The Internet may very well be obsessed with Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist Seraphina Watson—and for good reason. She’s got three quarters of a photography degree from Parsons. She’s been called “self-indulgent” by Hyperallergic magazine. Her solo show, Borderline Dreamz, is showing at the ARTFOOL Gallery in East Williamsburg this month. But when I came across her on my Instagram Explore, I knew there was more to Watson than her myriad of accomplishments. The whiny, oblivious character she plays online had drawn thousands of followers, and now I was sucked in. How does she afford all that expensive shit she’s constantly showing off? What is her makeup routine? Do I want to be her, or do I want to murder her?
I decided to reach out to Watson and ask her about the cult of personality she’s seemingly created. We meet at Variety Coffee in Greenpoint. She leans her head into her tattooed hand and crosses her legs, sighing in exasperation with each question she has to answer. I begin the interview by asking her how she’d “describe her ethos.”
“I’m a girl who sits at that precarious confluence of punk rocker/film photographer/laid-back stoner/emotionally unstable gargoyle,” she says, conspicuously checking her buzzing phone. I can feel the Internet fame she’s soaking up at this very moment. She tears her eyes away from Instagram to give me a compulsory glance. “Let’s just say I know exactly how to get the validation I need, even though it’s never enough.”
It’s time to delve deeper, and I’m hoping that Watson is open to sharing her tools of the trade with our lowly readers (no offense, guys). Thankfully, as soon as I mention internet fame, her face lights up like a notification on her phone. It’s at this very second I realize that the “role” I assumed she played online is just a hyper-focused facet of her actual personality. She hesitates when I ask her to pontificate, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s because she knows what that word means.
“Fine, I’ll do it,” she begins, gingerly brushing a strand of hair behind the onyx plug sagging in her earlobe. “But only for the attention.”
I’m relieved Watson is willing to discuss how she’s harnessed the internet to her pseudo-feminist advantage for my listicle. It was either that or writing about Borderline Dreamz, and there’s only so much that can be said about watered-down Millennial rip-offs of Nan Goldin photography.
- Choose Your Aesthetic
Without a clear sense of aesthetic direction, your Instagram as a whole will feel inconsistent. When people click on your profile, they’re looking to you to evoke a specific feeling. They want to be you. They want your full eyebrows, your blush-covered cheeks, your perfectly trimmed bangs. But more than that, they want what you represent.
Watson’s approach has been to purport a vaguely feminist ideology by posting pictures of her and her white girlfriends applying their makeup. She makes poverty-inspired #looks by cutting and sewing back up a bunch of clothes she stole from a thrift store. She spends her Friday nights taking pictures of herself eating Xanax with Honey Nut Cheerios and watching Friends.
“Being an artist is half about shooting in film and half about having a ‘look,’” Watson tells me, scrolling through her Squarespace-hosted photography portfolio. “That’s how you become successful. That’s how you afford rent in Greenpoint.”
Your persona, Watson maintains, is entirely based on the way you see the world based on what you think people on Instagram would like. It sounds convoluted, but it’s actually a pretty simple formula. Whenever you can create or experience a like-worthy scenario, take a photo and share it with your followers–even if you have to set up a tripod and self-timer. And grab your cutest bong. And get drunk and send your ex-boyfriend Ethan pictures of your boobs again even though he told you to stop, he’s seeing Claire now.
- Decorate Your Life
Because your life is ruled by your aesthetic sensibilities, everything you do and everywhere you are needs to be a photo opportunity. Even a ride on public transit is a chance to catch some dappled sunlight on your face, or, better yet, show everyone you’re not too snobby to ride public transit every once in a while. Who cares that the other passengers can see you staring at yourself in your phone camera the whole commute?
“It’s brave and feminist to have a selfie photo shoot celebrating every time you step outside,” Watson says as she takes a picture of herself sipping chai. “Like the time I performed my piece Doula in my friend’s living room. I stuffed a whole canned chicken in my vagina and slowly pulled it out, screaming in ecstasy, in front of a crowd of seven.”
However, if you’re anything like her, you spend most of you time in your bedroom. (Also she is not allowed back in that apartment anymore.) That’s why it needs to be impeccably furnished.
“Not cleaned,” she clarifies, “But filled to the brim with knick-knacks yanked from ex-friends and ex-places of employment.” Watson shows me pictures of her set-up: a lava lamp that adorns the curves of her nubile body with murky red light, a poster that reads I’M NOT YR BB GIRL ANYMORE, and a taxidermied titmouse named Buddy Holly.
“I also have a lot of friends and acquaintances, all of whom I consider human accessories,” Watson continues. “I keep them around not for emotional guidance, but because they wear dad hats and have sick body mods.”
Unfortunately, it turns out most human accessories have an expiration date. After about three months, either they’ll get tired of you using them for free rides and weed or you’ll get bored of them not kissing your ass anymore. Which is okay, because you wanted more “wine mom time” to yourself anyway.
- Find Your Following
“My internet fame began on Tumblr, where I would appease followers with daily posts on my recent purchases and constantly changing haircuts,” Watson explains. “My fanbase was mostly tween girls with low self-esteem, other internet-famous people with personality disorders, and horny dudes ages sixteen to fifty.”
