The art of scamming has been fascinating to me ever since the term “influencer” came to light. A scam can take many forms: It can be as simple as knowing how to get a free drink at a bar or as complex as manipulating financiers and loan companies into lending you money that doesn’t exist and buying Macaulay Culkin dinner to convince him that you’re German royalty. We live in a time when the internet provides anonymity at extreme consequences. Identities are stolen, music festivals are lied about and learning the secret to making an orchid crown is priced at a remarkable $165.
Recently, reporters have begun to pick up pieces on scams large and small, and it’s drawing a lot of attention. With the release of the Fyre Festival documentaries on Netflix and Hulu, a TV show dedicated to Anna Delvey (the German woman who convinced New York’s elite crowds she was a European heiress) in the works, and a recent Twitter thread exposing the scams of Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway (whose Instagram bio reads, horrifyingly, “No not that writer, the one you love!!!”) it’s safe to say that scams are very in — looking at you, Daily Arts. Each of these scammers has been white, middle class and undeniably privileged. But does who their scams target matter?
I started following Caroline Calloway on Instagram about three years ago. My interest in her at the time was mostly fascination. I didn’t exactly like her, but I was curious about her. Her posts were less about her pictures and more focused on sharing long, detailed retellings of parties in castles and traveling abroad. Her Instagram stories depicted her beautiful life with her beautiful friends, accompanied by lengthy, and at times, TMI descriptions of her current life. This was not an account for purely visual inspiration, and the target demographic was not your average American teen. Calloway was an icon for the girls who read fairy tales later into adolescence than they’re probably willing to admit and who still hold onto the romantic notions found in “Notting Hill” or “The Princess Diaries” — an impressionable group of middle-class white girls who wanted a life more exciting than their own. So when Calloway decided to produce “creativity workshops” in a national tour, it’s no wonder that her first event sold out in several hours — with tickets priced at $165.
Calloway differs from Delvey and Billy McFarland of Fyre Festival in a few distinct ways. Where Delvey and McFarland sought large-scale multimillion-dollar scams, Calloway’s scams have been small and not blatantly manipulative. But where Delvey and McFarland exploited the wealthy, Calloway’s scams target her audience — mainly obsessed tweens, teens, and twenty-somethings — and they’ve been going on for quite some time.
Part of Calloway’s pull has been her extreme commitment to honesty through detail. Following Calloway on Instagram is like following her in the literal sense. It’s as if you’re standing two steps behind her as she goes throughout her day. She shares everything: her wake up, breakfast, trips to the gym, flower shopping, (oddly frequent) thank you note writing and especially her salad dinner parties that she seems to have almost nightly with various successful and vaguely famous friends. She doesn’t have a job and she doesn’t seem to need one. She lives in a studio apartment somewhere in the West Village. So if Calloway is spending her days stretching, eating salad and wandering around New York, how is she making money?
Recently Calloway has denied her wealth (claiming salad ingredients are cheap and that she eats a lot of toast), but anyone who follows her knows she’s wealthy. Though Calloway claims total openness and honesty in her social media interactions, her followers aren’t tricked into thinking her life is perfect. They know she shows them what she chooses to: parties, boys, friends and orchids.
When Calloway chooses to show the more negative aspects of her life, these insights are carefully cultivated with a victim-based narrative. First, it was her fall-out with the publishing company and her lost book deal (which she used to later sell individual chapters of the book she never published for $5 a digital pop, totalling to a staggering $50 for a DIGITAL book). Then it was digging up nostalgia and sadness for her days at the University of Cambridge and her ex-boyfriend. Most recently the sob story has consisted of mysterious and vague photos of her father’s messy home in Virginia, his mental health problems and her recovery from these childhood traumas — from which she has gained inspiration to pursue her most recent endeavor of creativity workshops.
These creativity workshops have been Calloway’s breaking point. Having promised orchid crowns, professional photos and the “super salads” she shares with her friends, Calloway delivered very little. But Calloway did more than promise salads to her fans — she charged them $165 per ticket and planned a full American tour, one for which she never booked venues. Yes, Calloway got in over her head and planned very, very poorly. Yes, Calloway’s fans have mainly given positive reviews to the workshops Calloway has given so far. But is it right for Calloway to take money from her fans to list off cliches and life stories that they’ve already heard?
Meet and greets are sometimes ticketed events, and Calloway’s fans seem more than willing to pay the price to meet their icon. But Calloway isn’t exactly an influencer, and she isn’t exactly a celebrity. She’s a 27-year-old woman who probably read fairy tales much later into her adolescence than she’s willing to admit and who secretly views the fantasies of “Notting Hill” and “The Princess Diaries” as aspirational. Calloway’s fans love her because they know she’s essentially just like them (albeit a prettier, wealthier version). By charging these like-minded women nearly $200 to “be like her,” Calloway is manipulating her power to exploit a group of people who already hear her words as gospel.
Calloway is, of course, just one of many twenty-something influencers trying to make a living off of an abstract brand she’s built for herself, and she’s certainly received her taste of internet backlash over the past few weeks for her exploitative endeavors. Yes, Calloway is a product of the broken influencer system. Yes, Calloway is likely not trying to exploit her fans on any conscious level. But had Calloway taken this criticism to heart and apologized earnestly, I wouldn’t be writing this piece. Calloway’s apologies were half-hearted, self-serving and angry. I’ve continued to monitor Calloway’s stories and each day they become more despicable. Privilege lets people get away with a lot and Calloway is no exception. Her scams have hurt her fans and will continue to do so. Her denial of any and all wrongdoings are what makes her actions all the more horrifying. She’s gotten away with it so far — why not keep going?
Megan Burns is a senior studying philosophy and psychology.