Tuesday 23 April 2019

Independent woman: how Dubliner Lauren Bejaoui became a sex-positive social media star


Lauren Bejaoui for Life magazine. Jacket, The Kooples; dress, La Perla, both Brown Thomas. Photo: Aaron Hurley
Lauren Bejaoui for Life magazine. Dress, Zimmermann, Brown Thomas. Jewellery throughout, Tower Jewellers, see towerjewellers.ie Photo: Aaron Hurley
Lauren Bejaoui for Life magazine. Coat, Isabel Marant; trousers, Victoria Victoria Beckham, both Brown Thomas. Photo: Aaron Hurley
Lauren Bejaoui for Life magazine. Shirt, Joseph; trousers, Isabel Marant, both Brown Thomas. Shoes, Lauren's own. Photo: Aaron Hurley
Lauren Bejaoui pictured at the Brown Thomas x MFI Magazine Spring 2018 showcase
Picture perfect: Lauren Bejaoui became a model after posting selfies. Photo: Fran Veale

Ciara O'Connor

'I sound as if I'm 40," laughs Lauren Bejaoui. I'm glad she said it, so I don't have to.

Her speech is littered with, 'when I was younger'  as she talks about what she's learned and how she's grown in her 22 short years. Even over FaceTime (we millennials prefer to communicate from our bedrooms where possible) she has the self-assured presence of someone much older.

Obviously, she's gorgeous. She seems to have been created by scientists; a 2018 millennial-hottie composite - her Disney-princess eyes, olive skin, full, pouting lips and ridiculous body are the logical conclusion of the gentrification of Kim Kardashian. But the half-Tunisian Finglas girl is more than just a pretty face - she has the kind of frightening determination and ambition that makes me want to sort my life out.

At 14, while her peers were drinking in parks and mooching their way through secondary school, Lauren had a clear view of what she wanted for her life and career. She had little interest in academics, and even less in the "waiting around and sitting in free classes" that transition year meant, and so she threw herself into a series of internships in magazines where she got the kind of experience and met the kind of people who would propel her to where she is today: a self-styled, walking, talking brand, with almost 30,000 Instagram followers and companies knocking down her doors to work with her.

Lauren Bejaoui for Life magazine. Dress, Zimmermann, Brown Thomas. Jewellery throughout, Tower Jewellers, see towerjewellers.ie Photo: Aaron Hurley
Lauren Bejaoui for Life magazine. Dress, Zimmermann, Brown Thomas. Jewellery throughout, Tower Jewellers, see towerjewellers.ie Photo: Aaron Hurley

Lauren is a woman's woman. Much of her monochromatic content is typical of the kind of post-feminist feminism beloved of the Instagram generation. She mentions her female-dominated family (she's the youngest of four) countless times, and attributes her accomplishments to the women who inspired and mentored her.

There are her older sisters, who have carved out successful careers from their passions: Amy is a hair stylist, and Nejia is a personal trainer. There is her mother, who met with the school to negotiate more time off for her daughter to pursue internships, and who later accompanied her to modelling agencies.

Then there are the women who Lauren met on those internships, who recognised and nurtured her passions on those internships, when she was aged just 14: "People like [Folkster's] Blanaid Hennessy and [stylist and TV presenter] Angela Scanlon and [stylist] Corina Gaffey were so good to me. I was assisting on shoots; I got to model on one for Angela. And these are busy women, so there was no messing, which I really respected.

"I would still speak to them all today. They were the best thing that could have happened to me. And it made me realise that you have to put yourself out there."

To talk to, she is not unlike her Instagram: precise, unfussy and a little bit naughty. And black and white. Lauren has very clear opinions about more than lip gloss, and she's not shy about sharing them.

Mini revolution

Lauren Bejaoui for Life magazine. Coat, Isabel Marant; trousers, Victoria Victoria Beckham, both Brown Thomas. Photo: Aaron Hurley
Lauren Bejaoui for Life magazine. Coat, Isabel Marant; trousers, Victoria Victoria Beckham, both Brown Thomas. Photo: Aaron Hurley

In the run-up to the referendum, Lauren's Instagram profile picture sported the 'Repeal' heart symbol, and in between makeovers and tutorials on her stories, she would regularly urge her followers to make sure they are registered to vote, encourage them to get informed, and share the occasional pertinent article or cartoon. It was a bold move for someone whose followers are ostensibly there for expensive bronzer and nice shoes; but the response she got was (almost) entirely positive - from both camps.

Any Irish person on the internet over the last six months will be well aware of that other online battleground; the mini-revolution taking place in the blogosphere. Several prominent Irish influencers were 'exposed' online for dodgy practices, such as buying followers, failing to flag advertisements as such, and excessively photoshopping their pictures. It was carnage.

