Carina Chocano, a respected TV-and-film critic and successful magazine freelancer who won a National Book Critics Circle Award, wanted to do a different kind of story — one that explored the influencer trend in a more layered way.
Early in 2019, Chocano found herself in a creative meeting with several other women, brainstorming on a TV show and talking about Courtney Adamo, a lifestyle blogger with more than 250,000 Instagram followers. Adamo and her husband had uprooted their life in London, traveled the world, and ultimately landed in Byron Bay, Australia, where they are raising five children. Along the way, she built a brand based purely on images of her beautiful family, her beautiful surfer-mama friends, and her beautiful, spotless house.
As the conversation about Adamo went on, Chocano felt herself more and more fascinated with this digital-era cult of personality. “We were just discussing the mystique of it all and how these images are so compelling but confusing,” she says. “There’s something sort of attractive and repellent about it at the same time. It looks so great, but feels really wrong.”
A few weeks later, her editor at Vanity Fair called out-of-the-blue to ask if Chocano would go to Australia and write about Adamo and her cadre of beautiful friends. Her story, “The Coast of Utopia,” was published this past July.
Her story hooked me from the first sentence, and held me until the very end. As a freelance journalist who writes mostly about health and science issues, I marveled at the way her article differed from the more investigative-style, research-heavy stories I am used to. I also love surfing and Australia, and I am fascinated by the ways that social media has shaped society. Interested to learn about how Chocano incorporated a strong voice and cultural analysis into a story that could be dismissed as celebrity fluff, I asked her to reflect on the choices she made while reporting and writing it.
Our conversation is edited for length and clarity, then followed by an annotation of the text.
It sounds like you had a lot of ideas going in to the story, but how did you approach the reporting trip?
I knew about Courtney Adamo because she’s famous. But my editor really has the whole world down. She was like, “These are the best friends; this is the frenemy.” I remember when I got to Australia, I thought, “There is no way that this is going to break down the way that we thought.” But it actually ended up pretty accurately reflecting who the core group was.
How much research did you do about the women before the trip?
I started reading about them and going down rabbit holes. There were so many puff pieces in lifestyle blogs, so I had a lot of details about their shopping habits and the brands they like and all these material details. I had a lot of surface stuff but nothing deeper. Especially Courtney — she had been interviewed so many times and she had a certain way of talking about her lifestyle. So, I thought, “OK, we’ll have a deeper conversation. We’ll talk about other things.”
What kinds of deeper things?
I started to think about the categories of things that interested me and seemed to run through the story: Instagram and the idea of authenticity versus presenting this perfect life; how much control parents have over the children’s image; what their duty is with regard to the children’s privacy, especially when they’re very small; friendship and the presentation of it; the appearance of simplicity that, as anyone who is steeped in this stuff understands, is extremely expensive and inaccessible to most people.
That maybe makes it sound like I had ideas going in about what I was going to write, but it was sort of the opposite. I did a lot of reading and I did a lot of thinking about it, but when I got there it all went out the window.
What did you tell Courtney when you first contacted her?
I told her that I was really fascinated with the whole lifestyle — and living on the beach with five kids and just picking a place to live. It was both a profile and an observational piece. And that’s really what I feel like I ended up doing. She was enthusiastic when I first wrote, but she became more reticent by the time I got there and I never understood exactly why.
How long did you spend in Australia?
I was there for 10 days. I love those kinds of reported stories because I find that being taken out of my world. It gives you perspective and bring things into focus. Sometimes, when I go to report on things like this, there’s that initial panicky moment of like, “Oh no, there’s nothing really interesting here.”
It was kind of an ephemeral mission. So maybe there wasn’t a story. Maybe it was just boring and there was really nothing to say.
I thought I was the only one who had those panicky moments!
Courtney was very busy when I got there. It was hard to get time with her and there was someone else I was trying to reach that I couldn’t reach. So, you start to panic. But in the end, it always seems to snap together.
You definitely present a point-of-view in the story. Did you develop that perspective during the reporting, or after the trip, when you sat down to write?
The latter. I just went in with questions. Some people felt that I had come in with an agenda, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. What I try to do is put myself in the situation, observe it as openly as possible and really engage with it. And then I try to work out for myself: What just happened? What did I see? And I really try to investigate how I felt. What did I feel sitting in the kitchen? Why did I feel conflicted?
I find reporting, especially on the stories like this, to be an emotionally draining experience. People always think the subject is vulnerable. I think the reporter is vulnerable, too. It’s like this strange exchange of vulnerability. You’re in someone’s house and someone’s life, and when you’re doing something that’s observational like this, you’re empathetic to this subject. At the same time, you want to have critical distance. I think this is my personality, but I find myself over-identifying with everything. Then, you have to pull back.
How did the introduction to the story come together?
I actually remember the moment and having it kind of pour out of me, which isn’t that common. But I think because I traveled there, and like I said, had an overwhelming emotional, intellectual and creative experience, those things came together to form this amazing moment of inspiration. I was trying to process all the complicated emotions and the conflicting feelings and the confusion, and work it all out. That’s been the approach that I find most successful.
The story doesn’t have an obvious nut graph. You never say, “Hey readers, if you stick with me, you’re going to get a really interesting analysis of this influencer life.” Was it a deliberate decision to not flag what was coming?
I’m anti-nut graph. I was a critic for a million years and the kind of stories that I love to read and to write are cultural criticisms that try to make sense of these meta-narratives that we all live in. I don’t want to sum it up for you at the top. I want to take you with me through my process and see where you land. Maybe you land where I land and maybe not, but it’s not an answer. It’s just a process.
Did you have a structure in mind before you started writing?
I don’t outline or plan. But I kind of zoom in on a scene or moment that feels indicative of larger themes, and then I try to pull way out for context, just to sort of orient readers to where I’m going. But I’m not going to tell you where I’m going. It’s more of an associative style that works for me.
What did you decide to leave out?
I wanted to ask about vaccines. All their kids go to this Waldorf school, which is sort of a hotbed of anti-vaxxers. But I was worried that any hint of controversy would shut down access, and I’d find myself in Byron Bay without a subject.
The husbands are kind of absent, too.
Well, they’re there, but we don’t hear the voices. If you follow any of this stuff online, it’s a very feminine world. It’s this kind of a Mama’s world, a married, usually white woman’s world. if I had interviewed the husbands, I’m not sure what I would’ve gotten from that.
You made the decision to put yourself in there, too. Was that also about wanting to take your readers on a journey with you and grapple with some of these bigger questions?
This isn’t a big investigation. It’s a reported cultural criticism. If you’re reporting a financial scandal or something, you’re going to talk to everyone to try to find out what happened, and everyone is almost equally as important as anyone else because you never know what you’re going to get. But in this case, there was no truth that I was trying to uncover beyond why are we attracted to this? Why are we repelled by it? Why is this happening now? What does it mean locally? What does it mean globally?
Is there anything you would have done differently?
What I didn’t get enough of, because I honestly didn’t know how to go about it, was talking to local people — friends of the friends who weren’t part of the group. One of the most interesting things to me that the story sort of illustrates is the distortion effect that social media can have on a small community. We feel it in life every day, but in a community as small as that one, I had this feeling like it’s a magnifying glass on an ant.
