Photo shows Caroline Calloway with flowers in her hair against a pink backdrop. She's being interviewed by man holding a microphone who's half out of frame. Her lips are pursed.
Caroline Calloway attends the 11th Annual Shorty Awards on May 05, 2019 at PlayStation Theater in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images for Shorty Awards)

The Short, Strange, Very Predictable Story of Caroline Calloway’s Snake Oil

As the controversial online personality says she’s leaving New York, complaints about Calloway's latest business venture pursue her out the door. 

To know about Caroline Calloway is to be deeply, terminally online, and to know anything about her skincare product, Snake Oil, is to be perhaps internet-addled beyond redemption. Nonetheless, here we are, and here we shall remain, for a brief, fragrant moment. 

Calloway is best-known as a tell-all Instagram influencer and occasional scammer. Over the last several years, stories about her eccentric (and, more often than not, outright bad) behavior have been legion. The chaos is, more or less, the point and the central aspect of Calloway’s brand; as she once told writer Emily Gould in a tweet, “I’m chaotic. I love my work. My work is writing, painting, photography, posting on social media, and living inside a Truman Show of my own making—performance art. Most ppl do not consider what I make to be art. More chaos ensues.” 

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In a move no one could have predicted, Calloway moved out of her much-Instagrammed New York apartment last week and, over the past few months, has deleted most of her social media presence. She did, however, recently make a series of rambling TikTok videos explaining that she’s decamping to Florida to write a memoir and be with her grandmother after hosting “nine back-to-back parties” in her visibly trashed apartment. (Calloway and an agent who has represented her did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Motherboard.)

But Calloway’s once-loyal fans want her to leave behind more than decaying flowers and dead batteries in her kitchen sink: Many of them still want closure, and also a refund. Thus far, Calloway has failed to produce two books that have been available for pre-order since 2020, and doesn’t seem to have sent out all the items her followers bought from her during a “digital yard sale” she hosted to clean out her apartment. 

Most importantly, these fans want answers about Snake Oil. Some customers are still awaiting their shipments of her flagship—and only—product. FOIA requests also show that a few people have submitted complaints about Snake Oil to the Federal Trade Commission, which: good luck with that. 

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A chorus of eye-rolling greeted Calloway’s announcement, back in July 2021, that she’d launched a skincare product, with a name that made winking reference to the reputation she’d laboriously created. While she’d often made empty promises about products and services available for purchase, with Snake Oil, Calloway veered into new and possibly more dangerous territory, making an overt set of claims about the oil that could not possibly be true. (She called the homemade elixir  “the fountain of youth” and claimed it would repair cellular damage to the skin. She also promised it was just the first in a line of skincare products.) It cost an eye-watering $75 for a one-ounce bottle.

Calloway’s once-loyal fans want her to leave behind more than decaying flowers and dead batteries: Many of them still want closure, and also a refund.

As a product to put on your face, Snake Oil was not ideal; an ingredients list she eventually posted online showed that the first ingredient was grapeseed oil, a perfectly fine product that sells for around $3 for a 4-ounce bottle at most natural foods stores. It was accompanied by a lineup of other fragrant oils that a dermatologist told VICE UK could very easily lead to a sensitizing reaction. (Many skincare experts do not recommend putting fragrance of any kind on your face, for obvious reasons.) As VICE UK reporter Katherine Rodgers pointed out at the time, the sterility of the product was also questionable, given that there was a visible cat hair in one of the product shots Calloway posted to Instagram. 

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Some of Calloway’s followers complained that their Snake Oil orders never appeared, a sentence which makes its own kind of brutal sense, when you think about it for more than 10 seconds. Meanwhile, I was having–and continue to have–an opposite problem. 

In July 2021, I ordered a bottle of Snake Oil and sent it off to a lab. The analysis revealed nothing particularly interesting or newsworthy; despite the cat hair in Calloway’s Instagram photo, a lab analysis showed my bottle didn’t have unusual levels of microbials, heavy metals or foreign matter. I shoved it somewhere I can no longer remember and moved on with my life. Two months later, another bottle of Snake Oil, that I very much did not order, arrived on my doorstep. 

The first bottle had borne a hand-drawn label of a red snake surrounded by blue squiggles, and no ingredients list posted anywhere on it. The second, unasked-for bottle had a more professional label, showing a blue snake wearing a crown and extruding a tiny, red, nude woman from its jaws. It also had an ingredients list on the back, identical to the one posted online. It came with a Snake Oil logo sticker and a second, tinier bottle of something which may have been a sample of her body oil, which Calloway promised would be the next product to be released. (Both bottles smell identical, and the instructions for Snake Oil say that it can be used on the face, body, cuticles, split ends, and “adding to a hot bath in order to feel like an Egyptian princess,” all of which suggests a second product was not really going to be all that different from the first.) 