It gave Lauren pause, and for a couple of months she 'fell out' of Instagram. "Instagram, for me, has genuinely been so amazing - I've been in all sorts of magazines; I get to do stuff like this; people send me stuff - it's so much fun. I just took a step back, because I feel people who have a responsibility to be honest completely took the mick and ruined it for the younger end of this generation."

But surely she's no stranger to a little photo-editing?

"I have Facetune, but what I use it for is whitening the walls of whatever room I am in!" You can't say she's not committed to her monochrome aesthetic, anyway. "I would use the smoothing tool for a picture to, like, zip over stuff," she gestures to her already very smooth cheeks, "but I would always be very open about that.

"Especially for these big bloggers, a lot of their following are like super-loyal, and have been with them for years. Weight doesn't come into it for them. So it just upsets me that someone with such a young following would pretend to look a certain way that neither they can achieve, nor the person watching can achieve. What sort of example are you setting?"

Lauren Bejaoui for Life magazine. Shirt, Joseph; trousers, Isabel Marant, both Brown Thomas. Shoes, Lauren's own. Photo: Aaron Hurley
Lauren Bejaoui for Life magazine. Shirt, Joseph; trousers, Isabel Marant, both Brown Thomas. Shoes, Lauren's own. Photo: Aaron Hurley

She's getting into her stride now. "Absolutely they have a responsibility. If you're making a living out of this and people are buying whatever product you're putting out there, you have to be honest. How can you have that on your conscience? Surely that would affect you negatively in the long run - is has to, like. If you're looking at a picture of yourself and you have these unrealistic expectations, even if you're the one who's altered this image."

Indeed, Lauren is frank about the toll social media can take on your mental health. When she was first posting a few years ago, like so many other beautiful young women online, she was bombarded with messages from girls who wanted to be just like her: "Like, 'What do you eat?' 'How many calories?' 'What size are you?' 'What do you weigh?' It was intense and it was constant."

A lot of pro-anorexia accounts were following her and sending her messages - she had to block them. "That was something at, like 18, that I couldn't put on myself."

The guilt and the pressure built up until she reached breaking point. "I got quite sick. I wouldn't say I was suffering from depression - but I wasn't far off it. It was a weird time in my life."

She sought help, and felt fortunate to have a doctor willing to help her with words rather than meds. "That wasn't an option for me - depending on how far into it I was, it might have been." She's always careful with her words, always conscious of not causing offence - she talks as if she's received the media training of A-listers, but it's simply that she's 22 and has grown up on social media. "I know pills are an option for some people," she says.

She describes her counselling sessions with a smile. "I'd go and just bawl crying, and he'd look at me and say, 'What's wrong with you?' I just felt all this guilt because I knew I looked a certain way, I knew I worked out, I ate well and I just had a nice frame. There's no way I could tell anyone how to look exactly like me. We're all built different."

Genetic lottery

She knows she's won the genetic lottery, but she's learnt that with great hotness comes great responsibility. Instagram is awash with vulnerable young girls ripe for body dysmorphia and eating disorders.

"From 19 onwards, I had a whole different outlook. Even though I'd share a lot on Instagram, my personal and online life became a lot more separate than they were.

"You can absolutely enjoy Instagram, but it isn't the be-all and end-all. It's very important to have a life outside of your mobile phone. Now saying that, don't get me wrong; I love my phone, I constantly have it in my hand!

"That's what I say to young girls: just separate yourself from what's real and what's online."

As a young girl herself, she realised that the best bit of teenage discos was the getting ready, and her passion for fashion and beauty crystallised into something more precise. Since she was a toddler, she was mad for modelling. Her neighbours would get her to 'do the catwalk' for a laugh - "I was like a performing seal!"

By the time she was 16, it was clear that she had the looks to make a real go of it. She got a portfolio made up ("I actually hope I've burnt those pictures") and hit the agencies. But her petite frame meant that she wasn't picked up - one agency in particular was so rude to her that she vowed she would never work with an agency.

"That gave me a bit of drive to say, 'You know what, I can do this on my own'. I had my connections, I had my look and whatever, so I applied to be an American Apparel model - there was just a form on the [clothing brand's] website. With my Instagram, that was me to a tee - I loved how sexy it was. I loved the clothes - I had, like, 10 pairs of disco pants!"

We share a brief cringe for that heady time in 2012 when the hottest accessory for any girl under 21 was a shiny Lycra camel-toe.

Modelling ended up going on the backburner. "As I got older, modelling turned more into me wanting to dress myself, to do my own make-up, to have control over how I looked and how I was portraying myself. Because I realised I'm not a model - I'm not a clothes horse that you can throw anything on and it will look amazing.

"So instead of me being a model, it was me becoming a personality, and modelling my personality and personal style."