You use a lot of parentheses in the story. Why did you make that stylistic choice?
It was a way to telegraph the cognitive dissonance I felt while talking to someone who was telling me, “I live a simple, humble, private life, and my children are allowed to look at screens.” And meanwhile I’m like, “But your sofa cost $10,000 and you have 250,000 followers and your kids are basically on everyone else’s screens every day.” So, it was a way to communicate that without saying it or moralizing it. Just saying, “Here’s what I’m feeling when I’m in here. I’m aware of all of these things at once.”
How did you develop your voice and approach to storytelling?
It’s a style that I think I developed as a critic. There’s this idea that you either come at things like an elephant or a termite — that you come at things from this place of authority from up above or you burrow in. And I’m definitely more of a termite, like I’m just chewing through it and digesting it, and all I can really see is what’s right ahead of me. But then I come out the other end, usually there’s some insight.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Chocano’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
The Coast of Utopia
From the looks of Instagram, Courtney Adamo and the surfing mamas of Byron Bay are living the dream. Can it be real?
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TIERNEY GEARON
JULY 2, 2019The subhed is the first hint we get that you are going to dig deeper into these women’s lives, though you won’t come back to this “Can it be real” question for quite a while. Did you write the title and subhed? And did that get written before, during or after the story was done? I didn’t write them. That’s always done by copyeditors or editors. Sometimes I don’t like them, but usually I really enjoy seeing how someone interpreted the story and how they boiled it down. It’s different for online and print, too. Courtney Adamo’s minimalist, Shaker-style kitchen is gorgeous, but you already know that if you follow her. Why did you use the second person to talk directly to the reader right away? I was trying to play with the false intimacy of Instagram, how it makes you feel like you know all about someone, when in fact you may only know the false self they present. I guess I wanted to play with ideas about how “objective reality” can be false, and subjectivity, or context, or experience, can be truer. The house—one of the first built in the historic town of Bangalow, New South Wales—might just be the most overexposed house in Australia. With its clapboard cupboards, wooden stools, bulk dry goods in mason jars, Blanc Marble countertops (“slightly more expensive than the Carrara,” she explains in a blog post about her kitchen renovation, “but we are so happy with the decision”), Dunlin Chelsea Pendant Lights ($669 each), SMEG refrigerator ($2,870), Lacanche oven and stove (“range cooker of my dreams” and, at about $10,000, a “splurge”), the kitchen is like a scene out of Little House on the Trust Fund Prairie. [This phrase is so descriptive, and really sets a tone! Did it just come to you or did it require a lot of thought?] It just popped into my head! Adamo (@courtneyadamo, 250K Instagram followers) is a midtier family lifestyle micro-influencer, which, if you don’t know, is a thing. [Why did you decide to start in Adamo’s kitchen, as opposed to say, on the beach or in the surf?] This was my first meeting with her, so it seemed like a good place to start. It really set the tone for the story for me, as well, as right away I was confronted with the dissonance between the values of simplicity she espoused and my awareness of just how rarefied and expensive and unsustainable her lifestyle was.
Adamo set up her Instagram account in 2011 to share pictures of the kids with her family. She didn’t know it was public until she got her first comment from a stranger. Now that she’s hit a quarter million followers, her settings remain unchanged. [More characters come into the story later. Why start with Adamo?] She was definitely the assignment, and she was the only one that I’d heard of. She definitely has the most followers. Of all of them, she was the most well-known for turning her family life into this narrative. She still considers her feed her “personal thing,” but there’s something about the stream of photos—the uniform palette of beige and white, ochre and dusty rose, the coordinated clothes, the styled life, the sponsored content, the kids like modern-day von Trapps—that looks like a massive ad campaign. But for what? Children? Good genes? Good taste? Good luck? The story doesn’t have an obvious nut graf, but I keep coming back to this short list of questions, which seem to hint, if subtly and briefly, that there are deeper questions to be explored ahead. Was that intentional — to drop hints without hitting readers over the head with where you are going with the story? Yes, I wanted to drop hints and seed questions. I wanted to engage readers and prompt them to ask themselves these questions rather than to draw conclusions or hand down judgement. That wasn’t the point and wouldn’t have worked. My point was to engage people and encourage them to think critically about what is presented as reality. In the comments, her fans want to know how she keeps the place so spotless with five kids in the house. (And it is spotless.) They want to know what product she uses in her hair. (Aveda is a partner.) They want to know where she got that dress, that paint color, those shoes, that life. They want to know her secret. Tell me about the use of parentheticals throughout the stort, What function do they serve? They’re meant to illustrate the feeling of cognitive dissonance that was so central to the experience. It was a way to show how opposite things can be true at the same time, and how a story is as much about what’s left out as about what’s included.
It’s a rainy morning on the last day of school before Easter break, and Adamo, who is American but has begun to sound Australian, is making tea—Earl Grey for me and herbal for her two-year-old son, Wilkie. Her look—deep tan, hair up, no makeup, chicly lumpy oatmeal-colored cardigan by Spanish knitwear company Babaà (@babaa, 95K followers), no shoes—is laid-back, yet she seems preoccupied. Wilkie rolls around on the counter, drinking out of a porcelain cup. Every time he puts it down, I expect it to shatter. We have heard your voice and your assessment of the situation already, but here you more visibly come into the scene. Why did you decide to use the first person and become part of the story here? In a way, it’s like the fly-on-the-wall distancing gambit only takes you so far. After a certain point it can feel disingenuous, even coy. The fact is, at that point, I was making a judgment — I stressed about what might happen. I thought it was better to show myself feeling this way than to pretend to speak for everyone about feeling this way. It felt more honest, and allowed me to be a character in the story whom readers were also free to judge. The cup has survived four siblings, Adamo tells me, and it will survive him, too. Because Wilkie, whose entire life, including his birth at home, has been documented online, is having an old-fashioned childhood—and that means no screens and absolutely no plastic.
“More tea?” asks Wilkie, holding up his cup.
“No more tea, baby. Nope. Nope, we’re all going to be finished. It’s all gone. Do you want me to give you some yogurt?”
“Yeah,” Wilkie says.
“Yes, please, Mom,” she says.
“Yes, please,” says Wilkie. “I like yogurt.”
“You like yogurt?” she says. Then to me, “What was your question?”What did you tell her (and her friends) that you were writing about? Did you share any of the big ideas you were exploring with them beforehand? I said I wanted to get a slice of life — to hang out, get to know them, paint a picture of their lives. I knew I wanted to explore certain themes—privacy, image vs. reality, the commodification of private life— but I didn’t really know what I’d find.
“Just in terms of working with your family.”
“I don’t know. I love it. I love my family. I’m happy to work with my family, and they understand that. Yesterday, the kids came home from school, and I was like, ‘You guys, we’ve got Millie here. I need family photos.’” She means lifestyle photographer and friend Amelia Fullarton (@ameliafullarton, 50.3K followers).
“Millie’s here!” says Wilkie.
“Millie was here, wasn’t she?” She smiles at him. “Yesterday.”
