In Olivia Worley's pitch-perfect debut, People to Follow, ten teen influencers come to a remote island to star in a reality show, but when one of them winds up dead, they realize that this time, the price of getting “cancelled” could be their lives.
A reality show on a remote Caribbean island. Ten teen influencers. One dead body.
Welcome to “In Real Life,” the hot new reality show that forces social media’s reigning kings and queens to unplug for three weeks and “go live” without any filters. IRL is supposed to be the opportunity of a lifetime, watched closely by legions of loyal followers. But for these rising stars--including Elody, an Instagram model with an impulsive streak; Kira, a child star turned fitness influencer; Logan, a disgraced TikTok celeb with a secret; and Max, a YouTuber famous for exposés on his fellow creators--it’s about to turn into a nightmare.
When the production crew fails to show up and one of their own meets a violent end, these social media moguls find themselves stranded with a dead body and no way to reach the outside world. When they start receiving messages from a mysterious Sponsor threatening to expose their darkest secrets, they realize that they’ve been lured into a deadly game…and one of them might be pulling the strings.
With the body count rising and cameras tracking their every move, the creators must figure out who is trying to get them canceled--like, literally--before their #1 follower strikes again.
Release date: October 31, 2023
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Print pages: 345
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People to Follow: A Novel
It’s a view you could kill for. Or maybe it’s to die for. As the boat sails forward, those are the two phrases that run through my head. I don’t really know why, except that they feel true—because this is the kind of place you can only describe in clichés.
Lawrence Island rises out of the waves like a mirage, an oasis of land after miles of sea so clear and blue it shouldn’t be real. The dock leads up to a beach, blinding white, dotted with palm trees and glittering rocks. Farther on, there’s a terrace, a pool, and then, looking over it all, the house. It’s Spanish-style, three stories of stucco and a clay roof, with curved windows and iron balconies, more palms flanking the sides like royal guards.
As we near the dock, I take a moment to breathe in the salty air, the humidity already teasing my hair into its natural wave. I fix my ponytail, raking unruly pieces back into order, and then close my eyes, letting the sun bake my cheeks, my bare shoulders.
This place would be perfect for the kind of content my followers want to see: workout videos on the beach. Vlogs where I make guilt-free virgin daiquiris. Pictures of me in a sponsored leggings set, stretching against a backdrop of sea and sky. But I gave my phone to a PA at the airport, so for the next three weeks, my followers will have to settle for posts I scheduled back home in Dallas.
For the next three weeks, I get to disappear.
“You okay?” Max Overby asks from across the small boat.
My face goes hot. So much for disappearing.
“Yeah,” I tell him. “Sorry.”
Right away, I regret it. I’m always apologizing for things I don’t need to, instinct from years of hearing Ms. Tammy’s hoarse shouts in the studio. Toes pointed. No sickling. Eyes up, Lyons. Do you think the floor is going to fall out from under you?
Max adjusts his glasses, blue eyes bright behind them. It makes me weirdly nervous, so I look at his camera instead. I don’t know who Max had to charm for permission to bring the camera with him, since we were supposed to leave our devices behind, but he hasn’t put it away since we got on the boat.
“This an interview?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.
“No. Genuine concern.” He puts the camera away, a crooked smile curving on his lips. “You looked a little seasick.”
A warm, wobbly feeling rushes through me, which I did not sign up for, so I look down at his sneakers, the crew socks sticking out from them. They’re green with little cartoon sea turtles. Wait, did Max Overby coordinate his socks with the marine life? And why do I find that so attractive?
Eyes up, Lyons.
“Just not a fan of boats,” I say, picking the first real excuse I can think of. “I’ve seen Jaws and Titanic. As far as I’m concerned, sea travel should be avoided at all costs.”
Max laughs, warm. “Okay, but what if I see your Jaws and Titanic and raise you the entire Final Destination series? Rules out air travel, car travel, and roller coasters.”
A smile tugs at my lips, but I force it down—because 1) having a crush on the first lanky boy who asks me how I’m doing is totally embarrassing, and 2) I’m almost positive that this is how Max drags the secrets out of his documentary subjects before they even know what hit them.
I hadn’t met him until today, but I’ve known about Max since his documentary blew up on YouTube last year, the one exposing Jared Sky, who runs one of the most-followed commentary channels, as a serial catfish. From there, Max’s small following grew into a horde of fans—some of whom, I’d argue, are more drawn to his sharp jawline and six-foot frame than they are to his journalistic prowess, but that’s just my opinion. As, you know, another girl who is also apparently charmed by those things, as much as that makes me want to scream into the nearest suitcase.
Logan Costello, on the other hand, is not impressed.
“Are you gonna be filming this whole time?” she asks Max, narrowing her hazel eyes. The breeze blows dark strands out of her loose ponytail, making them dance around her pale face. “Like, I’m pretty sure the crew has it covered. Unless the camera is just a film-bro fashion statement, in which case, might I suggest therapy?”
