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Influence
Author: Sara Shepard

 


PROLOGUE

 

What happened at Gratitude was not in my plans.

You see, in my world, we planned things very carefully. Everything we did, every move, every smile, every word out of our mouths—it was crafted. We showed you only what we wanted you to see. And, okay, a few things leaked recently that surprised you. But it was fine. I don’t know about everyone else, but I had my life under control.

Or did I?

Gratitude Prom took place on a clear, warm evening in late June, and it started perfectly. All of you watched the stories and the live feeds and the update videos of me as I got ready (after having everything already done professionally off camera, of course). I posted updates as I piled into the limo that had been secured for free in exchange for a simple mention online. I posted more updates as I paraded down the red carpet. You, my dear fans, circulated my pictures all over the world as I posed with “friends.” You shared and re-shared, you posted and re-posted, you made fan edits and comments. You gossiped. Sometimes you were even nasty about me. But I pretended not to notice. I stayed on message, on-brand.

But as I headed to the after-party, which took place in the lavish apartment complex where many of us lived, I started to feel . . . nervous. I told myself to get a grip. Everything was going to be okay in the end—I had it covered. But so many people were angry with me. So many were disappointed. Some of you were over me, or thought I didn’t deserve to be where I was and what I was: famous. And maybe I was right to worry, because look what happened at the end of the night. I barely remembered those blurry, messy hours. The arguments. The betrayal. The pain. The sheer surprise of it all. I barely remembered screaming, and then storming off, and then spinning, and then yelling, and then closing my eyes.

And then . . . nothing.

But here’s the thing: Don’t hate me for filling up your feeds. Don’t hate me for the brands I convinced you to buy, the movies I goaded you to see. Don’t resent me for the gossip I dropped, breadcrumb-like, for you to devour, obsess over, believe. I was what you needed. I was your guiding light, people. That was why they called me an influencer—I had influence over millions of you. But that perfect little world you thought you were witnessing? It was mostly lies. My smiles and sweetness, my big hugs and happy hashtags: it was all a juicy, duplicitous trick for you to share and discuss and gobble up. And those lies were what destroyed me, plain and simple.

But maybe you don’t want to hear that. Maybe you’d rather believe I was exactly who you saw on your screens: a girl who was beautiful, unflappable, and untouchable.

And, most importantly, still alive.

 

 

One month earlier

 

 

DELILAH

 

Delilah Rollins was going to a very, very important party.

She sat in the back of her family’s nondescript SUV—as though her mom, Bethany, was an Uber driver and she was the passenger—biting her nails in excitement and terror. Her mom clutched the steering wheel and fitfully murmured about the chaos of LA traffic, a city the family was brand-new to as of six days earlier, when they’d moved there from Minneapolis. To say they were having culture shock was a major understatement.

“So tell me again what this thing is?” Bethany asked warily, cursing under her breath as another driver cut her off.

Delilah shifted. “It’s for Wellness Beauty. It should be great. A lot of influencers and celebrities will be there, there will be tons of photo ops, free stuff . . .”

Delilah’s sister, Ava, who was also sitting in the backseat, turned, eyes gleaming. “Ooh, can you get me an eyeshadow palette?”

Bethany frowned. “You’re too young for makeup, Ava.”

Ava pouted. “Fourteen isn’t too young!”

Bethany ignored this, glancing at Delilah again in the rearview mirror. “Who invited you?”

Delilah felt the same thrill that she had when she’d first gotten the invitation. Only one of the most famous people on the planet invited me, actually. But she couldn’t tell her mom that. It might freak her out. Her mom was wary of famous people, especially influencers. “Just some people I know online,” she said casually.

“In other words, strangers.” Bethany shook her head. “Maybe I should come in with you.”

“No!” Delilah begged. “You can’t! I’ll be fine!”

The argument was curtailed because Delilah’s mom had to make a scary merge onto an eight-lane highway. Delilah swallowed hard, then looked at her phone. On the screen was pretty much the most amazing thing that had ever happened to Delilah in her life: a direct Instagram message from @LuluJasmine, aka Jasmine Walters-Diaz, aka Lulu C from That’s Hot!, Delilah’s favorite dance show on Lemonade, which was the Netflix for tweens and teens. Delilah had the message memorized: Hey, Delilah! I’m a huge fan, and I live in LA, too! I’d love to invite you to a party for Wellness Beauty on Tuesday afternoon at the Evensong Hotel on the Strip! Let me know if you can make it!

She still wasn’t sure it was real.

Twenty million people followed Jasmine’s account on Instagram. The posts where Jasmine wore the rainbow skirt and lace leotard, the iconic outfit Lulu C was known for, practically broke the internet. Delilah had no idea how Jasmine found her page. Could it really have been from her Hey, I just moved to LA and I’m freaking out! she’d put on her Story a few days back? Delilah was suspicious of Jasmine’s message, but her account had the “I’m verified and you’re not” blue checkmark . . . so maybe it was true.

As if on cue, Delilah’s friend Busy, the only person Delilah did tell about her brand-new, über-delicate, maybe-celebrity-friendship, texted. YOU HAVE TO TELL ME EVERYTHING ABOUT JASMINE, she wrote. She’s going to replace me as your BFF because I’ll be marooned in France on a digital diet. Busy’s family was leaving for a five-week European vacation tomorrow, and her parents had decided that Busy and her younger brother, Brock, would be leaving their phones at home. Which sounded like a particularly torturous circle of hell.

You’re going to forget all about me! a new bubble from Busy read.

Oh stop, Delilah wrote back. No one can replace you.

She was just as heartbroken as Busy was that a) Busy wouldn’t be able to talk all summer, and b) they now no longer lived in the same city, thanks to Delilah’s father’s internal transfer at his environmental sustainability firm. Delilah and Busy had been friends since first grade, when they both carried matching One Direction backpacks. Busy introduced her to Instagram. They explored Snapchat together. They filmed videos on YouTube about how to make fluffy slime and how to apply Technicolor hair dye without it getting on the carpet. They did normal, non-internet things, too: volleyball tournaments, nights out for pizza, sleepovers, avoiding their pesky little siblings . . . but they weren’t as good at those things. As time went on, Delilah and Busy became masters at creating stylized, online versions of themselves—kids sought them out for advice on how to craft posts or light pictures or curate daily stories.

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