“We needed photos for the project I’m working on,” she continues. “And they just get the drill and they do it.”This dialog really illustrates a sense of distraction on her part. Is that why you chose to launch into this scene in the intro? Were there other scenes you were considering for the lede? There was no other contender. I honestly couldn’t say why the distraction struck me, but it did. I guess it was because I got the sense that she wasn’t distracted by her kid so much as by my presence, somehow. But I don’t know. Again, it was a way to invite the reader in, to ask them to participate in helping me make sense of it all. Before Byron, Adamo lived in London for a decade. In the mid-2000s, she became something of a mommy-blogging celebrity as a cofounder of Babyccino, “an international lifestyle website for modern mums,” where those who don’t want their kids wearing generic high-street crap can find small-batch, high-end clothes and toys. Adamo joined Instagram in 2011 and grew a decent following thanks to the blog, the lifestyle coverage, and the occasional newspaper piece (Adamo has a journalism degree from Northwestern). Then, in 2014, she posted a cute picture of her then 18-month-old daughter, Marlow, lifting her shirt to contemplate her navel. Instagram removed the photo, saying it violated their standards, Adamo reposted it, and Instagram disabled the account. In a Babyccino blog post, Adamo accused Instagram of deleting “four years of my family photos and memories: all the photos of our travels, my children’s birthdays…All of it gone.” Tremulous hashtags emerged. Adamo’s story went around the world. When the dust settled, her account had been reinstated and she has amassed enough followers, as her husband, Michael, once put it, to “fill Wembley Stadium twice over.” You mention the husbands here and there, but you don’t go into their stories very deeply or get their input. Why? It reflected the lives presented online, I guess. The husbands are solidly in the background. In many of the cases they bankroll the life. But they aren’t the protagonists of the story, which is populated by women and children. It’s a pretty patriarchal setup —Instagram as the woman’s “sphere.”
A year or so later, Courtney, Michael, and their first four kids (Easton, 14; Quin, 12; Ivy, 10; Marlow, 6) sold the house, the car, and many belongings, and embarked on a “family gap year” around the world. Adamo kicked off the voyage with a farewell piece in the Telegraph and the launch of her travel blog, Somewhere Slower. Then, after a highly publicized, lightly sponsored 18-month global search for the slow life (they never really considered a return to the U.S., she tells me, because Michael dislikes the consumerism), they alighted in Byron Bay, Australia. Wilkie was born there, the older kids were enrolled in school, and, after spending a year and a half working on their visa applications, Michael began a job from home as a managing director for a Melbourne animation company. Two and a half years after arriving, the Adamos are fully settled. They might start the day with a “surf sesh” before school. In the afternoon, they might “work together as a family.”
On Adamo’s Instagram feed, which consists almost entirely of photos of herself, her beautiful children, and her photogenic friends perpetually dressed in rumpled linens in dust bowl colors, life appears to be not so much a permanent vacation as a permanent travel shoot; a slightly overexposed, subtly saturated, high-contrast vision of free-spirited order and control. I just love this sentence — and what follows. You really sum up the vibe of what these feeds look like, and then you follow immediately with what appears to be a contrasting reality. I can almost imagine that you started with the essence of this paragraph when you went into the story. Is that true or did it come later? Hard to say. Of course I’d spent a lot of time looking at the feed before going. But it wasn’t until after I went that I was able to really feel — as a person having the experience — how edited and produced these images of laid-back casualness actually were, and how much they left out.
She has a lot on her plate. She has five kids. She’s still blogging (albeit less) for Babyccino. She’s managing her Instagram account. And she’s getting ready to launch—and has since launched—a new business venture in the lifestyle space. Inspiring this many people really is a lot of work.The dream of utopia—of a life lived in a sane, happy, slow-paced, sustainable, self-contained community of beautiful dreamers seeking refuge from the crass, materialistic, cruel world—has been with us forever, or at least since 1516, when Sir Thomas More coined the term as the name of a fictional island where everything was perfect and everyone was like-minded. Utopia is a play on the Greek word for “no place,” which, in the English pronunciation, sounds just like the Greek word for “good place”—as in, a place so perfect, it could only exist in fantasy, or on Instagram. When did you start thinking of this story as an exploration of utopia, or the illusion of it? Did the women think about their lives that way? Courtney did talk a lot about how great it was, how idyllic their lives were. And, of course, she’d embarked on a world-wide trip to find her perfect place, so it was not hard to make the connection, especially given that the Byron of their feeds is an idealized and heavily edited fragment of the whole place.
Some people follow the dream to distant lands, secure compounds, or intentional communities. Others just follow people on social media and live vicariously through them. Byron Bay, which has long been an actual hippie-surfer-wellness alterna-lifestyle destination, has lately emerged as a kind of virtual utopia as well—thanks, in part, to all the ethical, organic, sustainable, conscious fashion labels to come out of there in recent years. Also, Chris Hemsworth lives there. Also, influencers. This is a funny and chatty way to end this section, after you’ve just brought up a fairly heavy idea. Was that intentional, to lighten things up? It’s a shape-shifting tactic, I guess. A way to navigate from one posture to another. The heaviness is real. The silliness is real. It’s both heavy and light, serious and dumb, at once.
By the time Adamo arrived in Byron in 2016, she was known among some of the area micro-influencers—though she had never heard of them. On her first day there, she was invited to a magazine launch party. “It was so convenient,” Adamo says. “I was like, perfect—what a perfect opportunity to meet people.” The party took place at The Farm, an actual farm that also houses a restaurant co-owned by the husband of influencer and cookbook author Magdalena Roze (@magdalena_roze, 40.2K followers). Aimee Winchester (@little.winnie, 85.1K followers) was there, and so was Claire Alexander-Johnston (@jetsetmama, 115K Instagram followers), and Fullarton, who would later go on to shoot Adamo for Spanish Vogue and the clothing label Dôen (@shopdoen, 180K followers), among others. “We went for a coffee the next day,” Adamo says of the women she met, “and then we were really good friends, and our kids connected. Within a few days of being here, we were like, this is our place. We just knew it.”
Byron Bay is on the easternmost point of the Australian mainland. It was named by Captain James Cook after his fellow circumnavigator John Byron, grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, of “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” fame. Even if you don’t know the story, you kind of know the story, because it’s the same the world over. The Bundjalung people, stewards of the land for 20,000 years, were dispossessed. In March of this year, Australia’s High Court handed down the largest “native title” ruling in decades regarding aboriginal ownership of the land, restoring indigenous people’s rights to their traditional land and water. But until 1968, they were barred from raising their own children, moving freely, having access to education, earning more than a certain amount, marrying without permission, eating in restaurants, swimming in public pools, or voting. How did you decide which details of this history to include? I wanted to contrast the absolute freedom of rich, mostly white and/or upper-middle (or straight up upper) class digital nomads with natives barred from moving freely. In the late ‘60s, longboard surfers discovered Wategos Beach. By the 1980s, beach shacks on Wategos were giving way to mansions, and the hippie-surfer vibe was well on its way to being upscaled and commodified. Lately, the town has emerged as a mecca for makers—an epicenter of small clothing labels and independent brands.