And where better to model your personal style than the platform designed to do just that? Instagram has launched the careers of countless young models and influencers. But anyone who takes Instagram seriously knows that you need more than nice pictures and cleavage shots to get it off the ground - you need a distinct aesthetic and a well-curated feed.

"My grid [layout of photos in an Instagram feed] is really important to me. So, if there's one picture that's off, I'll archive it; get in the bin, it's gone." Lauren talks about her Instagram with the vocabulary of a marketing exec. In many ways, that is what she is - and the product that she's selling is herself.

The idea of an 'aesthetic' has only really taken off in recent times, but Lauren's success could be down to the fact that she was ahead of the curve on this. "I feel I found my aesthetic and my personal style fairly soon in life. And I think people kind of latched on to that, because the sort of thing they were seeing wasn't stereotypical from your regular 18 or 19-year-old Irish teenager. It's always very clean; there are never any fussy images, and there'd be a lot of skin. Skin is probably the biggest part of my Instagram, in all forms."

Indeed, skin is so central to her brand, she tells me she is sometimes described as being a 'sex-positive blogger'.

"I have no issue with anyone showing what they want. Within reason! I naturally portray it in a way that there's still sex appeal, but it's not openly in-your-face and vulgar. I never want it to be vulgar." She equally has no problem talking frankly about the kind of things that would make our grandmothers keel over.

"Especially in this country, people just aren't open to that sort of stuff and they think it's just vulgar. I think it's important for young women to be able to express themselves sexually and feel that they know a bit more.

"There's absolutely no issue with being comfortable in your skin and wanting to show it - that doesn't mean you're vain, or you're vulgar, or you've no taste. That's what I try to put across, definitely."

Other than sultry shots of bare shoulders and plunging necklines, Lauren's page is populated by designer handbags and shoes. When I speak to her, she's wearing a Gucci T-shirt.

The most common question that anyone over the age of 40 would have when they see her page is, 'How does she afford all that?' Usually the answer is a mysterious cocktail of new-age vocabulary: sponsored content and affiliate links. But when I ask Lauren about it, she blinks at me, as if I might be a little bit slow: "I buy it."

It turns out there's no great mystery to Lauren's Insta-lifestyle - she has a full-time job as a sales assistant at Brown Thomas (presumably with a staff discount), and lives at home with her parents. So that leaves a bit of pocket money for YSL shoes and Chanel handbags.

Although she doesn't create paid-for advertisements for brands, or provide links from which she gets commission ("My followers didn't react well") she does accept the occasional freebie. "I don't accept everything I get offered - for the most part, I kindly decline. I would only accept stuff that I genuinely love. And I have no problem posting without charging someone. I work; I don't care about the money at all.

"Because of where I work, I buy everything that I want; it's never a case of me needing stuff to be sent to me."

I tell her she sounds like Beyonce circa 2004's Independent Woman - The shoes on my feet, I sing, hoping she doesn't leave me hanging...

"I bought them," she mercifully finishes for me and laughs, "I couldn't afford them, but I bought them anyway!"

Lauren working as a sales assistant both is and isn't hard to imagine. On Instagram, her feed is littered with designer names and luxury, her daily stories feature her having her hair and make-up done. She looks like a celebrity; and she kind of is. Although we all know that what we see on Instagram isn't the full story, it's jarring to recast her as a helpful shop assistant, occasionally pointing the way to the loos.

She swears she wouldn't want to give it up, even if she could. "I really enjoy it, I'm a personable person, I love having routine, I love talking to people. Instagram can be quite a lonely place. A lot of girls will go full-time with it, and then they lose other key traits in themselves. I think working in the real world as opposed to the Instagram world gets you a few steps ahead in lots of ways."

Working a day job also means that, unlike many popular beauty bloggers, she is not beholden to particular brands or trying to get commission on follower sales, or working hard to create adverts. But I'm starting to understand this about Lauren now; she likes things her own way. She did transition year her own way, modelling her own way, and now she's doing Instagram exactly the way she wants to.

I take my chance to ask her what undereye concealer she'd recommend for me. She scrutinises me through the webcam as I smile gormlessly in close-up. One of the joys of FaceTime is that I get to perv on her extensive make-up collection as she rifles through it.

She's all business as she pulls a tube out and holds it to the camera - it's like I've crawled inside YouTube - "I reckon your shade would be vanilla. The trick is to dab it on and let it sit for a few seconds before you just blend it with a sponge."

And it's then I see it: Lauren the Instagram blogger queen, and Lauren the sales assistant, and Lauren the make-up-obsessed teenager with big ambitions.

I can't help but feel that she's just getting started.

Photography by Aaron Hurley

Styling by Lauren Bejaoui

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