The Empty Mason Jar of the Influencer Economy: The Case of Caroline Calloway and her Creativity Workshop Tour
On Saturday, Instagram influencer and self-styled storyteller Caroline Calloway began the first of what was supposed to be a national tour of creativity workshops, kicking off in New York City. After the first event, for which tickets cost $165, Calloway announced that she would be canceling several dates and moving them from their original locations to New York. This came after she offered fans a ‘poll’ in which the two options were ‘This Is Our Spot’, meaning the venue she had used in New York, and ‘Fuck Yes’. Declaring the response to the poll to have been ‘overwhelming’, Calloway cancelled the events scheduled for Boston, Denver and Philadelphia, although this proved unsurprising given that Calloway had already admitted in earlier Instagram Stories that she had never gotten around to booking a venue for the Boston date, which was scheduled for this coming Sunday. The disorganization of this tour was evident from the get-go, given that she had only begun planning it, as well as a subsequent international tour, one month ago.
Note how she never actually gave her fans an option to vote no. But she's still reporting that the vote was unanimous. Duh, you never gave them a choice! pic.twitter.com/KTmwx7DPmA— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) January 13, 2019
All of this probably sounds pretty minor to you. Why should you care about this person you’ve most certainly never heard of before? Why are we wasting our time talking about yet another internet celebrity and yet another scam? Well, that’s a lot of questions and the answers will require time, but throughout this post, I hope to paint a portrait of the new age of the ‘influencer economy’, the insidious nature of Instagram’s faux aspirational agenda, and the one woman who exemplifies the trend at its most inept. Caroline Calloway’s scam may not be the biggest on the internet or the most upsetting but it certainly best represents the truth that lies beneath the well-filtered veil.
But first, some background.
Caroline Gotschall Calloway, best known by the name Calloway, is described by Wikipedia as an American Instagram personality. An alumni of NYU, she came to prominence by documenting her near fantastical experiences as an American student at the University of Cambridge, where she studied History of Art at St. Edmund’s College (which she described to Broadly as ‘objectively the worst’ college there). Her long Instagram captions, coupled with photographs of her idyllic interpretation of Cambridge won her many fans on the platform. The fairytale image of Cambridge and Great Britain by extension that she played with — endless balls, stunning architecture, ivy-covered buildings, and a romance with a well-connected society boyfriend — will be familiar to many. It plays around with many concerning ideas of class fetishism, but the revelries of the upper classes remain popular for a reason, even as Cambridge students raised suspicion about the accuracy of her posts and the image she created of the university. The Tumblr page Ask a Cambridge Student notes how ‘she kinda perpetuates the myth that Oxbridge is like this fantasyland, whereas in reality, it’s quirky, but is much more normal than people think.’
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The first night Oscar and I slept together he didn’t kiss me. I had made it aggressively clear that kissing wouldn’t be allowed. However unlike the plot of Pretty Woman, I didn’t let Oscar touch me at all. Also I didn’t get paid. “I need you to stay with me tonight until I fall asleep,” I said abruptly. Oscar, who had been whistling as we navigated the maze of castles back to our dorm, went quiet. “But like seriously,” I said. “I’m going to need you to lie in my bed and maybe pat my hair, but only because I have anxiety problems.” I looked at him with an expression between ‘hopeful’ and ‘crazy eyes.’ “REAL ANXIETY PROBLEMS. If you try to make a move I will burst into tears and it will be super fucking unsexy.” I paused for breath. Oscar let out a strained sort of laugh. “Is this a question, Miss Calloway, or—” “Please.” I said more urgently, shutting my eyes. “Please.” I had felt fine until the sun went down. It’s always been like this for me. Not every day, or even every week, but once in a while I sink into a certain part of myself and get overwhelmed by loneliness. Fun fact! When I was little my father begged my mom to send me to therapy because I couldn’t fall asleep without audiobooks. I needed the stories, but also the illusion of human company. Nowadays someone will occasionally ask, “Isn’t it weird for you to have so many people following your life?” Obviously not! I’d feel even lonelier without them. As we sat on the banks of the River Cam, Oscar had watched the sun set while I watched groups of friends coming and going over the old stone bridges. Passing through the courtyard in this picture, I studied the red ivy on the roof—the same ivy that would be gone when we climbed up there in the spring. I wished that my own college wasn’t ugly and space-age. I wished that I lived in a castle with red ivy. I wished, for a moment, that I had never left New York. When Oscar climbed into my bed that night I said sternly, “If you try to pull what you pulled in the elevator tonight I will literally kill you.” But secretly I was glad to have him there. To Be Continued… #adventuregrams PS - Want even more adventures? Follow me on Facebook, friends!