On first impression, Byron looks like beautiful but crowded beaches, high-end stores and cute cafés, quotidian spring breakers, tourist shops and Greyhound buses, linen at a startling array of price points, and nourishing grain bowls sprinkled with petals. The Byron of your digital and increasingly brand-sponsored imagination, however, is all that minus the bad stuff; a carefully curated bank of images designed to stoke your lifestyle longings. (If such are your dreams.) It’s a land of large, “nomadic” “broods” who “find their tribes” on life’s “journey.” Never mind that Australia’s policies on immigration and refugees are draconian bordering on vicious. In this young, mostly white, ahistorical, neoliberal utopia of the imagination, anyone can go anywhere. All you have to do is have a yard sale, hop in the gypsy caravan, point a finger at a map, and take up legal permanent residence anyplace that best showcases your lifestyle. So much voice and vivid writing here. Do these sentences come flowing out of your fingers, or is there a lot of careful sentence-crafting at work? This just spilled out of me — after a lot of time marinating in the material and trying to organize it.
Joe Gagliese, cofounder of Viral Nation, an influencer marketing and talent agency based in Toronto, couldn’t think of another place like Byron Bay: a cross-tagging, cross-promoting, mutually amplifying, audience-sharing group of friends living, loving, working, and posting aspirational lifestyle content in a highly Instagrammable paradise. “I think that that place, that Byron place, is kind of like one of those unicorn locations,” he says, calling it an “example of the future—it’s either pretty scary or pretty cool, depending on how you look at it.” This is the first outside comment of the story, which is so interesting to me, because you’ve already spent a couple thousand words telling (and letting the women tell) their story. Why did you decide to interview this guy? My editor wanted someone to comment with authority on the business of influencing, for context. And I wanted to hear what someone on the business end would make of the place. I felt like I needed a reality check, or some validation of what I was seeing. The lady at the Hertz counter wants to know why I’ve traveled here for work. When I tell her that I’m writing a story about influencers, she looks at me in disbelief. “In Byron?” Yes, more or less. She does not appear to be delighted. “And they pay you for that?” Well, yes. She turns to her silent coworker and says, “I guess there are all kinds of jobs, aren’t there?” Together, we create a daisy chain of bewilderment. This paragraph cracked me up, and so did the next one. Does humor come naturally to you, and what are you trying to convey here with this aside? Yes! I started out writing humor, but it was always social satire. I’m drawn to absurdity — the best subjects, the most illustrative of life and its paradoxes, are completely absurd and therefore important to pay attention to. And humor makes people receptive, too. It’s a mind-opener and a defense-disarmer.
The GPS tells me to take the exit at the roundabout onto Hinterland Way, which isn’t quite as remote as it sounds. I’m following the Adamos’ dented white Kia to Wategos Beach. The van, driven by Michael, is packed with children and surfboards. I’m driving 50 mph on the wrong side of the twisty, potholed road. I’d feel like Hunter S. Thompson if I weren’t sober and wearing my seat belt. Ha! We arrive at the beach, and 30 minutes later I find a place to park. I meet up with the Adamos and their friends near the barbecue pits. It’s starting to drizzle, but everyone is here to surf. The kids are free-ranging, the new baby makes a big poop. Everyone eats sandwiches, which need mustard, or something. Wilkie wanders off and gets brought back by a nice stranger. Everyone thinks it’s funny that the lady thought he was a girl because his hair is in a topknot.Did you care how the women might react to this description of them? I saw one of them comment sarcastically on Instagram, referencing your story, about how apparently, all they do is eat mustard sandwiches and lose their kids on the beach. I was careful in these passages to describe them as simply and accurately as possible. It’s interesting — the kid did wander away and was brought back, and the friends did make fun of the woman, which I felt (but didn’t say) probably came out of a combination of impulses: snobbery, self-consciousness, nervousness. I also was grappling with feelings of social awkwardness, empathy and identification, anxiety about doing a good job, and my own reactions to a toddler wandering at the beach, which I didn’t include. I let the scene just be a scene. I tried to record it without inflection. I saw the comment about the mustard, too, and it made me laugh. I have no idea why anyone would be offended by that statement — to me it was pure slice of life. The kind of stuff you say while eating a sandwich at the beach. “This needs mustard.” It’s about as real and simple and uninflected as it gets.
All the “murfers” are here—the portmanteau of mum and surfer are Adamo’s clique of pretty, stylish, entrepreneurial, and creative young mothers of multiple children whose laid-back, unstructured lives generate a dizzying combination of FOMO and squad goals. They live in old-fashioned houses and give their carefully unstyled children names that sound dreamed up for a Goop collaboration with Lemony Snicket. They’re married to supportive, handsome, and scruffy men of purpose. They make their own hours and dinners and soap. They have their own brands. They are their own brands.
According to at least one Australian magazine, the murfers are “nailing the lifestyle,” which makes it sound like they’re effortlessly pulling off an expert maneuver that only an elite, highly trained few could hope to attempt without risk of serious bodily harm. Thank you for calling out the absurdity of that phrase! How much had been written about these women before? Did that coverage influence your assumptions coming in to the story? A lot had been written — all of it puffy lifestyle coverage. This sort of coverage was, come to think of it, a big part of what I wanted to explore. Not the women themselves, most of whom I liked a lot, but the fictions about women that get shoved down our throats, and how game some women are to participate in them.
There’s Winchester, Adamo’s best friend, who is small and pretty, and married to a professional bodyboarder, Dave. She has five girls (Coco, 11; Autumn, 9; Juniper, 5; Clementine, 3; and Daisy, 3 months) and a children’s sleepwear label, Little Winnie, which operates almost exclusively online. She trained to be a yoga teacher but got pregnant with Coco about a minute after she completed it.
There’s Amanda Callan (@church farmgeneralstore, 24.7K followers), a rangy former model with a sly sense of humor, and her two boys, Banjo and Percy. With her husband, musician Andrew Morris of the Wilson Pickers, she co-owns and operates Church Farm General Store, a brand that produces “handmade & homegrown” soaps and sauces.
There are the adorable and impossibly cool Taninaka sisters. Mia (@miaeatswolves, 21.3K followers), an artist, has boys Ziggy, five and a half, Taro, two and a half, and Koa, four months; and Hana (@hanataninaka, 9K followers), a linen expert, has boys Zephyr, four, and Dali, two, and twin girls on the way. Together, they cofounded and run Taninaka (@taninaka.san, 9K followers)—plant-dyed, organic, ethical bed linens for babies. Mia and Hana grew up in Sydney and also lived in Bali. They are married to Jasson (@jasson.salisbury, 8.7K followers), a meditation teacher, and Jeremy (@jdleefurniture, 10.5K followers), a carpenter who is planning to study fiction. Hana helps Jeremy with the books (for the furniture business, not the writing). How did you go about maintaining a balance of distance and camaraderie/trust during the reporting? Did they seem self-conscious about you being there? It’s a delicate dance, and everyone is different. Some people are open and some people aren’t. I always try to give everyone a chance to really represent themselves, then reproduce what they are presenting as faithfully as I can. Self-awareness and openness come off better than caginess or defensiveness.
“I didn’t even know Courtney had an Instagram,” says Hana, when I ask about how everybody met.
“I remember when I first met you, Aimee,” Mia says. “And I was like, ‘Oh, she’s rad!’ And someone sent me your Instagram thing, and I was like”—her voice turns skeptical—“That’s not the same girl.”