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The smell of both products was not unpleasant, but quite—full-bodied? Muscular? It reads like an ecstatic and well-meaning toddler overturned the entire essential oils section at Whole Foods. After opening Box 2 for this story, I had to open a window and vacate the room for several minutes. (“Wow,” my partner murmured, as the smell pervaded the room; he then inquired if the product was “soap.”) Both bottles had a receipt bearing the same order number, suggesting a glitch in Calloway’s system rather than a concerted effort to send me two bottles of this stuff.

As may be evident by now, Calloway’s Snake Oil line eventually fell by the wayside of her other, ongoing bedlam. In the meantime, a FOIA request shows that four people submitted complaints to the FTC about her, and one person filed one with the FDA. Several are focused on making the agencies aware that Calloway was publicizing unsubstantiated claims about Snake Oil.  

“Multiple violations of consumer protection laws guidance,” one irate complaint to the FTC read. It continues:

She’s selling a $75 bottle of untested face oil and making several unsubstantiated, undocumented, unscientific, false misleading, deceptive claims about its medical benefits and efficacy. She claims that it is the elixir of youth, and that in a month you'll see results (despite zero testing), claims that the ingredients can repair damage to DNA at a cellular level and reduce skin cancer cells, among other outrageous claims. None of these claims have been tested and there are no sources for them. She’s marketing this to her impressionable Instagram followers and lying about having used the concoction herself for years. She also provides no contact information, has no posted refund policy, and no timeline for shipping. Additionally, she has been selling preorders of a book on her website for over a year (since Jan 2020), with no updates about when it will be written or shipped to those who paid. She originally promised that it would be shipped in March 2020, then pushed in multiple times without notifying customers. Now she’s taken the long-passed estimated shipping date off her website and it just says it will come when it comes, as she continues to advertise the book on her Instagram and take money from people for preorders. Also no refund policy for this.

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“She’s saying that after one month your skin will be glowing, despite zero evidence,” another person wrote to the agency. “No ingredients list on the label, no safety or sanitization precautions. She’s using PayPal to collect payment from her followers.” 

Calloway also appears to owe money to her followers from other business ventures. Comments on TikTok and her now-deleted Instagram presence show a multitude of people asking how to get money back that they Venmoed or sent via Paypal to her, for things ranging from art to a chandelier in her apartment. 

“I assume you got rid of the chandelier I bought since the apartment is empty lol,” one TikTok user commented.

One person wrote the FTC to complain about not receiving a product they’d bought from her on Instagram. “She stated that she would accept Venmo for the products she listed on her Instagram story,” they wrote. “I paid and I kept on asking for help but only heard back once. I look at her Instagram and there are other customers who are not receiving their products either. In the comments people are mentioning not receiving anything.” 

Neither the FTC nor the FDA have taken any regulatory action against her, and they’re unlikely to do so. The FTC does have disclosure guidelines for influencers, which, among other things, requires people not to invent baseless or untested claims about a product. But the world of influencers is so vast, and Calloway is but one flower-bedazzled speck within it, that to attract regulatory notice, she’d have to really mess up. (An FTC spokesperson told Motherboard, “We have not announced any action related to Caroline Calloway. Since FTC investigations are nonpublic, we generally do not comment on whether we are investigating a particular matter.”) 

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“I paid and I kept on asking for help but only heard back once. I look at her Instagram and there are other customers who are not receiving their products either. In the comments people are mentioning not receiving anything.”

Caroline Calloway became Caroline Calloway long before FDA complaints, unusable face oils, and missing chandeliers. She first came to prominence as a sort of aspirational college lifestyle influencer. Originally from Virginia, she spent years honing an American-fairy-tale-at-Cambridge University persona, replete with river jaunts, black-tie balls, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and a Swedish, polo-playing boyfriend, all shared with the world via an episodic tale told in Instagram captions. 

When she moved to New York, she produced aspirational content for the addled era of young woman who came of age between Sex and the City and Girls: she seemed to live a life bedecked with artistic chaos, flowers, stacks of books, and daily Pilates workouts. In 2015, as she told Man Repeller, she scored a contract with Flatiron Books for the first version of her memoir, quickly spent her entire advance (mainly on rent for a London flat she shared with a boyfriend at the time and “meals,” she said), and then was dropped “when it became clear to my publishers that I didn’t want to write this book.” 

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The failed book deal marked the place where Calloway’s storyline shifted, and where it began to seem like her Instagram wasn’t a means to an end, but an end in itself; put less charitably, it began to seem like the high-volume background noise of her life meant she couldn’t produce anything but Instagram captions. 

