Over the weekend, Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway embarked on what she’d planned as a global tour of “creativity workshops,” but instead wound up as a schadenfreude-laden internet controversy that left some drawing comparisons to the infamous Fyre Festival. Calloway however actually pulled off two of her events—in New York City on Saturday, and Washington, D.C., on Sunday—before facing so much widespread backlash from fans, followers, critics, and those who merely caught a whiff of the rapidly unfolding “scam” from a viral Twitter thread, that the woman who has more than 800,000 followers on Instagram decided to cancel the rest of the tour and refund all ticket holders, including those who’d already attended the first two workshops.
Of course, you may be asking who is Calloway and how did she manage to amass that many ardent followers in the first place? Well, her online notoriety started simply enough back in 2015, while a student at the University of Cambridge (the American-born Calloway attended Phillips Exeter Academy for high school, then New York University before continuing her education across the pond), she turned her whimsical, long-winded Instagram posts romanticizing Cambridge, the U.K., and her life there (along with her account’s growing popularity) into an incredibly lucrative book deal. She received a $500,000 advance and was represented by literary agent Byrd Leavell, who has also repped internet stars like Tucker Max and Cat Marnell. A September 2015 interview with Broadly revealed that Calloway had “procrastinated on the proposal so much that Leavell had to designate specific hours during which she would come into his office and work, monitored.”
In April 2016, she announced that her proposal had been purchased by Flatiron Books; by July 2017, the book deal was no more. Calloway has alternately described it as a decision she made because she didn’t like the boy-focused direction her publishers wanted, and a decision the publishers made once they realized she wasn’t going to write the book they paid for. Though she returned most of the advance, she was left about $125,000 in debt, but shared on Instagram that the “total babes” at Flatiron wouldn’t be suing her for the money, instead trusting her to return it in a timely manner.
In the months since losing her book deal, Calloway has spent her time documenting—primarily on her Instagram Story, claiming in her account bio that she’s the “FIRST” to make Stories her main platform—her parties, vacations, relationships, trips to her parents’ homes, workouts, and outfits. Though, at one point, she promised to be working with several brands on sponsored content, and penned (now-deleted) posts on her feed in which she offered to attend events in exchange for money, neither of those endeavors ever came to fruition.
Here’s where the world tour comes in. In December 2018, Calloway took to her Instagram Story to toy with the idea of hosting an intimate, $100 “creativity workshop” in N.Y.C. Within a matter of hours, she’d expanded this into an entire globe-spanning tour of $165, 45-person events. These four-hour “seminars” were slated to start with an hour, sans Calloway, for attendees to meet each other and drink coffee with oat milk, followed by lectures on topics like physical and mental health, discovering your voice, harnessing your creativity, and getting over heartbreak; a homemade lunch was included, as was a “care package” stuffed with personalized trinkets and a heartfelt, handwritten letter from Calloway. When she posted the Eventbrite ticket link a few days later, several of the dates sold out immediately, even as she openly shared that she had yet to book any event spaces past those for the very first weekend.
And here’s where I come in. I’ve followed Calloway on Instagram for about a year now and, out of a mixture of curiosity, fascination, and skepticism about her lifestyle (i.e. the reasons most of us follow anyone we don’t know on Instagram), have kept close tabs on her account throughout. When a ticket for her first-ever creativity workshop, in Brooklyn on Saturday (January 12), became available only a few days before the event, I made the somewhat rash decision to attend, with financial help (with fees, the ticket cost $176.68) from a few friends who are equally curious about Calloway and her life. At the time, I had no idea the fallout from the event would go quite as viral as it did, nor did I have any plans on writing about it.
At 5 a.m. the Friday before, a little over 24 hours after purchasing my ticket, I received an email from Calloway laying out the logistics of the workshop and urging me to ask for tips, advice, and wisdom on anything going on in my life—to which she promised to respond in the care package’s aforementioned heartfelt letter. I did so, as genuinely as possible, curious to hear what advice she, a 27-year-old Instagram influencer without a traditional full-time job, would offer in response to questions I posed about my personal and professional lives. I never received a response, and the next morning, mere hours before the workshop was scheduled to begin, she wrote on her Instagram Story that she’d decided to forgo the letters, apparently having only just then realized how long it would take her to respond thoughtfully to 45 people.
Next to go were the homemade lunches. That Saturday morning, she shared photos of several pans of eggplant cooking on her stove, commenting about how difficult it was to cook lunch for 45 people in her studio apartment. She went on to say that, although those attending that afternoon’s New York seminar would be eating that eggplant, attendees of future dates might have to bring their own lunches—despite the fact that a Calloway-cooked lunch was advertised and included in the $165 ticket price.