Hana laughs.I’m curious about your use of extended dialog, which serves to illustrate their personalities. What do you use for recording these conversations? And you must have had so much to choose from. Did you know when you heard this exchange that you would use it? I use a digital recorder and ask before recording. And yes, I usually know when I hear something that I’ll use it. People are so interesting off-the-cuff, when they aren’t trying to be.
“Really?” Winchester says, surprised. “Why?”
“I don’t know!” Mia says, cracking up.
Winchester had a personal account before starting her business, and then when she started it, she just changed the name, “so it’s always been a fusion of personal-slash-business.”
“Amanda’s got the biggest business,” Mia says. “She’s the most professional. Ours is just on the side.”
“Yeah, our main focus is just being stay-at-home mums,” says Winchester.
“Their stuff’s uh-mazing,” Mia says, meaning Church Farm. “They sell soap, curry paste, hot sauce. It’s amazing.”
“Amanda does it with her partner,” Winchester explains. “Our partners have other businesses. So, for us, it comes in waves. Amanda’s is more solid.”
Imogen Edwards (@imogen_imagination, 7.7K followers) pipes up. Edwards is tall, blond, beautiful. She’s lived here and surfed her whole life. The base tan on her legs looks like it was laid down in the ‘80s. Nice. “There’s a lot of brands around Byron and we all know each other,” Edwards says. “It’s like an epicenter of building businesses. It’s a hub of slow brands.”
“Everyone’s having a bit of a crack,” Winchester says.
“Yeah, it’s just not leaving it to the big guys,” Mia says.
Edwards doesn’t have a brand, but she does have three girls, and she’s doing some work for the music festival Splendour in the Grass. She was born in a town called Main Arm, just inland from Byron. Her parents split up when she was young, and her mom, “one of the original female surfers,” who surfed competitively, rented a little house on the beach and worked at a health food store. Sometimes, they got government assistance. Edwards didn’t set up her Instagram until last year, when she and her partner decided on a whim to move to the south of France. She did it to meet new people and stay in touch with friends. In Paris, it led to coffee with an amazing woman who had two kids in a Steiner school and surfed.
I wonder what made the French woman reach out.
“I just think people know Byron has a general chill vibe,” Edwards laughs.
“What?” Mia deadpans.
“Like, what’s your star sign…?”
“Let’s go meditate under a tree….”
“It’s the Byron bubble,” Mia laughs. “I think it’s quite a conscious community, so you get a lot of people who are ‘your people.’ ”These women seem far more capable of self-reflection and self-deprecation than Adamo ever shows. Was that frustrating that she was your main character but wouldn’t give you this kind of insight? Did you consider at any point whether to make one of these other women your central character instead? Agreed. It was sort of frustrating, but ultimately, it was so illustrative of the phenomenon. She was in a very literal sense the foreign element — a construction that inserted itself in a host environment. The others come off as not just self-aware and charmingly self-deprecating, but as more real. I don’t know that Courtney ended up really being the main character. It’s more like she was the ideal they aspired to — the symbol. She did not show me anything beneath the surface at all.
They both pause for a moment.
“It’s good to leave,” Mia adds. “You gotta leave.”
“Oh, you gotta leave,” Edwards emphatically agrees.
“But then you come back and it’s such a good place to come home to.”
There is a pause as they consider this, and then Edwards suggests I change the town’s name in the article, just to keep from promoting it any more. Did it take much work to get them to engage in this kind of conversation? Did you feel like they were comfortable with you right away – and did you do anything specific to achieve that level of comfort? No, I just asked a few simple questions. I think that because they were self-aware and self-deprecating, and had a healthy sense of the absurd, they were having fun acknowledging the absurdity. It’s clear they are confronted by it all the time.
“Do we need to move here?” Edwards mimics someone having just read this article. “How do we become friends with Mia and Hana, please?”
“Tourist season all year-round,” Mia laughs.
Hana remembers one time at a campsite in Western Australia someone recognized Mia and invited them to her café. Recently, at the park, someone recognized Callan, or her sandwich, I didn’t catch which.
“I was walking down the street with Courtney once, when Wilkie was a baby,” Mia says, “and this lady was like, ‘Wilkiiie!’ And Courtney’s like…” Mia mimes recoiling in alarm. “And the lady says, ‘I follow you on Instagram!’”Later, back home in Los Angeles, I FaceTime with Callan, who has decamped to the Gold Coast for Easter week. Callan was the one who coined the term “murfers” as a joke after the group of women started surfing. She had a lot of great photos she didn’t know what to do with, so last May, @byronbaymurfers (3.3K followers; “Mums are like dads, only gnarlyer”) was born. She set the feed to private at first. “But the girls were like, ‘This is sick—just put it on public!’ We’re just being silly,” Callan says. Fyi, I started checking out (and following) most of these women on Instagram while reading this story. Did you expect or intend for that to happen? Of course!
On Callan’s own feed, the Church Farm account, people can connect to the brand via photos of the products on the feed, of course, but mostly it consists of lovely pictures of fun life on the farm: Callan and Morris prepping gardens, or building a fire. Images from the recent @shopdoen shoot, which used Church Farm as the backdrop for its spring campaign. A clip shot by a local videographer of little moments on the farm—Morris gathering produce, Percy hugging ducks, Callan, in a Dôen baby doll dress, picking strawberries and hugging Banjo. The video, overlaid with a blown-out Super 8-style filter and set to a twangy ‘60s California garage rock track by the psychedelic rock band Allah-Las, looks like a home movie from a lost time. It looks like lost footage from Wild Wild Country. It looks like a high-end fashion shoot.
When Callan and Morris first moved to Byron Bay from Sydney eight years ago, they knew nobody and had no idea what they would do for money. They just knew they were sick of city life. They rented a house on South Golden Beach and took random jobs. Callan worked in farmers markets and Morris did a bit of farming. They came across their house while out for a drive in Northern Rivers. “We were thinking, Wouldn’t it be cool if that church was for sale,” she tells me. Sure enough, there was a sign. They bought the house from the church directly.
Not long after starting the business, the couple landed on the cover of Slow Living magazine. “We were in all these magazines about living the slow life, you know?” she laughs. “Andrew and I used to joke—because we’d be like juggling the kids with our small business, and we’d be frantic, trying to get orders out or something, before we had a staff—‘Hey, slow living, eh?’ ” she laughs. “It was almost funny that we were depicted in this slow-living, lazy lifestyle, but we were super busy, you know? It’s hard to have kids and business! It’s just the same life in a different location.”
“We make jokes about Instagram,” Callan says. “My school friend is coming down from Brisbane on Friday, and she’s like ‘I better get my linen ready!’ I’ve got lots of friends in other cities that ask me, ‘Is Byron always like that? Do you all just wear linen and hang out with your kids and eat food and have picnics with your baskets?’ It’s not like anyone’s pretending. We do spend a lot of time with all the kids, obviously. I guess it’s just a bit of a different lifestyle than the city, you know. I am aware that from the outside it’s funny.” This is such a great note of ambiguity to end this section on. Were you trying to keep return to these moments of contrast? Were you surprised or relieved that some of them were willing to reflect like this? I was relieved. Without these insights, it wouldn’t have worked. And I wanted to show how, although Instagram makes them seem like a undifferentiated bloc, they are different. They think differently. They handle the attention differently.
