This is the nineteenth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
An influencer does not live an aspirational life — she sells the illusion of one.
If it seems like all she does is twirl around in gauzy dresses and luxuriate in rose-petal baths, then she’s doing something right. Her job is to make you feel a mixture of admiration and envy so that you’ll buy the $500 organza gown for your birthday and book the luxury hotel for your honeymoon. In reality, the dress is probably held together by safety pins, the bathwater lukewarm, the influencer living in a tiny apartment with three roommates, barely making enough to cover her portion of the rent. Appearances lie. That’s the whole point.
My Instagram grid was free of sponsored content, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t doing the same things as every other influencer out there. “Chief Marketing Officer” was a misnomer, really. “In-house celebrity” would have been more accurate. My variation of this dog-and-pony show was packaging my life in such a way that kept people intrigued. The goal wasn’t to sell them experiences; it was to draw them to the NipNop app and make them stay as long as possible.
I still posted beautiful photos paired with long captions on Instagram, but my objective had reversed. Instead of using NipNop to promote my posts, I used my posts to promote my NipNop Stories. See it in action on NN, I would write at the bottom of each post. This worked incredibly well — the Stories disappeared in twenty-four hours, so my followers were forced to go on the app multiple times a day to keep up with my shenanigans.
> A close-up of me grinning murderously with a white sheet mask draped over my face — Weekend at last.
> An even closer-up shot of just the murderous grin — And you know what that means …
> My newly manicured hand holding a crumpled baggie of psychedelic mushrooms, nails a petal pink — Adventure time.
> A full-body mirror selfie, showing off my white lace dress — Remember, kids, say NO to drugs unless you’re 10000% comfortable doing them.
> A blue index card with “We Can Do Hard Things” scrawled in Sharpie — I’m not an enabler.
> My fishtail braid with an orchid stuck at the bottom —But when the time does feel right? Go for it.
> A close-up of my left eye — I try to trip at least once every two months. It keeps my creativity levels high.
> Two gnarled mushroom caps in my palm — This is 2.5g (a normal dose), but I like to load up on caps. It pretty much guarantees that I’ll have a strong trip.
> Me winking at the camera — And yes, I am tripping alone, thank you very much!
> A panoramic video of my spotless room and neatly made bed — Set and setting are IMPORTANT. I woke up during Blue Dawn and cleaned up so that I’d feel nice and relaxed in my room. I’m probably going to be outside, but you can never be too prepared.
> A screenshot of a Spotify playlist titled “The Daytrip” — And let’s not forget the music. Usually I’ll get one song stuck in my head for the whole trip and end up playing only that, but I like to have options just in case.
> A video of me chewing and washing down the shrooms with a bottle of Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice — LFG!!!!!!
> My crystal chandelier winking from the ceiling — It has begun.
> A video of me laughing over seemingly nothing, with no caption
> A blurred picture of my feet — Time to go outside
> A video of the pink, blue, and yellow Victorians lining my street, resplendent against a cloudless sky — Feels like I’m on a movie set rn
> My own blue Victorian from the side — Gonna try to self-time a pic
> Me giving the camera a thumbs-up — Score! Surprised I can still see the screen so well
> A video of the sunlight beaming through the trees in Buena Vista Park — THE WORLD IS LITERALLY SO BEAUTIFUL???????
> A video slowly zooming in to the sky — Is this splitting into thousands of tiny fractals, or is it just me?
> Me lying in the grass, with my arm over my eyes — Ok see you in a few hours
> [Five hours later] A close-up of my tear-stained, makeup-smeared face — I …
> The wilting orchid in my braid — That was … intense
> Lacy white curtains framing the darkening sky outside my window — Right as I was in the park, this wave hit me really hard and I found myself sent down this rabbit hole of these memories I’d apparently suppressed for years. I tried to sit with them, but it became too hard, so I got up and started to walk home for a change in setting.
> My crystal chandelier, fully lit — The problem was that I’d forgotten where I lived 😐
> Another side-eye selfie — I mean like … I knew how my house looked like, but I had no idea where it was and how to get there
> A close-up of a scrape on my knee — It wasn’t just my sense of direction. I still retained hard knowledge about everything, but I’d temporarily forgotten how to use any of it.
> The shadow of my phone on the wall — I could recall how to edit pictures and do simple math problems, but I couldn’t for the life of me come up with WHY I needed to know any of that.
> A crushed-up leaf on my pillow — It was like everything I knew was split into tiny little islands, but the connection between them was severed.
> My lips — I also forgot how to speak lol
> My tongue — Or, more specifically, I forgot how to make sounds with my mouth
> Me rolling my eyes at the ceiling — I was TERRIFIED to ask anyone for directions because a) I didn’t know how and b) I didn’t know where I wanted to go — all I could see in my mind’s eye was a blue Victorian house with a circular tower room.
