We were co workers that didn't get along," Eimear Varian Barry reflects. She's talking about the temporary separation she and her long-term partner Daniel, father of her two daughters and one son, underwent late last year.
When we speak, the couple has just reconciled; Daniel has moved back in, new Ikea wardrobes have been added to the bedroom Varian Barry has recently so lovingly and beautifully refurbished, documented on her Instagram for her thousands of followers.
Varian Barry is one of Ireland's most successful Instagram stars. Ask the 34-year-old Cork woman, who now lives in Surrey, what she does and she will laugh at the notion of whittling it down to one title, and baulk slightly at the term 'influencer', before settling on saying "I document what I love about life."
Varian Barry has been documenting much of her life on Instagram since she became a mother; her eldest daughter is now six. She's a natural communicator. Creating content is easy for her, she says. "This is my purpose." On paper they're not obviously similar, but she reminds me of Marian Keyes. Pure charm, the same effervescent personality. Before all of Instagram jumped on the bandwagon of being authentic, Varian Barry has always been honest and open on social media. It's what makes her stand out so much among all the online blandness.
But it's not easy, putting so much of yourself into your work. She describes the pressure cooker of her and Daniel's life before their temporary split - he is also self-employed, a builder - and the strain that having young children puts on a relationship, something most people who have been in that situation will recognise.
"We love having children," she smiles. "We both get really broody. He's amazing with the kids, he's such a hands-on dad. But it was really hard to have children and for Daniel to be doing his work, self-employed, and for me to be building this."
Varian Barry grew up in Cork city, her father an artist who taught at her secondary school, her mother a writer. There are three daughters; Eimear is the middle child, obviously she says, roaring with laughter. "I want all the attention." As a child she was "the exact same. Very creative, always had a camera in my hand, wouldn't shut up."
Holidays were spent in Kerry. Money was tight. Varian Barry studied photography and film in college in Cork, but always had an eye on getting into radio. Now, she points out the class bias in creative work, and the difference social media makes for those without financial backing or family contacts. "It's really, really hard when you don't have contacts in certain industries. My parents just didn't have any money at the time. When my dad came out of NCAD in the 1970s, there was no path for someone to make a living out of art. These days, I know it gets a lot of flak, but creative people can make a living through social media."
Ever the self-starter, Eimear eventually took matters into her own hands. On the way home from college one evening, she bought credit for her phone, rang the Yellow Pages and asked to be put through to Cork's Red FM. She was given an internship; producing and presenting work followed, and she left college.
Aged 21 she moved to New York, where she worked in a restaurant and in film production.
"I was just so lost," she says now of her twenties. She was living in the West Village; it would be easy, she says, to dress those years up in retrospect as glamorous. "No! I was on my friend's couch for two years, there was nothing fabulous about it. I dealt with a lot of shit in New York. I feel like I didn't have spine. Now I definitely have spine, but I don't think anyone feels like that in their twenties. I'm always talking about this on Instagram; I feel like it's okay to be lost. I had nobody at that time in my life who was telling me that it's okay."
After a number of years she left New York for Australia. "I had to get out," she explains with a shudder, recalling how disordered eating was beginning to take over. "I was starving myself. When you're in New York, you see all these skinny, beautiful girls. I probably spent the last six to eight months there starving myself. I would spend a whole evening in a supermarket checking labels. Cancel plans with people because I'd have to eat that night if I went out with them. Really, really bad. I realised I was extremely unhappy. I was like 'I just need nature'. It was such a dark time."
Varian Barry and her sister Doireann moved to Melbourne. "It was supposed to calm me down, but Australia literally made me wilder," she recalls with her infectious laugh. She loved the people, the beaches. Food began to become less problematic. "I was definitely eating more normally. I wasn't starving myself when I was in Australia. I love food, I'm never going to go back to that."
It was in Australia that she first met Daniel. "I was in a hostel, doing this 'eat pray love' thing; 'I'm not drinking, I'm just going to sit here and have my chai tea and read my book, but those hot builders look like they're having so much fun in the corner there'," she smiles. Within half an hour they were sharing a jug of beer; they spent the night together. "Had to, obviously," she deadpans. He didn't leave the next morning, they went for breakfast "and we're stuck to each other ever since".
After moving to England, the couple eventually settled in Surrey, where Daniel's family lives. By then, Varian Barry was pregnant with Saoirse, their first child. Her last job before the baby was born, selling e-cigarettes to retail stores for a fiver an hour, involved her getting up at six to take two trains. Daniel was working as a builder by day, and at night he was in London putting up traffic lights.
"We were surviving," she says grimly. After Saoirse was born, Varian Barry started buying clothes from a local charity shop and selling them online, going up every Friday with a black plastic bag which she would fill and put in the pram before returning home. "That literally paid for the weekly shop." She began posting about her Depop online selling account on Instagram.
"I don't know what I was doing, photos and talking shit. Talking to everybody, but nobody, if you know what I mean," she says. "I was very reflex, I was used to moving countries and finding my feet. But obviously I must have been finding comfort. Because with social media you have validation, you have attention, you have comfort and you have adoration from your peers. And these are all the most basic things that humans need. So I'm not oblivious to what was happening, looking back at it now. But I don't remember ever being lonely. And I wasn't addicted to my phone."