At first, Instagram felt like a psychological balm—a world apart from the sustained rage of Twitter and horror of Facebook. This is a sudden shift in the story, where you finally dive into deeper stuff. Did you consider putting any of this material higher up? No, I wanted to really establish them first. All those pretty pictures of cute kids and lovely interiors and far-flung destinations were soothing, reassuring. Then Facebook purchased Instagram in 2012 and launched sponsored posts a year later. In 2016, the company switched from a chronological to an algorithmic feed to prioritize “the moments we believe you will care about the most.” By 2018, there were 3.7 million brand-sponsored influencer posts on the app, and those, according to Statista, are projected to reach 4.95 million in 2019. In just a few years, the app has turned making your life look like a vacation into an actual job for some (yes, there really are all kinds) and, for others, has become a constant reminder that watching people live as though on vacation is the only vacation most people can afford. Instagram makes us sad now. Surveys have found it to be the worst social media platform for mental health.
The experience of following Courtney Adamo is a lot like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole. You pass through levels, like community and escapism, then through the looking glass, into the cognitive dissonance of watching her appear to effortlessly manage an unmanageable number of children of different ages, in constant togetherness, throughout extended travels, settling into a perfect dollhouse that never seems to get messy. People follow for the inspiration, for the aspiration, for the fantasy projection, the dopamine hit, or for a soothing respite from toddler tantrums, teen drama, financial struggles, processed food you wouldn’t eat if you weren’t so broke or stressed or pressed for time, marital problems, and ugly plastic crap. People follow for the self-harm, to pick at the longing and thwarted desires until they bleed shame.
GOMIblog (an acronym for “Get Off My Internets”) is another rabbit hole, a darker one, that leads to a terrifying subterranean mirror world, where the voyeurs obsessively dismantle the internet celebrities they can’t help but watch. The hate Adamo gets there is hard-core. Commenters criticize her relentlessly—for lacking transparency in disclosing sponsored posts and brand partnerships and gifts. For overexposing and commodifying her kids. For not letting them use screens while plastering them across hundreds of thousands of screens, where other people can see them but they can’t see themselves. GOMI commenters obsess over and parse her background—how the oft-mentioned tulip farm she grew up on, founded by her paternal grandfather, is the largest supplier of bulbs in the world. How she is a great-great-great-granddaughter of E.W. Scripps, who founded the Scripps media company, which was so successful that it was put into a trust for the family in the 1920s and which grew so large again that it was broken up in the 1970s. Adamo’s maternal grandmother’s portion, Pioneer Newspapers, comprised 22 publications in Washington, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Idaho. In 2013 it was rebranded as The Pioneer News Group. When that grandmother died, Adamo’s mother, Marnie Roozen, became chairwoman of the board. In 2017, the company sold its newspaper division to Adams Publishing. The remaining company is now owned by Roozen and her three siblings, along with “eight next-generation family members,” one of whom is an influential murfer. Again, important information. Did you consider putting any of this information about her up higher in the story? No, I wanted to start with the image we see, then pull back to reveal context, history, etc.
“We live a lovely life and I’m obviously not complaining about it,” Adamo tells me later over the phone. “But on the other hand, I’m not living a luxurious, extravagant lifestyle. And, anyway, that’s completely subjective. What’s luxurious to somebody is not luxurious to somebody else.”
It’s hard to gauge how much an influencer makes, but according to Later, an Instagram marketing company, one rule of thumb is $100 per post per 10,000 followers, so someone with 250,000 followers might make $2,500 per post. Things like category exclusivity (the influencer can’t post about competitors) and content licensing, which allows the brand to post the influencer’s content on its platforms, can also increase what an influencer makes. Engagement rates—likes, comments, interactions—are in decline, but that’s less true among micro-influencers like Adamo, whose high levels of engagement are attractive to brands looking to partner. Where an influencer really aligns with a brand, there may be potential for lucrative long-term deals. So engagement is what brands care about. You talked about how you viewed this story as more of a piece of cultural criticism than an investigation. Did you consider going deeper into research in this section, which seems like it could form the basis of an entirely different story on the inner workings of the influencer world? Space is not unlimited! I actually handed this in at 10,000 words. Haha.
“Are [the influencers] responding back to fans? Are they getting comments? That’s a big deal for brands,” says Lisa Jammal, CEO of Social Intelligence Agency, a social media agency based in L.A. The mom-influencer niche is oversaturated, but Jammal estimates that someone like Adamo would make $15,000 to $20,000 a month if she were doing two or three campaigns on a monthly basis. Adamo, whose last nine posts (as of this writing) included three sponsored ones, says she makes nowhere near that much. “If I was money-hungry, I would take every promotion, or be a lot more lenient with the brands that I promote,” she says. “Just this week I turned down three, and they were big ones.”
The day before leaving Byron, I went back to Adamo’s house to talk about her new venture, a subscriber-based “collaborative e-course on family lifestyle.” It was cleaning day, and two women to whom I was not introduced were finishing up in the kitchen. The course was only a week away from launching and Adamo was busy. Her schedule was packed. She had another meeting scheduled right after me.
The e-course—which she conceived and executed in just three months—is called In the Loop (@theloopcommunity, 838 followers). It consists of five themed PDFs with links to videos featuring Adamo and various local friends/experts sharing tips and tricks on food, decorating, parenting, and family lifestyle.
Adamo feels that people lack community in their lives. She’s grateful for her “wonderful community of women” whom she learns from every day, whether it’s at the beach, during a girls’ dinner, whereever. “I come back and I’m inspired and I’ve learned.” With In the Loop, Adamo wants to extend that sense of community and monetize it. A subscription costs $175. There’s no sponsored content, except for “exclusive discounts,” as she later told BuzzFeed, on some of her favorite brands. “I feel like it’s an opportunity for me to do something that’s completely unsponsored,” she says. “I’m only sharing what I genuinely love.”
The e-course was launched with a promotional video, a gauzy montage of Adamo and her family walking to the beach, surfboards in tow, on a trail under a canopy of trees. It’s a soft-focus parade of braids, straw hats, linen pinafores, overalls, and crisscross straps against some soaringly inspirational jingle with a Brazilian vibe. It looks like a promo for the remake of the remake of Picnic at Hanging Rock. “If there’s anything I’ve learned in the 14 years I’ve been a mother,” Adamo says in the voice-over, “it’s that the parenting journey is an ever-evolving one.”
In the comments, the mood can veer from mostly fawning into bloody: “Will the course deal with issues such as bringing up children in a privilege bubble or white privilege worldwide and especially in Australian history?” asks one commenter. “And also having a nanny, a house husband and tons of additional help and support?” adds another. This one prompted Adamo to reply: “Please don’t leave untruthful comments here. We haven’t had a nanny or help with the kids since we left London. My husband has a job and works five days a week. We have no help or family around (apart from supportive friends)—not that I think there is anything at all wrong with having those things, but I just don’t think it’s fair to write these completely unfounded lies like that. Thank you.”
In the BuzzFeed article, Adamo acknowledged that she’s been “fortunate” in her life, but that “obviously, the concept of privilege is completely subjective.” She employs a housekeeper for four hours per week. She finds it sad that some people find it easier to explain away her happiness by making false statements about the incredible privilege she must have. “When we first started traveling, there were people who said things…like, ‘You’re going and staying in fancy five-star hotels.’ And we weren’t. We were staying in Airbnbs that were kind of rough.”