I arrived at the event space around 11:30, with about 30 minutes left of the pre-seminar mingling time. Upon arriving, guests received a notebook with their name and an affirmation written by Calloway on the first page, and were invited to help themselves to boxes of coffee and tea, though without the Rude Health oat milk that Calloway had repeatedly promised and which was, in fact, serving as a sponsor for the event. I chatted with several of my fellow attendees—all young women, and all but one or two white—who told me that they were hoping the workshop would help them be more creative and live their most authentic lives. When Calloway arrived at noon, she began greeting each guest with a hug and conversation. I can’t remember the context, but after hugging me, Calloway explained that “honesty without tact is cruelty,” and warned that she’d probably repeat that phrase during the larger group discussion. (She did.)
By the time she finally settled onto a stool at the front of the room, 40 minutes after she was scheduled to being “teaching,” Calloway announced her plan to discuss creativity, authenticity, and voice, all in the 45 minutes before lunchtime. In reality, after instructing her “students” to draw in their notebooks a Venn diagram representing how one’s “best art” happens at the intersection of “things people want to consume” and “things you want to make,” she spent the rest of the time retelling stories about her life that she’d already covered extensively on her Instagram page, regularly slipping off into tangents that led her into still other stories about her life.
Lunch was a small plate of boxed kale and spinach from Whole Foods, topped with Sabra pine nut hummus and the previously mentioned, now cold and soggy eggplant, all doused in a supremely salty dressing. I couldn’t eat more than a few bites, but others returned to the space’s kitchen area to ask for seconds. At one point, Calloway walked around the room with an extra tub of hummus and a comically large ladle, offering to plop spoonfuls of crudité-less hummus on empty plates; at least one attendee accepted.
After lunch, Calloway returned to retelling her life story for another 30 minutes, under the guise of talking about the importance of physical and mental health, and turning your hardships into art, then declared that it was time to take individual photos with each attendee. Calloway had promised in the event listing that she would be teaching attendees her “secret” to making flower crowns out of orchids, but when it was my turn to take photos with her and learn this secret, she merely clipped an orchid that had been attached to a butterfly clip (and then reused on every single attendee) behind my ear, and whispered, “The secret to flower crowns is there is no secret.”
In lieu of responding to our emails with handwritten letters, Calloway promised to use the photoshoot time to chat with each ticket holder individually. In our one-on-one time, I asked her, only somewhat trollishly, how she deals with online criticism. “It breaks my heart,” Calloway said, but added that she deals with this heartbreak by blocking anyone who sends her anything remotely critical. I took that as my cue to leave.
On my way out the door, I received the promised care package, which included an envelope filled with a handful of Etsy-sourced floral stickers; a label-less tea light candle; a stick of cleansing palo santo wood; a “crystal,” which I later learned from a friend was just a regular rock; an empty, lid-less mason jar; a tiny envelope of wildflower seeds; another notebook, this one with “Morning Pages” emblazoned on the front; and a box of matches customized with the “Calloway House” logo, a riff on Cambridge’s house system.
Following Saturday’s event, Calloway returned to her favorite medium to share that the “tour manager” she’d hired that morning had suggested she cancel some of her planned tour visits and move those dates’ events to the same Brooklyn loft space. Among these were a Boston event planned for next Saturday, January 19, for which she’d recently admitted she still hadn’t booked a venue. She ran a poll asking whether moving several of her non-N.Y.C. dates to N.Y.C. was a good idea; the preset poll answers were “This is our spot” and “Fuck yes,” and the results were “overwhelming,” she wrote. In reality, however, many fans who’d purchased tickets for events outside of New York were worrying about transportation and lodging costs, and begging Calloway to reconsider. She moved forward with her plan, moving four of the dates back to N.Y.C., and promising refunds to all of those ticket holders.
Around this time, journalist Kayleigh Donaldson’s Twitter thread about Calloway’s increasingly scam-y approach to this world tour began to gain traction. It further blew up on Sunday afternoon, (as Calloway held a blizzard-stunted seminar in D.C.) garnering retweets from thousands of people, including Seth Rogen. The thread lays out in exquisite detail just how inappropriate and irresponsible Calloway’s entire tour-planning process was: She reneged on several aspects that were purportedly included in the hefty ticket price, she failed to plan appropriately and even book venues for more than a handful of events, and, as I can personally attest, she was ill-suited to “teach” anyone about anything.
By Monday morning, Calloway had canceled her tour, placing much of the onus for this decision on Donaldson’s thread. “I apologize to anyone who felt cheated by the price point of $165—whether you attended the tour or not. I take full responsibility for letting my total inexperience with event planning and GREED create a situation where the details of the tour were ever-changing, preparation was inadequate, and the event did not match the description by the time it went on,” she wrote on Instagram and Twitter. “I was overconfident in believing that I had something to offer people that was worth $165 dollars [sic] and this experience has been incredibly humbling.”
She went on to add that all ticket buyers, including those for the two events that actually happened, would be refunded. Indeed, I’ve already received my $176.68 back, though it’s unclear whether this particular point of the cancellation was Calloway’s idea, or part of Eventbrite’s policy, since the ticketing company wrote on Twitter that she was under investigation by their Trust & Safety team.
At this point, all that’s left to do is wait until Calloway gets yet another astronomical and unprecedented book deal to share every last detail about what really went down on her failed world tour.