That didn’t stop her gaining online prominence as Calloway tapped into that allure through very long Instagram posts she dubbed her memoirs. She claims that her Instagram account was the ‘first of its kind’ to both write long captions as part of her storytelling and use the Stories option to do the same, something she describes as ‘MY QUALITY FUCKING CREATIVITY AND VULNERABILITY AND QUIRKY GENIUS’ (her emphasis). Eventually, she landed a literary agent, Byrd Leavell (whose client list includes Tucker Max and Donald Trump), and soon had a $500,000 book deal to her name. The book, to be titled AND WE WERE LIKE: A Memoir, was the desired end result of her Instagram account. She told Broadly her influences were ‘Sloane Crosley, David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, and David Foster Wallace’. She also admitted that ‘she procrastinated on the proposal so much that Leavell had to designate specific hours during which she would come into his office and work, monitored.’ Keep that quote in mind for later.
The book never happened. After Calloway graduated with a lower second class degree, she moved to London with her then-boyfriend. On 14 July 2017, Calloway announced via her Instagram Stories that she had pulled out of her book deal and would be returning around $100,000 to Macmillan Publishers. She justified this decision by claiming her book proposal was sexist and focused too heavily on romance as the ultimate ideal (an image she herself had created). In one story, she said, ‘I would apologise but I do not think that it is my fault for being born into a culture that equates artistic success with financial success. Or reduces female artists to stories about the boys they date. I’m just not going to be a part of it. Not anymore.’
A lot of people have been asking me if her book deal was a scam too. No, she actually did get a book deal worth about $500k. Her agent is/was Byrd Leavell, who represents Tucker Max. When she cancelled the deal by not finishing the book, she went into $100k+ of debt. pic.twitter.com/rtvHsbSkKh— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) January 14, 2019
Pulling out of the book deal left her around $100,000 in debt, although she later rejoiced through further Stories with the news that ‘Apparently Flatrion books are being absolute babes and not suing me for the $125,000 I owe them. They’re just asking nicely that I pay them back and will let me give them a date in the future when they can expect the money! I’m not going to court! #blessed”.’ She later told Man Repeller ‘When it became clear to my publishers that I didn’t want to write this book, they withdrew from the contract’, once again raising suspicion of Calloway’s chosen narrative. Did she pull out of her book deal because of an altruistic need or was it withdrawn because she didn’t do the work she was contracted hundreds of thousands of dollars to do? Calloway’s name is no longer listed on the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency’s website.
Later, Calloway began selling the book proposal on Etsy. The legality of this was always questionable, but Calloway decided to show the ‘real’ story behind the book through annotations and star stickers. The first seven chapters (no longer available on Etsy) sold for £4.86 each. What is most intriguing about the book proposal is how much of it she admits she didn’t write. A woman named Natalie is referenced frequently as having created scenarios, expanding on Calloway’s original plans and generally helping to craft a sellable proposal. It’s not a shock that she didn’t write all of her proposal or that a lot of it seems to have been made up or exaggerated to create a good story, but it does raise questions about her claims in Broadly that she was working hard to craft it herself. When a fan asked her why she was charging so much money for so few pages, Calloway responded thusly:
The creativity workshop is just one of many curious failed enterprises Calloway has tried to make money from. In a series of now-deleted Instagram posts, she declared she was now open to sponsored content. She originally said, ‘I’m charging $2,500 for an Instagram post and $500 for a mention in my story. My prices will only go up from here.’ She doubled her prices two days later and also announced she would charge $7,000 - $10,000 to ‘attend your event and post about it […] Unless your event is a fancy ball in Europe, in which case I’ll come for free!’ I have been unable to find any proof that anyone took her up of these offers.