“At first, I would take it so personally,” Adamo says of the negative comments, which she sometimes deletes. “Now, I really genuinely just don’t care. Getting older, and being more comfortable in my skin—I just don’t care if someone’s got a negative opinion.”
“I do agree that when you have a big following, you are responsible for creating an authentic vision,” Adamo adds. “Not that I’m putting the blame back on the person. But if you’re seeing someone’s life and their beautiful home, and their perfectly dressed kids, and it’s making you feel inadequate, then don’t follow that person.” Although you are heavy on commentary throughout the story, here you really let Adamo speak for herself in response to her critics, leaving the reader to decide whose side to take. Were you tempted to add in your own judgement? No, I really wanted everyone to speak for themselves, and I think they did it better than I could have.
Last year, Adamo’s neighbor, Claire Alexander-Johnston (the aforementioned @jetsetmama), decided to take a five-month mental health hiatus from social media. I spoke to Alexander-Johnston, who is from London and still sounds English, on the phone a month after I left Australia. She’s not very plugged in anymore. “I just wanted not to be beholden to my phone and that constant ‘bing, bing, bing.’” She used to love Instagram for the creativity and the community it provided. Then Facebook bought it, “and suddenly everyone is talking about being an influencer and algorithms and how to do it,” she says. “It was a massive progression of these things, like, ‘Can we monetize?’ ” People were sending free stuff, and then the big checks started rolling in. “Like, ‘We’ll pay you $5,000 if you promote this baby food.’ I could get $5,000 to $8,000. It’s amazing! You’ve got to keep up that engagement! And then I was like, ‘You know what? I’ve got that engagement because I’m not constantly selling things.’”
She dabbled in sponsored-not-sponsored posts, then realized she didn’t want to do it anymore. She didn’t need the income. (Her husband Richard Johnston’s business TripADeal is one of the country’s most successful travel companies.) She still wanted to support businesses but stopped accepting gifts. “I needed to figure out how to be part of that space without feeling like I was selling myself.”
It used to be that you would scroll through Instagram or look through a magazine and know it wasn’t reality. “And then suddenly it was like everyone was saying, ‘No, this is my reality, actually. And this should be your reality. And actually, let me give you my top 10 tips about how to make this perfect reality your reality,’” says Alexander-Johnston. “And I think that is really hard for people—and hard for me—to understand and swallow and take. [It] triggers so many people’s insecurities about, ‘I’ll never be enough. I’m not enough. I’m not good enough. I’m not clean or tidy or pretty or white enough. And I definitely don’t wear enough linen.’”
Alexander-Johnston says she is aware now, in a way that she wasn’t before, of the perception that was being created of this perfect life and these amazing friendships. “I realized how damaging it can be for other women who are lonely, or who don’t have friends around the corner, or who are working mothers and have to put their kids in day care every single day…. I was just aware that the representation of this white privilege was actually becoming quite confronting for the rest of the world, but also for me.”This is a pretty long story! Did you nail the structure down before you started to write or during the writing? Did that change much during the editing process? I’m not good at structuring. I tend to feel my way through a bit. I did some basic structuring like choosing what scene to start with, introducing characters, pulling back to reveal context, delving into history, etc. But it’s a process.
Adamo likes to work with brands in an organic way. Every time she gets an email with a request, she looks at it with Michael. If it’s something they would use themselves, they’ll ask to test it first. “This is my Babaà jumper,” she says, indicating her sweater. The Spanish knitwear company makes a point of donating its samples to refugees. “I work with [Marta Bahillo, who runs Babaà] on two or three promotions throughout the year. I have done that for three years now. There’s a children’s brand called Nellie Quats, in the U.K., and every new season we work together. A lot of these brands I work with are run by women, and they’re small, independent brands. It’s really a pleasure to be able to help grow their brand.”
I ask how she gets her kids to wear what she wants them to wear, partly because my 10-year-old hasn’t worn what I wanted her to wear since she was two and a half. Thank you for speaking for the rest of us!
“We just try so hard with our kids not to put any emphasis on what they’re wearing,” Adamo says. “I mean, Easton’s now a teenager, and he obviously has an opinion. He doesn’t want to put on what he doesn’t want to put on—which is fair enough. But really, we’ve never put an emphasis on clothes. Sometimes, with my husband’s family, his sisters or his mom, they’ll see my kids, they’ll go, ‘Oh, that dress is so pretty.’ I don’t want them to make that a focus, so we try really hard not to even talk about clothes.” Did you follow up after she gave you this non-answer — like, so when they say, “No. I won’t wear it!” What does she say? This is interesting. I did not challenge her too much because it was so hard to get real answers that it felt counterproductive — like she would just put up more walls. So I made the choice to let her speak for herself. Her walls ended up standing in for her in the story. It was frustrating but also, in the end, interesting. Writing a non-fiction story is making do with what you have. That’s what I got, so that was the story. I couldn’t know it going in. It revealed itself.
Authenticity is a big part of what Adamo is selling—as is the idea that the life she lives is achievable. Her response to criticism suggests she feels accused of hiding things—a fleet of nannies, say—that she’s demonstrably not hiding. But this take is off. Her privilege on its face isn’t what gets to people. What gets to people is her reluctance to acknowledge how that privilege holds up a pristinely simple life. You’re commenting again here. Did this analysis come from conversations you had, or just from your own impressions? It’s a mix of reporting and analysis, which I think ultimately is what profile writing is. I had to pull back and analyze, in part because there are entire forums dedicating to analyzing and critiquing them. So I had to weigh in on this stuff, too. It’s this disconnect that drives people to hurl themselves down the life-sucking force of GOMIblog. Because everybody knows how excruciatingly hard it is to raise children, to keep house, to stay solvent, to survive. And following people who appear to do this with ease, who make a talent and a virtue out of being lucky, creates an unbearable feeling of cognitive dissonance in the beholder. It feels like gaslighting. It makes Instagram look like a giant, continually updated portrait of Dorian Gray, stashed in our collective closet, getting prettier and prettier as the world becomes increasingly grotesque.
The path to Whites Beach at Broken Head is lush and shaded by a canopy of trees. It opens on a wide, white, secluded sandy beach. The Adamos came here today with the Winchesters and some friends visiting from Finland. Adamo is surfing. Winchester is cradling newborn Daisy. Clementine is riding Wilkie around like a pony.
Winchester moved here from Sydney eight years ago because she wanted her kids to have “an old-fashioned lifestyle,” she says. “That’s why I send them to Steiner school and all that”—no tests, no tech—“trying to slow them down in such a fast-paced world.” Sometimes she regrets not separating her personal Instagram from her business account, she says. Adamo looks at her in amazement. “But people connect to the brand through you!”
Later that afternoon, I meet Mia and Hana and their little boys in Brunswick Heads at Ethel Food Store, a café on a busy thoroughfare. They order flatbreads and their kids order kombucha. The sisters live in Mullumbimby, of which one tourist website says, “If you’re wondering where all the hippies in Byron have gone, take a drive to Mullumbimby!” Hana and Mia are happy to get out of their parents’ house, where they are living while they Airbnb their own homes over the break.
