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3. Bait and Set

3. Bait and Set

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

I didn’t touch cocaine again that entire summer. 

I couldn’t. If I so much as did another line, I was bound to fall down a slippery slope. Under the influence, I felt like I had all the answers to life’s questions. I had to be careful.

Instead, I spent the time fleshing out the idea I’d gotten at Austin’s house. I scoured the Web for photos of beautiful bloggers, looking to imitate their flirty twirls, their sassy struts, their not-quite-there smiles. After filling my Pinterest boards with inspiration, I ordered an iPhone tripod online and spent hours and hours under the hot sun, teaching myself how to take cute self-portraits with a Bluetooth remote. Strangers stared at me and I got so many bug bites that I had to start Photoshopping out the red welts on my arms and legs. But it was worth it!

You see, there was one additional advantage of going to Stanford instead of Harvard or Yale: I could emulate the old-money East Coast lifestyle without actually doing the work of learning the little idiosyncrasies of the one percent. I just needed to capture the rich-bitch kitsch: private beaches, country clubs, white yachts, navy dresses, and the like.

I convinced my parents to let me rent an Airbnb in Westhampton Beach for the two weeks before I was due on the West Coast. Three hundred and seventy-five dollars a night got me my own private suite in an eight-bedroom, ten-bath mansion with two elevators and a full staff on service. My room came with a balcony that overlooked twenty-one acres of freshly mowed grass. It was here that I settled on what would be known today as a “brand” — photos that emphasized my surroundings as much as they did myself, paired with captions that transported the reader into my world.

Parasocial relationships go both ways. A fan may have an individual relationship with a public figure, but that public figure also has a relationship with all of their fans as a unit, as though their audience is one giant hivemind. I decided to break the fourth wall and treat my followers like they were my real-life best friends. I wanted bored teens from Nebraska to follow me and feel as though they, too, were attending clambakes and boat parties and skinny-dipping at dusk. Once I got to Stanford, I’d make my content more intellectual — but for now, it was all about aspiration.

Good Instagram handles were still available back then. I created an account called @adventurer and started crafting the perfect summer-before-college narrative: bold, confident, excited yet wistful, as though I were experiencing nostalgia while an event was still happening. Those posts still make me chuckle with their freshness, their exuberance, their warmth.

— A pale turquoise suitcase propped up just so in front of my bedroom door: Hey, are you packed? We leave for the Hamptons tomorrow for two weeks! The last days of summer are upon us, and what better way to say goodbye than to relax on the beach, catching those beautiful sunsets with a bottle of sparkling rosé by your side?

— Me standing amongst the pink hydrangeas in front of the rented mansion, one hand on my suitcase handle and the other in the air: Southampton, NY! We have arrived.

— Me standing in front of a convex roadside mirror, staring at the camera while my reflection shows my face turned away: Do you like my new dress? It’s for getting trashed at eleven in the morning … I mean, for brunch. We’re going to get day-drunk the *classy* way, with bottomless mimosas at Rosie’s on Main Street. I’ll try not to be too snarky when commenting on the people walking by 😉

— Golden hour, the sun illuminating the mansion windows at just the right angle, me standing in front of the house in a pale blue dress with a half-full champagne glass raised in a toast, a smirk on my face: Found some vintage Canard-Duchêne in the wine cellar. Cheers! Four more years until I turn twenty-one, but you’re not gonna tell, are you?

— Me walking onto Cooper’s Beach, looking back at the camera in a white seersucker dress: Do you ever feel like you’re in the Great In-Between: not a kid anymore, but not a full-grown human, either? I go off to college in a little over a week and I’m more than ready to make my mark on the world, but I also kind of want to freeze time and celebrate the last golden sunsets of pre-adulthood before they’re gone forever.

— My feet propped up over the edge of the balcony, toes painted a fresh watermelon pink, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now in my lap, a frosted glass bowl of fresh berries in my lap: Good morning! Let’s read about spiritual enlightenment while enjoying these gorgeous deck views. “The Power of Now” talks about making a journey into the Now and leaving our analytical minds behind. The real question is, will I be able to stop overthinking enough to make it? Will you?

— A selfie with my mouth open and my eyes wide, showing off my new Glossier eyeliner: Did we just spot Sinclair White at dinner? I heard she’s dropping a surprise album soon. Not gonna lie, it took a lot of self-control not to ask her about it!

— My half-illuminated shadow floating in a shimmering blue-green pool at night, a mansion with dark windows in the background: Psst, are you awake? I know it’s half past midnight, but the Fairbanks are out today and their pool looks soooo inviting. I’ve been wanting to sneak in — um, I mean take — you since we got here. The pools are heated, but they’re hardly ever guarded. I mean, who in their right mind would dare to break into this place? Besides a bunch of semi-drunk teenagers, that is. All you have to do is hop the fence and try not to splash around too much. Come on, it’s the summer before college! We’re allowed some wild times. Join me? It’ll be our little secret.