> My left hand, petal-pink manicure marred by teeth marks — I ended up wandering up and down all these sidewalks hills, secretly freaking the fuck out and hoping that other people didn’t catch on that I was freaking the fuck out
> A close-up of my face — I think I did a good job bc no one said shit
> My hand over my mouth — Then suddenly I remembered that I was on shrooms, and that made me feel way better tbh
> A shrug — Like “oh yeah, of course, I’m on drugs, this makes sense”
> My bookshelf — So then I sat down on some stranger’s stoop (bless them for not calling the cops on me honestly) and waited for the worst of it to pass. I’ve had bad trips before so I knew it would eventually get better.
> My leg draped over the tossed-back white sheets on my bed — After what FELT like hours, things started to come back to me and I realized that I could remember how to get home
> A bored expression on my face — I thought I wandered really far but it was only a few blocks
> A close-up of my eyes — Seriously hallelujah
> A panoramic video of my slightly disheveled room — So I came back and I got in bed and calmed the fuck down
> A smiling selfie — And now I am talking to you!
> Me giving the camera a thumbs-up — It was very scary! But I persevered.
> A close-up of the wrinkled lace of my dress — I think I’m gonna take a break from shrooms or, like, stick to acid or something. I like acid way better than shrooms tbh. Lucy has never given me a bad time, but when I take mushrooms, at least part of my trip turns out to be kind of scary.
> My journal, open to a blank page — Of course, I still want to do them. Maybe I should just do them with other people.
> Me making the peace sign at the camera — Also, I got a ton of new content ideas! So!
> A Spotify screenshot, featuring Petit Biscuit’s “Jungle” — Official trip theme song, mostly bc I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off, but it also kept me from screaming when I was in the thick of it! Ty Petit Biscuit ily
Not many people did Stories the way I did Stories. Our analytics — and God View — showed that most people were sharing pictures of their pets, or beautifully arranged meals, or fancy drinks. I was the only person I knew who had a continuous narrative going through every slide, culminating in a long-form post on my Instagram page.
— Me in a white lace dress in front of my house, holding on to the streetlight pole: Self-timer pictures are so underrated. I got this shot by leaning my phone on a HEDGE across the street and balancing it so that it wouldn’t fall off and crack into a dangerous spiderweb of metal and glass! Honestly surprised at how good it turned out, considering that I was … ahem … very out of it at the time. Let’s just say that, about thirty minutes or so after this picture was taken, I was overtaken by a very powerful feeling that made me forget how to get home, and wandered around the Haight-Ashbury district for the entire rest of the day. I got back safe and sound, so don’t worry. I’m a seasoned adventurer, after all 😉 I have a tingly feeling that last night was the start of something huge. What will it be? I’m not sure. But if you’re curious about exactly what happened, add me on NipNop and check out my story. My username is @helena.holloway and there are three hours left before they disappear forever. Bloggers say shit like that all the time, but I bet they don’t get up to half as many illegal things.
My followers loved to be teased, and I could easily count on them to not only flock to my Story, but to send screenshots of the most egregious parts to their friends. The app added a tiny banner to the bottom of each screenshot: From @<username> on NipNop. With every Story series, my followers — and the number of users overall — rose. Behind-the-scenes content got a few hundred; cutesy couple stuff a thousand or so. Psychedelic trips were the best converters, bringing at least five thousand new people to the app, but these had to be deployed sparingly. I was a responsible businesswoman who liked to have fun, not a modern-day hippie.
This sort of thing took effort and sacrifice. Everything I posted was tracked, measured, analyzed — by both our metrics software and my followers. Fan accounts gushed about my clothing and my makeup; smaller pop-culture magazines occasionally wrote about my adventures. Society loves to get all high and mighty about influencers, calling us fake and basic, but we were putting on a show that people wanted, that people asked for. Being the face of NipNop was not a responsibility I took lightly.
Oliver’s presence was instrumental in making the whole thing work. People loved seeing us together: two determined kids who’d built an empire together against all odds. We were couple goals, founder goals, life goals. Our little agreement was surprisingly durable, holding together even as the company doubled and tripled in size. Sure, it made romantic relationships with people we actually did like harder, but that was a tradeoff we were both willing to make.
Until it wasn’t.
Perched on the edge of my lacy white bed, Oliver looked like a doll that had come from a different playset altogether — Startup Ken in a Laura Ashley playhouse. DO EPIC SHIT, proclaimed the black V-neck that stretched across his pecs, intentionally two sizes too small. A shark-tooth choker wound itself around the middle of his neck. At least his grey joggers were appropriately baggy. He drummed his fingers on his knee, avoiding eye contact.
“What do you mean, you want to break up?” I felt like I’d just been slapped. Just yesterday, we’d done an interview with Valley Girl, a magazine for entrepreneurial femmes under twenty-four, about our ‘work-love balance’. Had Oliver lost his mind?
“It’s just an idea,” he said, focusing intently on a piece of lint caught on his knee. “We don’t have to, obviously. Ben’s fine with whatever we decide. He’s a performer. He knows how it is.”
