Last January, a certain corner of the internet found itself transfixed by what Caroline Calloway was going to do with the 1,200 mason jars she had ordered to her home.
The American influencer was in the midst of organising a series of creativity workshops and had planned to give each attendee "a portable DIY wildflower garden" housed inside a mason jar. When her delivery arrived aboard a truck, it suddenly dawned on her that 1,200 mason jars is a not inconsiderable number - particularly when you are planning on storing them in your modest New York studio apartment.
"Omfg the truck with the 1,200 mason jars just pulled up," she wrote on Instagram Stories. "It. Is. Enormous."
As crates of mason jars were lifted off the truck, she realised that she was in over her head.
"NoooOoooOoo," she wrote. "I have made a terrible error."
For many people, this was their first introduction to Calloway. While she had been well-known in certain corners of the internet, it wasn't until after journalist Kayleigh Donaldson chronicled her failed attempts to host the series of "creativity workshops" that the Instagrammer went viral.
Tickets were sold for $165 and attendees had been promised lectures on topics like finding your creative voice and getting over heartbreak. Each attendee was also promised a packed lunch, a "care package" and a handwritten letter from Calloway herself.
Tickets for the events sold out quickly. The only problem? Calloway's lack of forethought wasn't just confined to the mason jars. She was woefully unprepared for the massive logistical undertaking of hosting the workshops themselves. She failed to book venues in advance and was unable to make good on some of her promises.
The fiasco saw Calloway labelled a "scammer" online. Two of the workshops went ahead as planned, but she had to cancel the rest of the tour and issue refunds. In an interview at the time, the influencer maintained that she was not a scammer but simply "dumb".
Last summer, Calloway decided to resurrect the workshops. Leaning into her new-found 'scammer' persona, she renamed it The Scam.
"Come make friends. Hang out with me. Work on your art. Laugh about art. Eat salad on the floor. Drink oat milk. Take photos with flowers in our hair. Consider pain. Discuss self-love. Be scammed," she wrote.
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Last week on my stories I asked people who attended my first workshops in January—the ones that went viral as a scam because of Kayleigh’s Twitter thread—to tell me their stories. So many people who never attended my workshops wrote about them. So many fucking people who had never even heard of me before that day had so many fucking terrible things to say! Honestly, I understand if my events make no sense to you. I really do. They only make sense if you follow my account and LIKE IT and my account is not for everyone. But some people love it. When major news publications began walking back their claims about me in follow up articles because I invited their to my events because the NUMBER ONE THING I HAD GOI G FOR ME WAS THAT I WASN’T RUNNING A SCAM AND I FELT LIKE I HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO OPEN THEM TO THE PRESS, the most generous thing a reporter ever ended up saying about me was this: No one here feels like they are being scammed. No one said: Caroline has guessed correctly what her fans want from an event with her and made it. Yes, I was overwhelmed. Yes, it was my first time planning events. But in the end? The events themselves? THEY TURNED OUT FINE! Out of 50 attendees 48 of them had a good time and one of the two that didn’t one was a reporter who later emailed me to apologize for throwing me under the bus and thanked me for a really nice time. It’s not journalistic malpractice in this day and age to cite a tweet as a source and to weave that source into your story so it presents like fact. You’ve heard a lot from people who never attended my events—from critics and trolls and haters, who are all separate categories, but share this one common thread: They were never going to buy a ticket to this event in the first place and it was not designed for them. You’ve also heard from reporters who actually attended my events, but were—critically, again—not people who would ever have bought a ticket and for whom it was not designed. Here are YOUR stories. You, the people who actually experienced the Creativity Workshops that everyone who didn’t attend called a Scam. Here are the stories of the people for whom I planned this day in the fucking first place.
Many agreed that Calloway had simply been in over her head. Less charitable observers have likened her to a one-woman Fyre Fest. Depending on who you speak to, she is either an influencer, a hot mess, an Instagram performance artist or an internet folk hero.
With that in mind, I ask Calloway to tell me something she wishes people knew about her.
"This sounds so lame, but I'd be lying if I said anything other than: I wish people knew I was a kind human with a good heart," she explains over email.
"Like, I'm a good friend? A good person. I call my grandma. I use my platform for good and I apologise when I get it wrong and I raise money for charitable causes that are important to me. Making art pleases me, but it also pleases the people who consume it and being of service in that way is one of the reasons I became an artist in the first place and kept making art even when the literal news was calling me a scam."
After enduring public humiliation, and becoming one of the most polarising figures on the internet, many in Calloway's position would have chosen to duck out of public life.
She is, however, arguably more online than ever these days. Calloway is prolific on Instagram and Twitter, often posting multiple times per day. Her pinned tweet at the moment is an uncensored nude photo. Despite this, the 28-year-old tells me that there are still aspects of her life that are off limits.
"I know I share more about myself than 99.99pc of people online, but that doesn't mean you're seeing everything about me," she says. "Only I know what I hold back. And I hold back often in order to give myself time and space to heal."
Nonetheless, she does give a lot of herself online.
