It was mid-March when my husband returned to California from London with a dose of Covid-19. I joked that I would have preferred a giant Toblerone from Duty Free. Instead, we went into quarantine.
There were no tests to be had in San Francisco at that point, and we were told simply to stay home unless our lips turned blue. Life came to a grinding halt, the phrase “borders closed” gave me chills and Covid tortured me with such horrendous nightmares that I would delay going to bed until even the cat gave up on me.
Trapped at home with my husband and two teenage children, I turned to my dusty Instagram account for entertainment and reassurance, seeking comfort in mindless scrolling. And salvation did come, in the form of Laura Belbin, AKA Knee Deep in Life, and her brilliant best pal Victoria Emes’, whose viral I will Survive video had me in stitches.
In familiar voices, their faces pressed uncomfortably close to their phones, these funny, funny women confided in terms usually kept for intimate friends, about their lockdown experiences, their ambivalent feelings towards their own families, their sex lives and their hilariously grim bowel issues.
Belbin’s hysterical parodies of absurd Insta-model poses, and Emes’ witty songs became the highlights of my day. But, more than the amusement and much-needed moments of levity, this odd couple seemed to possess an unusual ability to talk straight to me, sharing their own struggles with depression and anxiety and making mental health issues part of the everyday conversation.
As such, I was overjoyed when, this summer, they combined forces to produce No Holes Barred, a gloriously frank and funny podcast, released around the same time as Belbin published her first book Knee Deep in Life, an honest account of her experience with post-natal depression. As California started to open up again, I wanted to tell them how much I had valued their uniquely British humour and unflinching honesty at a time when I felt a long way from home. Which is how I come to find myself opening my laptop to the words ‘Saggy Tits is waiting to enter your call…’
Zooming with influence
“We both started on Instagram around the same time, about three years ago,” Emes tells me, explaining she was on maternity leave when she decided to start posting on the platform. “I was just at home a lot of the time, I didn’t have any friends in the area who were on maternity leave and I was fucking lonely and really bored. Because babies are boring, aren’t they?”
Having started out with interiors content, it was when she started venturing into comedy that things really took off. “About a year ago, I posted a couple of funny video things and I’ve not looked back. I’m still an interiors slag, but I don’t post about it anymore. Now, it’s mostly just me dancing about!”
For Belbin too, it was the loneliness of new motherhood and the realities of post-natal depression that brought her into the social media space, but comedy that made her name. “Things were really awful for a while, and when I came out of that, I realised how toxic social media had been for me in that time. In the middle of a shitstorm, I was looking at my feed thinking ‘fucking hell, there are no words to describe how much I hate my life.’
“Then I realised that social media is really always about hiding reality, so I started being a bit more honest about myself. I’d do funny pictures, exercise videos, just daft shit, and people started telling me I was quite funny. Only quite. So, one day, off the cuff, I created a blog on Facebook and started talking about mental health. Then I moved into Instagram too and in September 2018, I went viral getting stuck in a pair of Spanx…”
Going viral might be the dream for so many in the online space, but both women agree the reality is far less fun than the idea. “Going viral is horrible,” Emes grimaces, giving a guttural approximation of her screaming down the phone to Belbin. “Luckily, I had Laura to coach me through it.”
“It’s so overwhelming,” Belbin adds. “You feel totally out of control. I’ve gone viral quite a few times since then, and it’s always fucking horrible. You never expect it – I ended up on the news in Spain, it was nuts. I had people messaging saying ‘I wish you were dead’ because they thought one viral post was too much like Celeste Barber, who I love. But for every hurdle you hit in these situations, you get stronger. The whole experience means you’re constantly evolving and learning new things about yourself.”
The loss of privacy that comes from hitting the Instagram ‘jackpot’, they say, is excruciating, and has made them wary of including their children in their posts. “I’ve become more guarded, the bigger my account has become,” Emes explains. “In the beginning, you don’t think about it. But suddenly, it dawns on you that 20,000 people are reading your post and even now, I feel very divided about that. I’m not sure I have many more years of doing this left, because I just find it too invasive.”
The trolling that comes as part of the package, she says, is brutal too. “There are hate sites out there, where women, mainly, annihilate you based on nothing more than their perception of you. We’re both on there. No-one talks about it, but it definitely impacts on people’s mental health and I don’t want my kids to have anything to do with it at all.”
Belbin, too, says she’s had to adapt to the downsides of internet fame. “It is a negative place, I saw that back when I was suffering with my mental health. But since starting my blog, I’ve also felt the positive benefits of it. We all have those bad days when we wake up with the devil on our shoulders, when the imposter syndrome kicks in and everyone seems to be leading a better life than you. But we have to remember that we’re all feeling it. That every other person you’re looking at, short of the narcissistic wankers you don’t want anything to do with, is going through the same things.”
