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It was about lunchtime in Memphis in early December when Julie Pollack Belz pulled out her phone and opened Instagram, where she’s in a group chat about celebrity and royal gossip with 14 other people. The 60-year-old grandmother—who worked in broadcasting and public relations and is a self-described “pop culture whore”—says that she, “like everybody else with probably too much downtime or too much negativity in their life” gets on social media to rant about this celebrity or that influencer. That’s why the text about influencer Arielle Charnas and her clothing company, Something Navy, grabbed her.
What happened online to Charnas last month, and how it involves a grandmother who lives halfway across the country, is near impossible to explain to anyone not plugged into a very specific corner of internet culture. Because to the rest of the world, in the light of actual reality, the contours of what happened to Charnas would sound—do sound—deranged. But to the millions of people who have, over the course of a decade, spent hundreds of hours following Charnas’s ascent from pioneering fashion blogger to influencer to brand founder to subject of online ire, what unfolded last month was the mother of all schadenfreude bombs. For group chats and Slack channels and brunch tables up and down the coasts, it was D-Day. It was Pizzagate for overeducated, coastal millennials. And not for the first or last time, but maybe the most obvious time, as I talked to people around the controversy, what transpired pointed out how quickly the internet can collectively lose its mind and how there are real-life, actual implications to all of that anonymous inanity.
To understand where we are today, it’s useful to take a look back. Charnas, as a 20-something in posed outfit-of-the-day posts made to impress an ex-boyfriend, started blogging in 2009 in the nascent form of the medium. She benefited from being one of the few influencer pioneers, planting the flag and hanging on to the pole long enough to amass 1.3 million Instagram followers who have tuned in to her daily posts about what she’s wearing (lately, some combination of The Row, Chanel, and Hermès), and the goings-on of her husband and three young children, whose day-to-day lives she’s chronicled for the masses since their births. It is a window into a perfect-looking family, business, and life of a 30-something rich girl on the Upper East Side of New York City (who in the summer goes to the Hamptons, and winter, South Florida). Hers is the height of aspirational content, in an age when that aesthetic has long ago peaked.
Charnas, who, according to Business Insider, can charge $20,000 per sponsored post and about half that for posts to her Instagram Story, has forged her own star using the details of her life. But with that comes a following that feels entitled to know more and more and more—and if that following feels like things are being hidden from them, or faked, they feel betrayed. In the last year, Reddit commenters have noticed some changes in Charnas’s feed, giving way to venomous threads devoted to sleuthing real and imagined perceptions about her life. Threads of this kind are breeding grounds for anonymous users to pick apart and amateur-sleuth about things—real or imagined—that they deem as both important and their business, despite the fact that they do not actually know these influencers. Part of this entitlement is, of course, exactly what these influencers asked for; they became known and were able to monetize on the fact that people want to know them and follow them and invest in them. People caring about them has meant money for them. As Kady Ruth Ashcraft of Jezebel put it, “Many elder millennials have grown up digitally hate-following her for the majority of their young adult lives. I would say a cardinal sin of hers is not indulging in posts like ‘believe me my life isn’t perfect’ that have endeared us to other beautiful, thin online women.” Charnas has also not done herself any favors in recent years. In early spring of 2020, as the world grappled with the newness of COVID-19, she was dubbed “Covidiot blogger” by the New York Post for documenting her drive-through COVID test amid a nationwide shortage and relocating to the Hamptons after testing positive. Several brands dropped their partnerships with her as a result. Her husband, Brandon Charnas, called one follower a “loser” and another “irrelevant” in direct messages, for which he later apologized.
