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Brian Bruno

The original Myspace icon on why internet fame is a trap

We speak to Audrey Kitching about the pitfalls of Hollywood, withdrawing from online life and her wellness boutique Crystal Cactus

TextEvelyn WangPhotographyBrian Bruno

Audrey Kitching cannot believe emo’s back. “That should never happen!” she laughs. “I don’t know who’s in charge of that, but that should never happen.”

As a teen, Kitching was one of the original internet icons who built a following for herself on Myspace in the 2000s. But for the past year and a half, the 32-year-old artist slash crystal healer slash energy worker has withdrawn – the former Myspace queen has refused to look at any social media content. She still posts, of course; she has a business to run. Her Twitter followers receive a routine offering of motivational quotes and self-care tips and her Instagram disciples a steady flow of Rococo-punk photoshoots. But she remains blissfully unaware of the Shakespearean beefs that play out on across the platforms. Ditto for magazines and TV, with obvious exceptions.

“I’m not ignorant to world crises,” she says. Because of this, I feel like a massive fun sponge telling her about the second coming of Juicy Couture and our post-ironic adulation of Paris Hilton. News of the early 2000s revival is met with the same concern and scorn she reserves for things like New Age cultishness (“extremely toxic to people because it makes everyone feel like they just have to be happy all the time”) and capitalism (“We live in a broken system, and capitalism is the reason for it”). “The fact that old trends are resurfacing rather than new ones coming out just proves humanity is stuck in this cycle of wanting to be accepted for being something other than who they are,” she says, in one breath. “I don’t know, why would you...Would you ever want to dress like you did when you were a teenager?”

She laughs at the ridiculousness of the question. Kitching is a compulsive giggler who uses her hands in lieu of punctuation. Her speaking style is stream-of-consciousness soundbites at hyperspeed: She often cuts herself off; her filler word is “you-know-what-I-mean?” Occasionally, she apologises for forgetting my original question at the end of a particularly impassioned rant. It’s like chatting with a friendly, sentient monsoon – everything comes in torrents, from her taste in film (“I’m a big fan of foreign films and just like a lot of weird. I always call them bottom shelf gems. Those films that no one talks about. They don’t get any press, but they’re these amazing visceral films”) to the soullessness of mass consumerism (“It was just like, more more more cheaper cheaper cheaper cheaper. We want more, we want them quicker”), to her impression of sponsored Instagram posts (“I love this teeth whitener, it’s so great, keep paying me 15,000 dollars to tell you all to buy it. I have no intention of using it and I’m going to throw it out”).

Even on a good connection, Skyping can feel like talking to someone through a fishbowl. But with Kitching, it feels like ringing a different era entirely. I’m not just milking the social media thing: backlit by an open window, in floaty rich-widow robes and with peroxide eyebrows, she could be from pre-guillotine Versailles or an 80s New Romantics club. “The past doesn't exist anymore,” she deadpans at one point, channeling Rust Cohle in her critique of the futility of nostalgia: “Time is a loop, it doesn't exist.”  

The same lack of temporal context clues extends to her online aesthetic. It takes a bit to notice what’s off about her Instagram. It lacks the voyeuristic, uncanny valley vibe of others with followers in the 220k range. There are absolutely no candids, perhaps the rare selfie. What isn’t a posed picture taken by her photographer friend Brian Bruno is a close-up of sparkling oil paints or roses. You can count on your fingers the snapshots of her personal life. We know she’s encountered a peacock on at least one occasion and that she probably has pet parakeets, that she’s snuck an iPhone into the opera and left a red lip-print on a marble statue’s ass. There’s never anyone else in the photos. But what stands out even more than the shortage of requisite smoothie-bowl pics or sponconned-to-hell “just woke up” posts is the utter lack of comments. She gets the stray sentence or two, but it’s usually a small handful of emojis or one-word compliments. “I don’t even know who my following is!” she says. “The things that I create now, and the things that I promote, they don’t really issue praise or criticisms, so I don’t get a lot of feedback. I like it that way. I prefer it. A lot of toxicity can come with a lot of attention, so I have no complaints that my followers are quiet.”

It’s a fucked-up invocation of Uncle Ben’s law with which Kitching is all too familiar. In the mid-2000s, she reigned supreme over a cadre of scene-kids-gone-proto-Internet celebrities. Like now-makeup artist (and documented racist) Jeffree Star and alt-model Hanna Beth, Kitching became one of the first social media stars by documenting her life on Myspace. The fame and following was accompanied by the usual shit befalling women on the internet: vitriol, drama, hyper-scrutiny, etc. All this attention landed her an editor/blogger contract with the now-defunct Spin Media-owned Buzznet and a relocation to Hollywood.

