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Louise O'Neill: 'Be an influencer? I couldn't think of a job I'd dislike more'

In her sixth novel, the West Cork writer brings us the story of wellness guru and influencer Samantha Miller, whose perfectly curated life is shattered by a friend’s allegation.

THE BIRTH OF social media was the birth of a new way of communicating online; a new way of performing our lives for others; and a new way of connecting with strangers.

If you’ve spent any time at all on the most popular sites – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok – you’ll be familiar with the infinite scroll, the reams of tweets and thoughts, the deluge of photos and reels. You can spend your lunch break catching up on an influencer’s recent ‘haul’ of beauty products, or lose twenty minutes reading travel tips from a former blogger-turned-guru.

The companies behind these sites hold immense power. And there’s power, too, in the hands of the influencers who have harnessed social media to gather around them followers who seek their recommendations on everything from fashion to sex.

But what happens when an influencer starts to construct their own version of their ‘truth’, one that jars with what everyone else around them remembers?

Villains and heroes

That’s the premise of the sixth novel from 37-year-old West Cork writer Louise O’Neill, called Idol. Idol is the story of a woman named Samantha Miller, a Connecticut-born, New York-based wellness guru and online influencer. Her self-made origin story is filled with enough troubles and triumphs to make her seem both a down-to-earth person and an experienced guide in how to return from the depths of depression and addiction.

Miller has made millions from cultivating the attention of her ‘girls’, followers who will spend hundreds of dollars on the products from her company Shakti, tickets to her live events where she pumps them up and promises them spiritual relief, and who depend on her to help guide their lives. 

But when Miller writes a story about a sexual experience she had as a teenager with her best friend, Lisa, her vision of her world is exploded by Lisa’s claim that she did not consent to what happened between them. The twisty, well-plotted novel sees O’Neill take a counterpoint view to the typical online attitude that says people are either villains or heroes – Sam Miller is to some a villain, some a hero, and in truth is somewhere in between. 

The book was inspired by O’Neill thinking about the nature of memory, and how malleable it is. It was initially sparked by reading a collection of essays by the writer-director Lena Dunham. There was a passage in the book where she talks about, as a child, looking at her sibling’s vagina. “Afterwards, the reaction, particularly online, was incredibly divisive,” recalls O’Neill. “I think 50% of people who read it said this is child abuse, and she should be prosecuted. And 50% of the people reading it said, no, this is just experimentation.”

Both sides were vehement that their interpretation was the correct one. “I was really struck by that, because God – isn’t that fascinating, the way people can read the same words on a page, and read it through the prism of their own experience, or the prism of their own ideas and ideologies, and interpret it in such vastly different ways?” she says.

(She’d even found that in her own life memories aren’t always what they seem. When she recently recalled her first memory to her mother, telling her about the morning of her third birthday at the family home above a butcher’s shop, her mother informed her that they weren’t even living there at the time.)

A few years after the Dunham controversy came talk about a “post truth world”, alternative facts, and the rise of therapy speak, where people talked about their “truth”.

Then, during the pandemic, O’Neill noticed that some of the wellness and New Age spiritualities groups she was drawn to online were starting to espouse some dodgy opinions, even skewing in a way that was right wing. She read about the term “conspirituality”, where conspiracy theories and spirituality intersected. That made her think about the sort of gurus who thrive in those spaces, and what they promise their fans. 

Leaving social media

O’Neill has an interesting history with social media. Once a regular user of Twitter, she left it in 2018 to benefit her mental health, and handed the ‘keys’ to her partner (Virgin Media reporter Richard Chambers). She uses Instagram, and because it’s a visual medium finds it easier to switch off from it.

She found the site to be quite toxic, she says. But she doesn’t want to be too binary about it. “It’s very simplistic to say ‘it’s only a force for evil’, because I think that it has also been an incredible vehicle for social justice,” she says, mentioning both the Black Lives Matter and Me Too social justice movements, which found footholds on Twitter from which they could spread globally.  