A blast from the past (she deleted these posts) from when she tried to get "sponsored content".— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) January 14, 2019
$5k for an Instagram story. $7-10k for her to attend your event.
As far as I know, nobody took her up on these offers. pic.twitter.com/lFqRB9URWi
Later, she claimed she was preparing extensive amounts of sponsored content, which never materialized. At one point, she promised a Facebook show. Last year, she moved to St. Andrews in Scotland for several months and participated in freshers activities at the university. She was not enrolled as a student, nor had she applied to do so at the time, although she later did. You can also buy House of Calloway merchandise through the site Rowing Blazers, which sells $48 t-shirts with a Calloway House Cambridge crest designed to look like the houses of Cambridge University.
While all of this went on, Calloway strived to create her own brand of ‘authenticity’. She was ‘real’ for pulling out of a 6 figure book deal. She was true to herself for refuting a narrative she had created for herself for personal and financial gain, one that relied heavily on fetishistic notions of the British class system and academic elitism. She was a real artist for never actually making any art. This is the Instagram curse in many ways: The hunger to be an influencer without doing the work of real influencing.
But this call came to a climax with these workshops.
As previously mentioned, Calloway began planning this trip one month before it was supposed to start. This proved tricky for Eventbrite’s refund policy, which offers ‘refunds up to 30 days before event’. Tour dates were set based on polls Calloway held on Instagram Stories where both options were a variation of Yes. A full rundown of what the event promised would be covered can be found here. Topics to be covered included ‘Creativity — How to cultivate it, how to nurture it, and how to express it in a way that is true to who you are insdie’, ‘the basics of establishing style, crafting jokes, reading like a writer, and how to balance entertaining your audiencce with expressing yourself’, build a brand on Instagram by using my brand as a case study and explaining how I conceptualized, how I grew it, and why it works’, and ‘how to begin architecting a life that feels really full and genuine and rich and beautiful for you.’ All the spelling mistakes are hers.
Other treats to be included for the ticket price of $165 were ‘orchid crowns’, care packages (which was set to include handwritten letters from Calloway, mini gardens in mason jars, exclusively designed tote bags and crystals), and ‘OAT MILK’ (her emphasis - it would later be revealed that she had a sponsorship deal with Rude Health). Regarding the orchid crowns, which she described as a secret ‘I have kept hidden from the public all these years’ she said, ‘If you tell anyone [the secret], I will hunt you down after this Creativity Workshop and kill you.’
The event would last for four hours, the first hour of which Calloway would not be there because ‘Wouldn’t it be so great if you left this workshop with a new friend and small caffiene buzz […] Go make some new friends, kiddos!’ Lunch would be provided in the form of a salad Calloway promised to make everyone. The day would end with orchid crowns and photographs with Calloway. ‘Maybe it will also be sad and difficult and force you to examine some things inside yourself that you haven’t wanted to address and meeting new people makes everyone nervous. But no matter what you will GROW. And that is the greatest gift of all.’
Calloway started selling tickets for her nationwide tour, with locations in Boston, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Austin, Charlotte and DC, before she had booked venues. Any event manager will tell you that rule number one is to make sure you have a location confirmed before you start selling tickets to it. Calloway originally tried to get out of paying photographers and videographers to document her workshop by describing it as a ‘trade [of] my creative labor as a teacher for your creative labour as a photographer/videographer’. Said photographers wouldn’t even get the care package or orchid crowns because ‘omfg those supplies are EXPENSIVE.’ She eventually relented on this decision and agreed to fully compensate whoever she hired, a decision she declared as ‘part of being both a good human and a good business woman.’
Scammer update!— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) December 28, 2018
Scammer has almost sold out a majority of her $165 "creativity workshop" tickets but wants to hire two people to document it all unpaid. Oh, but it will be a trade of creative labour!