Magazines slapped her with the same bitchy-breathless superlatives they now lob at would-be Kylie usurpers and the breed of Los Angeles influencers satirised in Ingrid Goes West: “It Girl,” “this generation’s new mogul prototype,” “girl boss.” Her Wikipedia is a gold-mine of increasingly absurd media hyperbole: “Kitching has been declared simultaneously a ‘fashion forward female’ and ‘fashion disaster’ by Cosmopolitan”. By the time the scene died circa 2012, Kitching had moved on to Vogue and Elle editorials and clothing lines, pivoting seamlessly to the fashion industry despite checking none of its boxes”: “I'm short, I have pink hair, I have a very distinct style, I’m not a blank canvas. I’m not the person they’d hire to create an image; I already have an image.”

Now, at 32, Kitching has sworn off both internet fame and the fashion world in which she spent the majority of her 20s. The only remnant is her pink hair, although today it’s more pastel elf than unicorn who didn’t ask to be born. “I was up to this point where I was like ‘you don’t like working in the industry, you’re not enjoying it, you know, you’re doing all this stuff that you love, maybe you should make a shift,’” she says. She left L.A. She stopped doing “all real modeling” around two years ago, refusing campaigns, magazine editorials, and events ever since. The only press she’ll do (current profile notwithstanding) is about her online wellness boutique Crystal Cactus, which she founded in 2013, a year before she left Spin Media.

She runs Crystal Cactus from the studio that occupies the bottom level of her home. It’s like Goop for the Weetzie Bat fandom: there’s jade vagina eggs but also fetish collars that dangle geodes and preserved butterflies, floral bath accoutrements but also coffee table books on psychedelic sex. Everything is either handmade or a product of small presses and indie brands. “I’m just really happy where I am now,” she says. “I want to be a store that you can literally go to and you can get whatever you need to feel comfortable in whatever chaos is going on.”

Although it’s theoretically a lifestyle brand, Kitching is dead set against peddling ingredients that would replicate her lifestyle: “I’m not a guru. I don’t want to be a guru. Don’t follow me, don’t listen to me, find what works for you.” PR and advertising is a no go. “I’ve seen spirits and done medium shit like my whole life, but no one knows that because it doesn’t matter,” she says. “Maybe some people would respect my products more if they knew all the abilities I have spiritually, but I don’t think that should matter, so I choose not to share that. I don’t want them to buy these products because of me.” It’s the same philosophy behind her reserved social media presence and why she keeps products and brands off her Instagram: “People are sick of being told that they're not cool enough and that they’re not pretty enough and that they need these products to be worth something,” she says. “As humanity, you get to a point where you get sick of these corporations telling you you’re not enough.”

“People are sick of being told that they're not cool enough and that they’re not pretty enough and that they need these products to be worth something” – Audrey Kitching

A lot of Kitching’s current business practices are direct responses to the exploitation she experienced for more than a decade in the industry. “When you have all these people whose bills are paid on you, you just become a commodity,” she says. “You’re an object, you become the one who pays their bills. And your integrity and your artistic expression no longer have any meaning because you are someone’s rent.” She fires off anecdotes about industry sleaze: Major retailers turning down her designs only to sell complete replicas two months later. Magazine interns gushing about how she’s plastered all over the office moodboards and not a peep from the editors. Billion dollar companies built on her social media presence giving her paychecks that don’t even cover rent. After a partnership with a certain millennial-baiting chain she described as “the worst business experience of my entire life,” she vowed never to work with a mainstream retailer ever again. Once a week she gets emails from agencies or brands wanting to sign her on to sell a product. They all go straight to the trash. “I would be lying if I said three years ago, I didn’t do that,” she says. “It’s just when you do enough of that kind of stuff you kind of start to question your existence.”

“I was very much what I talk against right now,” says Kitching. But she’s clearly moved on, even if others have not. (When I ask her if she still stays in touch with any other Myspace people, she says “NO” in all caps and with multiple syllables.) “There’s people from the Myspace era who are still living in the Myspace era,” she says, although their numbers are dwindling. “So of course, when I come across those people who only want to see me when I was a homeless 18-year-old touring with bands and being a maid in a hotel or whatever I was doing at the time, complete chaos, they only want to see me as that person. Of course there’s people who are not going to want to see a progression and not want to see a change and not want to see evolvement.” These people get the same kind of bemused pity she has for the noughties re-enactors: “I'm so much of a now person. Terrible things happen to you and you learn from it [and] you become better. So I’m very much about embracing that, but I think a lot of people are stuck in these dated, weird, older eras, because it’s easier than confronting your reality now. It’s escapism really.”  

