Do you know who Arielle Charnas is? If you don’t then the chances are you’re in the majority of folks when it comes to this increasingly infamous influencer. Over the past few weeks, as the world becomes ever-more stifled by the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, Charnas has emerged as an easy figure of hate and blame, the all-too-perfect representation of privilege in action during America’s growing healthcare and political crisis. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s some background.
Charnas is a fashion blogger and influencer who started her own brand, Something Navy, in 2009. Her original work focused on a style she described as ‘elevated basic’: Think simple colors and designs that embody the Ralph Lauren aesthetic of easy-going but highly monied. She’s collaborated with companies such as TRESemmé and Nordstrom, and she garnered headlines last august when she announced that she had raised $10 million in funding for her brand. All in all, she’s pretty standard stuff in terms of the influencer sphere of the past decade: A skinny pretty white woman with an aspirational slant whose allure relies on a kind of perfection that seems attainable but not off-putting. She’s one of the gals, albeit one with cash to spare.
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It’s been 4 days since I started feeling incredibly sick. Each day the symptoms evolve into something else and while I can’t imagine how I’d ever catch coronavirus (from what I know I haven’t been in contact with anyone who has it) I’m dealing with the weirdest virus I’ve ever had since mono. I’m so happy my fever is gone but the body pain that I’m feeling today is unlike anything else. It feels like we’re all in a bad dream right now but I’m determined to bring back some normalcy to our lives. This is the last time I’m going to talk about feeling sick right now on my Instagram and move on to the things that make me happy, like my kids, family life, fashion and work. If it offends anyone or seems as though I’m being insensitive during this time, I’m sorry but it’s what I’ve chosen to do. Back to regular content/programming. Can’t wait to post my partnerships and my outfits from inside my apt every day. I promise they will be better than this one 🤣 - love you all, stay home and stay healthy!
Her carefully manicured image began to crumble last month as the coronavirus spread across America, leading to shutdowns, self-distancing, and overall fear. Things kicked off on March 15 when Charnas posted Instagram stories to her 1.3 million followers talking about how sick she was feeling. The symptoms she described were not necessarily indicative of the coronavirus and she even admitted that she didn’t meet the criteria for testing in New York state, where she lives. Still, she chose to ‘call up a doctor friend’ to get the tests for COVID-19, a process she documented on her Stories. Her friend even took the swabs from her while she sat in her car. After testing positive for COVID-19, the responses to Charnas’s actions were divided. Some praised her for using her platform to show the process behind this truly terrifying moment in history while others labeled her as privilege in action, most notably the fashion critics at Diet Prada. As they noted, the issue was less about the diagnosis than a woman flaunting the testing, and her ability to get easy access to it at a time when millions cannot do so, as if it were a product to shill or part of her #brand. To quote Diet Prada, ‘What’s the point of showing/normalizing the testing process if it’s not available or affordable for so many people?’ (In her post announcing her diagnosis, Charnas did say that she believed it was ‘the responsibility of our government office to ensure all Americans can access necessary tests.’)
Charnas then deliberately made the choice to go back to business-as-usual on her site, partly to retain a sense of normalcy but also because this is her job. She also announced that she would not post any more updates on her health and wished to move on ‘to the things that make me happy.’ This proved controversial to some but the problems came more with her content in the following days. She posted images and Stories of herself cozying up to her husband and young children, which many thought was ill-advised at best given her condition and the advice offered by medical professionals.
The biggest pushback came when, eight days after her diagnosis, Charnas chose to move her family up to the Hamptons as part of their quarantine efforts, a big no-no in the eyes of the CDC. Sufferers of COVID-19 or those experiencing its symptoms should not leave their homes until they have been free of fever and coughing for at least a week. Around this time, news stories began springing up about the number of wealthy individuals moving out to the Hamptons and other locations in an effort to ‘escape’ the virus, thus risking further outbreaks in previously safe areas. Charnas claimed that she had been symptom-free when she made the move but it was hard to escape the seeming callousness of an influencer like her potentially putting people at risk just so she could have a pretty new backdrop for her Instagram posts and tagged outfits.