In 2019, a viral Twitter thread from writer Kayleigh Donaldson drew attention to the fact that Calloway was touting an expensive international series of “creativity seminars” that eventually dwindled down to a single event in her Manhattan loft, which she re-titled The Scam. It was all either delightfully cheeky and self-referential, a reflection on Calloway’s inability to plan and self-regulate, or just a shitty little scam, depending, probably, on whether you’d paid to attend a now-canceled event. The same year, Calloway’s former friend and assistant Natalie Beach penned an essay for The Cut about working for her. It was an unflattering but, in some ways, sympathetic portrayal: “[W]hen people ask me if Caroline is a scammer,” Beach wrote. “I try to explain that if she is, her first mark is always herself.” 

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It began to seem like the high-volume background noise of her life meant she couldn’t produce anything but Instagram captions.

Beach’s essay cemented Calloway’s reputation for over-promising and under or non-delivering; Calloway responded by launching a website where she claimed she’d deliver her response essay in serialized form, charging $10 per installment and claiming she’d give the money to the organization Direct Relief. She delivered three installments; the website is now gone. In the third installment, Calloway wrote about learning that her father had died by suicide not long before Beach’s essay was released, another horrifying data point making it hard to view her without a healthy dose of pity. 

This moment was another turning point, and Calloway became even more adept at social media: She had a voracious appetite for controversy, a blithe lack of interest in whether the attention she was receiving was positive or negative, and a canny young woman’s ability to be occasionally, strategically nude online (she briefly set up an OnlyFans, saying she made $130,000 from it). She also abused Adderall and talked about living with mental illness, which put a far sadder light on some of her antics. 

After promoting Snake Oil and spending months of 2021 enmeshed in a certain version of New York's downtown scene—she developed a curious symbiotic relationship with the post-left anti-feminist shitlords of Red Scare—all her accounts went quiet. Calloway claimed to be working on her book in England, and it wasn't until February of this year that she returned from Twitter hibernation. Then, almost as quickly, she began staking out the terms of her departure, framing it as the logical next step. 

“I started my Instagram account when I was 20 and moved in here,” Calloway said in one recent TikTok, gesturing to the mostly-empty apartment. “You could never tell because my skin, because Snake Oil”—here she paused, rolled her eyes, stuck out her tongue, and pointed at her face. “But I’m 30 now, and I’ve realized that my purpose in this world is writing a book. I don’t have many books in me. I’m very much a Harper Lee. I’ve always known since I was little that I’d be a famous memoirist and that I’d have one important book. And I need to make that for the world, because I think it will help people who struggle with suicide, honestly.” She promised that while the book will take a while, “I’m making beautiful, effervescent, radiant prose that will explode over you.” 

In a certain light, the squalid state of Calloway’s apartment is disturbing, and it’s impossible not to reflect on how difficult life gets for an attractive young woman with a knack for the spotlight and a tendency towards the scammy as she gets older and has fewer bridges to burn and ropes to fray.

Another very online presence, the poet Rachel Rabbit White, has moved into Calloway’s apartment and documented the wreckage left behind: dirt-smeared floors, fetid countertops, mystery jars of liquid in the refrigerator, wads of trash and batteries in the sink. White has been kind about Calloway herself, writing on Instagram, “I really feel for her! Obviously things got…. Intense.. In her life. From what I know, she seems like a person who wants to give ppl around her lots of love but I’m not sure anyone was taking care of her in return.” (It’s unclear whether Calloway moved out voluntarily or was evicted; court records appear to show that her landlord filed eviction papers in New York City’s housing court in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, stating that she owed several thousand dollars in back rent. Neither Calloway nor the agent who has represented to her responded to a question about whether Calloway is being evicted or moving out voluntarily, but the fact that she handed the apartment over to White suggests the latter.) 

In a certain light, the squalid state of Calloway’s apartment is disturbing, and it’s impossible not to reflect on how difficult life gets for an attractive young woman with a knack for the spotlight and a tendency towards the scammy as she gets older and has fewer bridges to burn and ropes to fray. The people who ordered things from her that never arrived seem to toggle between frustration and resignation; several people have noted on Twitter that their bottles of Snake Oil have shown as “in transit” for several months, existing in a sort of metaphorically apt liminal space that they seem unlikely to ever escape. Or—in as liminal a space as Calloway herself. 

In the meantime, Calloway seems somewhat undaunted, posting regularly to TikTok and liking and retweeting every comment about her on Twitter, good or bad, approving or exasperated. Her book is, for those who live in a certain kind of hope, still available for pre-order.