For better or worse, I grew up online. By the age of 7, I had developed a love for reading, but my mom’s nursing school kicked into full gear right when AOL CDs began piling at the foot of our mail slot. What an iPad is to an unruly toddler now, our hefty Gateway PC was to us then: sitting me in front of a computer was the easiest form of child care. My first username foreshadowed how I would pretend my way through the internet from that time onward. I chose “PrincessCandy241” — princess because even then I wanted to be adored; candy for the treat I was almost never allowed to have; 241 because the AOL algorithm suggested it.
Not long after my mom graduated, she accepted a job in Marlboro, New Jersey, 30 minutes from where I grew up in Rahway. Back in Rahway, we were never too far from Nigerian culture: The West African grocery store nearby hung signs in Yoruba, I went to the same day care as my cousins down the street, and we were always attending someone’s birthday party or other with many photos of me in traditional iro and buba attire to show for it.
We left all this behind, and I soon enrolled in a school district in which fewer than 6 percent of students were Black. My mom beamed as she told me I’d be attending a private K–8 school even though the tuition costs would cut into her new salary. But we struggled to assimilate. My mom was livid when the teachers started calling me Abby instead of Abisola, claiming my full name would be “difficult for the kids to remember,” and my passed-down tartan skirts stood out among the other students’ crisp new uniforms.
We moved three times after that, and this dynamic kept repeating. The constant movement took a toll. I turned inward and struggled to make friends. I never developed a sense of style, my wardrobe existing far outside the realm of Lacoste polos and Coach purses I began seeing every day. A tiered system existed at every school I floated in and out of; inexperienced with navigating them, I could typically expect to land on the lower end.
Eventually we settled in Monmouth County, an hour from where we started, the summer before I began my freshman year. Now armed with almost a decade’s worth of insecurities, I couldn’t bear to face another big life change, so I retreated to what had become my favorite form of escape: the trials and tribulations of glamorous rich girls.
During an afternoon at the library, I discovered The Clique, the first in a series of melodramatic young-adult novels written by Lisi Harrison. Set in a tony Westchester private school, the books follow Massie Block and her ruling circle, the Pretty Committee, as they haze a new, less fortunate student named Claire. The Pretty Committee weaponizes its social status against Claire and the other students, ridiculing everything from their outfits to their physical appearances. But the Pretty Committee’s reign never falters: The students seek its approval at every turn.
On the back of every Clique book, a question was posed to the reader: “Are you a Claire or a Massie?” To learn the answer, you were invited to “find out at lisiharrison.net.” As an adult, it’s clear the series was fully satirical, but back then, I could see parallels with my real life: Everyone else seemed to be a Massie, and I felt like a Claire. After finishing the book, I felt as though I knew the answers to a test I could never study for.
On lisiharrison.net, I also discovered a message board offered as an extension of the series that could be enjoyed by all, unlike the back seats of Range Rovers and the marble staircases we were treated to in the books’ pages. There I found hundreds of girls just like me, hungry for affirmation in ways our classrooms couldn’t afford us. The only difference was everyone was rich. Or so we wanted each other to believe. No doubt inspired by the stories we were reading, luxury usernames like @xogucciforeverox and @jadoredior24 littered the forums. I read more than one detailed description of apparent family mansions in Beverly Hills. The message board was active with everything from role-playing games to TV show reviews to fellow member smackdowns happening before my very eyes. All of the Claires were trying to prove they were Massies. Just as in the series (and real life), a clear hierarchy had formed. And for once, I could be on top.
I thought carefully about who I wanted to be. I created my account as @supermodella and flexed the graphic-design skills I’d picked up from Neopets in my signature. Here I could write myself into popularity, drawing from the confidence and worldly experience of the book’s characters. I built up an armor made of imaginary Chanel bags and Lancôme Juicy Tubes, wielding the language of privilege I found within the novels and my middle-school hallways. In this world, I created a rarefied image of myself without any pictures at all.
