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26 June 2023

Caroline Calloway’s Scammer: a chaotic attempt to set the record straight

In her self-published memoir, the influencer veers between sharp wit and trite aphorisms, perceptive candour and petty insults.

By Amelia Tait

If you don’t know who Caroline Calloway is, then her book is not for you. Perhaps that’s true of all celebrity memoirs – you wouldn’t read Matthew Perry’s if you hadn’t heard of Friends, nor Prince Harry’s if you’d somehow missed his falling out with his family – but it is especially true of Calloway’s first book, Scammer. Not only should you not read the Instagrammer-cum-sex-worker-cum-writer’s memoir if you’ve never heard of her, you actually could not. Twenty-three pages in she anchors a point in time as “forty-eight hours since Natalie’s article had dropped” without explaining who Natalie is or what her article was about.

That’s probably because if you do know who Calloway is, you really know – her fans and haters can tell you everything about her, from how much rent she paid in New York in the 2010s ($2,734 a month) to exactly how that apartment looked when she moved out (she painted the microwave turquoise, including the glass).

Still, form dictates that I tell you who Caroline and Natalie are – an exercise that feels somewhat akin to writing a GCSE-level summary of the Second World War. Caroline Calloway is a 31-year-old American Instagrammer who built a following in the early 2010s while studying at Cambridge and posting fairy-tale pictures with captions about champagne, castles and “the character of Caroline Calloway” – a twee ingénue. Natalie Beach, also 31, is her former friend and co-author of some of those Instagram captions.

Of course, that’s not enough to fill 158 self-published pages and the minds of the US media elite (Calloway has been profiled in the New York Times and Vanity Fair). In 2015 Calloway and Beach worked on a book proposal based on Calloway’s captions. “School Girl” sold to Flatiron for $375,000; Calloway was paid a $100,000 advance. Yet due to an amphetamine addiction and a crisis of conscience about the proposal’s artifice (“I’d agreed to spend the rest of my life signing copies of a memoir that wasn’t even about me!”), Calloway never wrote the book.

By 2019 Calloway had been branded a “scammer” – not just for reneging on her contract, but for selling $165 tickets for “creativity workshops” without booking venues in which to host them (nor delivering the homemade orchid crowns she promised attendees). Capitalising on her frenemy’s infamy, Beach wrote an essay for The Cut, taking credit for Calloway’s work and exposing her for buying followers, abusing the drug Adderall, and being a bad friend. Tragically, Calloway found out her father had killed himself less than two days after Beach’s essay went viral (his death was unrelated).

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Scammer is Calloway’s recollection of all of this, a chaotic and frenzied attempt to set the record straight. Calloway was able to publish her memoir after paying back her advance with money she earned selling nude photographs of herself dressed as Juliet (Baz Luhrmann’s version) and Elizabeth Bennet. Scammer is, she writes, a “daybook” – “writing that’s intended to be finished the same day you start reading it”, comprised of 67 vignettes.

Infamous as an influencer and socialite, Caroline Calloway is rarely engaged with as a writer. How could she be, when she’s so sexy? So scandalous? She has 646,000 Instagram followers and 16,200 “snarkers” subscribed to a hate forum about her life. She is possibly one of the most compelling people alive – at least online. She makes things that should be boring – an argument about Instagram captions! – seem dramatic and exciting (and she does so skilfully, not by accident). She understands how to scandalise and titillate. She has elevated “getting people to talk about you” from PR into art.

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Calloway is so good at what she does that a few short years after her name became poison, she’s now being lauded as a genuine literary talent. Vanity Fair said Scammer was “a mature work, dark and raw and powerful”, while Rolling Stone compared her to Taylor Swift, calling her style “sapphic and layered and annoyingly clever”. There is a tone of surprise in these reviews that betrays the sexism they are trying to combat. Vanity Fair emphasised that Calloway’s stories are “serious shit and grown-up and wildly, emphatically contemporary”.

To anyone who’s been paying attention to Calloway, it has always been clear that she can write. Misogyny alone masked this fact. Yet when correcting course in response to sexism we run the risk of going too far – claiming that Kim Kardashian is a feminist icon, for example, or that the reality dating programme Love Island is empowering. If we strip away everything we think we know about Caroline Calloway and engage with her as a writer alone – not as a victim of sexism, not as a scammer, not as someone who painted her microwave turquoise – what is the truth?