I dug the ragged tips of my pale pink nails into my comforter. Ben fucking Larson, professional circus acrobat, with his flame-colored hair and eight-pack, had caught Oliver’s eye at a sex party two months ago and been getting closer with my fake boyfriend ever since. Now, the two of them wanted to be exclusive … and publicly out. I liked Ben — his easy laugh was contagious, and he was a stellar photographer to boot — but my career was tied up in my relationship with Oliver. I’d given up too much to let it all go. “Well, I’ve had no problems keeping my hoes on the side, no matter how much I liked them,” I said, the words coming out sharper than intended.
“Did any of those relationships end well?”
I ignored him. “I really don’t care what you do, as long as you keep what you’re doing on the down low. Just pretend that we’re a powerful political couple, or one of those old-timey aristocrats. Claire and Frank. Julia and Jakob. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Hillary and Bill. Diana and Charles.”
Oliver bit his lip. “Well, it just feels inauthentic to actually like someone and not be able to show them in public. If we could figure out some sort of compromise —”
“Would it feel better to fall out of cultural relevance? No more magazines wanting exclusives with us? No more fan messages clogging up our public inboxes? No droves of users signing up for our services?” I hated the reedy, desperate tone that had crept into my voice, but I couldn’t quite keep it at bay. “Do you want to throw all of that away?”
“Helena, I don’t think that NipNop’s success depends on how our relationship is perceived by the public.”
“Oh, yeah?” I challenged. “Do you know what Jon and Kate are up to these days? Or Brad and Angie?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess their businesses could be doing well.”
“You guess.” I crossed my arms over my chest and reminded myself to stay calm. I would finesse a way to come out on top, like I always did. Patience, patience. “Just think of what everyone would be saying if you started openly dating Ben so soon after such a devastating breakup. Especially if I was still heartbroken over it.” I thought of all the media outlets that had taken my side when I’d spoken out in the name of feminism. If worse came to worst, I could probably get Lia Townsend to write another article about me.
“Is that a threat?” There was a new, steely edge in Oliver’s tone. “Are you threatening me?”
“I wouldn’t be faking my feelings if you fucked everything up, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Ironic, coming from the girl who built a career out of faking her feelings.”
“Built both of us a career, you mean. If not for me, you’d have been kicked out of Startup House. You’d be out of money and out of a place to live.” My voice was steady and cutting; there was nothing I could do to stop it. “So, yeah, I faked a lot of things. And yeah, I missed out on experiences and lost people I cared about because of it. But that’s the path I chose for me. For both of us, because I thought that was what you wanted, too.” I glared at him. “You do want it, right?”
Oliver looked to the side, seething. “I’m not used to selling my heart along with my soul.”
“Get used to it.” I twirled a lock of hair around my index finger. “If you want this as bad as I do, then you can deal with your affairs like I dealt with mine.”
The air was very still. I could feel the thump-thump of my pulse in my ears, the tension radiating off of my body in waves. Oliver clenched and unclenched his jaw. We both held eye contact, neither of us wanting to look away, to surrender, to lose.
Simmer down, Helena. Pick your battles.
“Okay,” I said, throwing aside the covers and getting on my feet. “I think that we both need to take a breather. I’m going to take a walk to the park right now and chill out. Let’s sleep on it and reconvene tomorrow.”
Oliver stood up and strode out of my room without answering, slamming the door shut behind him.
With that, the rage that had been bubbling beneath the surface boiled over. “You unreliable little … twat!” I shouted at the still-swinging calendar hanging on the back of my door. “I’ve had my share of crushes and flings, but I’ve never! Ever! Even dreamed! Of giving up what we were building for them. I kept our joint interests front and center. Do you know how hard it was to leave some of them in the morning? Fuck you.”
First Nevaeh, now Oliver. Why did I always give and give, only to end up alone?
I expected the angry tears to come then. Instead, I felt my breathing slow, heard the jumbled thoughts in my head neatly arrange themselves into clear sentences.
My phone sat, nice and cold, on my desk. Life had been so much nicer ever since I’d disabled social media notifications — if I wanted to see what my followers were up to, I’d look at the analytics. I picked it up, found a picture of Oliver and myself from earlier in the day, when we were on our way back from the interview. His arm was draped around my shoulders; we were grinning at each other, rosy-cheeked. It had been taken five minutes before he’d told me about Ben.
Love comes and goes, but friendship lasts forever, I started to type.
— A lovey-dovey shot of Oliver and me against a steel-and-glass building, gazing at one another: “Love comes and goes, but friendship lasts forever” is a phrase I grew up hearing. The girls in my class would throw it around like a warning, reminding themselves not to ditch their BFFs for their BFs. But this saying left a bad taste in my mouth. It implied that romantic relationships were not built on a foundation of friendship. I wondered: would I be able to be my realest self around my future significant other? Luckily, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Oliver is my best friend, my co-founder, and my (contracted) partner in crime. I’m so grateful that he goes along with all of my dreams and schemes 💘 #Heliver #TrueLove #FounderGoals
My finger hovered over the Post button. This was a blatant fuck-you, and sending it out would almost certainly make matters worse between us.
Maybe I should see if …
I glanced out my window and blinked. Instead of Oliver’s room, I was staring at a set of white slabs behind glass. He’d shut the blinds on me. I didn’t even know that he had blinds.
Screw it, I thought.