Burn this. Nobody accept this grift. Do not work for free. pic.twitter.com/JiYm2y4Kol
UPDATE: She's clearly been guilt tripped into, you know, paying people for their services. But she's "honestly a little overwhelmed" about how she's going to pay for it all. Should have thought of that before you started scamming! pic.twitter.com/QL2tpIyKsg— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) December 28, 2018
It didn’t take long for things to go awry from there. First, she ordered 1200 mason jars for the gift bags, which she then had delivered to her home instead of having them shipped to each location (probably because she didn’t have locations sorted out yet, despite still selling tickets for them). This caused her to lament how much everything was costing, since she didn’t seem to calculate how much this tour would cost before mounting it, then announced that ‘even though the tour tickets are $165 each they honestly should have been more expensive because the stuff I got you is really nice […] I am never doing an event for this cheap again.’
On the day of the first workshop in New York City, Calloway complained via Instagram Stories about how hard it was to cook salad for the people coming and suggested that future events would involve people bringing their own lunch. She then added, ‘If you are coming to this event for the salad and expecting a corporate level of event planning I will refund you […] I’m just one human being learning and trying her best and if you haven’t understood that by now WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN.’ Notice how the onus is on her fans for expecting the services and products she promised as part of a $165 event. A common theme of Calloway’s words is how the blame always lies with others and how ineptitude or outright scamming is simply part of her ‘authentic’ brand. This is also the excuse she uses for her endless spelling errors, despite describing herself as a writer and teacher.
While Calloway and many of her attendees claim the event went well, it is worth noting dissenting voices and the sheer number of promises broken. As one attendee noted on Reddit, ‘she made me laugh and I had a good time, but I didn’t exactly learn a ton that I couldn’t have found on the internet.’ When asked if this was something they’d do again or if it was worth $165, they answered no on both counts. The much-hyped orchid crowns never appeared, ‘Just a single flower to put in our hair that we didn’t keep.’ In lieu of the promised mini gardens, the mason jars were empty, bar a pack of seeds. One attendee told me that the homemade lunches were terrible, with over-salty dressing. At one point, Calloway offered ladles full of hummus to guests. Another guest DM-d me to note how ‘HIGHLY disappointed’ they were in the event: ‘No notes, no flower crowns, only about 1.5 hours (max) of actual “teaching” if you can even call it that. Icing on the cake? Her “staff” are 20 year old college girls w no event planning/logistics experience that are just huge fans of her.’
The logistics of her planned nationwide tour suddenly seemed entirely unfeasible, so Calloway claimed the Brooklyn location was so perfect that she wanted to offer Boston and Philly workshop attendees the chance to come to New York instead. As mentioned before, she did not give a No option. She then said, ‘OMFG GUYS I’M NOT GOING TO LIE I KIND OF AGREE WITH YOU. MAYBE I SHOULD JUST DO ALL OF THE DATES IN NEW YORK.’ Soon, fan accounts set up by some of those workshops began to plead with Calloway not to cancel.
No joke, her fans have to plead with her to fulfil the promise they're paying $165 for! pic.twitter.com/kxwXhkAYR7— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) January 13, 2019
That same day, she announced that, while her ‘staff’ her told her to ‘just listen to the polls and move all the dates to New York’, Calloway would only cancel 4 cities: Philly, Boston, Portland and Denver. Refunds would be offered and those four dates moved to New York. Calloway said ‘I will LOSE money on these events’. The aforementioned staff were hired the previous day and includes a tour manager, an events co-ordinator and a marketing director. The tour manager, Elizabeth Winn, is a self-described writer and fan of Calloway’s. The events co-ordinator, Whitney Winn, is another fan of Calloway’s. The marketing director, Karyn Wilson, started her Instagram account 3 days ago. I have not been able to find any evidence that any of these women are qualified for their titles, much less the job of co-ordinating a nationwide and international tour. However, they do seem to have quickly become convenient scapegoats for Calloway, as she was quick to position herself as the hero in opposition to their requests that she move every tour date to New York.
While several American tour dates were cancelled, Calloway was quick to reassure fans that European and London dates would be dropping soon. Further questions have yet to be answered regarding remaining tour dates. The Atlanta workshop, for example, is set for February 2nd, the weekend of the Super Bowl, and according to its Eventbrite page, it does not yet have a location. Will she locate a venue on the busiest weekend of the year in an already hectic city or will she cancel that date too?
