“I said I didn’t plan this because I’m dumb, but that’s not true. I didn’t plan well because I didn’t know,” Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway told BuzzFeed News.
Last Saturday, 50 young women gathered in a Brooklyn loft to attend a creativity workshop held by Caroline Calloway, an Instagram influencer. They were fans of Calloway’s prolific and intimate Instagramming and paid $165 to spend four hours with their idol, which came with a free salad, notebook, and stickers. But after Calloway hosted two events and reneged on several promises she made to fans, observers are accusing her of scamming her followers. Calloway told BuzzFeed News it was just lack of foresight.
On Monday, Calloway canceled her international tour in response to the online scrutiny and she refunded tickets. “I wanted to create an experience that would be my perfect weekend day, with cozy acoustic music and a plant-filled space,” Calloway told BuzzFeed News. “If I had known how hard it was, I never would’ve tried,” she said.
But most of the women who actually paid for the event told BuzzFeed News they didn’t feel scammed. “I felt she gave us way too much already. I knew it was too good to be true; she was promising way too much. I feel bad taking back the money. I actually want to give it back,” Isabella Gomez, who went to the New York event, told BuzzFeed News. “I also did not feel like she needed to refund me,” said Caroline Estes, who attended in Washington, DC. “In fact I messaged her on several platforms telling her that I wanted her to keep my money because the workshop was everything I, personally, had hoped for.”
Calloway, who is now 27, came to fame on Instagram in 2014 for posting long captions about her life as an American student attending Cambridge University in the UK and her life with her boyfriend at the time. Based on her Instagram popularity (currently 829,000 followers), she secured a $500,000 book deal in 2015 to write a memoir. But almost two years later, she hadn’t turned in a draft and asked to get out of her contract, and she had to pay back the advance. She now posts prolific Stories — dozens per day, with long blocks of text, documenting her life in New York City where she has no day job. She doesn’t do any sponsored posts or make money from her Instagram; she says she sublets out her Manhattan apartment to pay the bills.
In December 2018, Calloway announced a plan to host a workshop on creativity in New York City that fans could pay to attend. When people responded enthusiastically, she decided to make it a multicity tour where she would replicate the experience of something she often posts on her Instagram: sharing “super soul salads” with a friend on her floor.
The planned tour, whose $165 tickets she sold through Eventbrite, had a rocky start. She hadn’t booked venues or planned logistics for how to provide the food (salads, coffee, tea, oat milk — things her fans knew she loved). She promised handmade care packages for each attendee that would include a mason jar with a packet of wildflower seeds, a notebook, and a personal letter in response to an email that attendees could opt to send her. When she ordered 1,200 mason jars, she says she was unprepared for how huge that shipment actually would be.
Days before the first event in New York City, she told fans that she wouldn’t write the personal letters as promised — she estimated it took her one hour to write each letter, and she didn’t have time to write them all before the event. Instead, she offered to make time to talk to each attendee at the end of the event while they took pictures in a photo booth together. This part was a big disappointment to several of the people attending, who had written heartfelt, personal emails expecting a response. She had said she’d respond to the emails with an emoji so that people knew she had read it, but at least three people told BuzzFeed News they didn’t even receive the emoji reply.
“I didn’t realize I’d need a staff because I’m so dumb,” Calloway told BuzzFeed News with a laugh. “When I do it for just one friend, I make the salads,” she explained. For the event in Washington, DC, her mother, who lives nearby, made the salads after Calloway realized how unpleasant it was to sauté vegetables for 50 people in New York.
“I said I didn’t plan this because I’m dumb, but that’s not true,” she corrected herself. “I didn’t plan well because I didn’t know. I would be dumb if I did it again like this.”
She had planned events in Boston and Philadelphia, but after booking an event space in Brooklyn for the New York event, she posted a poll to Instagram asking if the Boston and Philly fans would be OK with coming to the Brooklyn space instead. However, the poll didn’t offer any negative answers; alternatively, voters had options like “This is our space!” or “FUCK yes.” She then touted the overwhelming results that attendees said they wanted to meet at the Brooklyn space.
Calloway had planned to do Denver and Portland events, and even more across the US and in the UK. But as the day of the first event came to a close, she started canceling some of those extra cities.