Back to the Reddit threads. Users had started to notice that Charnas had stopped posting photos of her husband and children on her feed and was no longer wearing her hulking wedding ring in many Stories. She had removed some older posts that featured her husband, they noted. Perhaps the Charnases were hiding their wealth. In actuality, I’m told this shift was a calculated choice by Charnas as a result of l’affaire COVID. She made a decision to no longer post photos of her husband and child in her static feed; she didn’t want her daughters to be able to one day go back to mean comments about them. Being an influencer meant losing a lot of control over what was said about her, but that choice allowed her to hold some of the reins tighter. But that’s not what Redditors took from it. Instead, rumors began to circulate that the Charnases were under some kind of investigatory scrutiny.
Around June, Business Insider started reporting a feature about Something Navy. The line is made up of what she calls “elevated basics” for every day, most of which she herself does not wear every day. She’d brought in an outside CEO from the jump, when she launched the brand off a successful capsule collection with Nordstrom; at the time it was valued at $45 million. Charnas now holds a minority stake, although she is still the face of the company. Since its launch in 2020, sales have slumped and attrition has been steady. Business Insider started casting a wide net last summer, reaching out to former employees and associates and anyone who’d worked with Something Navy or for Charnas. Charnas received a list of questions and fact-checking notes to respond to around Thanksgiving. The questions, according to people familiar with them, centered around Something Navy’s business—whether it had paid vendors on time, how sales had lagged.
This was a normal reporting process chugging along. Separately, though, the rumors wiggled out of the darker corners of the internet and into the mainstream, with an assist from the gossip account DeuxMoi. The account generally posts screenshots of unconfirmed celebrity sightings or gossip. It’s where fans first heard that Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson were spotted riding a roller coaster; it’s where much of the Don’t Worry Darling Sturm und Drang gathered steam. Sometimes, the tips pan out. Oftentimes, they do not. Despite its popularity, the woman behind DeuxMoi has remained anonymous, offering disclaimers that the information she is sharing is not confirmed or vetted in any way. Read all of her posts, she writes, “with discernment because some are straight up bullshit.”
DeuxMoi posted a series of unvetted allegations about Brandon and Arielle Charnas, including that Brandon was embezzling money from Something Navy (a fact that both the company and the Charnas family immediately denied and so far has not been credibly alleged beyond anonymous tips); that the couple was divorcing (again, a spokesperson for the couple has denied this); and that a Business Insider article was in the works about their business practices. Immediately, the internet schadenfreude machine erupted. On Twitter. In newsrooms. In private group chats. “Can we get Steve Kornacki on a live stream to explain all of the Arielle Charnas/something navy/Brandon Charnas rumors,” one user tweeted, after posting that he was up to five group chats and one Slack channel on the gossip. Another wrote that she’d never seen 30-something women so riled up and tapped into anything like this drama. “We’re like The Eyes from Handmaids. Screenshots, videos, audio files, it’s wild.”
With days before the Business Insider article was to publish, an audio file circulating with a recording of an anonymous male voice claiming that Brandon had taken millions of dollars of company funds and that there was trouble in their marriage started circulating, first on the Reddit threads and group chats, and then to newsrooms, which started reporting on the rumors and poking around to validate the recording’s claims. Something Navy’s CEO Matthew Scanlan responded to a Women’s Wear Daily reporter and claimed that the allegations were baseless and that Brandon had no access to the company’s money. The New York Post’s Page Six reported that a spokesperson for Arielle denied that there was any issue in their marriage. Arielle and Brandon and their families were fielding messages and calls from friends and business associates asking what was going on, if the rumors were true. People were speculating that he had been arrested at the Polo Bar, no—in Florida! No, wait, they posted a photo together smiling, getting coffee! What was true? What was spin? What did all of this mean?!
It was around this time when the group chat Pollack Belz is in with her millennial daughters and some of their friends, ranging from the ages of 26 to 60, began to buzz. She’s long been a huge fan of Arielle and her sisters, who are also influencers, and their mother, Carrie Nachmani, who’s also achieved fame, enough to publish an e-cookbook of recipes last year.