Max turns pink, and I bite my cheek to stifle a laugh. Logan comes off as a little harsh, I guess, but from what I’ve seen of her content, sharp and dry is her brand of humor. Before she joined the Bounce House, Logan’s videos genuinely cracked me up, from tips on how to repel men on the dance floor to random stories told straight to the camera. But after getting picked up by the biggest TikTok collective around, she mostly did their usual stuff: spon-con, dances, and vlogs. Then, two months ago, she left without explanation. There’s all kinds of rumors about why she quit, but if you ask me, it was a good move. I know there’s only so much you can know about a person from their socials, but the longer Logan stayed with the Bounce House, the less she seemed like herself.
“Tilly said it was fine.” Max shrugs, running a hand through his messy brown hair. “No internet connectivity.”
Logan frowns. “Wait, are you actually making a documentary about this?”
“A documentary about a TV show about disconnecting from social media.” Corinne Lecompte leans back against the boat’s railing, thoughtfully scrunching her nose, where freckles splash across her brown skin. “Meta.”
I smile, wishing I could text Alex to let him know that I’m about to spend three weeks with his Twitch idol. My fifteen-year-old brother is almost always plugged into a video on his phone, and most of the time, it’s one of Corinne’s streams. I’m not much of a gamer, but she seems pretty badass. There are hardly any women on the most-followed streamer lists, especially Black women, so not only is Corinne breaking boundaries, but it looks like she’s crushing them. This past spring, when a toxic alpha-male streamer started trolling her, Corinne challenged him to a match in a battle-royale game—and totally destroyed him, obviously. Her following surpassed his within hours, and it’s only been growing since then. But she hasn’t been going live lately, which I only know because Alex has been complaining about it for weeks. Mentally, I promise him that I’ll ask Corinne what’s been going on, once I stop feeling intimidated by how effortlessly cool she looks in her green coverall romper and platform sneakers.
A scoff draws my attention to Aaron Tyler Banks, sitting as far from everyone as he can manage—which isn’t very, since the boat is barely big enough to fit the five of us, the driver, and our bags. Scowling at Max, Aaron squirts sunscreen into his hands and smears it onto his pasty, freckle-covered skin. “Whatever you think you’re filming, you officially do not have permission to use my face.”
Max shoots him a look. “You signed the release forms, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, for the actual show. Not your little project.”
Aaron’s snarky expression is an echo of the one that used to be on my TV all the time, back when he was the lovable, mischievous star of The Magnificent Millers. Except now, all of that youthful glow is gone. Aaron can’t be older than twenty-two, but he’s got dark circles under his eyes, and his light-ginger hairline is already retreating. He looks even worse than he did in the tabloid photo of his DUI arrest, his shocked sixteen-year-old face seared into my memory, slack-jawed and sweaty, mixed together with Dad’s voice.
Listen, Kicks, he told me, pointing at Aaron’s photo on the news. It was only a few months after Dance It Out premiered. I was twelve and still not used to the strange reality of my dance studio being streamed into every living room in the country. The show, all this social media stuff … promise me it won’t turn you into a kid like him. Dad paused. Or if it does, promise me you’ll at least have a better-looking mug shot. We laughed it off together, but to this day, I’ve taken his advice to heart.
The boat slows to a stop, bobbing against the dock. As the motor quiets to a dull rumble, my heart picks up speed. Part of me is aware that this whole thing might be an unbelievably stupid idea. I, of all people, should know that reality TV isn’t the best way to take a break, even if that’s technically the point of all this: leaving our phones behind and living IRL, as the show’s slightly on-the-nose title would suggest. Except I’ve been ignoring the part where three weeks off the grid also comes with cameras in my face 24/7.
I may not have thought this all the way through.
“You made it!” A tiny figure waves from the dock: Tilly, the PA we’ve been in touch with throughout the casting process. “Come on up, the gang’s all here.”
Tilly could be anywhere between eighteen and twenty-five—I really couldn’t say which. There’s something ageless about her energy, camp counselor meets suburban mom. With another enthusiastic grin, she starts hauling suitcases as big as she is off of the other boat, already docked, as the five other cast members start to disembark.
A girl steps out first, silky red hair billowing from under a floppy sun hat.
No. Is that …
“Kira?” McKayleigh Hill locks eyes with me, glossy mouth hanging open in shock. For half a second, I think she’s about to throw a fit, demand I leave, but then she flashes a bright white grin. Her Alabama accent oozes out of her, stevia-sweet. “Get the heck up here and give me a hug, girl! It’s been forever!”
I genuinely would rather leap into the Caribbean, but even though fitness is my thing, I don’t think I have it in me to swim fifteen miles back to the mainland. There’s no escape. Taking a deep breath, I lift my bags and climb out of the boat.
McKayleigh imprisons me in a tight hug, her Marc Jacobs Daisy perfume overpowering.
