I have spent a lifetime poring over the intimate details of stars’ and strangers’ lives via social media. It’s time to stop | Autobiography and memoir

It takes two weeks to fall in love with my new neighbour, Tanya. I am nine and she is three years my senior. Tanya is a wildly creative and prodigal musician; I watch her do her scales and exam pieces on the clarinet, flute and piano most nights. She plays like a professional tap dancer and part-time sniper – with poise, urgent precision and intensity, the tips of her soft strawberry-blond hair whipping with vigour in the final throes of a particularly fraught arpeggio. When her sad, vast rabbit begins to urinate on the freshly installed carpet of her bedroom floor one Saturday afternoon, my kneejerk reaction is to pick up the pet with one hand and hold my dress out like a net with the other. I am grateful that she seeks my company and try to prove it at any cost – often at the expense of my gingham school uniform.

While we possess a mutual passion for Sylvanian Families, Jagged Little Pill and watching Ricki Lake, our relationship is crystallised by the obsessive, illicit hobby we share. Most weekends and some afternoons after school, we meet on the sandpaper roof of her rotting wooden playhouse, where we whittle sticks or lick the sourness off Irn-Bru bars while staring intently into the front room of the elderly couple who live over the fence. Our view partially obscured by spindly trees, we study them for hours, rejoicing whenever we are rewarded with the smallest gesture – a sneeze, or a lean in for the remote.

It is a connection to a very adult world, an exercise in anthropology. To follow the couple’s every move, even though they aren’t the demographic we are typically interested in, is mesmerising. It is an ambient, almost meditative experience that creates a silent sense of camaraderie between us.

As Tanya enters her teens, she begins to spend more time with girls her own age, and our days observing elderly people are now over. I would climb to the top of a tree in my garden and look at her as she lay on the grass with her new friend Donna, trading gossip and makeup, two luxury goods I am still too young to acquire. I am hooked on sneaky observation, only unlike in the playhouse days I return from the excursion racked with wistfulness rather than soothed. Viewing them from the tree, sprawled on their backs, making daisy chains and swapping shag bands and laughing in the unhinged way that only teenagers can, I believe it is only through surveying them that I might learn how to be a worthier friend, a savvier lady and a better person in the process.

At this point you might hastily, if understandably, assume I am some form of voyeur. But that’s a label that doesn’t sit right with me: my personal experience of a “voyeur” is a puce-faced man with the nickname Dave the Dagger rustling in the bushes of an alleyway next to my primary school, not a lachrymose tween sucking the chlorine water from her wet ponytail after a swimming lesson. Instead, I prefer “inquisitive creep”. A creep with a desire for the clues that connect us all. Ones that reassure me that I am fine, normal, that we are all jettisoned together.

Eventually my preoccupations with other people’s lives would expand to include those with a public profile, too – people on TV, in films, musicians and, in later years, influencers. I’d come to discover this has a name: parasocial relationships, the dynamic where a “normal” person feels strongly towards a famous person. The term originated in 1956 to refer to the relationship between viewers and television personalities, and has become more widespread over the past decade due to fanatical “Stan” culture and the superficial notion that we have 24-hour access to the lives of public figures via social media and reality shows.

There’s a troubling delusion that comes with parasocial relationships – a sense that as fans or casual followers we are entitled to know everything; or that we already do via rigorous detail gathering and FBI levels of digital sleuthing. Some devolve into trolls to defend their beloved celebrity icons at any cost, while others are so dedicated to uncovering the truth, to making the object of their lust their entire identity, that they spend their spare time making memes and conspiracy videos about potential inter-band love affairs and rifts.

Marks and Spencer and Alexa Chung celebrate ‘The Winter Archive by Alexa Collection’ with a launch party at Bush Hall, Shepherds Bush on November 1, 2016 in London, England
‘I was 19 and in the market for a new idol when I first saw Alexa Chung.’ Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images for Marks and Spencer

Mine, however, is a private, meaningful, near spiritual kind of reverence that I return to again and again, particularly in times of need. It can be something in the way the celebrity sings, or speaks, or the way their fringe falls or top lip curls, that then leads me to believe we are soulmates. A tiny fragment of my internal world feels acknowledged by whatever art they’re making, and in seeing myself reflected back in a big room or on a stage I am lifted from the existential loneliness that generic human existence brings. Other times, admittedly, they’re just really hot and I want to bang them.

