“If you were in your sitting room and you discovered a portal to all of the bullshit in the world, where opening it would just let it all pour into your room? Yeah. You wouldn’t open that,” muses Hazel Hayes, on the questionable appeal of Twitter.
It’s a sentiment that will ring true for many – even if most of us haven’t had to endure a highly-public, newsworthy row with Piers Morgan about the urgent need for mental health care to help us reach that conclusion.
“I don’t have the emotional energy now to have spats with people who simply will never learn, or want to do or be better,” Hayes says. “There was too much information. I was being bombarded by it. I could feel my brain slipping a bit, and anxiety creeping in, so I deleted the app off my phone. It’s been nearly two months now and I do not miss it at all.”
So far, so sensible. Until you consider that Hayes’ career has been built on social media. Distancing herself from Twitter means distancing herself from 224.7 thousand avid followers. She’s also got a quarter of a million over on YouTube, her original online home where she’s racked up more than 15 million views. Then there are the further 179 thousand people watching her life over on Instagram. With an audience like that, withdrawing begins to seem like a risky strategy. But then, after an hour in Hazel Hayes’ company, I’m pretty convinced she’s not a woman who shies away from risk…
From tech to TV
Hayes’ rise to internet stardom wasn’t a linear one. Initially employed as a graduate at Google in her native Dublin, she began in the advertising team, before she found herself working behind the scenes with stars of the firm’s burgeoning broadcasting platform, YouTube. Eventually, she began dabbling herself, creating her own channel which she worked on in the evening.
“I didn’t go into it with a view to, I’ll get this many subscribers and I’ll get that many views and then that will be my career on YouTube,” she reflects now. “It really was just a creative outlet for me, as someone who was always interested in filmmaking and writing and storytelling and acting.
“It was a very fortuitous set of events that ended up putting me in touch with a bunch of people who were all figuring this out. But I kept with the day job too. And it was only after a while it became apparent that this actually might sustain me as a career.”
Sustain her it did. From Tipsy Talks, the interview series in which she got drunk with celebs including Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Jack Black, Taika Waititi and Anna Kendrick among others, to her Time of the Month diary series, documenting her day-to-day life, Hayes’ following just kept growing. At the same time, she was experimenting with writing in a host of narrative genres, drawing on her own interests in sci-fi and horror to great acclaim.
If she looked like an overnight success though, she admits that she was something of a fish out of water, even ‘coming out as old’ on her thirtieth birthday, shocking those who’d assumed that she must be fresh out of school.
“I think there was just an assumption, because it was such a male and youth-dominated platform at the time and because of the crowds I moved in, that I was an awful lot younger than I am. But I didn’t start YouTube until I was 27.
“Of course, that really isn’t important – or old! But I wanted other women to know that you could be 30 and starting out a career on YouTube, and that there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Mental health matters
While from the outside, life looked rosy, behind the camera, Hayes was struggling with her mental health. Today, she speaks openly about her struggles with depression, anxiety, BPD and PTSD, but she says that it’s taken her a long time to draw her own boundaries about what she will and will not share.
“I think, these days, I have a very healthy relationship to online and social media. Probably the healthiest it’s ever been. And that’s probably because I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I’ve done an awful lot of inner work and spent a lot of time in therapy, genuinely putting in the hours to process my trauma, to heal from old wounds and to manage the symptoms of my mental illness.
“So, because I think I am more sturdy and strong and well than ever, that’s reflected now in my relationship with online. I am implementing healthier boundaries with everything – with work, with relationships, with my social life, even down to how much news I’m consuming. It feels a lot calmer than it ever has in my brain. But yeah, over the years I absolutely have shared a lot of very personal stuff.”
That personal stuff includes her emotional response to a break-up that knocked her for six. “That split absolutely destroyed me,” she says today. “There’s no other way of putting it. I now know in hindsight that my own mental health was suffering at the time. Life can knock you so much harder when you aren’t strong and stable in yourself.
“But also, break-ups are hard under any circumstances and grief is difficult under any circumstances. I suddenly found myself living alone in London without the person I had somewhat moved there for, and it all felt very big and very scary.”