“I just felt very exhausted with the discourse,” she says. She also felt that there could be pressure to have an opinion or ‘take’ on everything – without the time to stop and think about the topic at hand.

“We’re all expected to be instant experts on something. And so I found that really exhausting. 

“I think we have to be aware of people’s limitations … we’ve seen this over the last number of years when anything happens, like Ukraine or the Ashling Murphy case, you’ll see this expectation for influencers to come out and say something.”

When influencers don’t come out immediately to decry a situation or promote something, they can be criticised for being ignorant. “You don’t know what they’re doing; you don’t know what charities they’re donating to in their personal time,” points out O’Neill. 

She mentions the case of Molly-Mae Hague, who was heavily criticised in January for comments she made about wealth and privilege (her point that everyone has the same 24 hours a day was deemed to be tone deaf). “She seems like an incredible businesswoman and she seems like a lovely woman. I don’t know her, but she’s not someone that I would go to for incisive commentary on the class issue in Britain, and so it’s expecting this from these people seems… that’s ridiculous,” says O’Neill. 

Some would have said that there was an attempt to ‘cancel’ Hague over her comments, though if she was it didn’t last long. “I’m so tired of people talking about the term cancel culture,” says O’Neill. “Because I often think: are people actually getting cancelled?”

Often when we talk about cancel culture, people are talking about people who are very wealthy and in positions of power who’ve had to face consequences for their behaviour. And then actually, people who seem to face any sort of real repercussions tend to be people from maybe more marginalised communities. I think the way in which we talk about that can feel a bit reductive.

That said, she understands that people might be on a learning journey about where they might be avoiding interrogating their own privilege, or interrogating the baked-in thoughts they have about certain communities or cohorts – or even themselves. “None of us exist in a vacuum. We’ve been brought up in this society and a lot of these kind of things are internalised from a very young age.”

No one wants to be called out publicly for internalised misogyny or racism. “I have sympathy for people who feel that they have been, I suppose, the subject of a pile on,” says O’Neill (this is where people reply to or tag someone on social media in a critical way en masse). But the lack of empathy and forgiveness on social media rankles. “I often think if people are willing, though, to learn, if people are willing to say ‘I made a mistake’, and take some time to reflect on that, I think that does help.” 

Idol explores when the opposite happens: when people dig in their heels and refuse to accept that they’ve made a mistake, and get defensive. Samantha Miller does this and then some, refusing to believe that her friend’s version of events could be in any way correct.  

Miller believes she is a good person. “When anything comes along that might contradict that or threatens to contradict that, it feels as if it’s destabilising her entire sense of self,” says O’Neill. When Lisa depicts her as an abuser, “she needs to go to any lengths to make that not be true, because what does it mean for her if it is true?”

I think we all sort of have [the belief], ‘this is who I am as a person’. And if someone tries to destabilise that, it can actually feel dangerous. It can feel incredibly threatening.

Idol looks at how a powerful person like Miller can have a very symbiotic relationship with their followers. It makes readers reflect on their own relationships with social media, even if they are miles away from the sort of popularity the fictional Miller has.

We’re forced to ask: to what extent do we rely on likes and follows to buoy us, and to tell us we’re OK as we are? 

Consent and sexuality

90380666 File photo of Louise O'Neill after she won the Children's Books Ireland Eilis Dillon Award for a First Children's Book for Only Ever Yours, with Suzanne Kennedy and Katie Mac Redmond from Loreto, Beaufort, Rathfarnham. Source: graphy: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Throughout her career, O’Neill has dealt with the issues of consent, sexual assault and disordered eating in her work. Sometimes it’s overt, like in her breakthrough novel Asking For It, about the sexual assault of a young woman, and other times it’s woven into the work, like in Idol.

She says she’s always looking at new ways of approaching these topics, which is why in this novel the protagonist is the person accused of doing something wrong. “If I had written this book from Lisa’s perspective, in a way that felt like it might be something that I’ve done already,” she explains.