Balance, Emes says, is the key. “We both get messages every single day from women thanking us for our honesty. When we did our podcast about masturbation, we had a message from a woman who’d bought her first ever vibrator as a result. She was so scared it was going to turn up and sort of fall out into the postman’s bag! Stuff like that is so empowering, so positive, so it’s about finding that balance.”
Therapy and friendship
Ah yes, the podcast. The combination of Victoria and Laura’s gloriously vulgar humour comes to life on No Holes Barred, which went straight to the top of the comedy podcast charts, offering a full-frontal conversation between two sparky women unafraid to tackle any subject.
Having a producer who truly gets them is key, they agree, and both say they couldn’t do what they’re doing alone, describing their success as a fluke. There was no job training, no career guidance teacher who suggested this new kind of life to them, and having someone else to lean on for help and support has brought them both comfort. “Laura worked for the navy,” Emes laughs, “I worked in a secondary school. I never knew this was a career! But I’m so grateful because it has made me realise that I am funny, and that I can say that now without feeling that I might sound big-headed. It’s nice to be a woman being funny online”.
Belbin agrees, though says she does still struggle with the misogyny that comes with putting yourself out there in all your sweary glory. “It’s been more acceptable in the past for men to be brutally honest and vulgar. I get really fed up with being criticised for my language, just because I have a vagina.”
Their friendship is, like them, authentic and refreshing with a special chemistry. They talk over each other, finish each other’s sentences and chat with an unusual candour and no fear of offence.
It’s surprising, then, that both admit to struggling with shyness, and say their shared need to overcome their own lack of self-assuredness has bonded them. “I am a huge introvert, socially awkward, and was the shyest kid” Emes says, while Belbin admits she had “crippling separation anxiety as a child, unable to be away from my parents well into my teens”.
Both have had therapy to help keep their mental health in check, but admit frustration that the support system in the UK can be so difficult, and costly, to navigate. “Access is shit unless you go private, and CBT is often the only thing on offer through the NHS,” Emes sighs, highlighting the importance of learning to self-advocate – and of accessing sliding scale fees. “I think everyone should have therapy. If I could afford it, I’d be doing it all the time. But, like everything else, it comes down to how our society is structured. Those who can afford it can get help.”
Belbin agrees, saying her experience of therapy has not always been particularly encouraging. When celebrities admit to their own struggles with depression or anxiety, she muses, it has a genuine positive impact. “But it’s all very well when you can also get a therapist to your house, have someone do your toenails and get an Indian head massage at the same time.” For ordinary folk, she admits, finding the correct support can be a whole lot harder.
Being body positive
Therapy aside, both admit that they draw a lot of energy and positivity from the work that they do – and that the more upfront they are, the stronger that becomes.
Both are unflinchingly honest, and openly physical, with everything from Emes’ “hotdog tits” to Belbin’s demented lingerie model send-ups drawing hundreds of thousands of likes and comments. But while their shared sense of self-deprecation is key to their popularity, they’re quick to admit it can be misconstrued. “I’m the most confident I’ve ever felt in my life,” Belbin smiles, “but I know that can come across as slagging myself off. I think, ‘get there before the next person does’ and Vic gets that. I know that my body is good enough, and I don’t want to spend my time worrying about angles and whether I look great in a bikini. I’m ok with having rolls, and pubes, and saggy tits.”
“By doing this, we’re making other people feel ok, I hope,” Emes expands. “Though Laura doesn’t have saggy tits! I get so annoyed when she says that because I’ve seen them and she has the most perfect breasts I’ve ever seen! I’m very jealous of them – and you need to put that in the interview…”
The podcast, they say, has given them a whole new level of joy in opening up, and both hope that they can keep it going for the long haul. “Laura and I have a fruitful future together,” Emes says, approximating a serious voice. “We don’t know what the future looks like, but we hope that in two years’ time we are still doing the podcast because we believe in it so much. We missed one week and we felt bereft.”
“When it stops being fun, it’s time to end,” Belbin adds. “But whatever happens, we are lucky to have found each other. We only met in person for the first time a year ago, but it feels like we’ve known each other forever, and that connection is something that doesn’t come along very often.”
Not only would I wager their fans can relate, I’d suggest that an hour on Zoom with these two smart, witty, sincere women is my own ultimate cure for the corona blues. Failing that, tuning into No Holes Barred has sorted me right out on countless occasions now. A word of warning though – it’s definitely not safe for the school run. Time to invest in some headphones…