But does it even matter?
“In the age of Facebook and Instagram you can observe this myth-making process more clearly than ever before, because some of it has been outsourced from the mind to the computer. It is fascinating and terrifying to behold people who spend countless hours constructing and embellishing a perfect self online, becoming attached to their own creation, and mistaking it for the truth about themselves.20 That’s how a family holiday fraught with traffic jams, petty squabbles and tense silences becomes a collection of beautiful panoramas, perfect dinners and smiling faces; 99 per cent of what we experience never becomes part of the story of the self.”
When the “news” of Hilaria Baldwin first broke on Twitter I assumed it was Twitter doing its usual round of dragging people out into the public square and shaming them. It is repulsive, this aspect of Twitter, and unending. Twitter is a beast that needs to be fed daily, hourly. It will eat anything, but it mostly craves, let’s face it, public humiliation.
By now, the Hilaria Baldwin story has nestled into the tabloids, found its way onto Reddit, and sits vaguely in the minds of people who don’t quite know how to react to it or what to make of it. While some have accused her of cultural appropriation, others are just confused. The only two things most people knew about her was that she was married to Alec Baldwin and she was Spanish.
The whole thing bubbled over after Amy Schumer playfully mocked herself and Hilaria’s photo of her body after her fifth child. Hilaria’s response to Schumer was condescending and defensive — to say that it’s wrong to make fun of her photo and her perfect body. The internet didn’t really like that and thus began the cascade of information that revealed that Hilaria wasn’t Hilaria at all but rather Hillary Hayward-Thomas from Boston whose parents have a fetish for all things Espania while promoting a plant-based lifestyle. Take it from someone who has been following Hilaria’s Instagram from the beginning, the parents have been tucked away and been completely out of sight for the entirety of her life in the public eye. Needless to say, it has all come as a bit of a shock. Low stakes, perhaps, and ultimately meaningless, but a shock all the same.
I was someone who bought the image she sold on Instagram. I followed her after their first child was born and lived their lives alongside them. Hilaria, and Alec Baldwin both showcased their family, their love, their lives. They seemed like an open book and were happy to share even their most intimate moments with us. The story was that Alec had married him a Spanish woman (most Europeans consider Spanish people to be “white” and not Latina).
Hilaria was sold to us as not someone who loved Spain or spent time in Spain or spoke with an accent because she was spent much time there — but as someone who WAS Spanish, was FROM Spain and whose relatives are all Spanish people. Every story she told, every name she gave her child, in all of the ways Alec Baldwin referred to her it was as his Spanish wife, even if she definitely stuck to the story that she was raised in “Spain and Boston.”
Hilaria was my most active follow on Instagram. Every second of every day was filmed and posted. A morning jog — like literally EVERY morning jog — on her stories, putting on makeup, short workouts in the bathroom, every baby moment, every birthday, every new recipe, every new outfit, where she was going, where the dogs were going, where Alec was, what Alec said, how she responded to what he said, how she was wearing her hair. Every so often there would be an ad on display, as she was fast becoming a powerful influencer.
I never judged what was a constant need to display her life. I assumed that, and this is stupid looking back, that she was doing it because her parents and family lived in Spain (they actually do) so they could not be there to see the babies growing up and would not want to miss a minute of it. But it wasn’t just the babies, the “Baldwinitos” — it was the whole lifestyle. The apartment in New York, the home in the Hamptons. Even their imperfections as a family were somehow perfect.
The “reveal” of who she really is versus who she plays on Instagram should serve as a reminder of what kind of reality/unreality we’ve all agreed to build for ourselves online. In the beginning, when the first “mommy blogs” began to flourish — the Pioneer Woman and Dooce, among others, the idea was full transparency. That how it is supposed to work on Youtube also. But as time went on it became apparent that we were getting a fantasy version of that person and their lives each and every time, a way to live vicariously through them. Some of us went ahead and cultivated these same fantasy versions of ourselves and our lives. After all, if everyone is doing it who is going to be the first to blow the whistle?
Watching Hilaria’s life, and honestly the life of every single person I “know” on Instagram, has to be unhealthy. I knew every time I scrolled that it was a system designed to make me feel something — longing, fomo, sadness, envy, desire, hunger. And in that wanting perhaps I’d be a better consumer so if an ad hit me at exactly the right time that might make me feel more like I was living Hilaria’s life and not my own I might be more inclined to buy a product. Isn’t that how the whole system works? Isn’t that why it’s so hard not to buy things on Instagram? Do they know that is what we’re feeling when we scroll both Facebook and Instagram?
