'I'm not the scapegoat to change the entire industry' - Joanne Larby, aka 'The Makeup Fairy' tells her side of the story
Joanne Larby is healing.
Larby, a former montessori teacher turned makeup artist turned influencer, was part of an early influx of 'normal women' who identified the power of Instagram back in 2012 and cultivated a loyal audience over a number of a years.
By 2018, she seemed to be riding high - she has a successful line of makeup brushes, published a book and was preparing for another product launch this year. But then, something shifted in Instagram consumerism - an account was created, then another one, and finally one that pulled no punches, one intended on 'calling out' Irish influencers.
The 'Bloggers Unveiled' account, which Joanne avoids mentioning by name, was a hot commodity earlier this year. It's an anonymously run social media page which published before and after pictures of influencers showing their changing appearances, outing them for not being transparent in sponsored posts and pointing out the hypocrisy of some in relation to previous campaigns they were paid to take part in, like posting videos of someone who previously promoted the Road Safety Authority (RSA) campaign, for not wearing a seatbelt correctly.
But for Joanne, it was much more personal and seemed largely focused on her fondness for picture editing.
At one stage, nearly all posts were focused on Joanne and ironically, the page itself reached influencer status by default; its gossip became fodder for water cooler chat and later, encouraged Yes votes in the referendum campaign. So intense was the attention that Joanne took a two week break (a lifetime in influencer terms) to reassess her goals.
She admits to going a little heavy handed in the pictures she published, saying she was struggling to find her footing as a businesswoman trying to put the best image forward of herself, while also being seen as a 'real' person, which is often the root of the appeal for social media personalities.
"As far as I could see, the main issue was photo editing, that was a huge bone of contention. There’s two sides. I’m not a stupid businesswoman: when you are a business and a brand, you are an individual and you portray a personality of an individual while keeping the substance professional and that of a brand," she explains to Independent.ie Style.
“You’re competing as an actual brand, but you’re also an individual. Unless you’re in this a long time, you aren't always aware of photo editing going on and why it would be used.
“They see your appearance as a lie. Editing has occurred in paintings back in historical times. Corsets were worn for a smaller waist and now, there’s lip fillers and photoshop. Instagram is selling a life, product or not. You’re selling being on the beach, showing a fabulous dress or a tasty dinner."
That self-imposed digital detox gave her the opportunity to reflect on her longer term strategy and she aims to be more transparent with her appearance going forward.
“I can see both sides. I’m not naive to think it came across as a lack of transparency. Ireland is really crying out for a really raw, honest lifestyle - they’re sick of the overly polished," she says.
“As a consumer, what we digest is under our control as well. If it’s making us miserable and we are unsure, we can choose to unfollow it.
“We have a responsibility to be aware to unfollow something making you unhappy. Advertising will continue to exist in this way if we keep buying sexy things. Not by calling me out. I’m not the scapegoat to change the entire industry."
At the time, she said things became so intense that her mother's workplace was targeted and subsequently, she was brought in to discuss it with human resources.
“I did get a massive influx of negativity. I’ve been doing this five to six years, I’ve never experienced those kind of negative comments from individuals, mainly from that page, from people who perhaps didn’t follow me separately. It was without knowing the other side of people who followed me for a long time, know my content and what I’m about...but that’s what happens when something goes viral," she says.
“What came from that was that my mom got messages and her work was contacted, my brands that I was in ambassador roles for were urged to drop me. It resulted in financial losses and affected my livelihood.
“It was personal - they called me every name under the sun and I got letters urging me to kill myself."
Soon, images of her began circulating in the guise of setting an 'Instagram vs Real Life' agenda, with pictures of her at event purporting to show her 'real' shape and the airbrushed images she posted on her feed. She says neither representation is the 'real' her as her weight fluctuates often.
“Trying to catch someone at their worst angle isn’t particularly nice. It is a celebrity culture in a way, but it’s not like paparazzi. I’m in this weird realm where I’m not a celebrity and it’s not paps taking pictures, but I’m not a normal girl where no one will take a picture. I have no protection from it," she says.
“They would contact my friends and family and make sure I saw what they were saying. I tried to find out what the goal was from that page - there’s no earning from it, it’s only really trying to remove me from this industry.
"That’s unpleasant. How could someone despise me that much they want me to lose work? You have to feel very sorry for that scenario. That is consumed another person's life and they collated that much information over years to put it up, then it’s a mob mentality. I would feel really, really sad for that individual."
Larby says she has never suffered with disordered eating, but describes herself as a woman "of extremes". During a brief move to London last year, she gained a whole new level of followers who were following her fitness journey as she dropped dress sizes thanks to an intense fitness regime, eventually dropping from a size 16 to her lowest size of an 8.
She considers herself "a bit softer" since moving back home to Dublin.