These people, these fixations and fantasies, have defined my life. I have a habit of getting lost for days, months, years in these unrequited trysts – a devotion that is fundamental to my navigation of life. Just like hiding up a tree, I have used the internet to observe and escape when reality has become either too tedious or too painful, in order to cultivate some form of connection with another person, even if it is an artificial one played out from within the safety of my own mind.

It’s an experience that has been twisted and magnificent, one that has provided sweet relief and also demonstrated the clear capacity to destroy me completely. But, first, let me bring you up to speed.

Alexa Chung once said on a fashion podcast: “If you study an image for long enough, you take on those attributes by osmosis.” With that in mind, I’ve been staring at a photo of her in a preppy smock dress off and on for two hours today – on the bus, in the loo, then peering at it on Google in my pocket like a lucky stone. In the best possible way, she looks like a marzipan baby-doll triangle princess. When I try on my interpretation of the outfit, all I see is a shapeless satin sack that grips to every lump and crevice on my body, like a tea towel draped over a bowl of grapes.

I was 19 and in the market for a new idol when I first saw her bounce on screen with Popworld co-star Alex Zane in the mid-00s. Within months her reign as one of the last true “It” girls had begun – a force of style and personality that would later catapult her to America, launch her clothing brand and create the type of hype and mystique normally preserved by pop stars, or a natural deodorant that actually works.

I scrutinised every image of Alexa Chung uploaded to the internet. I followed her progress like a music fan would their favourite band; each new photo a new song, a new season, the mood of the moment. She gives a little but never enough: I wanted to know if she drinks cow’s milk. What form of contraceptive she uses. How her endometriosis has affected her life and if she has a good relationship with her mother. If she considers the success of modern influencers shallow, and if she’s ever considered Botox.

It is hard to imagine her acting timidly – her voice lost to the loud chatter of a party as she asks a guest if their journey was OK, once, twice, three times, until they finally hear it, and answer back dispassionately. When she talks, everyone listens. Because as well as being funny and clever – the sort of person who’s inexplicably good at poker, darts and bowling, and has literary quotes and references appropriate for every occasion – Alexa has been blessed with extraordinary beauty.

Clothes fit her so well, whereas they – dungarees – so often feel as if they are wearing me. Preppy, shabby, cool, she shapeshifts from poised street style to reluctant A-lister; dishevelled bedhead to silky Hollywood tresses; battered Converse to sexy Prada boots, PVC and Peter Pan collars. She’s at her zenith on the go and off-guard – with a coffee or cigarette, the wind in her hair as she strides through the city to a ballet class; lanky limbs, short shorts and high-quality faded T-shirts that look like they’re made of fine lamb’s wool. She keeps things simple underneath: I once heard her say that she wears sensible white pants. This information entered my cerebral cortex, nudged out the file marked How to Convert a Decimal, and has stuck around ever since. So now I do, too, because Alexa understands that more is less – as long as you’ve also done barre every day for two months and have a body as smooth as a balloon animal.

Head shot of writer Harriet Gibsone, standing in front of trees, wearing blue jumper with The Cure written on it in black
‘As life has evolved, there has been a constant stream of objects of lust and intrigue.’ Photograph: Kate Peters/The Guardian. Makeup: Dani Richardson for RMS Beauty. Hair: Kevin Murphy. Top: Pavement

I don’t know what dark arts Alexa learned at school, but she successfully duped me into thinking this level of rich eclecticism and sophistication is obtainable. I kept buying new clothes, expecting them to catapult me into another tier of stylishness, and cannot come to terms with the fact there are insurmountable physical differences between us. God bless me and the patent pumps and the seersucker midi dresses that I’ve purchased over the years, praying they might make me as whip-smart and charming as her.

Before Alexa came into my life and really ignited my ambition, I had already dipped my toes into the cut‑throat world of showbiz. Aged nine, I auditioned for the lead role in my primary school’s Victorian Music Hall and got it – wowing crowds as the former silent shy girl who could now sing My Fair Lady’s Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? with the cockney panache of Hepburn in her pomp.