“I don't think internet fame is something people should strive for,” says Kitching. It’s easy to scoff at this as a perpetually scapegoated and Banksy-weary millennial. It’s one thing to hear it from some aging clickbait-monger who’d rather write a thousand-word screed against an imaginary avocado fetish than admit he can’t keep up. It’s something else entirely when it’s from someone who was just a teen when she accidentally became a prototype for today’s hyper-lucrative, hyper-exploitative social media influencer industry. “I wasn’t trying to become internet famous, because internet fame didn’t exist before,” Kitching says. “That’s what people don’t understand. You couldn’t have tried to do it, because it didn’t exist. The universe picked a certain a handful of us and was like, ‘This thing is going to happen to you.’ And that’s the thing, there was no strategy, there was no branding, because I didn’t know. It didn’t exist. I was literally just documenting my day-to-day life.”

“There was no strategy, there was no branding, because I didn’t know. It didn’t exist. I was literally just documenting my day-to-day life” – Audrey Kitching

Kitching started her first blog at the age of 16, on a LiveJournal-preceding platform called Melodrama. (“And who doesn’t like melodrama?” she says.) Blogging in those days “was so authentic to the point where it was scary because you didn’t realise the responsibility that was. You didn’t realise the amount of people who were looking at what you were doing. Looking back in hindsight, I had no idea what was going on. I was still living at home. I was just this girl who had this crazy life. I had a lot of hardship when I was younger, and the internet was like this online diary. I wasn’t aware. That’s the best way to explain this. I wasn’t aware of the magnitude of what was happening.”

When I ask Kitching what’s the trick to staying relevant without being a sell-out, she seems at a loss for words for the first time in our hour-and-a-half conversation. Even when she didn’t know the answer to a question, or hadn’t thought about it, she nevertheless continued to spitball theories and one-liners and opinions that solidified as she spoke. But she genuinely doesn’t know. After testing out a few tautologies about authenticity, she finally settles on, “being relevant by being irrelevant.” Whatever Kitching has, it can’t be articulated or taught. Not by social media bootcamps or guides or PR firms. It’s why brands desperate for some semblance of edge have always been so eager to buy her persona, and why they were so laissez-faire about any outrageous behaviour. “Even after I had this explosion telling them that they’re these corporate assholes,” she says, “because they made so much money off me they didn't care.”  

But her authenticity has also provided ample fuel for manipulation and manufactured drama. Way back when she moved from Philadelphia, where “you just don't do terrible things to people without consequences,” to Hollywood, where “if you do terrible things, you’re rewarded for it,” she says: “I had to learn the hard way that these people are not your friends and these people do not want to see you succeed. I was the outsider for a lot of reasons. It was easy for them to get drama out of me the most because they knew I was the one who was saying this isn’t cool, where the rest of them it’s very Hollywood mentality to be nice to your face and talk shit on you behind your back. Now realising it, I was perpetrating this by just being honest. It’s kind of a mindfuck really when you think about it. By sticking up for myself and by being authentic I was creating this drama that was making it worse.”

Kitching doesn’t regret any of it though, mindfuck and all. “It needed to happen to me or I could never have Crystal Cactus, and if I didn't have Crystal Cactus I couldn't help people,” she says. It’s only made her double down on the authenticity. Allergic as she is to being anyone’s role model, you have to admire the serenity with which she gives zero fucks. “You can have 10,000 comments telling you you’re beautiful,” she says. “If you don’t feel beautiful, it doesn't matter. You’ll still lie in your bed at night and feel like a piece of shit. And it’s not until you decide that you will no longer be validated by outside sources that you actually start to feel good about yourself. And I had both of them. I live a life now where I don’t really get comments, and I lived a life where I got 10,000 on everything I posted. And I have self-love now that I didn’t even know existed when I had all those followers.”

She laughingly recites Jim Carrey’s “everybody should get rich and famous so they can see it’s not the answer” quote. “It’s really true!” she says. “Obviously, I’m not Jim Carrey,” whom she calls “a very spiritual person.” “I’m not a superstar, but my experience on a smaller level, on a more earthly level, was the same kind of thing. I was making insane money. I had all these followers, all these celebrity friends, all this shit and I hated myself because of what I became. You become a product. The most important lesson is that you can’t find it out there”.

But then again: “As much as I’m talking against this stuff, the internet has always been my canvas,” she says. “It’s always been my platform. There’s actors and there’s models. I’m an internet artist.” And accordingly, asking Audrey Kitching about the Myspace era in 2017 feels a lot like asking Lana Del Rey about Lizzy Grant, or Kristen Stewart about vampires: “I’m at this point where I worked really hard for a really long time,” she says. “I had no life. I didn’t really have relationships. I was traveling all the time. And now I just want to create art, but on my own terms.”