What motivated her to reinvent herself as a person from Spain may have had to do with how people treated her thinking she was Spanish. Or maybe it helped distinguish her from the masses. Maybe it made her feel more exotic, less posh or boring. Perhaps it was her father’s passion for all things Espania that intoxicated her. But it isn’t really our business except that it kind of is.
Influencers show us how to live our lives. That is why it’s so easy to buy things they recommend. We want to be like them. Perfect, like them. And baked into their image is often their confession that they aren’t perfect. They reveal their so-called flaws all the while continuing to sell an image of perfection, by whatever parameters have been defined. It doesn’t necessarily bow to a patriarchal ideal but the same methods are employed to sell us stuff: to make us feel like the people we’re admiring.
I’ve bought toothbrushes, lip gloss, books — nothing all that expensive but somehow buying the small thing makes you feel closer to the person who recommended it. You trust them and you feel like they’re your friend and so you buy stuff. Everybody is selling something if they’re popular enough. Every post is some kind of a seduction into a scenario where you part with your cash at some point down the line. You know this going in. You know when your favorite YouTuber puts up a sponsored video. You know they are going to try to sell you something. You can avoid it but it’s the price you pay for them giving themselves to you.
Hilaria did it all mostly for free. She was selling herself to us. Her life. Her persona as Alec Baldwin’s Spanish wife. I remember her saying how Alec likes her to be the girlfriend when they go out and I remember thinking, is that part of Spanish culture? I remember a conversation a while back about how famous men liked Latina or Spanish women more than American women because they were more traditional and less demanding. Did Hilaria play into that or subvert it?
The obsession with Hilaria is now how she could have gone on for so long faking a persona when she had family and friends who knew she wasn’t Spanish. How exhausting it all must have been. And yet, there she was — every second of every day selling herself to her audience for no apparent reason except to be looked at and admired — in a specific way.
Before we had this kind of direct access to having our own audience, celebrities showcased their lives through publicists. Paparazzi arose out of their desire for their fans to see them living their actual lives, catching them off guard. Rarely did we find out anything about them that they did not want us to know. But someone like Hilaria, who isn’t really famous other than being married to Alec Baldwin, built an online persona entirely on her own using Instagram.
Can we say that all influencers are likely doing the same thing? To some extent, they must be. Maybe they aren’t faking an accent but how much is the illusion they deliver to us actually real? Are they really vegans? Do they really practice zero waste? Is it all just a big show? How much is our own portrayal of ourselves actually real? Why would we want to portray ourselves as what we are when we can portray ourselves as what we want to be? How much have I deceived people in my own life since I’ve been online for over 20 years? Probably a lot. Maybe it is the nature of the beast. Give us a stage and we will create our own stories of who we are and what our lives should be.
I guess the question is, since it all turned out to be untrue, does that mean I should not have watched the Hilaria and Alec show on Instagram? How different is it from watching the Kardashians on Instagram? Don’t we watch them because they aren’t like us? Don’t we want them because we want that illusion? Why else would there be so many ways for us to fake who we are online?
I did finally pull myself away from Facebook after I figured out that watching my friends live their lives actually depressed me. That the political arguments were becoming unbearable was just the last straw. The relief I felt in leaving was that I did not have to watch the illusions put forth by others of what seemed like better lives, better selves, better vacations, better romances than my own. Knowing I did not have put myself through that if I didn’t want to was ultimately a healing experience. And yet, I still can’t quite pull all the way away from Instagram.
If I were Hilaria I would simply come clean and say, “Yeah, I played up the Spanish bit because I know Alec liked it but he did fall in love with and raise a family with the real me. He teases me now that I’m an Iberophile and there is nothing wrong with that.” It’s possible her Instagram followers would forgive her and though the internet has an unending appetite for public shaming and humiliation, they also have an unending appetite for Hilaria’s perfect life, even if it isn’t real.
Or perhaps we all should remember to listen to Yuval Noah Harari’s Lessons for the 21st Century:
Hence if you really want to understand yourself, you should not identify with your Facebook account or with the inner story of the self. Instead, you should observe the actual flow of body and mind. You will see thoughts, emotions and desires appear and disappear without much reason and without any command from you, just as different winds blow from this or that direction and mess up your hair. And just as you are not the winds, so also you are not the jumble of thoughts, emotions and desires you experience, and you are certainly not the sanitised story you tell about them with hindsight.
You experience all of them, but you don’t control them, you don’t own them, and you are not them. People ask ‘Who am I?’ and expect to be told a story. The first thing you need to know about yourself, is that you are not a story.”