Once stuck in a 9-5 rut in a Wellington office job, Gala Darling donned a new identity and created a new life as a style and self-help guru, first in Melbourne, now in the Big Apple. She tells Rebecca Barry about her evolution.
It's not easy looking stylish in this cold. The temperature in New York City has hovered around zero for the last 24 hours, and the locals are getting around in unshapely coats and bulky scarves. Sitting at the coffee bar in an East Village cafe is a striking woman in a pink Pucci dress, white fur coat and platform wedges Lady Gaga would envy. Accessories? A $5 pair of earrings, and a chocolate croissant in her handbag.
Gala Darling, 27, may be New Zealand's answer to Carrie Bradshaw, a fictitious, unfathomable character who has somehow burst into life. She's a walking Sex and the City fantasy, a "recovering goth" from Wellington who changed her name, dyed her hair and, in the space of five years, turned herself into a cyberspace star with a serious shoe fetish and an at-home writing gig in New York.
What started in 2006 as the fashion and style blog iCiNG.com has now morphed into galadarling.com, a hub of all things pink and aspirational, in which the self-made life coach dispenses advice on everything from style to launching your own business.
It's not revolutionary stuff, yet her fans adore her like a pop star. Darling's site gets more than a million hits each month. She has more than 13,000 Twitter followers and almost 7000 friends on Facebook, no mean feat considering the competition within the blogosphere. Her global fans are mostly women and teenage girls, many of whom she charmed when she wrote the fashion pages at Australia's Cosmopolitan magazine. However, she recently fielded an inquiry from a transvestite desperate to get his hands on a pair of the leopard print heels she designed for her shoe range - in size 15.
Such is her popularity, google.com recently offered Darling a chance to curate a page on boutiques.com site, a new personal shopping hub, allowing visitors to get ideas for outfits from celebrity "taste-makers" including Nicole Richie and Anna Paquin. If you like shapes from the 50s, colours and patterns from the 60s and 70s, and you like to put it with "weird futuristic stuff, like leather leggings and these crazy wedge boots", says Darling, check out her page to see where to find it all online.
She also writes for Red Bull's online ChinaShop magazine. Visitors to her blog are met with photographs and videos of Darling blowing bubbles, traipsing through New York, arms laden with shopping bags, or posing for photos in pink bunny ears. Her aesthetic is punky and playful, her attitude almost religiously upbeat, imploring her thousands of readers to find happiness by whatever means necessary, whether it's eating pancakes in bed, indulging in "shoe pornography" and a concept she's named "radical self-love".
"Why shouldn't you be blissfully, delectably, head-over-heels in love with yourself?" she writes. Fans say Darling brings a sense of magic and joy into their lives. Cynics might say that following her advice could leave you fat and broke. Those of us in between might wonder how Darling's advice - common sense wrapped up like a feelgood fairy tale - has become so popular.
"I make a real effort to be positive in everything I put online," she says. "I feel like there are enough of the people who do the muck-raking and the negativity and I don't think there's any value in contributing to that."
That hasn't stopped her many outspoken critics from trashing her site as a narcissistic exercise in consumerism, and accusing her of cashing in, via podcasts and transcripts from her book project, on vulnerable young people. But whatever you make of her online magazine, Darling has considerable reach. She is indeed a darling of the internet. Fashionista.com named her one of the world's 100 most influential style bloggers, Hollywood stylist Rachel Zoe called her "tres chic" and the New York Times named her a "web-tethered gadabout" after Microsoft employed her as an ambassador for its new smartphone.
In person, Darling is not as gregarious and p layful as the persona she has created for herself. Despite the attention-grabbing dress sense, she comes across as serious, introspective. Speaking in a New Zealand-American accent, she confesses that as a writer, she is often alone and not as much of a socialite as it might seem. After we meet, she is due at a lunch for fashion designer Tory Burch at the upmarket private club Soho House and she's a little nervous, as she's no idea who will be there. It's a networking opportunity organised by her new manager. She needs a manager?
"I wasn't looking for one but I was having lunch at a raw food restaurant and she was near me, tweeting that she thought she was sitting next to Gala Darling," she says, oblivious to how zeitgeisty this sounds, "and she came over, like, 'I hope you don't think I'm a stalker'."
The pairing has proved worthwhile - Karen has connected her with companies looking to make an impact through social media "stars" like Darling, whose most successful placement was with the luxury accessories company, Coach. Darling's photograph featured on in-store billboards worldwide. She's also worked on campaigns for (among many), Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's clothing line, JC Penney, Ralph Lauren and Estee Lauder.
It's hard to put Darling in a box - she is part self-publisher, part "influencer" - but perhaps her biggest achievement is her ability to attract opportunities. On her website you can hire her as a speaker - she has appeared at writers' festivals, fashion weeks, bloggers' conferences and social media and marketing events - or pitch her ideas for collaborations and sponsorship deals.
"I don't really think of myself as a blogger," she says. "I see myself as an artist and a writer and my blog is a vehicle I use to get my stuff out there. I don't really deal well with figures or money or saving it or knowing how much I've got in the bank but I'm good at working a deal and selling something. I know how to sell myself."
