Matilda Blake explores the worryingly addictive scandal surrounding Caroline Calloway and her former best friend, Natalie Beach.
Caroline Calloway is a name that rolls off the tongue in the style of an F. Scott Fitzgerald character; a 1920’s heiress, or an expired ingenue of the silver screen. The 27-year-old Instagram influencer currently has almost 800,000 followers, yet until September 2019 she maintained a relatively obscure profile. The scandals that have thundered around her in a staticky buzz of orchid crowns, turquoise-tinted portraits and ‘tie-dye tittays’ are pored over to a semi-religious degree by those who have fallen far enough down the rabbit hole. However, Calloway’s niche corner of the internet only entered the media mainstream last month, when her ex-best friend and co-writer Natalie Beach penned a long-form essay for The Cut, detailing the toxicity of their past personal and working relationship. The essay is certainly long, obscure and seemingly insipid to anyone not already invested in Calloway’s real-time story-arc. Yet it trended on Twitter, causing a riptide of think-pieces in response. It’s perhaps telling that the thing about Calloway which has most captured people’s attention is an essay which casts her as the pretty-girl-villain in a disempowering friendship. The reception to the essay and its effect on perceptions of both Calloway and Beach are varied and interesting. Quickly, Buzzfeed posted a quiz,‘Are You A Caroline Or A Natalie?’, encouraging us to place ourselves in these purportedly opposing roles (for better or worse, I am a Caroline). The really compelling thing about the story of Natalie Beach and Caroline Calloway is that it depicts two complex, not necessarily likable women in an uncomfortably familiar scenario; a problematic friendship.
According to Beach, when she met Calloway seven years ago, she was dowdy and envious where Calloway was privileged, beautiful, and chaotically lucky. It is only too easy to summarise Calloway this way; she fits the mould of an Instagram it-girl neatly; everything around her sings in the key of her curated aesthetic. She is also just self-deprecating enough to come across as authentic rather than plastic. Beach describes walking a precarious line during her friendship with Calloway; somewhere between companionship and idolatry, love and hate. Abundantly evident in the Beach essay is this dynamic in play; stolen plates, a weekend in Amsterdam – an itinerary of stories that would seem insignificant taken alone but add up to say something more about Calloway than the sum of their parts. This concept of ‘frenemies’ is a familiar one; the layer of messy history which exists under the marzipan icing of intimacy. The story, which at face value is so niche, earned it’s fifteen minutes of trending because it feels like digging up something buried down deep and looking at it’s facets in the light. It is easy to apply those feelings to Calloway because she reminds us of the big personalities in our past or present who have domineered us and, whether intentionally or not, made us feel like an audience member sat in the dark.
Friendships between girls provide rich, consistent material for, amongst other things, impossible numbers of high-school movies. Fifteen years ago, it was the norm to depict girl’s relationships with one another as an inherently competitive, catty thing, secondary to securing the interest of the male leads. Mean Girls is such a massive and recent cultural touchstone, it’s amazing how differently girl’s friendships are presented in 2019. Not bitchy, but instead as an entirely unproblematic, source of constant pom-poms empowerment. Perhaps it’s worth questioning how much room this leaves us for nuance within our own relationships with other women. The cultural shift to films like Booksmart in the media mainstream is so positive and I’m glad that girls younger than myself are growing up in a world that more readily encourages them to embrace one another. Yet it would be unfair and unrealistic to say that all friendships between girls are inherently positive and empowering. I’m so lucky to be surrounded by wonderful women in my life, many of whom I grew up with, all of whom uplift me and none of whom I would now call a ‘frenemy’. Still, some of my most formative social experiences growing up with other girls were not exactly positive. This is not to say that any of us were bad people, but friendships can be messy, especially when you’re a teenager. And that is… okay? You don’t have to like or give your time to everybody and it’s empowering in its own way to acknowledge that. They say that your teenage girl-friends are the closest you can get to romantic love while still remaining platonic. That socially acceptable form of obsession comes through so clearly in the Beach article. It may not be about teenage girls, but the pettiness Beach evokes, combined with that real, deep love, feels very recognisable to the experience of being one.
Though the essay narrates their friendship breakup, Beach and Calloway’s work continues to be symbiotic. Beach has capitalised on the fleeting gold-dust of Calloway’s name to publish what may be a career defining piece of writing, where Calloway has leveraged the resulting media storm to secure Hollywood rights to a TV series of her life. But couldn’t the essay have been equally resonant with people had it been written about anyone else? Of course, Calloway’s name is a buzzword right now that was used by Beach for clicks (ahem). Most of all though, Caroline Calloway is everyone’s best frenemy. Her jarring openness and the sheer volume of her content gives her followers a sense of genuine closeness with her, even as she attempts to cajole you into giving her $200 for a reproduction of a popular Matisse cut-out. Her life, the way she conducts herself on social media, is absolutely bananas and for the moment, it seems that no one can look away. Whether you think she’s a scammer, or just self-absorbed, you (I? We?) just keep coming back for more of her friendship.
Artwork by Anna-Beth Brogan (instagram: @the_doodlemancer).