Eventually, with almost ten thousand followers (she now has almost 95,000) she was invited to a bloggers' meal. A PR who is now a good friend told her she thought she had the potential to do what the other women at the event were doing: earn a living through social media.
Last year, Varian Barry earned €100,000 in profit. She posted about it on Instagram in the context of a caption about Brexit, and how supported she had been by England, a reference to her and Daniel receiving housing benefit. "The minute there was enough money to survive we came off it. The shame of it. I was literally trembling going in asking for the form. I'd be under my breath 'can I just have the housing benefits form'. I had failed in life. I was on benefit. Absolutely failed in life."
Recently, she came across some money-related comments about her on a forum; it's clear they still rankle. "She seems to be spending all his money without even consulting him," the post read.
"I earn more than Daniel," Varian Barry says now. "When I literally couldn't be more honest and clear about what's going on in my life and then to see that about yourself? 'What gave you that impression? That's so funny that you naturally thought it was his money.'"
In a sign of how far she has come, just this week, Varian Barry has signed with Premier Model Management, one of the most prestigious agencies in London. It's exciting, but not without its challenges. Her brand is entirely self-created, work that could not be more personal. Handing over control, at least some of it, is scary. "This is my baby, and this is me, and I've built it very organically, and I'm very protective about it."
These days, she is more protective of herself as well. "I'm very emotional - I wouldn't be able to do what I do for a living if I didn't feel as much as I do. It's a huge blessing and it's a curse, and it's just to be able to manage that." She describes the behaviour of women who are being real on Instagram as "courageous participation".
In the past, there were certain things she might not have talked about. "I'm actually comfortable enough now to take that on, because I know myself now. I'm not scared anymore of what people will think. This is me. I know I'm a good person, I'm sorry if you don't agree with me, that's just life. People are different."
When your work is about putting your life out there, establishing boundaries is both essential and extremely tricky. "It's the most important thing, when your brand is connecting with people. I don't owe anybody who follows me anything."
Varian Barry is confident now in being herself. "I spent my whole life worrying and crippling myself by caring about what people think of me. You have to talk to yourself sometimes as if you were caring for your child: stop being so hard to yourself."
Just over a year ago, after experiencing intense anxiety and paranoia, she began taking an antidepressant. "I was really against putting anything into my body. I was constantly saying 'no I'll do yoga, I'll read a book about how to de-stress'. I was like a train; I wasn't going anywhere but it was this really fast train. I became extremely paranoid for the first time. I couldn't go to Tesco without thinking that something was going to happen to me. The minute I went on the Citalopram, that went from me."
Around this time, she took a step back from social media, she explains. "Like, the brand is me. It's me, and I'm human, and humans are complex, and I had to draw back a lot. I wasn't talking on camera a load, because I was like 'why am I doing this? Why do I feel like I have to share this?' These days, I'll maybe do stuff on camera every few days, but honestly I'll just go by what I'm feeling in that moment. I never feel like I have to get up in the morning and share my every movement. No one actually cares. When I feel something that I really want to document, I do."
Of late, she has been discussing her fears around alcohol online. "I've had personal experience with the dark side of alcohol, and I just had a huge fear of it. I'm not the kind of person who can just go out and have a few drinks. I would literally put myself into a panic attack even at the thought of it. I finally have come to a balance now and a stage where I am like 'you're not going to become an alcoholic, Eimear, if you have a couple of drinks'."
In person, Varian Barry is a bit like Drew Barrymore, that same cherubic beauty. She's honest about the fact that she gets Botox and filler in her lips; she feels it's important to be open if you're creating an aesthetic online, so as not to make others feel bad about these things. But she is quick to make clear that no one has to justify themselves.
"I think it comes naturally in us as women to have to justify ourselves all the time. Do you think if a man got Botox he'd have to explain why he got it?"
She is the kind of person you come away from feeling full of energy, fired by her easy intimacy and enthusiasm. But it must be exhausting too, being Eimear Varian Barry. Everything has to come from her. Over Christmas, she contacted 80 brands about potential collaborations.
She laughingly describes all the hats she wears; until her new signing, she has been her accounts department, her sales department - you name it, she is it. "I'm not like this all the time. You should see me when I wake up. I go as high as I go low. I'm grumpy and I'm a misery to live with sometimes.
"Some mornings, I find motherhood so hard. I'm literally like 'I can't get out of bed. I can't do it today.' And then some mornings I jump out of bed and I'm like 'hi pet, good morning my little darlings'. It's like fairyland here a lot of the time. But then it's like the horror house, where everyone is screaming at each other, people won't go to bed, and I'm just like 'I can't handle the screaming anymore'. It's traumatising," she smiles.
Throughout the temporary separation, when Daniel moved out, her home was a refuge. A cave, she says. He's back now, and they are looking after each other. He drew her a bath when she returned from a trip. There was a date night. But it's more than just the ostentatious stuff. They're being kind to each other, she says, something that can easily get lost in the maelstrom of the early years with children.
"I feel like our relationship had a nervous breakdown. We've gone back to that most basic thing of helping each other. We're still killing each other, it's not fairyland. But it's kindness, it's helping each other. Just being more considerate of each other."
Sometimes, she muses, things need to get very bad before you realise that actually, there is too much of a connection to walk away. "I think we just needed a break from each other. We needed to get away from each other."
It seems that now, they have found their way back.
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