On the website you can buy podcasts and a 10,000-word transcript of her book, Love and Sequins, downloadable by chapter for US$12 on topics including sex and relationships, finding happiness and "making mad bling". She says it's this side of her writing, along with advertising and corporate hook-ups that allow her to work for herself out of the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her boyfriend and two rescued pitbulls.
In recent years the blog content itself has changed almost as often as her shoes, lurching from cheery self-help to interviews with artists and fellow web stars, such as John Harris, who created the first web TV channel. She's also dyed her hair platinum blond, to show corporates they can "take me more seriously".
"My interests have definitely changed. I started off just wanting to be about fashion and style and then I got bored with that, so I did a lot of self-improvement content ... I'm very intellectually curious and now I like trying to branch out a bit."
So who does this self-styled "international playgirl" think she is? It's one thing to make a living as a registered therapist and another to come up with your own online manual to life. With thousands who subscribe to her advice, Darling carries a lot of responsibility. Much of it is common sense, some is purely whimsical. "Drink 2 litres of fizzy pop and stay up until sunrise" is one of her cures for a bad day.
"I'm not a complete idiot," she says. "I was a very unhappy person, so all this comes from a real place. When I was 23, I was miserable, I was depressed, I had an eating disorder and I was really f*****-up. I decided to fix my shit up. I didn't want to be miserable for the rest of my life. So I did a bunch of research about how I could become happy."
That included reading posts by self-improvement blogger Steve Pavlina, whose derision of the 9-5 office job motivated her to pack it in. She quit her job at NZ Post headquarters to follow her childhood dream to become a writer, something she'd shelved, she says, because she didn't know how to make money out of it. Her parents were behind the decision too. Her mother, Janet Paape, runs the successful Lower Hutt fashion boutique She Designer Excitement and dad Jonathan is chairman of the Ferrari Owners' Club of New Zealand. Successful and wealthy themselves, they'd instilled in her the desire to stay in control of her future and finances by working for herself.
She moved to Melbourne with her then-boyfriend, got a job writing a fashion and style column for Cosmopolitan. She dyed her hair bright pink (and later purple), then launched the blog iCiNG and changed her name from Amy Paape.
"One day I had a dream and in the dream my name was written in a cloud and I woke up and wrote it down, Gala Darling. It's pretty weird. I know it makes me sound like a fruit," she giggles.
"I feel like it forced me to be my own person. People in Wellington know who my parents are and people knew that I was their daughter and I was not really in their shadow but ... you know. I feel like changing my name has forced me to really develop myself. Also, Gala Darling is a big name and I felt like I had to grow into it.
I'm still growing into it." Within six months, she says she was selling advertising. That year she visited a friend in New York and fell in love with the city.
"I used to go to the Wellington Library and sit in an armchair with a stack of tour guides on New York City and read them and make notes. I just wanted to soak it all in. Then when I came here, I got out of my cab and put my foot on the ground and just felt like I belonged. It was this really amazing feeling which I've never felt in Wellington or Auckland or Melbourne or anywhere else I've lived."
She says two years later she found a good immigration lawyer and got an exceptional ability visa that would allow her to live and work in the United States for three years. Her larger-than-life creation has continued to expand, particularly in the podcasts, which she says are her most lucrative form of income. Is it value for money?
Her fans certainly think so, judging by the comments posted on the online forums claiming their life-changing properties. But her detractors have been almost as vocal, labelling Darling a "fraud" whose fabulous lifestyle and shopping habits are superficial. She's even been accused of being a "trust fund baby", who couldn't possibly afford to live the lifestyle she leads simply by writing a blog. Darling rubbishes the accusation, saying she is completely self-funded, and doesn't owe anyone a break-down of her finances. It isn't easy gauging how much you can make from blogging but the likes of Pavlina claim to bring in more than $1000 a day.
The backlash kicked into high gear in 2008, and Darling decided to take action by removing the "comments" section from her blog, a risky move, as her livelihood is built on interaction with fans. Many felt ostracised and took to the net to vent.
"When I moved to New York, I don't know if people felt jealous or if they felt like I was moving on and I wasn't allowed to or whatever but people suddenly had a problem with me and they were very vocal about it," says Darling. "They were like, 'you suck! Your website sucks now!' They were really nasty to me. And I never really understood where that came from. It devastated me, it was horrible. Especially when you pour so much of yourself into a project, it's like your baby, and then all of a sudden people you've never met hate you because of what you're publishing on the internet, it's really ridiculous."
The hatred comes and goes and Darling has had to take some of her own advice: learn how to deal with criticism and decide whose opinions she values. And it's not necessarily her readers'.
"Like, I value my boyfriend's opinion, my parents' and my friends' and that's about it. So anybody else I can take or leave. If somebody I really admired had a criticism of me I would listen to them but if you were just a 14-year-old-girl in your bedroom, then I don't really care what you think of me.
"When I started my website I wanted it to be uplifting and positive and fabulous and frivolous and fun. And if they think I'm superficial, that's fine, because I know I'm not."
Anyway, it's Darling who gets the last laugh. She's the one all dressed up with somewhere to go.