Two years ago, when the British influencer CC Clarke received an email from an agent asking if she would like to attend a luxury festival in the Bahamas, she jumped at the chance.
A quick Google search threw up a sleek advert for what promised to be ‘the most insane festival the world has ever seen’. It starred Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, Emily Ratajkowski and Kendall Jenner partying on a boat off a private island in the Bahamas that once belonged to notorious criminal Pablo Escobar. Rapper Ja Rule was a co-founder and the event, Fyre Festival, promised luxury accommodation – for around Dhs918,000 you could stay on a private yacht with your own chef, world-class food and headline acts like Major Lazer. In short, it made Coachella look C-list.
If you’ve watched Netlix’s brilliant new documentary, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened – and you probably have by now – you’ll know how this story ends. After posting about the festival in exchange for the trip, CC (@ccclarkebeauty, 1.6m followers) was one of thousands of people (they’d paid up to Dhs275,000, based on the promise they’d seen online) who landed in the Bahamas in 2017 to find a disaster zone. ‘Luxury villas’ were replaced by emergency tents left over from Hurricane Matthew. The free accommodation promised to 250 influencers didn’t exist. Toilets had only been thought of at the last minute. Shortly after the 10,000 festivalgoers arrived, the event was cancelled, leaving everyone stranded.
CC had never suspected things might go wrong. The first warning signs came when she was on the plane – a commercial flight, rather than the private jet promised to guests. "I heard murmurs that people hadn’t been paid," she says. “Then people started handing around pictures of the festival on their phones, saying, ‘Is this true?’ But, by then, we were all in too deep.”
Things only got worse. In lieu of luxury accommodation, CC was taken to a cruise ship with about 30 others. She quickly learned that none of the staff on the ship had been paid, and claims she was “trapped onboard”. When she eventually made it to the island, she found festival-goers sleeping rough on the beach, “being eaten alive by mosquitos” and unable to find a flight home. She says organisers did nothing to help, and suspects they’d fled the island. She received just one message from festival organisers, with the name of a bar where people could find food, water and safety. “Everyone was abandoned… trapped,” she recalls. “I was panicked and angry. You never think that something that huge, where big, worldwide artists are performing, is going to fall through like that.”
Billy McFarland, the man behind Fyre, has since been sentenced to six years in jail after he “fraudulently induced over 100 investors to invest more than Dhs100m.”
Fyre is compulsive viewing, the kind of real-life, true-crime story that has become a pop culture mainstay in recent years. But there’s a deeper message: at its core, the film is a damning indictment of social media and influencer culture. As Marc Weinstein, a music festival consultant, says in the film, “I look back at my posts on social media and it was all beautiful beaches and sunsets, but I was going through the hardest experience of my life. Fyre shows what happens when you take that to an extreme.”
Jillionaire, of band Major Lazer, puts it even more starkly: “Fyre was basically like Instagram come to life.” Last week, as the documentary gained traction, many wondered if it spelled the end of influencer culture. (Kendall Jenner was paid Dhs918,000 for one Instagram post about the festival, in stark contrast to Maryann Rolle, a Bahamian restaurant owner who said she lost Dhs184,000 of her life savings catering for Fyre.)
Bella Hadid has publicly apologised for ever putting her name to it but, as one Fyre employee who was also in the dark says in the documentary, “If we didn’t know what was going on, how could we expect a model to? “When I saw the other names who were promoting it, I thought, ‘Well, this is legit!’” says CC, the only British influencer to have been invited. “I was only a year into my influencer career and it was exciting to think I could be there with big names.” She says the agent who’d emailed her was someone she had worked with before and trusted. She’d also promoted and attended Coachella, and says this didn’t feel any different.
The experience has changed how CC operates today; she is now far more diligent about what she puts her name to, and she has taken on management and a lawyer. And that vigilance is now being demanded across the board. Last week, as the film aired, 16 celebrities in the UK separately pledged to be more transparent about what they’re paid to promote on social media, among them Rita Ora and Alexa Chung.
The greater lesson of Fyre Festival, CC says, is to question what lies beneath a filtered Instagram feed. Dreamlike images of models playing in paradise lured thousands to Fyre. they should serve as a reminder to us all to question the hurricane-tent reality behind anyone’s top nine. “This has opened everyone’s eyes about Instagram versus reality,” says CC. “It’s important people are wise to who they follow, and question whether things are real. We’ve all loved being sold the Insta dream, but just believing pictures isn’t enough any more.”
Unfortunately, for the thousands of people who arrived on the Bahamas for Fyre Festival, that was a lesson learned too late.
Photos: Getty Images, Splash News, Netflix, Instagram: @bellahadid @haileybieber @ccclarkbeauty Twitter: @trev4president and Facebook: I Survived Fyre Festival