Last night, Calloway announced that she was refunding people and that ‘I’M SO HAPPY I PUSHED MYSELF TO GET THAT DONE AT MY FIRST AVAILABLE MOMENT.’ Was it was a lot of hours of admin when I was very low energy.’ A copy of the email she sent out to fans who were refunded for cancelled events apologized, while declaring that she wished to create a ‘HIGH FUCKING QUALITY EVENT’ and that ‘Maybe we are meant to meet in the city I call home and the magical space we found […] only you and your heart really know.’ She later shared messages from supportive fans who knew the ‘true’ experience of her workshops and her authentic agenda. I have received multiple messages from fans awaiting their refunds. One fan admitted she was afraid to push back on getting a refund because she ”feel[s] like I’m walking on eggshells and have to kiss the ground she walks on or else she’ll block my ass and I’ll lose this money’. One fan who wrote an open letter to Calloway about their disappointment in her lack of organization and seeming exploitation of her fans got a refund and then was quickly blocked by Calloway.
Right after I submitted the first edit of this post, Calloway announced that she was cancelling the rest of the tour and refunding everyone.
That’s 3000 words there on Caroline Calloway. I’m sure a bunch of you have skipped to the end or didn’t feel like reading this all. Maybe you’re looking for your best TL;DR gif to use in the comments or a tactful way to inform me that you don’t f-cking care about this woman. I get that. I really do. But here’s the thing: A hell of a lot of people care about Caroline Calloway, to the point where they were willing to give her $165 to sit on the floor eating salad and playing with an empty mason jar. Despite every warning signal at play over the glaring errors and overall ineptitude of this workshop, which, may I remind everyone, she only began planning one month ago, there are so many people who remain loyal to her and ready to hand over the money.
This was funny, not gonna lie. This whole scam was very entertaining to me, but it’s also been wholly depressing to watch unfold. To see the absolute disdain with which Calloway treats her fans for wanting the bare minimum she promised them was not a pleasant sight. Watching Calloway spin broken promises, gaslighting, and a complete lack of concern for both her fans and her ‘business’ as a sign of her ‘authenticity’ revealed so much about the way we have made that word utterly meaningless.
No, Calloway is not the worst scammer on the internet. Plenty of people have been quick to tell me they don’t think she’s a real scammer, just an incompetent dolt who got in way over her head. But I’m not sure that option is much better. All the warning signs were there and she powered through because there was money to be made. She harnessed that fan devotion for profit based on skills she did not possess and services she could not provide, and anyone who dissented from that loyalty was ‘inauthentic’.
The so-called influencer economy is built by women like Calloway, those in the upper echelons of societal and financial privilege who create unfeasible fantasies of capitalism under the guise of being ‘real’, all to shill it to the highest bidder. She may not be selling tea that makes you sh-t yourself or obsessing over avocados, but the intent is the same. Being incompetent is not charming. Scamming people out of hundreds of dollars for the chance to be ‘real’ with an influencer is not good business. Other people’s work and emotions are not yours to appropriate as part of a brand.
Caroline Calloway is merely the sloppiest and most obviously incompetent version of the influencer economy run amok. She has had every opportunity handed to her, including a book deal that would be life-changing for most, but she had no intention of following through. The workshop tour merely exposes how unprepared and unwilling to learn she is for such experiences. Calloway’s main problem is that she doesn’t want to be an artist or a storyteller or a writer: she wants to have made art, to have told stories, to have been a writer, to have taught, and so on. But that requires work, research, planning, sacrifice, and an acute understanding that not everything you do will be successful or worthy of celebration. She has nothing to offer but is selling everything.
I’m sorry for the people who got scammed out of money from this and I’m sad that it took Calloway this long to realize how much she under-estimated the situation. I hope the people who like Calloway’s work feel okay continuing to do so. I’m not here to hate on anyone for their hobbies. I get why Calloway would seem so appealing to many. Her brand is well constructed on the surface and plays into many easily marketable ideas of art, femininity, romance, and the fantastical versions of New York and Cambridge perpetuated by decades of pop culture before her. She may go on to do great things, but for now, her promises and her business are as empty as those mason jars.
Header Image Source: Instagram