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Writer Stacey Duguid on navigating divorce with an online following and why Instagram is broken

Posted by Emilie McMeekan in Case studies

8 months ago

Stacey Duguid is at breaking point, although you wouldn’t know it. She’s just published a memoir titled In Pursuit of Happiness: Mating, Marriage, Motherhood, Money, Mayhem, a series of essays exploring why she decided to leave her life, her marriage, in order to find herself. She has a devoted Instagram community (35.8K followers) and works as a consultant with various brands, but financially, nothing is working. “I’m now at breaking point, financial breaking point,” she tells CORQ. It’s the beginning of a conversation about what being a content creator means, about the tension between audiences and brands and why – long story short – social media is no fairy tale.

Fairy tales are a motif in Duguid’s work – her memoir is all about being sold the “happy ever after myth” of princes and castles, only for Duguid to realise this was not what she wanted. But this is also a story about the social media myth, of the glossy fashion women who found the Instagram squares paved with gold and made their fortunes there: women like Pernille Teisbaek and Leonie Hanne, says Duguid. She is not one of those women, instead, says Duguid: “I don’t believe in Instagram any more, I think it’s broken.”

Duguid is frustrated and exhausted by the system, confused by the vagaries of the algorithm and the tightrope wire she has to walk between brands and her community. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Like all good stories, let’s start at the beginning.

Stacey Duguid the Instadivorcée

Stacey Duguid was a fashion editor at Elle magazine, and ghostwriter of its Mademoiselle column. In 2011, Duguid, as Mademoiselle, had 30,000 or so Twitter (now X) followers. She went on maternity leave, but not before outing herself in the column and online. When she came back in 2012, the fashion world and all its hierarchies had spun on its axis. Suddenly, Instagram was the thing. “I remember people talking about Instagram,” she says, “and I had set up an account that I’d forgotten about. When I clicked on it, I had 1,000 followers, from out of nowhere, and I thought, ‘Oh, what’s this?’.”

At the fashion shows in 2012, influencers such as Bryan Yambao (Bryanboy) were all of a sudden seated at the front row of Dolce & Gabbana. Duguid says: “I remember thinking ‘these younger, cooler, more connected people are the new editors’.” Not only that but she couldn’t believe that the old fashion guard, “the directors and the editors and the CEOs, stood back and watched it all happen”.

Despite her experience as a writer and a fashion editor, Duguid struggled on Instagram and this tension is with her still. “I wasn’t quite sure who I was supposed to be on Instagram,” she says. “Because it’s like, ‘oh, here I am at the shows’ but I am funnier than that. I was always erring on the side of slightly too funny, you know.” Nevertheless, Duguid tried to plan a strategy, mindful of the success of the new fashion cohort. She says: “I thought, ‘I need an Instagram strategy, what would that strategy be? Should I do before and afters of a shoot, or behind the scenes of a shoot?’” And then she thought: “This is exhausting.”

Duguid ploughed on, gathering ten or so thousand followers, working as fashion director of Harrods, until everything changed. In 2020, Duguid left her husband and began chafing at the disconnect between her real life and her posts. There was a moment, she says, when she thought she had three choices available to her: “leave social media; continue the ‘hashtag life is great’ posts; or I can tell my truth”.

She decided to tell her truth, and posted about the collapse of her marriage and of her life as she knew it. She gained 20,000 followers, but these were not social media rubberneckers just there to witness the car crash. Instead, says Duguid, these are “real, proper followers, hardcore followers, who pre-ordered my book and who message me late into the night. A dedicated bunch of women and men who I’ve supported, and in turn, who have supported me over the last three years.” She says ruefully: “I didn’t set out to build a community of midlife divorcee women, but when I started to talk truthfully about my life, they connected with it.”

Duguid points out that at the time, only Rosie Green, Helen Thorn of the Scummy Mummies and herself were talking about divorce online – the Instaverse was dominated by the glamorous lifestyle influencers and the Instamums. Duguid fell into the messy middle, albeit in her Manolos. She says: “The Sunday Times coined me ‘the accidental divorce influencer’, which is kind of disgusting, because it sounds like I’m influencing people to get divorced. But it’s not an act. It was a complete accident.”

In tandem with her new role as an Instadivorcée, she also had a column in The Telegraph, which was another source of frustration. She says: “I wanted it to be a midlife reinvention column. They turned it into a dating column, which was quite tiresome.”

Midlife reinvention is the theme that keeps cropping up, but Duguid finds that she can no longer communicate it on Instagram. The problem, for Duguid, lies in the constant strain between words and pictures, brand and audience. Her audience want despatches from the overwhelm, but are not keen on glossy images. “I don’t know whether they don’t like it, or the algorithms don’t like it. But glossy gets less engagement,” she says.

Brands on the other hand, don’t want the wild, unvarnished truth. Duguid says her pictures never make it through marketing departments first time – and herein lies her dilemma: “If I dial myself down, if I put the dimmer switch on too low, then my community doesn’t like it, and they don’t engage. If it’s deemed glossy, they don’t like it. If it’s too showy, they don’t like it.”

Duguid has built an engaged community that “celebrates imperfection, that celebrates a bit of a disaster zone, be it giving the kids breakfast in the car, wearing pyjamas on the school run (and after!) or whatever”. She cannot run her account with the precision of the fashion creators who “are glossy, easy to understand, with consistent photographs in terms of light and colour. They look like micro magazines; everything is very uniform.” Not for her guys, but those accounts, she says, are the ones that brands want “to buy into”.

Duguid also suggests that some of her difficulties lie in marketing departments staffed by young people who don’t understand her or her demographic. She says: “They’re too young. They will ask annoying questions like ‘please send your engagement for this week, between this date and this date’.” These box ticking exercises are why, Duguid suggests, everything looks the same in the end. She highlights Jigsaw and Pantene as brands that have been brilliant to work with – despite her pictures not being approved first time, she still felt the autonomy of being trusted to communicate with the community that she has grown through word of mouth.

Duguid adds: “That’s how I built my following, not through a column in a newspaper or having press. It was through women talking about divorce to other women.” One newly-divorced woman messaged her to say that it was her estate agent who had recommended Duguid’s account. The estate agent had told the woman, who was looking for her first solo property, “you should follow this woman on Instagram. She’s really good about divorce.”

Now Duguid finds herself at another crossroads and has decided which direction to move in. She says: “As far as I can see, the only platform where you could start to earn money from ads is YouTube. I want to do a YouTube show twice a week that I’m going to film myself and edit myself.” The theme will be around midlife reinvention, of course, and will launch in tandem with an ecommerce website. She will take her audience of engaged, frantic, unseen, teary, brilliant women with her and show her life in all its gore and glory, and hopes the right brands will follow.

Of the other so-called divorce influencers, Rosie Green has a beauty column in You Magazine and a podcast called Life’s Rosie: How To Heal A Broken Heart, and Helen Thorn wrote a book, Get Divorced, Be Happy, and has been touring with her Scummy Mummy partner, Ellie Gibson, to huge audiences. Perhaps Duguid will catch the new wave of influencing that is being predicted by agencies such as OK Cool and KOMI: one that is edgier, looser and more brain dump/diary-style than curated elegance.

Duguid says: “I’ve been trying to squish down my personality to fit with Instagram in the hope that it might work across my community and also across brands, but it just doesn’t. I’ve got to branch out.” And with that, Mademoiselle Stacey Duguid is gone, to put her game face on and turn her light up to max.

By Emilie McMeekan, CORQ features director. Picture credit: Stacey Duguid