Failed social media star Caroline Calloway is at the centre of a fight in the instagram-sphere
The claws are well and truly out in influencer land.
US social media "star" Caroline Calloway, who earlier this year had to refund hundreds of dollars to budding influencers who shelled out for her "creativity workshop", has had her online success questioned in a tell-all piece by her former friend and ghostwriter Natalie Beach, in a lengthy essay published in The Cut.
The highly anticipated expose lifts the lid on the reality behind the world of Instagram celebrity and social media influencers, and how different her friend's online life was compared to reality.
Calloway's downfall began earlier this year when she was heavily criticised after holding sessions promising her followers for US$165 (NZ$260) a ticket, she'd teach attendees how to build their social media brand while venturing on an "emotional and spiritual" art-making experience.
But after complaints people didn't get their money's worth at sessions in Washington DC and New York, the 26-year-old cancelled the remaining dates and issued refunds, blaming her "total inexperience" and inadequate preparation.
Now, after days of build-up on Twitter, including emotional posts from Calloway on Instagram directing her followers to read the essay, her former friend, ghostwriter and self-proclaimed mastermind behind the Caroline Calloway social brand has published a lengthy, tell-all essay on The Cut detailing their fractured friendship and the rise and fall of the pair's working relationship.
Beach says she was Calloway's ghostwriter for her Instagram posts and a book that was never published. But more on that later.
The pair formed a friendship after meeting as 20-year-olds and collaborated on social media posts and captions to launch the bubbly blonde into social media stardom.
In her essay, however, Beach details how their friendship derailed, the reality behind Calloway's online character and how it all went awry during a weekend visit to Cambridge University.
"Caroline was the most confident girl I'd ever known," Ms Beach wrote in her essay, titled "I Was Caroline Calloway".
"We were both 20-year-old NYU students when we met … She turned in personal essays about heartbreak and boarding school, had silk eyelashes and wore cashmere sweaters without a bra.
"Caroline first took an interest in me after I wrote an essay about growing up in New Haven. Yale (University) was an obsession of hers; she'd been rejected and never got over it. The fact that I was a Yale townie won me an invitation to her West Village apartment."
Beach said Calloway was someone she knew she could write about because "her life was a cycle of adventures and minor crises".
"A year after Caroline and I met, the world was introduced to Caroline Calloway the influencer," Ms Beach says, writing about a trip the pair went on together in Sicily.
"Apparently, she had posted a colour wheel of macarons that had landed on the 'favourites page', and now she had 50,000 followers, mostly teen girls who wanted a life like hers.
"Caroline had always been obsessive and confident, but Instagram focused those qualities like sunlight through a magnifying glass."
"It doesn't matter where you live or how much money you have. You could be a teen from Nebraska and by following me you can feel like you're here," Ms Beach recalled Ms Calloway once saying about her social media account.
"When Caroline was satisfied we got the shot, we'd hurry back to the hotel to connect to the Wi-Fi, brainstorming the caption together.
"She was building a second version of herself in front of me, and how could I compete with that? I should have been having the time of my life in paradise, but Caroline had a way of making me feel small, as if I had folded myself up like a travel toothbrush so she could take me along for the trip."
The trip together was when the relationship took its toxic turn, after a missed flight meant Beach relied on Calloway's credit cards to get her home. As payment, she agreed to edit her Instagram feed to pay her back the hundreds of dollars in debt.
"I was barely holding my life together," Ms Beach wrote.
"Working off the $800 or so I owed Caroline was the only plan I had. Besides, there was something I liked about being bound closer to her, forced to stay in her life through our arrangement.
"For the three months I helped develop #Adventuregrams, Caroline in Northern Italy, me in South Brooklyn. We ran up our families' phone bills but kept gaining followers.
"Watching the likes accumulate, I began to believe that what we were making mattered to my career (for the first time I was being paid to write) and to our readers around the world."
Beach paid off her debt but found herself turning to Calloway again for help after her rental situation "deteriorated" and she was in need of a place to stay.
With Calloway's apartment sitting empty in New York (while she studied abroad in Cambridge), Beach asked if she could sublet at a reduced rental rate "in exchange for working on captions".
The plan fell through. Instead, Beach worked for Calloway as her cleaner for US$200 a week.
"She continued to post daily from Cambridge without my help, growing her fan base internationally and making new, posh friends," Ms Beach wrote.
"In the spring of 2015, I began receiving texts from friends and family along the lines of 'Have you seen this Caroline story?'.
"It was my greatest fear: Caroline was leaving me behind. It had been ages since we last spoke and even longer since I'd written with her."
Beach decided to reach out to Calloway, offering to help with ideas and planning for her next move. That's when the phone rang, and Calloway was the one asking for help to write a book.
"I knew my job was to be present but invisible," she wrote, noting Calloway would go to publishing meetings with the pages Beach had actually penned.
"It still hurt to hear second-hand about the high-powered meetings, the gushing over pages I half-wrote."
In the end a publisher offered to pay US$375,000 for the book, of which Beach says it was agreed she would receive a "substantial percentage".
But after making a trip to Cambridge to meet with Calloway and finish the final pages, Beach discovered the origin of her friend's online fame wasn't as it seemed.
"She hadn't, in fact, gotten famous from a picture of macarons on Instagram's favourites page," Beach said.
"The real story, she told me, is she took a series of meetings with literary professionals who informed her that no one would buy a memoir from a girl with no claim to fame and no fan base. And so Caroline made one online, taking out ads designed to look like posts to promote her account and buying tens of thousands of followers."
Beach said she had planned to finish a draft of the book during a planned visit, but "the longer I was there, the more I saw the gap widening between the story we told and the situation on the ground".
"I had built my whole career around my commitment to her persona — crafting it, caring for it, and trying my hardest to copy it, spinning out onto the streets of a strange European city as if the world existed to take care of me. But in Cambridge I didn't see someone I wanted to be but a girl living with one fork, no friends, and multiple copies of Prozac Nation.
"Now I saw Caroline for what she was — a person in need of help that I didn't know how to give."
In a long and emotional response to the article on Instagram, Calloway told her followers she would be reading the essay "for the first time....with my therapist".
"I don't resent Natalie for revealing that I was suicidal in her essay," Calloway posted.
"It's not black or white. Both of these things are true: I wish people hadn't found out like this AND Natalie's stories deserve to be told. It must have been so hard for Natalie to have a friend who cared more about getting high than supporting her and didn't really care about staying alive at all!
Along with promoting the story in her Instagram stories, Calloway also embedded a direct link to the essay in her profile.
Natalie Beach's full essay can be read at TheCut.com