“I can’t believe you’re here, too! We’re gonna have so much fun.” She releases me, her bright green eyes conspiratorial. “I mean, look at this island! The other Dance It Out girls are gonna die when this airs, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I can’t form a more coherent response, because I’m too stunned to speak. It’s been years since I’ve seen McKayleigh in person, but her smile hasn’t changed a bit. It’s the same one she always used when she was fourteen to disguise backhanded compliments or distract the judges from forgotten choreography, and now here it is, beaming down at me. McKayleigh Hill, the girl who bullied me on national TV for years, is standing in front of me acting like we’re the best of friends.
And I’m not the only one who seems startled to see her. Stepping onto the dock, Logan looks like she’s seen a ghost.
McKayleigh stares back, that fake-friendly smile still painted on.
“Logan. It’s been a minute.”
My nerves twist into irritation. I should’ve known the producers would pull some crap like this. If the history between me and McKayleigh wasn’t enough, she’s also one of the cofounders of the Bounce House—as in, the content collective that Logan just quit. Or got kicked out of, if you believe some of the rumors.
And clearly, the producers didn’t stop there. The blood drains from Logan’s face as two more people climb onto the dock: Zane Rivers and Graham West, completing the Bounce House trio. Both of them freeze when they see her.
Zane recovers first. “Logan. Didn’t realize you’d be here.”
“Yeah, I’m sensing a theme,” she snaps.
He smiles, running a hand over his stubbled jaw. “As friendly as ever, huh?”
Technically, all three of them—Zane, McKayleigh, and Graham—are the founders of the Bounce House, but everyone knows it’s Zane’s brainchild. Everything about him screams “leader”: at twenty-two, Zane’s the oldest—McKayleigh’s twenty, Graham’s nineteen, and Logan’s eighteen—and he physically towers over them, too. But between Zane’s man-bun, his vegan-lifestyle content, and the tattoos covering his toned arms, I feel like the ideal thing for Zane to lead would be either a SoulCycle class or a cult.
Graham gives a nervous laugh, pulling off his beanie and running a hand through his jet-black hair. While Zane looks totally at home on an island, Graham, with his all-black clothes and porcelain complexion, looks like he should be anywhere else. I’m genuinely impressed by his commitment to the e-boy aesthetic, even in eighty-degree weather.
“Mom, Dad,” Graham teases. “Stop fighting. The other kids are watching.”
Zane’s laugh is half-hearted, and Graham shrinks, picking at the strap of his guitar case. Like the rest of the Bounce House, Graham has millions of followers, although I’m not really sure why. Not that Graham isn’t good—he’s got a really nice voice—but something about all three of them just seems so … fake, I guess. Like they’re living, breathing brands, which technically they are. We all are. My manager is always going on about my brand, what we need to do to sell it. It’s part of why I came here, what I wanted to get away from.
Now, though, I’m not sure what I was thinking.
Normally, I don’t mind silence, but the tension between the Bounce House and Logan heats to a simmer. Something about this whole thing is making me itch, a creeping feeling all over my body. When someone new emerges from the boat, I’m grateful for the interruption.
“Oh my god.” Elody Hart pushes designer sunglasses up into her blond hair, revealing ice-blue eyes. “This is so cute. It’s, like, a real island.”
“As opposed to a fake one?” Aaron mumbles, adjusting the back of his boat shoe.
Elody steps onto the dock and stares at him blankly, a hand on her hourglass hip. She’s one of those girls who’s famous for being unbelievably hot, her grid a patchwork of bikini pics, lip-sync thirst traps, and dead-eyed selfies. Outwardly, Elody’s probably the least relatable eighteen-year-old in the world, but a lot of people seem to connect with her story: raised in a trailer park in Florida, Elody lived with a single mom and bills piling up on the counter until a few viral pictures launched her into stardom.
It’s always cool to see other creators who didn’t grow up rich—unlike McKayleigh, whose family moved from a multimillion-dollar mansion in Alabama to another in Highland Park the second she got cast on Dance It Out—but watching Elody now, I can’t help but feel intimidated. I always figured she edited the crap out of her pictures, but she’s just as flawless in person, even as she frowns at Aaron like she’s trying to place him.
Suddenly, she gasps. “Wait, Aaron Tyler Banks. I thought you died, like, four years ago.”
He blinks. “What?”
“Ohhh, my bad, babe.” A catlike grin creeps onto her filler-plumped lips. “That was just your career.”
A loud laugh booms from the boat.
“Broooo, you just got roasted!” Cole Bryan tosses his bags onto the dock and leaps down after them, pulling a backward baseball cap over his mop of blond hair. Seeing Aaron’s red face, he laughs harder, giving him a frat-boy slap on the back. “Nah, dude, I’m just playing. Rub your sunscreen on it and you’ll be good.” He elbows Elody. “Am I right?”
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