Right now, for $49.99, you can subscribe to her OnlyFans page where she shares nude photos and "emotionally poignant, softcore cerebral porn". She sells personalised shout-outs for $100 a pop via the website Cameo while die-hard fans can pay $100 per month to be added to her "Close Friends" on Instagram Stories. She also sells original paintings for anywhere from $140 to $400. (Recently, she spotted one hanging on the wall of a Saturday Night Live cast member's home.)
And just last month she self-published parts one and two of 'I Am Caroline Calloway', a confessional essay in which she writes about everything from her addiction to the sad and lonely death of her father and accusations from her former friend and ghost-writer. She charged readers a minimum of $10 to read it and said she would donate all proceeds to the frontline medical organisation Direct Relief. She has raised close to $50,000 to date and a part three is on the way.
But what is it about Calloway that people can't seem to get enough of?
For one thing, there are few things the internet loves more than an eccentric white woman. They are prime meme fodder. Just ask fake heiress Anna Delvey, Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes or Tiger King's Carole Baskin.
Likewise, Calloway presents an unfiltered version of herself on social media.
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An excerpt from “I Am Caroline Calloway” dropping Tuesday: I told Natalie I charged her flight to New York and mine to Venice on my Dad’s credit card. I almost wrote: Because I knew she would feel less guilty this way. But what I meant was: Because if she knew about my fake followers, she would tell. After a month in Venice bouncing between the palaces of Italian princes—a story you’ll have to buy AND WE WERE LIKE to read!—I flew to California to visit my best friend from boarding school, Kelsey. And what’s absolutely fucking priceless is that if you look at the trajectory of my Instagram that summer, you can see that the tone of digital storytelling that I developed with Natalie only took off when I started writing with Kelsey. A normal Instagram post in 2013 was aerial shot of cappuccino art, heavily filtered, bordered in white, and paired with a caption like I kid you fucking not: “#Valencia.” HASHTAG VALENCIA. With Natalie we wrote what she would describe as “chirpy travelogues,” culturally informative jokes addresses to the reader, on average about one or two sentences long. With Kelsey I began posting captions that were five paragraphs long, the lengthy Instagram style I became known for and together we introduced narrative devices to prose on social media such as conversational dialogue, reoccurring characters, and cliff-hangers in between captions. As long as I believed in Natalie and Kelsey—who both believed in me—I never had to believe in myself.
"My content is hyper-vulnerable," she tells Weekend. "Most influencers only talk about the highs of life. I talk about the beautiful things that happen to me right alongside the stuff that is hardest to look at, be it describing my father's suicide in graphic detail or discussing my own issues with anxiety or depression or even diving into my personal shortcomings and the ways in which I've messed up and am trying to grow. Unlike other bloggers, I don't just give people a highlight reel of reasons to like me."
While candour and authenticity are prized attributes on Instagram these days, Calloway says that this openness can lead to more hate and scrutiny.
"My theory is that this results in people having many more reasons to detest me than your average influencer since I'm so open, but it also makes my relationship with the fans who know me all the more real," she says.
But who is the 'real' Caroline Calloway, if such a thing even exists, and how did she get here? It's a long story. Settle in.
Caroline Calloway wasn't always Caroline Calloway. Born Caroline Gotschall, she grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, a middle-class suburb of Washington DC. Her parents separated when she was young and she attended well-to-do boarding schools throughout her adolescence. She harboured dreams of attending a prestigious Ivy League institution like Yale, but had to settle instead for New York University. She attended NYU for a few semesters before dropping out.
In 2013, she was accepted to Cambridge University in the UK (on her third attempt) and relocated there to study art history. It was around this time that she first joined Instagram. When Calloway created her account, she bought 40,000 fake followers. Many influencers have been accused of buying fake followers in order to make themselves more appealing to brands. It is a practice that is very much frowned upon these days.
Things were different in 2013, though. Back then, the photo-sharing app wasn't the social-media behemoth it is now. It wasn't home to celebrities, influencers and news organisations. Few, if any, could have foreseen its potential. As Calloway wrote on her website last month, buying fake followers then was "a different kind of choice". Things like sponsored content, affiliate links and brand partnerships did not yet exist.
"No one knew where this app was doing," she wrote. "I took a chance. I made a guess. I got it right."
Once she landed in Cambridge, she started posting photos of her life on campus to her Instagram feed. She likened the university to "Hogwarts on steroids" and shared photos of its colleges, libraries, dormitory rooms and black-tie events.
Each photo was typically accompanied by a long and detailed caption, usually relaying a personal anecdote or story from her personal life, and the hashtag #adventuregram. One photo of her sitting on a rooftop included a story of how she and her then-boyfriend spent the day drinking on a riverbank before watching the sun from a rooftop.
"This photo was taken in the spring of last year, about nine months after Oscar and I first met," she wrote. "We had spent the day reading and kissing in the sunshine. At dusk we snuck on to the roof. If you look closely you can even spot the bottle of champagne we polished off before we lay down to watch the sun set. For all I know that bottle's still there."