The internet was waiting with bated breath for the Business Insider article that in reality had nothing to do with the melodrama unfolding in Reddit’s imagination. “I think they are super business women, but when everybody started talking about this, I thought, My goodness, she’s got to get out in front of this and turn this around and protect her business.” It just so happened that Pollack Belz was bored, and had enough experience working in public relations to know how to craft a statement. So she drafted up what she would have written for Charnas had she been hired to represent her. To be clear, Charnas had not hired her, nor had the two ever spoken. The faux statement read, “At this juncture, I am not comfortable or ready to detail the matters in question. I need some time to organize my words, focus on my platform and business—which is my livelihood. Most importantly, I will protect my three daughters from what has been, and it appears will continue to be, an extremely heartbreaking time for me, but especially for my daughters. I am a strong woman, who comes from strong parents and grandparents. My girls and I are surrounded by the most incredible supportive family, coworkers, and loved ones. Thank you for your patience as I continue to decipher the tough journey that is before me. I am no different than every other daughter, sister, mother, and professional woman with personal and professional problems. I intend to hold my head high, square my shoulders, and proceed onward with grace and dignity as well as strength and good old-fashioned hard work. Your continued support means the world to me.”
Pollack Belz shared what she wrote with the group chat. She said that she was explicit in making clear that they were her words. “I said, ‘These are my words, but this is exactly what [Arielle] needs to send out immediately.’” Within an hour and a half, someone in the chat had sent Pollack Belz’s inspired pseudo-statement to others, which was forwarded, rinsed, repeated. I myself received the statement in three group chats spanning people in four different states over the course of a few hours.
Pollack Belz’s daughter was furious with her. She told her that her other friends were sending it back to her as proof that the rumors about her were true. None of the chats mentioned that this had been written by Pollack Belz. “I said, ‘Oh, my God,’” Pollack Belz told me a week later. “I felt horrible, because obviously I certainly did not want to hurt this person in any way. I meant no malice.”
Within a few hours, Pollack Belz felt like she needed to clear the air. She created a new Instagram account so that she could clarify that it was her statement, not Charnas’s, and apologized for any unnecessary stress it may have caused the Charnas family, which DeuxMoi reposted. “This just took off,” she told me. “In our day we’d call it telephone. You’d sit in a circle like at Girl Scouts, say something in someone’s ear, and it [would be] completely different at the end. It just shows how gossip can just start these days.”
The Business Insider article dropped—at long last—on December 8, after days of speculation and extreme hype. It existed behind a paywall, meaning that everyone who wanted to read it would have to subscribe. Thousands of people signed up, according to a person familiar with the numbers, blowing the publication’s expectations out of the water. The story detailed the state of Something Navy as a brand. The company reportedly lost nearly half of its employees over the last year and failed to pay vendors, suppliers, and freelancers on time—to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Business Insider. A spokesperson for the brand told the publication that at the time of the article’s fact-check, everyone had been paid back (though Insider pointed out one instance of a supplier that had been paid only after Insider reached out). Charnas had told her followers that the brand—which currently has four stores—planned to open more than 10 more locations this year, but it shelved most of those and plans to release fewer collections. Business Insider reported that Charnas was not involved in day-to-day operations (she had reportedly told followers this year that she generally worked between the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), she appeared checked out and unwilling to wear her own merchandise, and that Scanlan had shielded her from the company’s struggles and tried to paint her a rosy picture.
The article was met with a resounding “that’s it?” online, after days of speculation. The popular daily pop culture podcast The Toast posted an episode, “Justice for Arielle Charnas,” detailing what was and was not in the story, determining that the hype cycle had actually been good for the influencer.
A spokesperson denied the allegations to a handful of publications, but Charnas never acknowledged the rumors or the article herself, continuing to post her outfits and her family. Business as usual—even if the business has changed around Charnas.
“I miss the good old days,” Pollack Belz told me. “Back when actually we didn’t know so much about the celebrities, and the celebrities were actually very talented people. You didn’t know anything about their personal lives. You just knew of them on the screen.”
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