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Who is Caroline Calloway, and why can't the internet stop talking about her?

Alyx Gorman explains it to Steph Harmon
Photograph: Noam Galai/Getty Images for Shorty awards

Hi Alyx. Who is Caroline Calloway, and why could no one stop talking about her at the pub last night?

Caroline Calloway is the subject of an intense, emotionally complex long read in New York Magazine’s the Cut. It was written by her former close friend and ghostwriter Natalie Beach, and now the internet can’t stop talking about her – largely because Calloway herself can’t stop talking about the article.

Twitter has blown up. The Reddit thread about the story has 4,000 comments and counting. People are saying they’re going to take the day off to watch the drama unfold.

The reason for the obsession isn’t just the piece itself, which is a complex, knotty look at toxic female friendship, class difference and mental illness.

Calloway has 780,000-plus Instagram followers. As soon as she received an email from Beach forewarning her that the article was coming, she started writing about the piece on her Instagram feed and on her stories, and sharing screenshots of private conversations. She built a huge amount of hype for the story before it came out, teetering between magnanimity and hysteria.

Since the story dropped, Calloway has been taking to Instagram to obsessively posting about the article and her relationship with the writer, rewriting the history of her own Instagram feed to edit Beach into the narrative.

Why have I heard this name before?

Calloway has been bubbling in and out of mainstream consciousness for several years. She blew up in 2015 as an early Instagram influencer who signed a six-figure book deal. Then in January she was at the centre of a Fyre festival-style meltdown, when her $165-a-ticket “creativity workshops” turned out to be a disappointing shambles for her fans. She accidentally ordered too many mason jars (1,200 of them!); she promised attendees home-cooked lunch but allegedly delivered soggy eggplant on Wholefoods spinach salads. At one point, while pinning orchids into attendees’ hair, she whispered: “The secret to flower crowns is there is no secret.” The whole disaster was documented in real time via Instagram stories by both Calloway and her customers. Although her apologies have been complicated, Calloway did refund many customers who purchased tickets for the events.

Related: From Fyre festival to Hustlers: why are we so obsessed with scammers?

Two weeks ago she wrote a widely shared piece for Refinery 29 titled What Taylor Swift’s Lover taught me about being a scammer, which included the truly superb line, “Scamming is my brand right now, but it’s a narrative I would like to be excluded from.”

So tell me about this New York Magazine piece?

First of all, clear your schedule, because it’ll take you 30 minutes to read the whole thing properly. It chronicles seven years of intermittent codependency between Beach and Calloway.

The pair met at college. Calloway was rich and pretty and exciting, and Beach was a poor student working odd jobs and struggling with self-image. The class difference between Beach and Calloway is central to the piece. Calloway led a glamorous life filled with international travel and nights out with aristocrats. She frequently brought Beach along for the ride, even though Beach says she couldn’t afford to keep up.

Beach claims she was sometimes financially dependent on Calloway, working as her ghostwriter in exchange for a plane ticket, cash and, at one stage, accommodation. This was a problem because Calloway, according to Beach, was incredibly unreliable. At one point in Beach’s story, she yanks Beach’s housing for the summer out from under her, leaving her basically homeless. Calloway confirmed the story to a fact-checker at New York Magazine.

On top of the messy monetary entanglements, Beach also resents Calloway, even as she’s crafting a perfect image of Calloway’s life through ghostwritten Instagram captions and, later, a book proposal.

There’s a mental health element to it that seems to be making some people uneasy. What are the ethics here?

Calloway has been open about her addiction to Adderall. In the piece Beach describes Calloway’s bouts of depression, where she wouldn’t get out of bed, change her clothes or shower for days. Beach does not paint a portrait of a well woman. Though Calloway says she no longer abuses Adderall, the way she documents herself on Instagram makes her seem like a person in a state of perpetual meltdown. A lot of people are understandably uncomfortable grabbing the popcorn and watching that unfold.

Yet, Calloway also wields power and influence. She profits from the attention – a minefield in itself. Now Beach will profit from that attention too.

It’s important to read Beach’s piece in the context of Calloway’s own documentation of her life – many of the uglier facts of the story aren’t news to Calloway’s followers. What’s new is Beach’s perspective.

This whole saga seems to have monopolised conversations, tabs and Twitter for the last two days – at least for a certain group of people. What does that say about us?

Caroline Calloway is a hot mess. But she’s a hot mess who’s wealthy, young, white and well … hot. This mines a deep seam in our collective imagination. From Empress Elisabeth to Edie Sedgwick to Cat Marnell, other young white women love stories of girls who are richer and more messed up than they are. We love the darkness of picking whether we’re a Natalie or a Caroline. We love reflecting on the times we’ve switched from one to the other.

Plenty of people don’t have the time or the privilege to get into this nonsense, which Roxane Gay has called “a white girl journey”.

But, speaking personally, as someone whose life looks just enough like Calloway’s and Beach’s to get into it, this hit my system harder than a triple shot cocomilk latte.

  • Alyx Gorman answered Steph Harmon’s questions