Her exploits in Cambridge helped her amass a quarter of a million followers. Real ones, too. An aspiring writer, she set about trying to parlay her Instagram fame into a book deal. At 22, she contacted a well-known literary agent named Byrd Leavell and secured a meeting with him by tricking his secretary into believing she was one of his clients. According to Calloway, he advised her to secure some media coverage for her Instagram account. Doing so would increase her chance of getting a book deal, he reasoned.
After their meeting, Calloway set about contacting various news outlets. The Daily Mail published an article about her account. "American student's fairytale life in Cambridge enchants Instagram," read the headline, "300,000 people following student's photos of carefree days of dreaming spires, black-tie balls and Champagne on the river."
More coverage followed and Leavell signed her up as a client. With his help, she eventually landed a lucrative deal with Flatiron Books for her memoir And We Were Like, with the publisher paying in the region of $375,000 for the book.
However, things soon started to unravel. In 2017, she pulled out of the book deal. In an interview with the website Man Repeller, she claimed that she was unable to stand behind the "boy-obsessed version of myself I planned to depict as my memoir's protagonist", and decided to back out of the contract. As she had already spent the entirety of her book advance, the decision left her in debt.
Then, in early 2019, the workshop fiasco happened, and the influencer was making the headlines again.
But for Calloway, the worst was yet to come. In September, American biweekly magazine The Cut published a bombshell essay written by Natalie Beach, a former college friend of Calloway's.
In it, Beach revealed how she helped to ghost write Calloway's famous #adventuregram captions as well as her book proposal.
She also recounted various episodes from their turbulent and often toxic friendship. Like the time Beach gave Calloway a set of Yale plates for her 21st birthday only for Calloway to later inform her they had been stolen from her apartment. Or the time they took a trip to Amsterdam and Calloway locked Beach out of their apartment, forcing her to spend a night on the streets. In the article, Beach also alluded to Calloway's struggles with addiction. (Calloway has since acknowledged that she was addicted to amphetamines for a period during their friendship. Last month, she criticised Beach for downplaying her struggles with mental illness in the article.)
The piece instantly went viral and would go on to be the most-read article on The Cut's website that year.
On social media, people giddily debated whether they were #TeamNatalie or #TeamCaroline. They speculated over what had become of the Yale plates and cast the seemingly inevitable big-screen adaptation.
For her part, Calloway didn't refute much of what appeared in Beach's essay. She even went so far as to say she still loved her former friend and called her "the best writer I know".
Two days after the article was published, she received devastating news. Her father was found dead in his home. It was later determined that he had died by suicide.
"Influencer Caroline Calloway reveals that her father has died - just two days after her ex-best friend exposed her as a scam artist in shocking tell-all essay," read the Daily Mail headline.
Calloway posted it on Instagram and captioned the photo: "I cannot believe this is my life right now. I feel like I'm about to wake up at any moment."
Calloway provokes what can sometimes seem like a disproportionate level of ire. On Reddit, a 5,000-strong "snark community" known as r/SmolBeanSnark spends its time cataloguing and analysing her every move. There is even a podcast devoted to her called Pardon My Snark, which sees host Shay Shades revisit Caroline Calloway's greatest hits with her boyfriend.
"I started Pardon My Snark because I saw many new people coming into the snarking community and wanting a rundown on all things Calloway and nobody wanted to take the time to really deep dive and explain it, understandably," says the host.
She says that Calloway "consistently does these horrible things that need to be called out when you're in a position of influence like she is". Indeed, Calloway does herself no favours in this regard. As I write this, she has been forced to apologise for sharing an anti-Semitic cartoon on Twitter.
She adds that much of Calloway's behaviour "boggles the mind" and that many simply can't understand why the influencer would squander the opportunities that have presented themselves to her.
"I think that is why there is such a large snarking community surrounding her," she posits. "Because we're all just sitting there with our mouths open wondering why the f**k anyone would do these things intentionally."
It's for precisely this reason that Calloway has come to capture the public imagination. At times, her actions defy logic. It can feel unclear as to whether we're watching someone engage in self-sabotage or bearing witness to a carefully orchestrated piece of performance art. Either way, it's difficult to look away.
Calloway admits that she wasn't a "kind human" when she was an addict and this is the version of Caroline Calloway that most of us have read about.
"I was a bad friend. I made bad business decisions. Don't even get me started on what a bad granddaughter I was. And it hurts that no matter what I do for the rest of my life - even if I spend every day until I die being and doing good - I will never be able to undo my bad decisions as an addict. This is a concept that all former addicts have to grapple with during recovery.
"But on top of this I have to reconcile the fact that the whole world read an essay about me in which [Natalie Beach] erased my mental illness from the record," she adds.
"If I wrote an essay about my Mom during the months before we found out about her cancer, and I presented the symptoms of her undiagnosed tumour (fatigue) as character flaws (laziness, lack of ambition), that would be unconscionable. But mental health is stigmatised and invisible in a way that physical diseases are not."
An undoubtedly a polarising figure about whom so much has been written and so much comment made, it seems appropriate to leave the last word to Caroline herself.
"One thing I wish that people knew about Caroline Calloway is that I am not the girl in an essay about a bad person that should have been an essay about a bad person who was also very sick."