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10. Impure Heroine

10. Impure Heroine

This is the tenth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.

That September, NipNop reached a million monthly active users.

Disappearing photos were useful for sketchy activities, but they were also an escape from the curated perfection of social media. With NipNop, not everything that happened on the Internet stayed on the Internet. Why not snap a purposefully ugly selfie for your best friend or the cute guy in your math class if it would self-destruct in mere seconds? 

This was a game-changer. NipNop’s analytics showed people collectively sending over twenty million photos a day, or about 231 photos per second. And it wasn’t just meaningless numbers on a graph. I could see the effects of growth, real-time. People were starting to put their NipNop usernames in their Instagram bios. My list of “friends” seemed to double every time I hit “Send to All.” Once, on a rare Caltrain ride down to Palo Alto, I witnessed a teenager send Nops back and forth for the entire hour, pausing every few seconds to snap pictures of their impassive face before hunching back over to type into the touch screen.

What had been a fledgling app only a year ago was on its way to becoming a household name. I took advantage of my front-row seat and made post after post about #startuplife on Instagram, doing my best to give my 445k followers a peek behind the curtain without breaching the terms of my nondisclosure agreement.

— Oliver wearing a unicorn onesie, hanging upside-down off the side of his bed with his iPhone pressed to his ear with a concentrated expression on his face: Running a startup is kind of like raising a baby: it demands every bit of your energy and you’ll often find yourself dealing with some sort of emergency in the middle of the night. It’s grueling work, but the reward is seeing your venture in the world, all grown up, helping people get a ride when they don’t have a car, enabling travelers to find homier alternatives to hotels, or giving criminals a way to destroy their photographic evidence! (Kidding.) (It IS a legitimate use case, though.) Here, we have Oliver, proud father, on the phone with NipNop’s hosting service after some of their servers crashed today. Who said that CEOs don’t get their hands dirty?⁣

— A carefully composed self-timer photo of me with the NipNop team, the five of us sipping Soylent at Startup House’s kitchen counter, Friends-style: From the way it’s growing, you’d think that NipNop has a fancy open office filled with ping-pong tables, state-of-the-art kitchens, and hundreds of engineers coding at standing desks. In reality, it’s just four kids (five, if you count me) working their asses off to make a dream come true. Oliver, 20, is the CEO and de facto product manager. He thinks up new features (something cool is coming soon!) and keeps investors happy. Elio (he/him), 20, is the CTO and single-handedly built the iOS app. Andre (he/they), 21, is the CFO and tries to keep money from running out. Practically, this means that he spends 90% of their time buried in Excel spreadsheets. Alissa (she/her), 21, WAS at the top of her class in the Stanford computer science program, but Elio convinced her to drop out and build NipNop for Android 🤪 And I’m their unofficial in-house storyteller, a rare artist among coders. Maybe I should be promoted to Chief Marketing Officer?

It was a variation on what I’d done in the Hamptons, writing about an enchanting lifestyle from the perspective of an insider looking in. This time, I was a true insider. And it did seem like all eyes were on NipNop. Investment firms — big-time ones — were starting to take interest. Manifold Capital. Speedball Ventures. General Impetus Partners. These were the places that had helped make the social media apps we all knew and loved today. Oliver talked of meetings and pitch decks and little else. His room seemed to be lit twenty-four-seven. Sometimes, I would wake up in the middle of the night and see him pacing back and forth or staring intently at his MacBook screen, the blue glow illuminating the heavy bags under his eyes.

— Oliver moodily staring out his window at night, dressed in the “Silicon Valley suit” of a white V-neck, black blazer, and dark wash jeans: Just like children, most startups begin life without knowing how to support themselves. Founders aren’t expected to know how to monetize right away. So how can fledgling companies afford to hire people and dominate the market? Investors! When you have a good idea for a startup, you conceptualize everything in a slide deck and shop it around to people with money. You offer them an exchange: they give you capital to build your business, and you give them a piece of your baby … er, company. (FYI: I do NOT endorse selling your actual children, okay?) The idea is to convince them that what you’re building will eventually make enough money to make THEM money. A “seed round” is a small round of money to build your idea into an actual product. Once you have a product AND users, you can move on to the next round: Series A. In the Series A, shit gets real. The money involved ranges from $2 to $15 MILLION. If your company gets to this stage, shit’s gotten real. And shit’s gotten real with us.

“Cartier or Apple?” Oliver asked me one day, dangling two watches in front of my face as I typed into the Notes app on my phone. Things are starting to get hectic in Startup-land. The founders have three back-to back meetings with potential investors tomorrow, and the fact that I’m writing this at two-thirty in the morning means that absolutely none of us are sleeping.

