How 21-year-old Instagram star Lauren Bejaoui has made herself her life's work
Immediately after we meet, Lauren Bejaoui is heading to Brown Thomas to buy a pair of Gucci loafers. Having talked at length about her love of luxury items and shopping and fashion, I ask if she will be tempted, while there, to buy anything else.
"No," she says, "I only brought the exact money for the loafers."
Is that a conscious strategy, I ask.
"Yes," laughs the half-Tunisian Finglas girl.
Lauren is just back from a holiday in Italy. She went there for a wedding, she explains. It was beautiful - and if you check out her Instagram, you'll see the proof - but the Wi-Fi was terrible in rural Italy.
This would matter to most of us, these days, but it matters more to Lauren, for whom the internet is her platform and, to some extent, her livelihood. A style blogger, an Instagram influencer, a fashion guru: Lauren has been called all of these.
This 21-year-old has eyebrows to put Kim Kardashian to shame, a look of Mila Kunis and even a flash of Keira Knightley, when her eyes crinkle into a smile. There's also a hint of Victoria Beckham about Lauren, though there are times when I wonder if it's not so much that she looks like her, but that Lauren has the air of the fashion designer formerly known as Posh. Lauren has the poise, the focus, almost the sense that she's a piece of living art, a breathing brand that is always on duty, always aware of the gaze upon her.
This sounds grandiose. And yet there is something about Lauren Bejaoui. When she talks about building herself as a brand, creating a platform on Instagram and YouTube and making a living from the internet, I believe her.
This is, in short, a way of saying that Lauren Bejaoui has something. Drive, ambition, focus: all of that. But star quality, too. In spades. There has been hard work in her short life, without a doubt, but the special star ingredient, no amount of work can create that. You either have it, or you don't. And she does.
"I was 14 when I realised that what I wanted was to make a career in fashion, and that's when everything kicked off for me," Lauren says, agreeing that this was a very young age for such focus, but still, it was the right time for her. "Yeah, I was young, but even in school, around Third Year, everyone was partaking in the activities of school, and I just wasn't interested. Then, when I was in Transition Year, I just went off and did my own thing. I was interning for Stellar magazine, I was working in Kiss magazine. I knew what I wanted, and I didn't want to waste time doing stuff that didn't matter to me."
Now, if 14 is young to decide that fashion is the career for you, then 15 or 16 is very young to navigate your way into magazine internships. The reality for most 14-year-olds is a small circle of peers and family, and social situations pertaining to both. They don't have opportunities to do the kind of networking that Lauren did to land herself fashion shoots and internships. But then, most 14-year-olds don't have the drive of Lauren, either.
"I got really lucky with who I met from a young age," Lauren says. "And I was lucky in that the people I met really looked out for me. I think it was a real word-of-mouth thing for me. People saw that I was really young and really appreciated every start, and I really wanted to work hard. So I really tried to get myself involved in everything I could. So, like, when I was 16, helping out [stylist] Angela Scanlon, and just having a ball, learning and growing."
"For me, it started with fashion shoots," Lauren adds. "Like, Kiss magazine asked me to [appear in] a shoot for them, because they heard that I was young and interested in style, and that rolled on to the next shoot and the next. People saw me and how much I loved to get dressed up, and what I was doing and what I was interested in, and I'd meet one person and they'd introduce me to the next. And I think they got that I was mentally older than I actually was. I got really lucky with well-known Irish people in the fashion industry who just really appreciated me and wanted to look after me."
This snowballing landing-on-her-feet followed 14-year-old Lauren's unsuccessful efforts to break into the conventional modelling world, however. She had always imagined that modelling would be the first step into the world of fashion, but once she approached the agencies, they said she was too small and that she didn't have the right look.
"Back then," says Lauren of the late 2000s, "there was a very rigid idea of what an Irish model looked like, and I'm grateful now that I didn't fit the bill."
The fact that Lauren is mixed-race had nothing to do with it, she adds. Growing up, that was never an issue, and has never proved a problem for her. "Most people are envious of my skin," she laughs.