Is there a certain level of responsibility when you’re writing about issues like this? “You have to approach them with a sense of responsibility, but also: I am a storyteller. So the most important thing for me with Idol is it’s a page-turner, it’s a thriller and that it feels incredibly compelling. That’s almost the first priority,” she says. The close second to that is writing honestly, ”just to be as truthful as possible with it”.

“You want to be responsible and you want to write about it in a way that’s ‘do no harm’.”

She’s often asked what she wants the reader to take away from her work. ”I think this is probably the first book that I’ve written, that I’m like: that’s not up to me.” She describes the book as somewhat of a Rorschach test.

I tried to make the book as nuanced as possible and really be truthful to the fact that this is very complicated and very complex territory. And then how people interpret that is really sort of up to them.

Idol is set in the US, a handy choice for if a TV or film adaptation is made: O’Neill’s dream would be a four-part series starting Reese Witherspoon. There are talks, as with her other books, about optioning it for the screen.

It’s set in the US because when Miller as a character appeared to O’Neill, she was American. It also makes sense as Ireland doesn’t have influencers at the same level of success as Miller is at. “When Samantha Miller came to me, the voice was so strong. And it was almost overwhelming,” says O’Neill. 

“It never occurred to me that she would be anything other than American.”

Miller is earnest in a way that perhaps isn’t quite so natural to the Irish psyche. “An Irish person, I think, would take the piss out of themselves a little bit more,” says O’Neill. 

O’Neill spent some time living in New York, which feeds into her writing of Idol. She got an American friend to read over it and spot any errors (there were only two things she highlighted, one of which was that bedside lockers are called nightstands in the US). The small town background that some of O’Neill’s protagonists tend to have, influenced by her own upbringing in West Cork, is also present. 

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She might have just kicked off the publicity trail for Idol, but she’s already 45,000 words into a new book. She took to heart the advice author David Mitchell (who wrote Cloud Atlas) gave her, to always be working on something. “It will matter less how the book ‘performs’ if you’re already emotionally and creatively invested in a new project,” explains O’Neill.

She recently spent some time working as the writer-in-resident at Maynooth University, where she learned more about the impact of social media on young people. “Speaking to other teachers, they would all say mental health is an epidemic right now amongst young people,” she says. “Obviously there are external factors: the pandemic, the war, the climate crisis. But I do also think that social media is contributing to that and I know myself, if I spend too long on Instagram, I do feel unsettled.”

While the creators of tools like Instagram would say they’re meant to connect, O’Neill believes they’re more about comparison. ”I think comparison is such a poisonous [thing], it’s like a dark hole to fall into.” She looks at social media as being a double-edged sword. “There are good aspects to this and there are negative aspects, and how do I manage my use in a way that I am benefitting from from the good aspects?”

She has a considerable following on Instagram – would she ever go deliberately down the influencer road herself? It’s a firm no.

I honestly could not think of a job that I would dislike more – and I’m being really serious. 

“I think when you see a lot of the abuse that influencers get… it’s interesting, because I suppose there’s a certain amount of envy that goes along with it, when you look at people who seem like their lives are perfect, and they’re getting a lot of free things and they’re getting free holidays,” she explains.

She enjoys watching influencers at work, especially those who are “really clever and good at it”, like James Kavanagh. But the sheer amount of work required to keep up with influencing isn’t for her. “It seems very tiring, and it also seems that you can never take a break,” she says. 

“You do have to constantly be creating content and when you’re always creating content about your own life, and you’re letting people into your life as well, in a way; I think I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she says.

But she says she comes to the influencer part of Miller’s story with a certain degree of sympathy. “Because I do think it seems like a really difficult job.”

Though the story of Samantha Miller is pure fiction, it raises some sometimes uncomfortable questions about truth and lies on social media. Do we really know who we’re following online? And do we put across a truthful portrait of ourselves on our social site of choice? Only we know the answer to that one. 

Idol is out in bookshops now. Louise O’Neill will be in conversation with Cecelia Ahern this Thursday at the International Literature Festival Dublin. Tickets available here.

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