Calloway’s Instagrams posted from the New York event showed a full room of seemingly all young, white women. The first hour was a coffee hour where Calloway wasn’t present. “One of the most important things I could offer would be to bring everyone together for each other,” she told BuzzFeed News, “because making friends as an adult is hard.” After that, she greeted each attendee, passed out the journals inscribed with a special affirmation to each person, and gave a lecture about creativity. “I tried to give them really tangible skills, like setting aside time and scheduling, and being scrappy about it. You don’t have to wait to be in a white cube gallery to write a great novel. Like, I make a lot of my Instagram content while I’m on the elliptical.”
After a break for lunch where she passed out the homemade salads, Calloway gave a talk about authenticity and making mistakes, and talked about the book she had to give back the advance for. Then she discussed heartbreak. She did not take audience questions during either meeting. Calloway had originally advertised that attendees would each receive a flower crown, to learn “the secret to flower crowns.” However, she decided to use the flower money to pay for professional photographers instead (after initially asking for volunteers to do free photography, she faced fans’ blowback and agreed that paying them was the right thing to do). Instead of giving everyone a flower crown as a favor, she clipped a few flowers into their hair as they posed for a photo, then reused them for the next guest. Andrea Park, who wrote about attending the event half-ironically for W magazine, said that when Calloway clipped the flower to Park’s hair, she whispered, “The secret to flower crowns is there is no secret.”
Journalist Kayleigh Donaldson has been tweeting screenshots of Calloway’s event planning since December, and last weekend her tweets went viral — even Seth Rogen retweeted her thread. “I heard Seth Rogen tweeted something about it, and can I just say, I’m the biggest comedy nerd. Seth Rogen, I am such a fan, I hope someday we can laugh about how you called me a scammer,” Calloway told BuzzFeed News.
Abigail Scott, a fan who had tickets to an upcoming San Francisco event, changed her mind after seeing Donaldson’s tweets. “It was a very surreal feeling seeing the original Twitter thread and realizing all at once just how misled I’d been,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I wasn’t sad after that, just equal parts embarrassed and angry at her for spending the next 24 hours continuing to mislead others and claim the workshops were a glowing success.”
After Donaldson’s tweets went viral, Calloway canceled the rest of her events. According to Eventbrite, all ticket holders for future events have been refunded. Calloway has emailed all attendees of the two past events and offered them refunds. “We don’t believe she was trying to be a fraudster or a bad actor — sometimes things just don’t go as planned,” said Amanda Livingood, a spokesperson for Eventbrite.
While some people on the internet are calling Calloway a scammer, the actual attendees didn’t seem too bothered. One attendee posted to a subreddit devoted to blogger drama: “I just wanted to go hear her workshop for a few hours and hear what she had to say. I justified it as being about the amount I’d spend on a concert for someone I really loved,” she wrote. “I don’t think anyone didn’t have fun.”
A Calloway superfan who also acted as tour manager forwarded BuzzFeed screenshots of messages sent by attendees saying how much they enjoyed the event, and even people who said they didn’t want a refund. “It was SO WORTH IT! I would have paid MORE!” one attendee messaged Calloway over Instagram.
Many attendees weren’t surprised about the ever-changing details or the lack of planning, since they had been following along through her Stories, and had low expectations.
“I knew it was unplanned, and honestly never expected her to fulfill most of the bizarre promises she kept adding,” a woman who requested not to use her name told BuzzFeed News. She had mixed feelings about the event, however. “Caroline is a human who has genuine heart, overwhelming empathy, a preoccupation with wealth, and a shallow conception of what it means to be authentic — that anyone can clearly see,” she said.
Calloway is sending individual apology emails to everyone who attended. “I take full responsibility with what I did wrong and am humbled by the criticism of me,” she said. But she maintained that the two events were a success. “I know how meaningful the event was because I was there. My fans know how meaningful it was. It would be insane not to learn from this criticism, just like it would be insane for people who don’t follow my account and weren’t at the event decide the rest of my life. And for what it’s worth, I wish all those people who criticized me the best. Being a human is hard. I wish no ill will to them.”
Calloway maintains she never meant to scam, she just planned poorly. And still, she said, “I’m glad I tried. And I learned a lot.” She told BuzzFeed News she would like to try to host events again in the future — with better planning.
Originally published at Buzzfeed