Lauren's mum is Irish and her dad is Tunisian, though he has lived in Ireland for more than 40 years. He came here to learn English and train to be a pilot, though a car crash put paid to the latter ambition. "They met in a nightclub, some famous one, but I can't remember the name," she says.
Lauren credits her love of fashion to her grandmother and her mother, but she puts her early maturity down to the fact that her three siblings are all a good bit older than her. "My sister Amy is 26, and she's in hair and make-up," Lauren says. "Nejia is 34 and she has a fitness business, and my brother Samir is 36, and he's a pilot. My father was very pleased about that."
"So I know 14 is very young to start building a career," says Lauren, "but I come from a family of siblings much older than me and that maybe aged me before my time."
After dipping her toe in the fashion world with shoots and styling during Transition Year, Lauren went back to Mount Temple on Dublin's northside to complete her secondary-school education. It wasn't easy, she admits.
"Up to Third Year, I adored school, but after Transition Year, I just drifted. It was so hard to settle back into it," Lauren says. "I felt so apart from everyone. They'd all got so close in Transition Year while I was off doing my own thing. But I have to say one thing: even though I drifted apart, everyone in my year was super lovely and they still are. But I felt like I didn't have much to talk about or much in common with these people, even though I really liked them. I found it hard to connect with my peers. And my friends were so much older, but that's always been the case with me."
So Lauren stayed in school and did her Leaving, but her heart was elsewhere. She began working in retail, in the men's contemporary department in Brown Thomas, and her Instagram started to gain her quite a bit of attention.
Initially on Instagram, Lauren explains, she was quite unfocused, but then she hit her stride. "I had my Instagram for about a year before I started utilising it and myself, in a sense, as a business. I realised that I should be sharing less random stuff that people didn't really want to see and focusing on style and images from [micro-blogging site] Tumblr that I liked, and it rolled on from there."
Lauren's Instagram is chic personified. There is a lot of Chanel on there; a lot of inspirational slogans; a lot of beautifully composed shots of her in beautiful settings; and a lot of pictures of her very beautiful purchases. When she says that her Instagram used to be frivolous, but now it's not, a lot of that is down to the cool, monochromatic tone of it and also the very, very high-end quality of what she shows off on it. Lauren loves luxury, she says, and she wants to be a platform for it.
Needless to mention, as with all things internet, there came a downside to Lauren's growing online profile and popularity. And, you must remember, she was only 16 or so when her online-influencer fame began to grow.
"I went through a stage at about 16, when things were really kicking off for me and I sank into a little depression, because I felt all this pressure on me to be really perfect, and to have everything looking great, and never be careless or let things slip," Lauren says. "So I sat down with our family physician, who's like a second dad to us, and talking to him made me realise what's real and what's not real.
"I was dong really well, but maybe because things were going so well, and because so many young girls were frequently messaging me, it all got too much. They were like: 'Where did you get this?'; 'How do you do this?'; 'What do you think of this?'; 'What do you eat?'; 'What do you weigh?'
"It got very intense."
At the start, of course, Lauren had been flattered and grateful that anyone contacted her and, so, she replied to everyone and anyone, even the mean and hateful posters. She never replied to the queries about food and weight, though.
"No. No." Lauren says emphatically. "I always tried to stay away from that. A lot of these girls, when you flicked on to their profiles, you saw that they were very ill and, at that stage, I was going through a little thing of my own, and I couldn't take on other people's problems.
"But everyone else, I felt like I owed it to them to reply. But then, with that, when people said negative and mean things, I replied to them, too. But then I realised that I couldn't. I'd just leave mean comments sitting there in the middle of all the positive ones, making that person look bad, and then it would just fizzle out, and I'd block them and leave it at that. If you give something negative no attention, it will eventually die off. And that's what I always say to young girls."
Lauren is very conscious that she is an example to young girls, who pore over pictures of her new purchases and her new looks. And they ask, as older people might too, how she has money for Balenciaga and Chanel handbags. Beside her when we meet is a sizeable Chanel handbag, which Lauren bought for herself for her 21st this year.