And, like Alexa, I’d dabbled in modelling back in my late teens. My debut shoot took place for the Bournemouth student magazine: the theme was “autumn” and my housemate Becki did my hair and makeup; we kept it low-key with smokey eyes and a choppy straightened bob. I laughed my head off in a tweed jacket by a tree and was over the moon with the images. So much so, I emailed the best few to a modelling agent in London, who never replied.

The second opportunity promised a more mainstream audience: a local culture and listings magazine called Big in Bournemouth. I’d been doing work experience there for two weeks and volunteered to step in on a shoot when the model couldn’t make it. The editor sent me to a shopping centre to get my makeup done at the Bobbi Brown counter. I told the makeup artist I wanted a “Sophie Ellis-Bextor, minimal look”, to which the young man said, “Sure”, before smearing thick layers of orange gunk on to my white skin. When I stepped on to the set, I caught the editor recoiling subtly and the room went quiet for long enough for me to overhear the words “What have they done to her face?”

After 15 years of my one-sided rivalry with Alexa – involving a tragic stab at TV presenting and an onstage panel experience that I failed at spectacularly because I was preoccupied by what top I was going to wear rather than what I was going to talk about – I decided, for the sake of my own sanity, to block Alexa on Instagram.

Alex Turner of The Arctic Monkeys performs on the V Stage as the band headline day 1 of the V Festival at Hylands Park on August 20, 2011 in Chelmsford, England.
After Alexa Chung came her ex, Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner … Photograph: Samir Hussein/Getty Images
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs at the American Music Awards at the Microsoft Theater on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in Los Angeles
… and ‘puppy-dog stadium pop-god’ Chris Martin. Photograph: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Now I am relieved of her rarefied updates every day from the Met Gala red carpet or with a bouquet of tulips at a busy Sunday market. This block is a bleak and reluctant acceptance that I do not have the effortlessness that allows for a fluid experience of life. To be loved and earn a living for smiling is not my fate.

This liberation from my online fixation would be emancipating were it not for the algorithms offering me a string of other Parisian-themed babes to dodge during my mid-morning social media slump. The other issue is that I transferred all my obsession for her on to her ex, Alex Turner, and his new partners.

Down my Alex Turner rabbit hole I discovered gossip websites lavishing in his new cartoonish LA rockstar lifestyle: papped at airports with a pristine actor-cum-influencer type with long valley-girl hair, his new girlfriend Arielle. It bruises me and fills me with a dark glee, as I’m reminded of a passage from Alexa’s debut book, It: “Boys say they don’t mind how you get your hair done,” she writes. “But then they leave you for someone with really great standard girl hair and the next thing you know you’re alone with a masculine crop crying into your granola.”

But I’ve seen Alexa’s hair. I’ve studied the shots. There’s not one in which she has a masculine crop – unless she’s referring to a brief Mick Jagger shaggy bob, which doesn’t really count because she looked like a rock star. But herein lies the key to Alexa’s popularity beyond celestial looks: self-deprecation.

Hoodwinking her audience into thinking she is flawed and chaotic, just as susceptible to heartache and humiliation as the rest of us. Using her alleged inadequacies to puncture the veneer of superiority and manipulate the public into investing in her. It’s a classic trait of a good old-fashioned people-pleaser, fearful of the displeasure of others, willing to throw oneself under the bus in a plea for connection, approval and love.

Maybe we have more in common than I thought.

As life has evolved, there has been a constant stream of objects of lust and intrigue, each of which has warped my interior world during a crisis. Take puppy-dog stadium pop-god Chris Martin. The Coldplay frontman has enjoyed a 20-year residency in the front of my brain. Imagined scenarios of us together on Christmas Day or schmoozing side by side at a celebrity shindig have dragged me through the drabbest afternoons.

Then there was a teen on TikTok whose lifestyle and hair I found so beguiling that I decided to get a mullet myself during lockdown, with chilling results. There was also a man at a bus stop, who I became convinced I knew, and would smile at often. After overhearing three words of a conversation and inspecting his clothing choices intensely for a year, I managed to unearth his Facebook profile and realised he was a total stranger, which makes sense now because he did always look frightened when I smiled. Motherhood has not spared me the indecency of parasocial fixations, however. If anything they have got worse.

