Lola Tash and Nicole Argiris are conversing quietly behind a wall of their combined hair. “We’ll just say, one of her ex-boyfriends comments on our memes,” Nicole says when their foreheads part. Lola jumps in: “We know girls who don’t like us have commented. We’re just so curious what they’ll think when they find out it’s us.”
Lola and Nicole, both 23, run the viral meme Instagram account @MyTherapistSays, where they post a combination of aggregated and original memes. The name implies a mental health bent to the jokes, but most are more relatable gags about being an anxious twentysomething woman who’s a bit of a mess. Lola and Nicole say the account is “one of the fastest-growing aggregate Instagram accounts in history,” climbing to 500,000 followers in its first six months and now surpassing 2 million since they started it in July 2015. (Instagram would not confirm this data.) They also say it was the biggest meme account on Instagram run anonymously, until now.
Anonymity was a conscious decision; Lola and Nicole wanted to avoid the criticism that seemingly put-together women face when they make jokes about how messy they feel. For the first six months, only their mothers knew they ran the account. Both women made their personal Instagram accounts private when they started @MyTherapistSays and don’t post on them anymore. Their Facebook pages are private too. They have virtually no internet presence outside of their memes, yet they post on @MyTherapistSays every two to three hours and also manage the smaller meme accounts @mybestiesays (125,000 followers) and @mystylesays (13,400 followers). But being funny behind a screen is a solitary pursuit, so six months in, Lola and Nicole revealed their identities to the Meme Cartel.
The cartel is an Instagram DM group between 11 of the biggest meme aggregators on the site: @MyTherapistSays, @Tank.Sinatra, @Versace_Tamagotchi, @ShitheadSteve, @Humor_Me_Pink, @FriendOfBae, @mo_wad, @thenewsclan, @Davie_Dave, @prozacmorris_, and @sonny5ideup. It’s a meme democracy; potential new members must win a majority vote to be admitted but once you’re in, your opinion on a meme counts as much as someone with quadruple your following. Members give feedback on memes and shout out each other to boost other members’ followings. Loyalty is everything. Other meme chats have died without it.
“We actually like talk to them like they're our friends about, like, our daily lives and everything,” Nicole says. “Like, we're going to meet some of them.”
Lola and Nicole met 12 years ago in their hometown of Toronto and have been best friends since. After high school when Lola started spending long stints in L.A. picking up small acting gigs and Nicole was busy studying psychology at the University of Western Ontario, they texted each other memes. “The account just kind of came about as a way for us to keep in contact,” Nicole says. (Lola lives in Los Angeles full time now and Nicole plans to eventually go to grad school for clinical psychology in Toronto.)
Both of them have been in therapy for years. Lola has what she calls “crippling shyness” and Nicole suffers from anxiety. “Every time I would talk to Nicole, I was like, ‘My therapist said this,’ and she’d say, “No, I said that,’” Lola says. “And I'm like, ‘Well, you are basically my therapist, so.’” Their memes reflect common complaints they make to each other (and their real therapists) about their anxiety-prone twentysomething lives: aggressive crush texting, impulsive shopping, canceling plans in order to sleep. (“I’m not sure I see memes about mental health issues ... or anything that really reflects what I, as a therapist, say to my clients,” says Dr. Jaclyn Cravens-Pickens, a licensed marriage and family therapy associate who does not know Lola or Nicole, while scrolling through the account.)
But something in the memes did hit with Instagrammers who deal with anxiety and depression. By December 2015, followers began opening up to the account about their own struggles in the comments and DMs. Simon Trabelsi, a 31-year-old who says he has no idea who runs the account, was hospitalized for a mental health condition last year and says he had a breakthrough laughing at @MyTherapistSays memes. “To be able to get that in any kind of way when you’re really depressed is really valuable,” he says. “If you peel back another layer and you find, ‘Oh, I’m actually laughing at myself here,’ then, at least for me, I was able to step out of the shit and step out of myself a little bit.”
From the hospital, Trabelsi sent @MyTherapistSays a long DM of appreciation. The girls replied anonymously: “Thank you, I hope you make it out and that you find courage and strength because you seem awesome.” Trabelsi now comments and tags people on almost every one of their posts.
By April 2016, Lola and Nicole had an obsessive following. But just as they were taking off, someone reported an uncredited photo on @MyTherapistSays to Instagram and their account was shut down. Lola says she started having panic attacks. Nicole worried their superfans would feel abandoned. So they called on the Meme Cartel, which rallied around them, tagging @MyTherapistSays and reaching out to Instagram to get the account restored. A week later, Lola and Nicole were back online.
KnowYourMeme.com associate editor Briana Milman says getting into a good meme chat is the only way to succeed in the competitive world of meme aggregation. “They’re like an alien, constantly growing stronger, feeding on memes and shares,” Milman says of the cartel. “I was going to avoid the word ‘circle jerk,’ but it is an Instagram meme circle jerk.”
Now, @MyTherapistSays has the biggest fanbase of any of the cartel accounts. Although Lola and Nicole won’t disclose how much money they’ve made from their account, they post sponsored content about once a month and the account inspired their forthcoming book - a witty, sardonic novel about a twentysomething woman who sees a therapist. They’re also starting a self-produced podcast in September. Gucci approached them to design some memes in January and they’re now working on a line of athleisure wear branded with their jokes for a different company. They reinvest most of their meme income into podcast production, they say, and have donated some of it to mental health and animal charities.
It’s hard to tell what has given @MyTherapistSays the edge over other meme accounts, but one theory is that Lola and Nicole have found a niche in comforting, woman-centric jokes. “The meme world feels very male-driven,” says Milman, who doesn't know who runs @MyTherapistSays. “[@MyTherapistSays] feels more woman-oriented than the five other accounts that are just like this one." (Four of the 11 Meme Cartel member accounts are run by women, and there are other similar accounts on Instagram, like @beigecardigan.)
Lola insists there's no intra-cartel competition, even with the other female-focused accounts. In fact, they say, the Meme Cartel has been their second therapy, encouraging them to be more outspoken with their memes. “Being in my 20s and growing up, I think it’s made me more confident and … I do want to stand for something,” Lola says. But there’s still that anxiety, that doubt. “It’s definitely nerve-wracking to reveal yourself to 2 million people,” Nicole says. They look at each other, and I think for a second I’m about to be shut out by the hair wall. Then Lola brushes her hair from her face. “It’ll be perfect,” she says, and Nicole turns to her. “High-five, girl.”
Photos of Lola and Nicole shot at Thompson Toronto.
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