— Me in a navy sundress, posing against an elaborate ice sculpture: Welcome to my grad party! I’m technically the guest of honor, but this quickly-melting swan is stealing the show. It’s getting more real — in less than a week, we’ll be all the way across the country at Stanford. I can’t wait.

Man, I was good at what I did. Even I’m a little envious of the girl in those photos. Too bad she didn’t actually exist. In reality, I spent most of those two weeks in the Hamptons doing marketing research and trying not to get caught trespassing. My tripod almost fell in a stranger’s pool for that nighttime-swim shot, and to get a good picture with the ice sculpture, I had to sneak in and out of a random person’s grad party before anyone realized that I didn’t actually belong there. I could’ve gone out and actually had fun, but I was too focused on growing my account to pay attention to anything else.

My beloved audience didn’t actually exist, either. Who really consumed this content I slaved over? Sixty thousand fake followers! I bought a slew of them for @adventurer so that I’d have social proof by the time real people started keeping up with me. Since any account with tons of followers and no matching engagement rate was immediately suspect, I also paid about forty dollars a post for fake likes, all of which I charged to my “emergency” credit card. My parents, happy that I’d found a hobby to invest in, didn’t question my spending.

Even if I could afford it, I didn’t want to rely on this unsustainable model forever. The point, after all, was to get a real audience. I knew I wanted readers, not just followers. And I knew I wanted these readers to be the overconfident, aspirational kind who got obsessed with whatever they read. The kind who wanted to become me. #Girlboss, Big Magic, Wolf of Wall Street — anything with an ambitious, vainglorious lead and a culty young-adult fanbase was in my wheelhouse. I would buy ads from the online spaces where said culty young-adult fanbases congregated.

Tumblr users, self-help gurus, and fashion bloggers all ran my ads that summer. I was only able to get them to do this for me at outrageous prices — I bought a “package” of ten shout-outs for fifty dollars, or fifteen for sixty-five — because that kind of sponsored content hadn’t become a thing yet. Some of them blatantly told me that I was throwing my money away, but I still thought it a better investment than spending hundreds of dollars on fake likes from fake people.

Ultimately, my genius paid off. My following started to grow and grow and grow. I began getting more than enough return on investment. Real followers started pouring in by the thousands, then tens of thousands. I woke up one morning in late August and saw that my follower count had surpassed the 100k mark.

And I was attracting the right people. I got so many DMs and comments that it soon became hard to reply to them all. By the time the second week rolled around, I had things down to a routine. I’d spend the morning getting the perfect shot on the beach or the harbor, then scarf down a quick sandwich back at the Airbnb. After lunch, I’d edit and post the photo and watch as the reactions rolled in. Sometimes I responded to them; usually, I just let them sit, like the ultimate Cool Girl I was.

First of all, who are you?! Secondly, wish I was there!!!

Speechless with so much beauty.


Helena i’m in love with you marry me

Dream girl ✨✨

Your whole account feels like an inside joke I’m not a part of.

I want. To. Be. Her.

Please keep posting these sekljksldfjklsdjfklds

You are sooooo luuuckyyy!

Inspired by your pictures, I’m taking lots when I travel ✈️❤️

If I’d ever felt silly or stupid posing for pictures in front of a bunch of moneyed strangers, well, now I couldn’t give less of a damn. I was a performer feeding off the energy of an invisible online crowd. Who needed coke when external validation felt this great?

A few days before I was set to fly across the country, I nonchalantly dropped the link to my Instagram on the Stanford incoming-students Facebook page and watched as my follower count grew by another three thousand.

Omg queen

I can’t wait to meet you!

So jealous of your life.

I was now more than just an incoming student — I was a founder. A bullshitter in Silicon Valley, the land of prime bullshitters. And I was going to get exactly what I wanted.

Drug experience: check.

Cute photos: check.

Narrative angle: check.

Exciting captions: check.

Enough followers and likes for social proof: check.

Before I left the Hamptons, I posted one last photo:

— Me, sitting on my turquoise suitcase with a Stanford sweatshirt over my red chiffon dress, a huge grin on my face: Okay! We’re going back to Pennsylvania for two days just to get our dorm stuff ready before jetting off to our final destination (for now) … STANFORD UNIVERSITY! 🌲 Are you excited for orientation?

My brand had been established. My personal back-to-campus checklist was complete. It was time to take Helena Holloway into the real world.

Next chapter

Chapter 4: The Dream Manufacturer

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