“I’m sure that whatever you choose will be fine,” I said, not bothering to look up. I’m starting to think that people working on early-stage startups don’t eat ramen only out of financial necessity — it’s also a time thing. Who has time to cook or go out when there’s a product to be built?

“Dude. Do you know who this meeting is with? Yardstick Capital. Bret Manson of Yardstick Capital, to be exact.”

Finally satisfied with the caption, I put my phone down and yawned. “I don’t know who that is.”

“Bret Manson was an early founder of Instagram.” Oliver carefully set the watches on his bed and sighed. “I’m overthinking this, aren’t I?”

“Probably.” I snapped a picture of him puzzling over the timepieces before directly opening Instagram. Which watch would YOU wear in a meeting with VCs you’ve admired since childhood: the Apple or the Cartier?

“I just want to make a good impression, you know? Bret fucking Manson could be giving us, like, ten million dollars tomorrow.” He fell backwards onto his bed and stared at the spray-painted #STARTUPHAU5 on the wall. “I’ve imagined myself in this scenario since I was half my age. I want to make NipNop a thing, but I need money for that, and I need the right people to take money from because it seems like everyone loves telling me what to do —”

I nodded, thinking of Wren Falcon, who I still had to get back to. “Yeah, you need someone who is on board with your vision.”

“Or to just leave me the fuck alone while I do it. I don’t need another set of nagging parents. Erik’s already bad enough. He thinks I should go with General Impetus because he worked with them. He’s a good guy, but jeez, he can be suffocating.”

Complaints and rants aside, it was cool seeing NipNop’s progress. I felt like Oliver and I were on parallel but equivalent tracks, becoming successful from our respective endeavors at the same time. Best friends, partners in crime, a power couple in the purest sense of the term.

Unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way.

The first article with my name in the title appeared two weeks after I returned to the West Coast, ready to half-ass another year at my overpriced, overrated school. “NipNop Founder’s Girlfriend Chronicles Life Behind the Scenes,” it stated, going on to note that I’d contributed to the app’s impressive user growth through my NipNops and Instagram posts. If you’re not into the whole startup scene, it sneered, Helena Holloway also posts overly long captions about books, hair bows, daydreams, and Victorian houses.

Other news outlets echoed the sentiment:

Curious about #StartupLife? Founder’s Girlfriend Bares it All

What Happens When Your Girlfriend is an Instagram Star

Real-Life ‘Silicon Valley’: NipNop Founder’s Girlfriend Documents Startup Journey

Honestly, even typing these headlines out makes me want to smash my fist against the keyboard until my hand can no longer move, so you can imagine how I felt when I first became aware of them. My indignance was so strong that it eclipsed my desire for fame. I could’ve sent any of these pieces to Wren, but I didn’t want to get signed because I was someone’s girlfriend. I wanted to get signed because I was Helena Holloway.

I didn’t — and still don’t — want fame if it’s secondhand. I’d rather die than be known because of my relationship to someone else.

“Fang’s girlfriend Helena Holloway documents the entire experience in meticulous detail on Instagram,” I read aloud one afternoon, my voice shaking with indignance. “459k people, many of which fawn over every one of her posts, follow her for an inside glimpse of the founder’s life. Perhaps they are not to blame. Rumor has it that NipNop is looking at a $10 million Series A, and reading through Holloway’s Instagram gives one secondhand exhilaration.”

“That’s not so bad. ‘Secondhand exhilaration’ sounds like a compliment.” Oliver reached for the bottle of pinot noir he’d set on my desk. The dark liquid made a glug-glug noise as it gracelessly dropped into his waiting glass. I winced as little drops jumped over the side, creating little burgundy flecks on my white desk.

“Don’t get that on the carpet,” I warned, my words coming out sharper than I’d intended. A headline popped into my mind, uninvited: Oliver Fang’s Girlfriend Berates Him For Celebrating Successful Week of Meetings. A lump formed in my throat as I recalled how I’d been rendered invisible at the birthday party we’d supposedly thrown together. Would the world always favor people like Oliver over people like me?

Oliver put down the glass and studied my face with concern. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know. I just hate how they made up this whole narrative about me, and how this motherfucker assumed that people only followed me because I was your girlfriend.” My voice cracked on the last word. I swiped at my eyes, embarrassed. “I hate how the narrative has been taken away from me.”

“You could write about it,” Oliver suggested.

“On Instagram?”

“Yeah.” He came up next to me and craned his neck to read over my shoulder. “I bet that you’ve got a way bigger platform than” — he squinted at my screen — “Brad Shapiro.”

“I don’t even know who that is.”

