The Lonely Scammer
The pool party at the end of the world
The Sunset Strip is one of those Los Angeles neighborhoods that no one from Los Angeles actually goes to. It’s embarrassing, overpriced, preserved in the amber of the mid-2000s, all giddy consumption and dead-eyed sex appeal. It’s where the girls stay in the L.A. episode of Sex and the City, and where the boys cruise in the opening credits of Entourage. There’s the Coffee Bean where Perez Hilton once regularly camped out to draw cum stains on struggling women; and the Hustler store; and a jarring number of 60-year-old men with ponytails and fake British accents who won’t date above 25. The Sunset Strip is the perfect place for an 8-bedroom, 9-bathroom, 28-million-dollar party house, which is, in turn, the perfect place for a sponsored influencer wellness retreat.
I’m a creator who shows face on main, which makes me influencer-adjacent, I guess. This means I get misguided PR emails. These emails mostly focus on beauty and wellness from my days as a freelance beauty writer, raising my awareness of oil-minimizing toners and multi-tasking eyeliners and a perineal massage moisturizer from a company called Rosebud Woman, whose marketing team seems blissfully unaware that “rosebud” is already a genital thing, and that thing is “prolapsed asshole.”
Briefly, a little insider baseball: The difference between PR emails and normal promotions is that PR reps can’t ask anything of you in exchange for product. No cash, no story shoutouts, no content. That would be advertising, which requires contracts and regulations and compulsory hashtags. PR reps can hope and suggest and circle back about whether you’ll post or write about their product, but ultimately, it’s free stuff, no strings attached. It’s an unhinged gift economy. The emails keep coming. A skincare company invites me to a Pride event honoring “the dermatology community,” with a performance by Adam Lambert. A “face gym” offers a complimentary workout, cheerfully promising that “trainers will use their signature massage techniques like knuckling, pinching, and whipping strokes to stimulate blood circulation and collagen, boost the lymphatic system and increase cell renewal.” A courier delivers a three-course lunch and serum set to my apartment, to celebrate the launch of a new botanical skincare company. The pink gift bag is filled with rose petals. I forget about them, absorbed in my complimentary avocado toast, until they curl in on themselves and fill my kitchen with a powdery rotting smell.
As audiences have become more attuned to—and wary of— advertising, influencing has become a trap door for marketing companies. It’s a way to cash in on our collective taste for relatability over aspiration. Forbes—of course Forbes only loads if you disable your ad blocker, fuckers—claims that over 40% of consumers have purchased a product because they saw an influencer using it on social media. The influencer’s appeal, the article claims, is rooted in the performance of approachability, the artificial sweet spot between celebrity and friend. Ironically, the more popular an influencer gets, the less likeable they seem. If they want to reach consumers, they need to increase their performance of friendship. As Forbes puts it, “In short, a person's eminence and affluence are in conflict with their reliability and conviction when marketing a product.”
The influencer, it turns out, is both older and more innately scammy than I imagined. According to podcast American Hysteria’s excellent episode on the history of influencer culture, WWI propagandist-turned-marketing-consultant Edward Bernays orchestrated the first Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial when he hired smoking suffragettes to march in New York City’s 1929 Easter Day Parade. At the time, smoking in public was taboo for women, if not downright unlawful; these women marched with their cigarettes, rebranded as “freedom torches,” as a feminist act. Product was conflated with identity, protest with marketing ploy. Nowhere was it advertised that the march was sponsored by a tobacco company. Even in the ‘20s, Bernays understood the value of authenticity. He was careful to cast women who “should be good looking, [but] should not look too model-y.” In the words of that Forbes article: “To be able to influence someone is to be able to create a circle of trust that someone can have faith in.” The march was a success. The number of women smokers skyrocketed.