When she eventually decided to share her experience on her channel, the outpouring of support was extraordinary, she says. “Every time you post a video, there’s that moment where your finger hovers over the button, when you’re not 100 per cent sure. But this was probably the hardest video I ever posted. Then, suddenly, a whole community of people were talking about their grief.
“It was my first real experience of fully opening myself up and exposing my raw, honest to God feelings to the world. And I suppose that, in many ways, was part of the inspiration for me wanting to write a book about a relationship, about a break-up and about grief. Because I felt like there were so many people who needed to hear that story to feel a little bit less alone.”
Out of Love
Ah yes, the book. Out of Love is, on the face of it, a story about a break-up. But in true Hazel Hayes style, it takes a somewhat out of the norm approach, beginning at crisis point and working backwards towards the happy meeting of two people who quickly believe themselves destined to be together.
“I think, when a relationship or a marriage comes to an end, one of our first instincts is to regret ever getting together with that person in the first place. The easiest thing seems to be go to back in time and never meet that person. Alas, that’s not possible.
“Also, just because the experience is over doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it at the time. I’ve found myself asking ‘Were we ever happy? Was it worth it?’, so I decided to tell the story backwards from there. I felt like it would be a very cathartic and interesting exploration of a relationship to take it in reverse, and figure out along the way how it unravelled, to end up back in a place where they were madly in love and very happy, when it all seemed possible and there was so much hope.”
The book also touches, at times heartbreakingly, on the internal monologue around starting a family, and the pressures women often feel to meet the time limits set by both society and their biological clock. It’s something Hayes says she’s experiencing herself.
“It’s definitely a big one for women my age – that pressure where ’40 is looming, got to have a kid’. But there’s an infrastructure that comes with having a kid, and so the pressure is there to have the finances and the partner and the life situation and the home and everything in the perfect circumstances for bringing a kid into it. And that’s just too much.
“Now we have people like Emma Gannon and Elizabeth Day writing about it and talking about it and taking the pressure off, I guess, by just making it less of a taboo topic. But yeah, it’s there. It’s all there, looming. I guess planning to have a child in 2020 is a pretty ballsy move, and I applaud anyone who’s doing it. But if I can just keep my head above water, pay the bills, and get through this year, I’ll be happy with that!”
Today, Hayes’ head certainly seems to be hovering a long way above water. While she took a non-traditional approach to writing the book, working with crowd-funded publisher Unbound, it’s been a raging success by all the traditional publishing parameters since its release in June, earning the praise of everyone from Marian Keyes to Aisling Bea.
She’s currently working on a US edit, and the tale has been optioned for TV with Hayes writing the pilot script – a situation that, when raised, prompts a giggle of utter incredulity.
The whole thing has left her future wide open, she says – a prospect that’s as exciting as it is terrifying. For someone whose career appears to have meandered happily along a very individual and unpredictable path to success, I’m shocked when Hayes describes herself as someone who ‘loves a plan’.
“I’m in a place at the moment where I’m not sure what my living situation is going to be past new year. I’m not sure what the next project is I’m going to be working on. There’s a lot of uncertainty and that’s something I’ve had to work on in therapy.
“We all have these notions of where we’re going to be at a certain age. We put so much pressure on. For some people, it’s to be married and have kids by 30, for others it’s I have to have started my own business by then. Then there’s that need to be on the 30 under 30 list – which can just fuck off, by the way. Maybe don’t print that. Actually, fuck it, do!” she laughs.
“What I’ve learned is that, more often than not, life has made other plans for you. And that’s not to say that they’re any worse, they’re just not the plans that you thought would come true. So, my goals now are more about the day-to-day. If I wake up in the morning and I’m excited about the day ahead or the job that I’m doing or the friends that I’m seeing or the yoga class I’m going to, then that’s enough.
“This year, I think we’ve all just dropped the bar slightly, and I think it’s actually a much nicer way to live life. If I wake up in six months’ time and I’m telling stories I’m proud of, if I have good friends around me and I’m healthy and doing well, then that’s okay. Anything beyond that is a bonus.”