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Cheeks pink with a post-orgasmic flush, her hair damp and tangled, the woman in the small square photograph is surrendering to an expression of total euphoria. In her arms is a tiny creature, so new and unformed it is still practically an internal organ turned external. It’s a special baby. A healthy, happy baby. It’s Deliciously Ella’s baby.

It is six months before I give birth and my interest in the wellbeing influencer’s Instagram has started to become more pronounced. Ella had a positive birth experience, one of spirituality and inevitability, and obviously I’d love the same: a gentle evacuation before breastfeeding into oblivion. Unfortunately, our schedule is already deviating from Ella’s: the NHS categorises ours as a high-risk pregnancy and I relish telling friends and colleagues about what a delicate little angel I am.

A few months pass and, at my 28-week appointment my midwife generously asks about a birthing plan, and we are encouraged to draw up a list of requirements to ensure tranquillity and focus. Like a projector showing a Glyndebourne live stream and access to a qualified reiki instructor, for example. But not me. Not little old low-maintenance, delicate angel me. “Just get the baby out of me alive!” I jest, nervously, and she looks relieved.

Things are getting more dictatorial in the kitchen, however, as I’ve recently downloaded the Deliciously Ella app. It’s filled with plant-based recipes: I make her nut butter, sweet potato and quinoa salad, and drink big cups of thick purple and green smoothies filled with hemp, chia and other supplements from the supermarket that look and taste like dust from a carpenter’s workshop and cost £12. Subscribing to someone else’s way of life amid a time of such health-based scrutiny feels like an easier option than relying on my own instincts, however, so I plough ahead.

For the next few months, she is my secret guru. This steady, nurturing approach is essential for the baby’s growth, but it’s unfamiliar to me. After many years of using food as some form of punishment, restricting it, removing it from my body, and having little faith in my ability to look after myself, or that my body even works in the way it should, I am depending on Ella to teach us both how to survive.

During my first trimester, Ella makes her Instagram inbox open to her one million followers. I immediately DM her to ask if it’s OK that I am eating so many Hula Hoops. A few days later she has congratulated me and says to relax, to listen to my body, and adds four kisses at the end.

I am touched by her speedy, warm and honest response but a bit perturbed as to why I sent the message in the first place. Days before, I’d listened to an episode of her podcast in which she reassured listeners that it’s fine to feed your body whatever it asks for in the first trimester, and that she just ate potatoes. So why did I send it? I then vow to keep her at arm’s length, painfully aware that I’m never more than one G&T-in-a-can away from becoming the type of person who writes “Well done hun, you’re stronger than you’ll ever know” underneath a post from a former Towie cast member whose miniature schnauzer has just been diagnosed with diabetes.

Ella speaks a lot on social media and on her podcasts about the benefits of hypnobirthing: a method of pain management that involves mindful breathing and visualisations, and a woman I work with claims her baby slipped out like a bar of soap thanks to breathwork alone. I Google local classes and sign up for the nearest session.

After an extremely traumatic birth in which every step is aided by a penetrative arm or metal instrument, cranking my insides open, willing him to leave me, my baby is brought out limp and lifeless and resuscitated before I haemorrhage and am sent to surgery with tears. The golden hour doesn’t happen, the milk doesn’t come, no meditation would have curbed the violence of the events in the hospital ward.

In the weeks that follow, my jealousy for Ella becomes all-encompassing. My brain is filled with a whiney new voice, like a child who feels entitled to a different dinner. I am weaving a sorry narrative: it’s so unfair my baby’s conception was fraught and medical, while Ella conceived while making sweat-free love on pristine sheets as Chilled Out Flute Compilation #7 played in the background, probably. From what I can tell from her social media output, her child’s birth was essentially a slightly intense poo in a paddling pool, while ours was murderous.

Head shot of Deliciously Ella’s Ella Mills
‘For months, she was my secret guru’: Ella Mills of Deliciously Ella. Photograph: David Hartley/Rex/Shutterstock

And yet I took care of my son during pregnancy just as she told me to; I did gentle yoga, meditation and ate whatever my body asked for, the good and the bad. We never had the bliss or rapture of that photo and I don’t think I’ll ever catch up, especially as Ella has a nanny (shout out to Janet).