The backlash was swift and loud, becoming headline news in publications that seldom discuss the influencer or internet celebrity world. Charnas was an easy figure to become the exemplification of a lot of people’s anger and concern, and it didn’t help matters that, for several days afterward, she tried to keep being her regular influencer self, showing off outfits and playing with her kids and talking to her nanny. Regardless of how wealthy or privileged she actually is, the image she has created and commodified for herself exudes those qualities, and as she documented her ‘personal coronavirus journey’ for the masses, one couldn’t help but wonder what was real and what was a brand expansion.
On April 2, Charnas issued a full apology on her website, which explained her reasoning behind her various decisions and noting the difficulties faced by her family during this time, which included death threats. It’s led to divided opinion, as pretty much everything involved in this story has.
So, why did this become such a big effing deal? Like any good influencer drama, it had all the right ingredients and it exploded at the right time. A key part of influencer gossip appeal is its inherently low stakes, although the Charnas case felt far less frivolous than your typical shade because it dealt with a literal pandemic that has killed thousands of people. It’s easier to get involved in this stuff when the subject is so evidently cushioned by privilege, something Charnas exhibited in spades. The COVID-19 pandemic has gone a long way in exposing the growing wealth gap around the world, including in America, as many people cannot afford or have no access to life-saving tests or healthcare while every celebrity and their dog seems to be posting heartfelt Instagram videos about how they got tested for the virus, even if they didn’t display any symptoms. Capitalism poisons all and it’s currently turning a literal pandemic into a status symbol for the rich while the poor are left to die. For all of the politicians’ talk that COVID-19 is ‘the great equalizer’, that’s clearly not the case. Money always comes out on top. Charnas made a beat-for-beat document of her own privilege in action and people responded accordingly, although she is also admittedly a far easier target than, say, Idris Elba or Jennifer Lopez, the latter of whom was spotted using a private gym in Florida despite the state shutdown. Charnas is privileged but not beloved. Influencers seldom are for the masses, and the last thing anyone wanted right now was any sort of public face for this pandemic, particularly one of a rich white woman in the Hamptons.
We don’t get to go back to normalcy, at least not right now, and nobody knows when that will happen. We are stuck in a period of seemingly endless liminality that’s put us all in emotionally precarious places. To put it bluntly and without hyperbole, we are traumatized. We are living through something unexpected and utterly terrifying, something none of us have the tools to cope with. We turn to social media because we’re all simultaneously experiencing this fear and anger, this sense of hopelessness and fury when it feels like nobody will listen unless we’re famous or well-connected enough. That’s why it rubs us the wrong way when the upper echelons of society continue on as if nothing has changed. It irritates us when celeb couples go on a pap walk or are shown panic buying food. Any patience we had for the ‘eccentricities’ of fame have gone right out the window as the pandemic further reveals how, contrary to PR belief, the stars aren’t ‘just like us.’ Inequality has always killed but it’s been a while since it’s done so with such public visibility. When someone doesn’t play by the stifling rules we’re all being smothered by right now, how could we not get angry? And where else are we supposed to put that anger right now?
This is not to justify the often horrendous abuse that has been directed at Charnas or her family. Death threats are always inexcusable and only create further toxicity in what is already a moment of rot. Charnas was selfish and deeply misguided and made the mistake of turning it into content to strengthen her personal brand. In that aspect, she is definitely not alone. Check out any celebrity or influencer currently trying to mine this pandemic for clicks and #sponcon. Accountability matters when it comes to the influential, especially those who make that their business. Right now, it feels like we have so little keeping the powerful honest and Charnas, frankly, felt like an easy and manageable way to do that. We’re all so angry and we don’t know how to deal with it right now. How do we deal with any of this?
My thanks go to journalist Sophie Ross, whose extensively detailed thread on this topic was crucial in my research for this piece.
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