“I’ve always fluctuated in my weight, some saw me as a plus model to doing bikini competitions, now I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ll wear a size 8, 10, 12 and 14 today, I have all those sizes in my wardrobe. It’s easier to get a bad picture of me because I’m curvier. I’m tempted to edit because I’m curvier, but it’s naive to think it’s not happening with slim girls as well," she said.
“I took the criticism on board. It [the break] wasn’t just a selfish break or showing a lack of strength. I wanted to quiet the noise, go back to my roots and utilise the comments made, dissecting the most impactful ones. My audience is incredibly important to me. It’s what I do. If my customer is not happy, you need to listen to that as a brand. I pride myself on never burning a bridge and being a real person.
“I have been a level weight, around a size 10, for about two years. I went slightly smaller in London and I’m slightly softer now because I’m not into training as heavily as I was. I feel comfortable in what size I am.
“Three years ago, when I was bigger, I did genuinely feel a huge pressure to be a smaller size or to keep up what I had done. I wasn’t as big online, I wasn’t seeing people in person, there were no meet and greets or workshops, I was in this bubble wrapped universe that served its purpose - to be able to work with brands and create and aesthetic and professional feed.
“As awful as it sounds, I looked around me and though there were so many smaller girls and a certain look that seems to be making it. I hate to say it but I was influenced by celebrity culture."
What about those claims that she cut off the tags of size 16 clothing, claimed they were smaller and then sold them on Depop?
“Genuinely, there was someone from 2012 who purchased shorts in a size 16 and she wanted a refund since this page surfaced," she began. "Not to sound facetious, but it’s so beyond ludicrous. That’s like going into River Island with something from 2012 after seeing a massive media attack and asking for a refund.
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Filming and editing for the afternoon 🎥 This is my go to super simple everyday make up look 💁🏽♀️ I used two matte shades from the @fliquecosmetics Gold Digger palette with @charlottegshore Dream Catcher liquid lippie💋 Latest foundation love is @narsissist paired with @chanelofficial soleil bronzer and @tatcha spray for a dewy natural finish ✨
“I have never in my life ripped off anyone through Depop. It has nothing to do with size or being embarrassing about my size. I cut tags off because they irritate me and it’s an OCD thing. I could count how many clothes I’ve sold on Depop, it’s not a secret business, I’ve sold maybe 30 dresses over the last three to four years. It started at the request of my followers."
So, why does she think she was targeted so aggressively?
“I think because I was a plus model, I was very relatable - a real girl. I don’t come from money, there’s no silver spoon; everything I’ve done, I’ve worked for myself. I launched my book and beauty brand without an agent. All my graft was by myself. I think I was admirable in a business sense and aesthetically, I looked like a normal girl," she says.
“Honestly, when I moved to London, I was going to to the gym a lot more and integrating more fitness and training, which created a disconnect with the original followers. Now there were ones who wanted to see a transformation and the OG ones who were unnerved by the change.
“I went from wearing a size 16 to an eight and I started seeing abs I never had in my life. It was a big change in myself. I 100% became obsessed with the gym, it was unhealthy for my mindset. My lifestyle in London was very different as I had more time, I was starting to build my business from the ground up there."
It's clear her largest concern became her family - her mother, whom she describes as a "positive, supportive" woman was soon the subject of a barrage of criticism on her personal page which was a private account. Her mother, who is since retired, began working for her daughter part-time to help her with her growing business.
“My mum is on Instagram, she’s a normal, supportive mum who is positive about what I’ve achieved and her page is private. If something happened, she would get follow requests for people trying to snoop. They were telling her she was a terrible mother, delusional, a post that involved my directly turned to slagging because I was employing her," she said.
"She is now retired and I was taking her on for two days a week for personal reasons. To be able to be in the position to employ a family member is a positive and it was made into a negative. Her workplace was mentioned, HR called her in as a result because they were tagging her workplace and all of a sudden, it became really personal."
Over time, the goal to turn Joanne into a persona non grata worked, albeit for a brief moment. Two clients ended their work relationships with her to "avoid the drama", but she says she maintains good relationships with both.
“A couple of brands that when everything was at its worst, two were mentioned, they pulled away not wanting to be part of negativity. It was less to do with me, we left on good terms where they wanted to be away from that realm. It was very upsetting for everyone involved. It gave me the headspace to take the time offline and come back when I was ready," she explains.
Since coming back to social media, she says the response to her new, more honest approach has been "very positive" and the women of Ireland were "crying out" for a more relatable personality.
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“Now I’m much more raw and less polished. I’m much more like myself and how I have always been in real life. I am very comfortable in real life with no makeup, showing my flaws. Online, it seems like I’ve built up more of an insecure appearance over the years. Now, it’s much more clear that I’m comfortable in my own skin. I’ve been very candid about things like my hair loss to show people that I am strong, comfortable in who I am, and wanting to help other people."
Photography: Kyran O'Brien
Styling: Rebecca Rose, using clothing from Debenhams and Jervis Shopping Centre