I soon fell into step with the most respected girls on the board. There was Lindsay, who was smart and remembered everything anyone on the board had ever said; Nicole, who was kind, keeping her saucier takes within our private chat rooms; and Allison, the ringleader, a true Massie. The girls would say things like “Natasha used to be @crazyforcouture, but now she’s back as @kitsonlover and thinks we don’t know” or “Ashley’s lying about getting a Lamborghini for her sweet 16: She told us she can’t drive stick.”
Addicted to the newfound power, I started contributing to the chaos. I would jump in when our group decided a new member needed hazing. I would sneer if someone shared that they shopped at Aéropostale. We were the ones hosting all the AIM chat-room parties or pulling elaborate pranks on the forum that started fights. The only difference between the forum and the books was here everyone was willing to fight back, dedicated to establishing their own dominance. It was total teen anarchy.
For years, I felt helpless about where my mom and I could end up next. Joining the message board was a chance to stake a claim for myself and define who I could be for the first time. I was building a persona that was intact, unlike the fragmented one I had in real life. I wouldn’t have to pack up and leave unless I wanted to. But as good as it felt having a semblance of popularity, my imagined identity started to encroach on my real one. I looked down on thrifted clothing, even though planning my outfit for the first day of school meant raiding my mother’s closet. As my character grew in popularity, I started to question what right I had to judge anyone.
In the back of our minds, we all knew we were faking it. No one that wealthy or popular spent all their free time online, right? But we replicated our real-world dynamics anyway, granting ourselves the safety in pretending, a joy in climbing the ranks in a way we could control. We would allow our “cool girl” fantasies to run free as long as everyone held up the curtains.
Off-line, September was approaching, and the first day of school felt like the perfect blank slate: What if I took what I learned on the boards and applied it IRL? It was a risk, but I was confident as @supermodella — after all, she was the most consistent person I’d ever been.
But I couldn’t pull it off. Turns out, you can’t say things like “Do you work at a grocery store? Then why are you checking me out?” and not expect strange looks. My snarky joke attempts didn’t land, and I fumbled through a critical comment on a classmate’s new haircut, leaving me with deserved silence. The words I could type so easily from behind a keyboard now felt cruel coming out of my mouth. I couldn’t carry the conviction of Massie because she was a caricature, a foil to the real hero; I had made her my protagonist.
But I had been freed from the fear of rejection. I was no longer afraid of not being a Massie. But if I wasn’t her, who was I? I took a break from the message board and spent the rest of the year finding out. I went shopping at Forever 21 and didn’t hate it — though I kept the Balenciaga ads plastered on my bedroom wall. I made friends with a couple of girls from geometry class; soon I was too busy planning our next sleepover to worry about which weekend parties I was missing out on. I learned that being a Claire wasn’t social self-destruction: Embracing it was how I found real community, not the illusion of one.
Over the next few years, I would check the forum sometimes. We’d had our fair share of drama: Girls were run off the website for lying about everything from fake designer purses to having cancer. But in the time we spent together, we became more familiar with each other’s authentic selves. We looked past a comment that was inconsistent with a story told last year, or we pretended we didn’t remember someone once saying they lived in Manhattan if they were now a Florida native. A bond had formed between us: If we upheld each other’s lies for this long, couldn’t we do the same for our truths?
Eventually, someone suggested we shed our usernames and create a Facebook group: Break the walls down for good. Forty of us joined, trickling in with our names, photos, and achievements. Some had used fake names and needed to reintroduce themselves, while others confessed to not actually having a twin or using pictures they had stolen from Tumblr. We learned that each of us had looked to The Clique as a glossy reprieve until we could better face our real lives. And then one day, we didn’t need it anymore.
No matter how hard I resist, the temptation to pretend can still rear its head. Like last year, when I quietly moved back to New Jersey while upholding my online image as a Brooklyn resident. But after the years I spent rejecting myself in favor of another, my true identity — now rich with friendship, kindness, and self-fulfillment — remains the only one worth personifying.