session. “I also felt more connected to [Swift] and her music in a way I didn't think was possible. Not in a parasocial way — I'm well aware I don't know her, but she kept up with us and checked in on us. She continued to go above and beyond and I think that speaks volumes as to who she is and to how much her fans mean to her.”

Hettinger, who was at the NYC session, shares that sentiment. “She gave me the single greatest gift of my life that day,” she says. “My dad swears I got to my secret session because I was fighting in the trenches for her in 2012, which is not real, but it also kind of is. I stood by her forever and made it clear I always would. She took notice to some degree, and she gave me the greatest gift of all time in response. To be so young and be known and held by your lifetime idol like that, someone as big and sparkly and bold as Taylor Swift, is a gift like no other.”

Sophia, who attended the Providence session and has been invited by Swift’s team to more events since, feels like everything that’s transpired in the years between — the rerecordings, The Eras Tour, and beyond — have made her feel closer to Swift than ever before. She was at Sofi Stadium when Swift announced 1989 (Taylor's Version). “It felt incredibly full circle to know that nine years later, I would again be one of the first people to know and experience this album (re)release with her,” she says.

As more fans attended Secret Sessions for Swift’s reputation and Lover eras, they’ve become somewhat immortalized in the zeitgeist. To outsiders, having fans enter your private residence might be puzzling and strange for someone as famous as Swift. But for her fans, the Secret Sessions redefined, and continue to define, what the artist-to-fan relationship could be. Fans aren’t just an anomaly or monolith behind a screen for Swift — they genuinely matter to her. Secret Sessions have become just one way for her to show that appreciation.

“One day, when people look back at 1989 and remember and discuss it for being one of the greatest and most memorable pop albums, I'll always get to recount the time I heard it for the first time after Taylor Swift invited me over,” Smith says. “What’s better than that?”

Taylor Swift’s 1989 (Taylor’s Version) is out Oct. 27.