From posts about acne to bloating, meet the beautiful Newry-born Instagram queen who wants to keep it real
Maeve Madden tells Donal Lynch how her obsession with exercise almost ruined her life and why she believes it’s important to be honest on social media
If there is any word sure to strike terror into the heart of a hack, it's the dreaded 'influencer'. These influencers are the polished faces of media in late capitalism. They can reach more people with one judicious blog post than the slaves of the mainstream media can with any amount of click bait. They are mostly young, mostly entitled, and, in a very skilful way, 'relatable'.
And few embody this unnerving mix better than Newry-born, London-based Maeve Madden: impossibly beautiful, carefully vulnerable, with a diet book, Beat The Bloat, and endorsements from big brands like L'Oreal and Victoria Sport, she is one of the new stars of social media, and making the most of it.
In person her perfect face, perfect figure and incongruously Californian accent almost give the impression she has been developed by committee, but in fact she is entirely her own creation and the maintenance of her image - she has 155k Instagram followers - is a round-the-clock job.
Growing up, there were no smartphones or social media. She was one of five kids in a family in Newry, where her mother was a primary school teacher and homemaker and her father was a property developer. She was a quiet, solitary child who spoke late - she was five by the time she began talking - and played mostly by herself. She was sent for speech and drama and elocution lessons but it was Irish dancing that brought her out of her shell, and led eventually, in her teens, to a role in Michael Flatley's show, Lord of the Dance.
"I was an Irish dancer in Newry from the age or three or four," she recalls. "I started dancing in shows when I was 13 or 14. Now, when I think about how young we were going away, it was amazing. It was an honour to dance with Michael Flatley. He was lovely, very inspiring and motivating. He pushed us hard. That's why his shows are such a success. It was the hardest thing I've ever done physically and mentally. It was like being in the army, so regimented, but the show is perfection so it was all worth it."
After school she studied primary school teaching and had ambitions to open a daycare centre but then decided against a career working with children. She took a gap year during which several of her friends went into modelling and she decided she would try her luck at it, linking up with the maven of Irish social media influencers, Andrea Roche.
"I had some shots done and then it took off and I thought I can do anything," she says. "I joined Andrea Roche and was working between London and Dublin and to an extent I enjoyed it, but it sort of transitioned to working in social media which was really a better fit for me. I'm still very much in contact with Andrea but for her it was much more doing the modelling and the magazines."
While her glossy posts and luxurious Instagram backgrounds won her a certain following, it was her capitalising on the trend of 'honest' posting on Instagram which raised her above the social media din. In one post she showed her seemingly distended, almost pregnant-seeming belly, the result, she says, of extreme bloating. In another, she graphically depicted a pustule-ravaged cheek and wrote about how acne had affected her.
Did any of that ever feel overly exposing?
"The reason I did it in the beginning was that I was really sick and it wouldn't go away and I wasn't able to work as a model," she explains. "I had been sharing workout videos and in those moments when things were bad I felt I had to disappear from social media because I was embarrassed and I felt it wasn't what people would want to see. You have to understand this is before people started telling stories on Instagram. A few times I did feel like 'oh God I can't believe I'm about to share this'. When I did the skin pictures, I really enjoyed being able to create a voice for these conditions and being able to open up about it more."
Bloating had run in the family, she explains - her mother and grandmother suffered from it - and the book is full of foods to avoid; wisdom, she says, born of her own experience of what works and what doesn't, rather than any formal expertise.
Her knowledge was also won through a rather painful personal journey, however. In the past she had an unhealthy obsession with diet and exercise.
"I went through a really bad phase," she admits. "At the time I thought I was fine and completely healthy, but looking back I think I had a really bad problem. Back then I used to fast for two days and do so much cardio and follow all these fad diets. I would have done a 10k warm-up. If you saw the photos you would think I was really sick. I did eat well but I didn't eat enough and I was cutting out major food groups and it was actually dangerous. I'd actually forgotten some of it but a friend the other day reminded me of me constantly eating lollies because I said then I wouldn't get hungry, and she said 'yeah your theory was you'd never get hungry if you licked them'. Obviously there had been some celebrity who'd done that." All of that is part of why she now tries to use her own platform for good, she says. "I think I was getting a bad example from somewhere and that's why I try to be a good one myself now." Her openness has extended to mental health issues - she's written about suffering from anxiety and panic attacks.
While she has a legion of fans online, trolls are an occupational hazard she's never fully become used to. "I was quite upset today for instance, because there was someone going on about my voice," she says. "That's something I tend to get quite a bit of stick about - where is my accent from? - and so I get a lot of comments on that. Although I'm usually thick-skinned, nobody likes to read nasty things about themselves. Imagine your worst flaw and hundreds of people just all simultaneously pounding on that. Not everybody can take that."
She says that media negativity about influencers is less pronounced in London than it is back home in Northern Ireland. "Here in London, people aren't as negative about influencers. It's more about portraying the reality of life. People share about different things they have wrong with them. At home is a slightly different story. We've worked with massive brands over here who don't even do TV advertising any more. Some people have millions of followers and it has a bigger reach that magazines or TV."
So where did she get that accent, which veers from Newry to LA, in the space of a sentence? "I moved away from home years ago. I pronounce my words a bit the way people here in London do, but then I also lived in America for a while, so I like to say it's global. And you know it's funny, I've had so many girls today message me saying I have to pronounce the words this way."
She says that the idea that social media is just another way to make women feel bad about their bodies is wrong. "There's always going to be pressure on women to look a certain way. I think that was always there in media but through social media there is actually a bit of positivity about different body shapes coming in too and being strong and not skinny. Before, I was skinny but not naturally skinny; I was forcing myself to be that way. Maybe you can never be too rich, but too thin, yes."
A dilemma for many influencers is the extent to which they draw those around them into the promotional campaign of the self.
"My dad is very much like, 'I don't want to be on' (her social media accounts), but my brother was recognised in Vegas because of me," she explains. "He went to see the Conor McGregor fight and he was with his friends and it was a bunch of girls who spotted him, so he liked that. I've never really shared about relationships. I have a boyfriend but I don't think he wants to be in the stories, he's better being behind the camera. Sometimes he does lose his patience. He tries his best."
So how many pictures does she take or insist on being taken until she gets one that's suitable to go online? "Everybody takes loads, don't they? I stand at different angles and make sure the light is right but I think that's something that everybody does and, of course, that's another trend where people share the Instagram v reality picture. Instagram is so perfect and everybody seems really rich, with all the bags and all the clothes."
She has aspirations to get into acting but that's been a transition that few, if any influencers, have ever managed.
For all the perks of the Brave New World of social media, you get the impression that being the personification of click bait is hard work too.
The Friday before we meet, Maeve broke her thumb and it meant she couldn't post anything for a little while.
Her blue eyes widen at the memory of the guilt-free time off.
"I was so excited at not having a phone for a little while," she tells me. "It wasn't even like I had to make the decision to put it down, it was just like 'oh I don't have a phone'. It was a relief. I must remember that: It's good to disconnect for a while too".
Beat Your Bloat, by Maeve Madden is published by Octopus, £14.99
Maeve Madden tells Donal Lynch how her obsession with exercise almost ruined her life and why she believes it's important to be honest on social media