"I still work full-time in retail," says Lauren, who went from her first teenage job in Brown Thomas men's department to Cos to Folkster and then back to the Brown Thomas handbag department, where she is in her element among the luxury leather. "But to be honest," Lauren adds, "you do make good money off Instagram. People are always, like, 'You can't make that much money', but there are girls for whom posting on Instagram is their job."
But how does it work, I ask?
"Product placement," Lauren answers, explaining what she calls 'collaborations', where an online influencer might review or feature a product they are sent, sometimes uninvited, sometimes by mutual agreement. "Collaborations are so good for like, making money and furthering your audience. I'm very fussy about my collaborations. If you send me something that me and my followers won't be interested in, I won't feature it. That fussiness is just a testament to you and your brand.
"There is a lot of money to be made, and it's how you manage it that matters. I've been quite frivolous up to now, but from now on I'm going to invest in better equipment just to make everything better. Because the better your pictures are, the more you will attract better brands."
Brands that Lauren has attracted to date include American Apparel, who have posters of her modelling their clothes outside their shops all over the world, she says. And Lauren made that happen herself, several years after being told she wasn't model material, and how she made it happen speaks of how the world has changed in a few short years.
At 14, Lauren went around the Dublin model agencies, in the belief that she needed representation to make a life in fashion. Then, at 18, she sent pictures of herself to American Apparel, via their website, which has a section that invites submission of photos. Bye-bye representation, hello self-representation.
About six months later, after she'd given up on them, Lauren heard back from American Apparel and has done several shoots for them. "I'm still too short to be a model, but I don't look short in the clothes," she laughs.
"I couldn't make it work the usual way, so I decided to make it work my own way. And I did. That was very empowering for me because I underestimated myself. But [getting the American Apparel shoots] made me see that if you trust yourself, and have some more balls and believe in yourself, you can get on in this business. You just have to put yourself out there.
"Word-of-mouth and your reputation," are what have made her, Lauren says, and what she tells young girls, when they ask how she can afford expensive bags and shoes, is that if you work hard and save hard, you can achieve anything. She still lives at home, and she's not one for big nights out or thoughtless spending.
"I'm an absolute granny," Lauren says with a laugh. "I think it's because I started going out before I should have been going out. I skipped that whole phase of drinking a naggin in a field and went straight to bars, and I could copy how my older siblings were behaving when I was 16.
"At 17, I was going to club nights and stuff, and so I had that phase. But in the last two years, a night out is going to bars, drinking nice cocktails, sitting down and being able to talk. I have a small handful of friends my own age, but mostly they are older. I have more in common with older people. I always have, and people ask if I will ever feel like I missed out, and I say no. I don't think behaving that way would ever have suited me, no matter what age I was."
Ultimately, Lauren Bejaoui wants to become a brand. "I want to make a brand of myself. And to create platforms for young women to get involved in what they love doing, which is what I love doing. I kind of want to become my own little mogul."
Immediately, though, she wants to start her own YouTube channel. She loves all those unboxing films where people take goods out of their packaging and comment on the product; along with the make-up tutorials and the style guides, and she wants in. "These girls get such amazing stuff, and get these incredible trips around the world," she says.
"For me," Lauren says. "I think it would be such a good platform, because my Instagram is quite curated and I think people don't realise that there's a personality behind it, because I don't show that. I think it would be good for me to let people see me, as opposed to just my passions. People might look at my Instagram and think I'm very serious, so I want to show more of myself as a person. And I think YouTube is somewhere I can do that."
"Also," Lauren adds. "I'm a very visual person. If I'm interested in something, I don't want to read about it, I want to see it and watch it." Not for the first time, it feels like I'm talking to someone from an entirely different world. Which might not just be a generational thing, but a Lauren thing.
Lauren Bejaoui has been aware of being slightly different for a long time. And the world has come around to being able to not just accommodate, but to appreciate, that difference. And she might be young, but she's been a long time training to take it by storm.
We will be seeing more of her. You can believe that.
Photography by Aaron Hurley.
Art direction by Liadan Hynes
Sunday Indo Life Magazine