Before she knew it, Watson had a gaggle of sycophants waiting with bated breath for her Outfit(s) of the Day or a romantic tableau of a dying rose and dildo in her bedroom.
“I’m not saying pander, necessarily, but give the people what they want,” Watson says. “The iPhone I just got as a half-birthday gift is waterproof for a reason, so I invite followers into my weekly bathing experience.” Kids these days, Watson insists, want to see you wet, naked, and vaping.
You, too, are presumably covered in tattoos your parents simultaneously financed and resent–very aesthetic. “All the photos of my impulsive decisions get thousands of likes,” Watson boasts. “A 35mm picture I took of my ex, Ethan, got fifty-thousand.”
As for all of those impressionable high school girls who love you because you’ve been so open about your “insecurity”? They’ll see the unhealthy and privileged life you lead and aspire to be like you. They don’t have to know your sheets haven’t been changed in six months and are full of shame crumbs. And that you not-so-accidentally hooked up with a neo-Nazi once. Nobody has to know.
- Flaunt Your Money
As you’ve probably gleaned from the pictures she posts of her diary, Seraphina Quigley Watson has problems. Problems that can’t just be solved by throwing money at them. “Unfortunately, my parents never figured that out, which is why I have ‘All I Know is Pain’ from Ruff Ryders Anthem stick-and-poked on my left buttcheek,” she reveals. “I still have a weekly $500 existence stipend, though.”
Even though Watson goes to therapy three times a week, she says there will always be a “void” in her soul. “I’ve learned that if you have access to the financial means to try and fill that void, you should,” she explains, now blatantly pulling from her vape in this fucking coffeeshop. “When I complain about being broke and needing donations, it’s not because I have nothing left. It’s because I blew this week’s allowance on 1920s flapper-era lingerie, rhinestone-encrusted acrylic nails, and a tattoo of the grim reaper playing basketball—and dammit, now I want a pair of vintage cowboy boots.” She chuckles like her obnoxious spending habit is just a little quirk, but it actually makes my hands twitch like they want to strangle something.
If anyone took the time to sit down and do the math, they’d see how much money Watson spends on her online presence—and that’s not just the followers she bought to supplement her persona. Imply how rich you are by posting quasi-artistic photos of all of your expensive things. Imagine how jealous your fans will be of your disposable income, especially when they compare it against the one day a week you “work” as an “apprentice” at a “body arts studio” in “Bushwick.” Text your mom that you need a new turntable to play your special edition Fugazi record because you broke your last one having sex on it.
- Exploit Your Sadness
As someone who never really learned the true meaning of money, Watson’s become well-accustomed to using her emotions as currency.
“I’ve never cleaned a room in my life,” she confesses. “Instead, I beg for people’s sympathy online in hopes someone will pack up my shit for me so I can move somewhere my roommate doesn’t hate me.”
Back in 2013, Watson threw herself into a passion for analogue photography, holding her various medium-format cameras up to face the (admittedly gorgeous) reflection in the mirror. Later on, she’d post the film scans of her glorified selfies to Instagram. Watson’s unfinished thesis, Sad Grrrls Club, is a collection of weepy self-portraits taken while “stoned and blasting ‘Needle in the Hay’ by Elliott Smith.” People were immediately drawn to her vulnerability, or at least, the pictures she took of herself pretty-sobbing during depressive episodes.
“I look up to you so much,” they’d comment. “The way you styled Carhartt overalls with an anime button-down and a bottle of Benzodiazepine saved my life.” Such is another day in the life of the most delicate, tortured soul on the Internet.
Essentially, all you need to do is manipulate other people to do things for you. You can have them move your shit from apartment to apartment, leaving behind a trail of pissed off ex-roommates. They’ll let you steal their clothes if you don’t ask. They’ll share their drugs, but mostly because you gave them a Xanax bar last time they were in town. You won’t be happy, but you’ll be less sad. Which is still very, very, very sad. Sit in the corner of your bed at 4:32 in the morning, having just parachuted a third Adderall to “get more work done,” and instead revel in your ever-increasing follower count. You may not matter to Ethan anymore, but you matter to thousands of strangers.
Watson shakes her now-empty PAX like it’s a cartridge low on ink. I can see her growing visibly uneasy now that she realizes she has no weed juice left.
“The honest-to-Xenu truth is, you can follow all of those guidelines and never hit the amount of followers I have,” she says, meeting my gaze to feign grave concern. Part of me expects her to finish that statement with something like, “You’ll never be as real and raw and beautiful as me. You will seethe in envy until you realize that my unhappiness is more than just an excuse for the fact I treat other people, and myself, like garbage. I am so debilitatingly depressed that all I can manage to do is get stoned and film the teardrops falling down my highlighted cheeks for an Instagram story.”
But that would require self-awareness. Instead, Watson turns her head to catch some light coming in through the window. “Check out my artist profile on urbanoutfitters.com,” she says wistfully to her front-facing camera. “I also have a feature on Vice.”