It feels complicated to exclusively blame influencers. It’s low-hanging fruit, and also, it would be hypocritical not to note that I’ve done sponcon for small business sex toys (lol) and worked on brands’ social media teams. (I also once expertly executed a mattress grift, but that’s another essay.) It’s a bummer that capitalism is throttling us towards the heat death of the planet, and also, in this present moment, people need money to survive. It all feels like one big scam ouroboros, being a creative worker, or any worker, in the world: As a young employee, I’ve had bosses imply that I should feel lucky to be sexually harassed by someone important; accustomed to having my work passed off as their own; grateful for 60% of a living wage. As a girl, I’ve been scammed into feeling ugly so I buy useless shit, scammed into feeling stupid so I listen to useless men tell my own jokes back to me. There’s a righting of the scales in a tiny scam: Quiet justice in a world of MLMs and health insurance premiums and the Los Angeles parking bureau, which contracted Xerox to manage violations as a sort of backwards bailout after the 2008 financial crisis so that your ticket fee goes to some obsolete private photocopy corporation instead of to city services. (A court ruled in 2016 that Xerox can’t determine ticket appeals, as they have an explicit interest in processing as many tickets as possible, but they still issue your tickets and take your money. In my opinion as a laissez-faire parker, this is a citywide scam of Chinatown proportions.) So anyway. When I got an email from an upscale sportswear company, promising a free outfit and spa day at the brand’s wellness house, of course I said yes. I wanted to scam back.
The invitation instructed me to wear only branded clothing to the event; I could pick something out from the flagship store in an outdoor mall in Mid-City. The mall was overstimulating, the store’s second-floor gifting suite inexplicably but delightfully overrun by influencers’ off-leash purse dogs. Stained and wrinkled clothes splayed across the dressing room floor. The PR girls smiled grimly through it, sifting through cardboard boxes of leggings in plastic envelopes. I tried on a series of humiliating $70 mesh yoga shorts and opted for turquoise leggings and a matching sports bra. My PR girl stuffed my street clothes into a branded tie-dye tote, along with a hat, scrunchie, and socks. I bought a Sprinkles cupcake on my way to the car and ate it sitting in traffic, running my fingers over the tiny embroidered logo on the scrunchie.
The party house was halfway up a winding road of mansions hidden behind two-story hedges. There was a long driveway with a valet stand and two podiums, marked “Air” and “Earth,” a PR girl behind each. I gave my name at Earth and was told to check in at Air. I walked six steps to Air, said my name again, and was instructed to go to Sea, somewhere beyond the driveway.
The house was actually two buildings, all concrete and glass, a ~minimalist~ contracting budget posing as cocaine chic. Between them was a courtyard with a stage where six-foot-tall letters spelled out the brand name. There was also a coffee cart, and a white Jeep parked drunkenly across some grass. Women climbed on the Jeep in their sportswear, writhing, posing for photographs. Beyond them I found the Sea podium, where I checked in for my treatment and a PR girl pointed to the back building.
The treatment turned out to be a 15-minute chair massage. My masseuse was soft-spoken, worried about applying too much pressure. I hadn’t been touched by a stranger in twenty months.
The wellness community has a habit of blurring at the edges, bleeding into far-right conspiracy cults. You can find chaga and colloidal silver in the shops of both Goop and Infowars, conflate intuition with paranoia. The pandemic drew even more spiritualists to QAnon, pulling from a grab-bag of government mistrust, some valid, some totally batshit. Behind it all, it seems, is the groundskeeper under every ghost mask: capitalism, once again, repackaging the same shit, promising it’s just for you. All cults are cults of personality—and how is that different from influencing? After the massage, I let the masseuse press various products into my palms, promising I’d promote them, warm from her hands on me, grateful.
I walked back to the coffee cart and got a turmeric almond milk latte, no agave. I meandered to the front house, to the gifting suite, hoping to scam a free yoga mat or more socks before driving home. A woman with an undercut and an earpiece stopped me. I couldn’t go in this way, she said. I was supposed to be at the pool party.
On the other side of the building, sixty hot people had somehow known to bring bathing suits. They lounged in the grassy yard, kicked their legs in the sleek, narrow pool. At the pool’s edge, a woman floated on Nike Air roller skates. A man in a taupe Speedo twirled, arms raised, before swan diving into a perfect downward dog. A DJ played the sort of benignly clubby beat you hear in car commercials. Everywhere, everyone was performing effortless beauty into the void, posing for real and potential photo opps. There were strategically placed mirrors with lines of people waiting to angle their bodies in front of them, phones raised. There were friends, selfie sticks, and hired event photographers wearing all black and wielding DSLRs. You could be photographed at any time. Guests paused mid-walk to perform headstands. They cheated out while they talked, like actors on a stage. They listlessly played ping pong on a branded table, pausing when they raised their branded paddles, smiling hopefully over their shoulders.
Maybe the bathing suits were in the gifting suite. I tried to get in from the pool entrance, and another PR girl told me the suite was “on pause.” I should stay for the sound bath.