[See also: Review: In Asteroid City, Wes Anderson is beyond parody]

The truth is that Scammer – a hyperactive stream of consciousness – feels like a first draft, but one containing rare, thrilling flashes of genius. There isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t need an editor, and here the lack of an editor is keenly felt. (While Calloway thanks a friend for “minimal” edits in her acknowledgements, her work clearly needed a professional’s attention.) So the truth about Caroline Calloway the writer isn’t sexy or scandalous or snarky: it’s that she has potential.

The good is very good – such as when Calloway writes, early on, that the Virginia suburb where she grew up was, “a nice enough place where only pets and grandparents died”. She is astute and funny when describing how to survive infamy: “If you’ve never had a scandal before, continue to have none. If you’ve had one scandal, then begin having as many more as you can!” She is at her very best when writing about her father – a destructive hoarder with anger issues – and openly explores his death.

On her father’s “autism or narcissism or melancholia or whatever the fuck was wrong with him”, she writes: “Do you know how long thirty seconds of silence is in the middle of a conversation? You don’t, unless you’ve spent time around someone with an excruciating lack of social cues.” Later: “Did you know that if a body is found at your house, the police only remove the corpse? The police don’t clean the blood.”

Yet when Calloway’s writing is bad it is painfully so, written in the trite aphorisms of social media, designed to be quoted in cursive font. Of love, she writes: “Some things we don’t call spells until they are broken.” Of an argument with Beach, she quips: “That which does not kill me makes me tired.” There are cringe-inducing lines, such as: “I flew to Nice where we found out that the only thing nice about that city in the south of France was how it’s spelled”; “white lies, black tie, after-dinner port.” There are an inexcusable number of Harry Potter references – as a freshman Calloway was “Hermione Granger only dumber and without the time-turner”, her book proposal was a “horcrux”, granting someone anonymity gives them “invisibility-cloak shimmers”.

Calloway’s greatest asset is her candour. She admits to falsifying her grades to get into Cambridge and writes powerfully about a gap year assault. “Drunkenly, I thought the quickest way to get him to stop was to pretend to be into it, so he would come faster. It was fine. It was rape.”

At other times Calloway’s honesty feels calculated. Midway through the book she confesses that she was aroused when Beach disclosed her own sexual assault in a phone call – Calloway later role-played the attack with her boyfriend. This passage might have been radically provocative, valuable in a literary landscape that increasingly desires moral rigidity. Yet Calloway is gallingly self-conscious, revelling in her own ability to offend –  “I need you to brace yourself before I tell you what’s coming next” – then flits off into another vignette without lingering in the aftermath. How did she feel about what she did afterwards? How does she feel now? We don’t know.

Reading Scammer, I wanted to write “more!” repeatedly in the margins: Calloway is so concerned with punching you in the gut that there is little interiority and introspection – she’s too busy being deliberately glib. The lack of remorse in her narrative can read as revolutionary. Sometimes it just seems immature.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that this book feels rushed. Though Calloway started taking orders for Scammer three years ago, last year she estimated it would take another “three to six years” to finish writing. It has been published now, she admits, because she saw Beach’s leaked proposal for a collection of essays and thought: “Over my fucking dead goddamn body would Natalie put out a book before I did.”

Herein lies the book’s central flaw – the narrowness of its scope, and its ambition. It’s understandable that Calloway is defensive: much of the reporting about her has been sold to an audience that, as she observes, is “frothing at the gullet to see spoiled bitches fall from grace”. But it’s a shame that she is writing only for those few people to whom she doesn’t need to introduce “Natalie’s article”. It’s a shame that the betrayal is still clearly so raw for Calloway that she resorts to petty insults, calling Beach’s writing stale and her body fat. More than once in this book, she tells us that she is a better writer than Beach. Wouldn’t it have been better to show us instead? Ultimately, it feels like Scammer is a book that Calloway has been cornered into writing in response to all of the writing about her.

Throughout Scammer Calloway repeatedly promises the reader (who, sadly, she addresses as such) that more books are coming soon. “For my first five years of fame I was a School Girl. For the past five I’ve been a Scammer,” she writes. “I hope the chapter that follows the publication of this book will be more human.” So do I.

Scammer
Caroline Calloway
Carolinecalloway.com, 158pp, £51

Adult Drama and Other Essays
Natalie Beach
Hanover Square Press, 288pp, £22

[See also: Elif Shafak’s Diary: Solidarity with Iranian women]

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