It’s not her fault that this is her life. She is just trying to promote positive birth stories so others aren’t afraid. But maybe they should be frightened? Women and babies still die in birth, and it’s not because they’ve not meditated hard enough; it’s because it’s seismic and unpredictable. And once the pain and blood of birth have finished, you are filled with psychological savagery on the other side. The first few days of motherhood are brutal. The level of high-functioning performance required is unparalleled. It’s like stumbling on stage at the start of the Oscars, your body bloodied and broken from a plane crash, and you’re handed a mic and told you’re hosting the whole gig, but if the jokes aren’t good enough, the audience dies.

Most days after my son is born I find myself in a transient state, slipping through extreme boredom and acute stress. Social media has stepped in, taking control in the worst possible way. It is acting the role of a best friend who gets you blackout drunk in a terrible club when you’re grieving the loss of a loved one. A temporary distraction – an artificial sensation of intimacy and community when really it is toxifying and exhausting. Nevertheless, I check it mindlessly, slack-jawed, closing then immediately opening the Instagram app without recognition of the mind-rotting absurdity of it all.

My friend Debbie messages to ask what I’ve been up to.

“Looking at yellow poo and envying a wellbeing influencer?” I type, sending her a link to Ella’s rigorous morning routine, which begins with meditation and an alarm clock at 5.45am.

“Jesus, can you imagine how awful it must be to have to post that shit every day?”

Debbie has a point. I may be full of bitterness, but at least I am free of all online duties. There is no following waiting for me. My career doesn’t depend on the regularity of my online existence. The day after leaving hospital, Ella posted a photo of some avocado toast and roasted sweet potatoes. Five days later she was “recipe testing” falafels for her next book. A month after her baby was born she released an episode of her podcast and posted about having a “busy day at work”. Meanwhile, I can’t remember how much formula to put in the baby’s bottle. My husband, Mark, has stuck a Post-it note on our fridge so I don’t forget (four scoops). If anything, Ella must be more afraid than I am. Of losing who she is, her career, her wealth, her reputation. The fury turns into sympathy; so long as I don’t think about the nanny.

I’ve always been told that most people are too inward-looking to judge anyone else’s actions: that nobody out there is at home reflecting on the way you tripped into the room or opened the door with your elbow because they’re busy thinking about the way they pronounced hyperbole in a meeting three years ago. The tragic truth is that I am always thinking about someone else. Everyone who has a phone with social media is doing this – staring at others, mind whirring as we categorise them, judge them, marvel or scathe. It’s definitely tiring, but is it acceptable? To view other people as I’d so hate to be viewed myself – ranking everyone on their beauty and surface-level achievements? Assuming so much about someone’s childhood and present relationship status based on the time of night they’ve posted, and the way in which they’ve used a comma?

I’ve come to realise my relationship with the internet is an infidelity: a remorseless, ongoing affair with the fringes of humanity, while I am in a stable relationship with all of my friends and relatives. I find it impossible to believe that I will have the strength to give up this habit for ever. But at least now there is a growing awareness of my fortune, and of the dangers of wasted time.

Something has awakened in me, the emergence of a surlier version of myself, someone more weary in the face of such temptations. This is the voice of my longsuffering, baseline soul, and it is assuring me of some facts.

She says that it is all right to sometimes feast on the contemporary wonders of global connectedness, as long as it is in small doses, and if I’ve slept for eight hours and have been outside for a walk.

She says that it’s natural to feel jealous and obsessive, when so much of being a woman is mandatory social voyeurism, where you are forced to absorb a revolving billboard of other tantalising lifestyles pioneered by better girls that could be you if you work hard enough, collect all the right tokens and stop eating crisps.

This is not a makeover or rebrand but a new perspective, one that I’m going to hold on to as I stand on the precipice of the rest of it all, the rest of life, the hard bit – which brings with it a body that will rebel, a mind that will slacken, and loved ones who will no longer be around. It is scary, but also affirming. The sun is getting hotter, the end may be in sight, but I want to feel every moment of it.

This is an edited extract from Is This OK? by Harriet Gibsone, published on 25 May by Picador at £16.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.