At a tent labeled the Mindful Masters Lounge, I signed up for an “intuitive reading,” which, cosmically, was at 4:20pm. At the pool bar I received a gin cocktail featuring an alkalizing mushroom powder that tasted like mud, and a chickpea quinoa salad bowl catered by Erewhon. I watched a team of PR girls greet a recent Bachelor contestant and her on-again-off-again fan favorite boyfriend. They were beautiful in real life, beaming for photos by the branded photo backdrop.
I sat alone in a patio chair and watched influencers pass by. In life, as online, everyone seemed sunny, flat, puppy-fun. Did I? “I was going to do the sound bath, but I don’t think I’m in the right mental space to do so right now,” an incredibly ripped man told his friends. I watched the gift suite gatekeeper deny entry to another group of guests. I ate my salad, which was full of bitter greens.
A few photographers huddled around the gifting suite entrance, among them a familiar face—a friend, or at least a mutual. We’d never actually interacted in person. Online, though, we’d spent at least a year as characters in the L.A. Creative Cinematic Universe, exchanging story replies and eye contact across the Salazar patio, softly influencing each other, slouching towards human connection. I dm’d him, “are you at an incredibly chaotic yoga influencer event rn?” and he responded, “LOL.”
I didn’t expect anyone to know me. I hadn’t taken a single picture, both as rebellion against the sportswear company and because I didn’t want anyone to see me here. It was unbearable, thinking of being witnessed like this, lilting my voice and asking about the brand’s new magnesium spray, rolling on my spandex and driving an hour for a 15-minute massage. My friend found me on the patio and I instinctively crossed my arms, trying to cover the noisy teal yoga outfit, the lengths I went for this grift. “How are you?” he said. “
Humiliated,” I said.
My friend had been working the VIP lounge—apparently I’d been with the plebe influencers the whole time. He told me they’d made him change his clothes so as not to stand out, and to crop out anyone who wasn’t wearing the brand head-to-toe. This was a three-day event, apparently, orchestrated to get the brand a few months’ worth of content. Yesterday a teen had gotten wasted on mushroom cocktails and yelled “I am awakened!” during group meditation.
My friend also told me that all nine bathrooms inside the party house were completely backed up with shit. That’s why the gifting suite was closed. The entire house smelled like shit, it was coming up through the shower drains. I asked if he was fucking with me, and he wasn’t, and we stood in silence for a minute, looking up at the uncaring glass exterior of the second floor, the wavy reflection of the pool party.
A man approached us—a senior photographer, worried my friend was bothering me. We explained that we knew each other, and the photographer looked me up and down skeptically. “Are you an influencer?” he asked. I shrugged.
My friend was called back to work and I walked around the pool, alone. I watched a woman evade the fridge steward, absconding with two fistfuls of Larabars. I returned to the Mindful Masters Lounge to find that the Bachelor alums had taken my intuitive reading slot. I sprayed myself in the face with sunscreen just to feel something.
A woman with a headset—there were so many women—announced that the sound bath was about to begin. Guests drifted to the DJ booth, which had been set with crystal singing bowls, and lay flat on the floor in neat lines in their matching yoga sets. The woman with the headset was our healer. The vibe was cheugy Heaven’s Gate. The healer announced her Instagram handle in her intro, told everyone to breathe.
In some ways, influencing is the ultimate individualism: An industry of one. Relationships weighed in terms of cost and benefit. “Imagine you’re a star amongst the cosmos,” the sound bath healer said.
A thing about scamming: Maybe you get away with it because you’re clever, or maybe you get away with it because no one cares. Because you don’t matter. There’s an aching, godless loneliness in that, I thought, watching two women in the pool bicker over whose timing was off in their TikTok dance. I stepped up to an available mirror, and took a selfie.
I walked out of the pool party and into the courtyard. I couldn’t get to the valet: A black trailer of porta potties blocked my path, backing slowly into the narrow driveway. A security guard waved me out of the way, onto the stage, where I stood elevated in the shadow of the giant letters and watched PR girls guide the toilet truck, fanning their hands.
It was getting cold. A few drunk guests heckled the PR girls. They were anxious about the photo opps, the aura readings, the yoga mats. When would the bathrooms be open? And the gifting suite?
“Soon,” the girls soothed them, “You’ll get yours soon.”
ok having read all of these in a compressed period I love that there's this over arching narrative forming that's just you driving around LA play it as it lays style...maybe that's just me glamorizing LA...!!