As someone who made a living taking down wheat-dull quotes from glossy somebodies, Orla had always thought she knew what fame meant, what it consisted of, what it promised and took away. She had met Floss in August, the melon-colored end of the New York summer, everyone trudging and dying for fall to arrive and remind them why they came here. By January—another month in which everyone forgot, again, what it was they liked about this place—Orla had learned that everything she thought she knew about fame was wrong. Adorably outsider.
For instance: the craziest thing about being famous was not the being recognized, mostly by the girls who spent their twenties in the East Thirties, but also, sometimes, by men, who cupped their hands and yelled down the block, “Yo! It’s the roommate!”
The craziest thing was not the money, which landed in chunks in Orla’s account, knocking it up to five figures and finally, unbelievably, six.
The craziest thing was not the parties, which Orla struggled to look natural at. She was terrible at dancing and even worse at drugs. “Holy shit,” someone had said to her at a party recently, “go wipe your nose. There’s coke on it. You look like an albino pig.” The idea of snorting things made Orla queasy, so she tended to simply skim her face along the mirror instead of inhaling.
The craziest thing about fame was not the fact that she had a trick for wasting fine cocaine now.
It was not even the fact that the person who had noticed her powdered snout was an Olympic darling du jour, a javelin hurler with more DUIs than medals who had followed her into the bathroom, waited for her to clean up, and mashed himself up against her.
It was almost, but not quite, the fact that it seemed to exempt her from the weather. Winter in New York, for Orla, was suddenly no more difficult than any other season. Gone were the days of underestimating icy puddles and paying with damp feet all day. Winter was half-over, and Orla had barely buttoned her coat. The rain boots from Gayle stayed under her bed. She went out in silk flats and suede platforms, in all sorts of impractical, delicate shoes. If the street filled with rain, or a curb was blocked by snow, their driver and bodyguard, Amadou, would put his hands beneath her arms and lift her over the moisture, into his Escalade.
No, the craziest thing about fame, to Orla—who was never meant to have it in the first place—was that, deep down, she didn’t mind it. She wouldn’t have admitted this to anyone: when a perfect stranger looked at her twice or followed her on Instagram, she felt a flickering understanding of Floss and what she wanted. She knew how strangers saw her: as the cheapest sort of star, the tagalong friend of a TMI queen. But the point was: they saw her. She was visible. She was there.
On most red carpets, Orla would stand with Floss for ten seconds or so. Then, despite the way Floss sometimes called out over the camera shutters’ soft gunfire—“that’s my friend Orla Cadden, C-A-D-D-E-N, she’s a literary talent on the rise”— Orla would be asked to move off to the side, so that Floss could be shot alone. She never minded. She liked to stand at the edge of the step-and-repeat, watching Floss give what they called, together, The Face. It was a thing to behold. Floss would suck in her cheeks, push her lips out in a pout, and make her eyes smolder like she was charging into battle. She would cast The Face down her nose, over her shoulder—it was a beam she could throw anywhere. Orla always felt mesmerized, watching her. Who cared that Floss was, essentially, just standing there? Orla knew now how hard it was to stay put in the crosshairs of so many flashbulbs. The instinct, when things got that bright, was to run, or at least to blink. But others who witnessed The Face in person were not as impressed. If Floss heard a camera click while she was talking to someone, she’d abandon her sentence cold and go right to work, posing. Whoever she was talking to would be left to stand there, perplexed and forgotten, until they saw themselves out of the moment—or until Orla did, smiling apologetically and trying to finish Floss’s point. “Doesn’t she know that, like, we can see her?” one of those people had whispered to Orla once. But Floss was not concerned about the people in front of her; Floss was concerned about followers. Her followers only saw the picture, and the picture always turned out.
One night, as Orla killed time out of frame, she looked down the press’s side of the carpet and saw the laminated paper she used to stand on—LADY-ISH.COM. There was a set of delicate, neon-polished toes covering the name that had replaced hers, and Orla followed them up to the rest of a girl who must have just finished college. Only recently had Orla come to accept that there was now a whole class of people living and working in New York who were several years younger than her, that they were not interns who had overstayed their summers—they were here to stay and grow up and compete.
Orla walked toward the girl from Lady-ish. “Hi,” she said, feeling radiant, generous.
The girl looked up from scribbling on her notepad. She had enormous black-rimmed glasses, perfect olive skin, and nude lip gloss, shiny and pearly, the kind Orla would have thought was out of style. Self-consciously, she touched her own lips, which were a thick red Floss had talked her into.
“Huh?” the girl said. She studied Orla. “Oh. Right. You’re on Flosston Public. The bookish one, right? Orla.”
It was her brand, but Orla still flinched at being called bookish. Not knowing what else to do, she trilled, feeling fake, “I love Lady-ish.”
The girl broke into a knowing grin. “I guess you do,” she said. “You worked there a long time.”
Orla bristled. “Right,” she said, reddening. “It’s a great place to start out.”
The girl shrugged. “I went to Yale,” she said, as if this explained multitudes. “I won’t be there that long. I’m writing a play. About— Well, I shouldn’t say too much. My agent wouldn’t want me to. I swear it’s like her full name is Polly ‘Top Secret’ Cummings.”
Orla nodded, teeth frozen. The girl had to be bluffing, she thought. There was no way she was repped by Polly Cummings. Polly was a lioness of literary agents, one whose name Orla had known since high school, when she checked a guide to the industry out of the local library. Her senior year, she had mailed Polly a short story she had written, the same one that now made up most of her manuscript. She remembered the day she got the response from Polly’s office. Gayle had come running out to where Orla floated in their aboveground pool, waving the envelope—Polly’s response came by mail, because it was only 2005—“Polly Cummings wrote back!” "I see promise here. Keep going!!—P," said the Post-it on top of the packet Orla had mailed. Beneath the Post-it was another sheet, a half page of typed feedback. Now that she knew how these things worked, Orla understood that the letter had been written by an assistant—this was back when people Yale Girl’s age were expected to be assistants, not self ordained playwrights. Yale Girl was full of shit, Orla ruled. But something must have crossed her face, doubt or envy or fear, because Yale Girl smiled suddenly, like she had won a race between them. Just before she turned to see who else was coming down the line, Yale Girl looked at Orla with pity in her eyes. “Anyway, good luck,” she said. “I mean it.”
Orla was already shuffling away when she realized: the bitch hadn’t even bothered asking her a question.
Excerpted from Followers by Megan Angelo. Copyright © 2020 by Megan Angelo. Published by Graydon House.
Originally Appeared on Glamour