The “new Margaret Thatcher” has white blonde hair and the plump bronzed skin of a wealthy apricot. She favours clothes where the fabric has been cut out in unexpected places suddenly declared erotic, small brown zones like an airfield seen from above. During a December appearance on the Diary of a CEO podcast, Molly-Mae Hague, the 22-year-old Love Island star turned influencer, said: “We all have the same 24 hours in a day.” She was discussing the concept of “hard work”, the idea that we are all individually responsible for our own success. “We all have different backgrounds and we’re raised in different ways and have different financial situations, but if you want something enough you can achieve it – it just depends to what lengths you want to go to get to where you want to be in the future.”
Days later, after much criticism, she issued an apology, and can now be seen solemnly thinking about her actions in the sidebar of the Mail Online in very white trainers and a nice Chanel scarf. Since the story broke and a thousand fingers pointed at her, ex-fans either explaining the “class ceiling”, editing the surname on her Wikipedia page to Thatcher or calling her the “Fiat 500 Führer”. I have found myself distracted, looking out for her online, clicking on stories much in the way one might worry a potential hangnail.
Why do I care? Though the story has got much attention, it’s not because it’s surprising. Though outraged, nobody is really shocked that a 22-year-old ex-reality star believes people should simply choose not to be poor. This is how influencers work, after all, by offering the possibility of great happiness through the simple purchase of a product or plan. But one curse of the influencer is that she is paid not just to be a salesperson for a bikini or politic but also to be the face of the idea behind it, and when that idea is criticised part of the deal is that she must take the fall. While, of course, I find her individualist argument sad and a bit silly, I am not surprised that she’s making it, nor that she underestimates the help she’s had becoming rich and successful, unquestioningly linking wealth and hard work. I care, I think, because she should not be blamed for telling a story that she has to believe, because if she doesn’t, what else is there? If she doesn’t write herself a fairytale ending, she’s seen no evidence that makes her think anyone else will.
Hague is a product of her generation, a generation that has grown up at the sharpest point of a housing crisis. Thatcher selling off council houses may have allowed that generation’s parents to buy a home, but the failures afterwards (a lack of new properties and insufficient tax on housing) meant their children would never be able to join them, destined for a life that must fit in three Ikea bags. This is a generation unlikely to ever have benefited from government support, emerging into a job market where wages have stayed still so long they have rooted and sprouted small shoots. Those born, like her, in the 1990s, are expected to be the first generation in many decades to be worse off than their parents.
Isn’t it inevitable that Hague and her peers, scrabbling up ladders that sink comically into the sand, studying without student grants, living without affordable rent, the concept of buying a flat so far-off it appears pixellated, might assume people thrive and survive simply by dragging themselves up, rather than taking a hand offered from above? Why would they expect even a flake of support from government or those with power? Reading Hague’s tortured apology I was reminded of the headline I saw last week: “Savvy mum slashes bills after ditching house to live off-grid with kids in £1,800 caravan”, a straightforward story of poverty and homelessness repackaged as an empowering lifestyle choice. Doesn’t it make perfect sense that young people might find themselves leaning, whether they identify it as such or not, further and further to the right? Influencers, entrepreneurs, people whose bedrooms are also their office, Depop shop, yoga studio and bathbomb empire – these are not just creative people taking control of their lives, often these are also people who were born too late to find security or peace in traditional industries or workplaces, and so, in order to make their lives work, have been forced to make their lives their work, their careers their entire identity.
While the memes, yes, have been enjoyable, the backlash should be on policymakers, employers, on the structures that mean young people like Hague have such little faith in the idea that they might be supported through their lives and careers. Instead it has focused on Molly-Mae, just a girl standing in front of capitalism, asking it to love her.