“Exactly.” Oliver pulled out his phone and did a quick search. “Yeah, Brad Shapiro has a hundred and four Twitter followers and no Instagram account. You’ve got a huge audience, Helena, and people actually listen to you. They’d get it. I mean, I’d be pissed, too.” 

He had a point.

— Me standing in front of a painting titled Susannah and the Elders at the art museum: If our genders were reversed, would Oliver be my muse? Would I be the genius writer who shared his beauty — and his ideas — with the world? Listen, NipNop is Oliver’s venture, not mine. I’ve been caught up with it because it’s EXCITING to be on what feels like a rocket ship going full speed ahead. I started writing about startup life because I wanted to a) give you an unfiltered view of what it’s like to get in on the ground floor, and b) document this wild time in my life so that I can look back on it later and think “damn, I was really a part of that.” Apparently, doing this makes me “Oliver’s girlfriend” in the eyes of the media. Fuck that. I love him and I love NipNop, but fuck that. I am Helena Holloway first and foremost. I refuse to be reduced to a supporting character in my boyfriend’s story. I am a founder, too — founder of @helena.holloway, a venture that’s just as worthy as Oliver’s. In startup-land, a pivot is a shift in strategy. Effective immediately, I will be pivoting to tell only MY story. Yes, that means no more Oliver or funding updates. I know that @thecut told you to follow me for exactly those things, but I’m done. Unfollow me if you wish … or stay for more overly long captions about books, hair bows, daydreams, and Victorian houses 📘🦋🧚‍♂️🍓🌸

— A selfie of me with a crown of orchids in my hair, holding my freshly manicured middle finger up to the camera: I refuse to be defined by anyone other than myself. #girlboss

— Me in full basic-bitch mode, sitting against a wall holding a cup of Philz Coffee in one hand and my laptop in the other: Who has time for school when you’ve got an empire to build?

— Me in a white dress with a blue sash, holding a blue book under my arm: “The man allowed to go out into the world and transcend himself, the woman reduced to the kind of work that will be erased and forgotten at day’s end, living invisible among the vestigial people of the afternoon.” – Kate Zambreno, “Heroines.” Let’s rewrite this narrative, shall we?

Oliver was right about people listening to me. The new followers rolled in: Ten, fifteen, twenty-six thousand, all thanking me for my honesty and encouraging the new direction I was taking.

And the media ate it up, too:

She’s Helena Holloway, Not Oliver Fang’s Girlfriend

Helena Holloway Is Determined To Rewrite the ‘Heroine Narrative’

‘I’m A Founder, Too’: NipNop CEO’s Girlfriend Helena Holloway Refuses to be Overshadowed

Helena Holloway Transcends Herself

My favorite was an article in The New Yorker titled “Impure Heroine,” written by none other than my former instructor Lia Townsend. What I remember most about adolescence, even more than my rapidly changing physical self, was the notion that the world was no longer my own to conquer. No matter how much I strived, no matter how original my ideas, I would first and foremost be a femme: a being whose life revolved around relationships to others, always a supporting character, never a protagonist, she’d written. Helena Holloway, whether through remonstrance or self-delusion, forces us to see her as a person above all else. She paves the way for the next generation of girls who refuse to be defined by others, insisting that “books, hair bows, daydreams, and Victorian houses” are just as important as apps that let you send your partner a self-destroying picture of your genitals at two in the morning. Armed with that logic, I am wont to agree

Later, I would learn the hard way that the media was the biggest clout-chaser of all, always in search of relevance and loyal to no one. But in the moment, I thought I’d won, that I’d stay in control of my own story, that the public would trust me as an authority on myself.

In late November, I received an email from Wren: 

Dear Helena,

I’ve been keeping up with your adventures in the media. In fact, I met a young lady the other night who wouldn’t stop raving about you. You show great promise as both an author and a public figure. If you are still interested, I would love to represent you at Falcon Ibis.

Wren Falcon III

In the wake of all this drama, I’d nearly forgotten about Falcon Ibis. I quickly replied that yes, I was absolutely still interested, and booked the next available flight to New York. On the plane ride over, I carefully considered the book that I was about to be under contract for. I wanted to write a very specific kind of story with a very specific kind of heroine: independent, outspoken, singular. A person first, a girl second, a girlfriend last, if at all.

What would such a book be called? I wanted the name to simultaneously be a homage to and a subversion of feminine storytelling. I thought of how girls typically began their stories. And I was like, they often said. And she was like. And he was like. And we were like.

“And We Weren’t Like,” I murmured to myself. “Perfect.”

Next chapter

Chapter 11: Signed, Scammed, Delivered — I’m Yours

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