For the summer, they took three months off and went on a road trip. They rented out their houses to “get rid of some debt and stuff” and spent three months camping outdoors. Tell me what you wanted to achieve with this scene and conversation between the sisters. And why it comes here. And why as a dialog as opposed to a couple paragraphs of description with a quote or two. I wanted to show the socio-economic differences which are flattened by the “boho chic” image. This is the world we live in — profound inequality masked by democratized style. It’s really weird and pernicious.
“I was pregnant the whole time, so by the end I was so tired,” Mia says.
“I think I fell pregnant two weeks into the whole thing,” Hana says. “It was good fun.”
“It’s hard work,” says Mia.
“Twelve weeks straight, no hot showers,” Hana adds.
“Yeah. I think the longest we went without having a hot shower, like a proper hot shower, was like six weeks,” Mia laughs. “The kids were filthy, they had bucket baths.”
Being away reminds them of why they love it here. Instagram helps make living here possible. “I don’t know how companies ever got off the ground before,” Mia says. “It was so much harder.”
“That’s our outreach,” Hana says.
They didn’t start Instagramming until they had a product, Mia says, whereas brands with more marketing savvy, she realizes now, build a following before launching a product.
“They already have an audience,” Hana says, “and they go, ‘Oh, we’re doing this as well!’ Whereas we waited until we had everything…and then we were like, ‘Here’s our Instagram!’” They laugh.
“I think it’s nice for people to see that you are mums, you have all this shit going on, but you’re still able to run a business and live your life a certain way,” Mia says. “I don’t really know what I was posting [before], whereas now, I feel like you almost have to have like a brand identity.” She pauses. “The less time you can spend on it, the better, really.”
There’s a lot of talk about the Instagram community but less talk about the effect of Instagram on actual communities. Byron is small and insular, and the brute force of social amplification has a way of distorting things. “In normal life, you’d be out with girlfriends, and hundreds of thousands of people aren’t going to see you eating spaghetti,” Alexander-Johnston says. “But in Byron Bay, that is a possibility.” Her husband grew up here and finds it quite hilarious to see his town turned into a social media hub. “You’re an influencer, and you hang out with your friends who’ve got 500 followers. Suddenly, overnight, they’ve got 5,000 followers. Ten thousand followers. Then you’ve all accidentally become Instagram famous by virtue of each other. It kind of self-perpetuates.”
It’s an awkward spot to be in, this influencer business, and it affects friendships. Poor influencers. Not just influencers’ friendships, but their friendships in the real world. Many people in the area wrote to tell me how much the social fabric of the town had been messed with. “I know I live in this absurd white privileged bubble,” Alexander-Johnston says. “I know that. But I also do genuinely have a heart for women and change and community, and I care about my children.” There’s more of an understanding of the value of privacy now. Not everyone is thrilled to have their picnics uploaded every time. She thinks a backlash is under way, which she has been privately enjoying. “This only started happening the last six months, and I found it amazing,” she says. “People are having their birthday parties or baby showers, and they say, ‘This is a no-Instagram event and you’re not allowed to take photos, take videos, upload, post to stories.’”I see this section as pointing to some of the fall-out and a shift in the way even the influencers are going about things. But you let the women say that through conversation instead of saying it yourself. Did you want to avoid summarizing trends? I see this as another spot where the story would be very different if done as an investigation/trend piece. Yes, I thought it was more powerful and credible coming from her. Also, I’m just more interested in the human side of the story here. How has this big, weird lens distorted this community? What is this bizarre amplifying force? What does it do to people’s lives, especially in a small, hothouse place like this?
People don’t want to be the cause of other people feeling left out of a birthday or a dinner. “Or if someone’s smoking a cigarette—they’re a mum, and they have a cheeky cigarette once every six months—and they’re caught in the background of someone’s Instagram video and they get absolutely slammed…. Or they just don’t want their baby shower plastered over 15 different Instagrams. They just don’t want that anymore. And this is becoming much more of a thing in this area, actually, and I find it quite nice. It’s quite refreshing.”
On the flip side, she has noticed that when you log off Instagram, your invites can really take a hit. “A lot of stuff in this town is like, ‘Let’s do something at The Farm!’ So-and-so is there giving out free somethings, all your girlfriends are going…. The thing is, there isn’t anywhere else to go. There are, like, three places. It’s just a small town on the east coast of Australia. You’ve been here. There’s not a lot going on.”
Back in Los Angeles, I called Imogen Edwards. Recently, Edwards split from her partner. They sold the house in France and returned to Byron. Adamo has been your primary character in the story but you choose to end with Edwards. Why? Did you try out other endings? I ended on Edwards because I found her to be so insightful and melancholy, and I loved the idea of ending on this note of realness and depth. She was the one that grappled with it all most emotionally.
“It was really just a bit of a fantasy game where you’re like, ‘Wow, could we do this!’” she says of the move to France. “I didn’t think it through too much. Kind of more, ‘Let’s have life experiences! We can do this! How lucky are we to be able to do this?’”
I remark that it’s funny how she left one fantasy life to live another, similar fantasy life. Why the choice here to mention you’re there in the conversation instead of a third-person lead-in to the quote? It seemed important to be present, to show that we were having a genuine conversation; that real ideas were exchanged.
“You don’t understand the level of people messaging me, basically shouting at me, going, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ Like French chicks—going, like, ‘I follow you all because I want your life!’”
On her return, Edwards says she was very honest with her “raw feelings” about the experience of moving to not just another country, but the idea of another country. “And that’s the reality,” she says. “Everything looks beautiful, but something was missing for me.”
It occurred to her that everyone is striving for this perfect life, posting perfect pictures, feeling the pressure to say that everything’s perfect. “And I’m like, I don’t want to have to say it’s perfect. I don’t want people to feel like I’m living a perfect life, because I’m far from it. You know? No one knows the internal battles and the ups and downs—I’m just sick of kind of putting that out.” You include a lot of her words here. Were you tempted to paraphrase more of it? No, I was moved by her words. It felt important to let her express her complicated feelings, especially after Adamo’s committed refusal to perform any real self-inquiry or engage in any larger questions. It was a very human moment and I wanted her to really be “seen” here.
“Mum Instagramming,” she says, can lead to real connections and alleviate the isolation of being a new mother. “It can make you feel like someone’s got your back,” she says. Like, “‘Oh, I’m not alone!’ ” But it enables a false intimacy, too, and a lack of accountability. You can delete someone. You can disappear. The community is a shared illusion that’s real, until it’s not.
Speaking of France, I ask if she’s heard that children there will now be allowed to sue their parents for posting pictures of them on social media as children.
“One day, I guess the kids are going to be like, ‘Mum, why did you post that picture of me? I look ugly!’ You’ll get this backlash from your kids….You don’t know until they’re grown up, and they turn around at you, and they’re like, ‘Bloody hell, Mum! I can’t believe you did that!’ Whereas another kid might go to their mum and say, ‘Thanks for doing that, Mum! I’m a supermodel now! I never had to work for a place because you made this platform for me!’”Why did you choose this as your last paragraph? I loved the ambiguity and the humor. It’s an ambiguous story. She summed it up in a nutshell!