For any victim of a scam, the most brutal part is this thought: it could only work because in some way or other, you were asking for it. You had to invite the vampire over the threshold before they could suck you dry. The successful con artist is a true artist, with an instinctive grasp of character that makes the average fiction writer look like an unsophisticated child.
The con artist knows all your petty, humiliating wants. Your thirst for unearned wealth. Your hunger for approval. Your terrible pride, which means that, even when your bank account is empty and your hopes are broken, you’ll still swear loyalty to the person who scammed you rather than admit your weakness to the world.
The extraordinary shame associated with being scammed is one reason why these are hard crimes to prosecute: who would stand up in court and swear that they were stupid enough to believe implausible claims, greedy enough to think they might come out on top in a too-good-to-be-true offer?
Luckily, the internet is a place where shame does not exist, which means that last week drama hounds got to enjoy the climactic instalment in the very public dissolution of a grift, when New York magazine published a 6,000-word essay (six thousand! And I read them all, twice!) about disgraced Instagrammer Caroline Calloway by her former friend/one-time mark, Natalie Beach. How did Beach end up in Calloway’s thrall? Because she wanted to be Calloway and she wanted Calloway to be her ticket to a better version of herself. When they met – in a creative non-fiction class, of course – Calloway seemed to Beach “like an adult, someone who had just gone ahead and constructed a life of independence. I, meanwhile, was a virgin with a meek ponytail.”
Beach compared her own dismaying sex life with Calloway’s romantic adventures: “If I were more like Caroline, I thought, more beautiful and fun, if I radiated girlishness, then men would view me as someone worthy of care.” But she also recognised Calloway as “someone to write about, and that was what I wanted most of all”.
And so the two become collaborators in the project of a lifetime: creating Caroline Calloway. Their medium was Instagram, on which Calloway claimed to have become recently famous thanks to a picture of some macarons, which acquired her 50,000 followers. Calloway supplied the life and Beach supplied the captions, which presented a fairytale vision of a free-spirited life. They confected a high-minded defence of their work as art, telling themselves that they were inventing “memoir in real time” and engaged in “true feminist storytelling”. What they were actually doing was a kind of identity pyramid scheme, cultivating a public version of the Caroline that Beach fell for and inviting other young women to buy the dream of being her.
It worked. There was a six-figure book deal. There was a “creativity workshop” tour, where for $165, attendees were promised they would learn “how to begin architecting a life that feels really full and genuine and rich and beautiful for you”, along with an orchid crown and a mini garden in a Mason jar. Then it fell apart. Calloway couldn’t deal with working on the manuscript and ended up owing $100,000 to her publisher. The tour was a disaster: instead of crowns, there were single flowers and Calloway ended up with 1,200 Mason jars in her flat. Most dates were cancelled. No one “architected” a really full and genuine and rich and beautiful life.
Everything turned out to be empty. In one emotional scene in Beach’s essay, Calloway revealed that the influx of followers who established her profile were not authentic macaron fans, but purchased. The farrago of the creativity workshops cemented Calloway’s reputation as a scammer, something that, with typical savvy, she has leaned into, putting it into her Instagram bio and her hashtags.
Calloway has been compared to Anna Sorokin, the fake heiress who was convicted this year of appropriating $275,000 to fund her social-media friendly lifestyle. But Calloway has refunded ticket holders (admittedly not in a very orderly fashion) rather than just taking the money and running and committed to repaying her advance.
What Calloway extracted was devotion. While Sorokin put plane tickets on her friends’ credit cards, Calloway sprung for the flights when she and Beach got caught in Europe. In fact, she seemed shockingly conscious that money gives her an advantage over Beach, at one point lumping an unpleasant task on her with the words: “You’re the only one of my friends who needs the money badly enough to take the job.” But Beach hung on in there, because even scammed love is real love. Women who ponied up for the creativity workshops reported being anxious about pushing too hard for their money back, in case Calloway blocked them – she’d let them down, but they still longed to touch the hem of her garments.
The Beach-Calloway relationship comes off as a kind of manic pixie folie à deux, which even though they’ve fallen out is still being conducted via articles and captions. Beach created Calloway so she could create herself as a writer (6,000 words in New York Magazine!), and Calloway ingeniously fulfilled that role. The art of the grift is an old one, but where notoriety would kill a traditional scam, in an attention economy it’s exactly the point. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making sure everyone knows that she exists.
• Sarah Ditum is a writer on politics and culture