The Saga of Arielle Charnas, Patient Zero of Influencer-Coronavirus Controversy
It was the perfect social-media storm. With millions of Americans out of work due to Coronavirus—and millions more stuck inside their homes under direct orders to shelter in place, with little to do except stare at screens and grieve our pre-pandemic lives, hungry for drama and distractions—a villain emerged.
It all started when fashion influencer and founder of the blog-turned-clothing-line Something Navy, Arielle Charnas, shared that she felt sick on March 15—and immediately took her 1.3 million followers along for the ride as she got tested for COVID-19 in her car the following day. She plugged the doctor and his office, causing many to speculate that this highly sought-after (and difficult to come by) test was wasted on an otherwise healthy influencer using it for non-disclosed branded content. Her husband, Brandon, posted a #sponsored Volvo story on the way there. Immediately after the test, she unboxed a new Louis Vuitton bag.
The influencer rightfully faced backlash for her tone-deafness; for mysteriously securing a coveted Coronavirus test even though her symptoms were mild and she’s not “high-risk”; and for flaunting it in front of her far less privileged followers. Although she’d been called out by The New York Post, The Daily Mail, and fashion-industry watchdogs Diet Prada, the “storm” had really just begun.
In a March 17 Instagram post, Charnas posted that she would resume her content despite the backlash. “If it offends anyone or seems as though I’m being insensitive during this time, I’m sorry, but it’s what I’ve chosen to do,” she wrote. “Can’t wait to post my partnerships and my outfits from inside my [apartment] every day!”
The following day, Charnas announced that she tested positive for COVID-19, and that her husband was sick, too. (It’s been speculated that she had her results expedited, since the average wait time for Coronavirus results is anywhere from five days to two weeks.)
After her diagnosis, Charnas continued to post from inside her palatial Manhattan apartment alongside her two young daughters. Her husband, too. Soon, comments were flooding in asking why a COVID-positive person wasn’t following the CDC guidelines—self-isolate, self-quarantine, stay six feet apart from loved ones at all times to avoid infecting them. Charnas proceeded to post TikTok videos of herself dancing in matching loungewear sets.
Why aren’t you self-isolating? Aren’t you worried your daughters will get it? This doesn’t look like the Coronavirus we’re hearing about on the news, many wondered aloud in her comments section.
On March 26, only eight days after her diagnosis, Charnas and her family arrived in the Hamptons. (Saying this was her “fatal error” might be in bad taste—but in terms of her influencing career and reputation, this may have been a calamitous mistake.) This is because—again—according to stringent guidelines put in place by the CDC, those who’ve been exposed to Coronavirus are mandated to self-quarantine for at least 14 days in order to avoid infecting others. Clearly, Charnas was defying New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s orders to avoid non-essential travel and shelter in place. Not to mention, Charnas hadn’t just been exposed to Coronavirus—she allegedly had it, and her family might, too.
Why are you travelling? I live in the Hamptons year-round, how dare you put my family’s lives at risk. Was your million-dollar penthouse apartment not good enough for you? Why do you think you’re above the rules? You think you don’t need to quarantine just because you’re rich?
Followers were furious—especially when they noted Charnas was staying in a Hamptons rental, and that she had had WiFi installed, potentially exposing unsuspecting homeowners and cablemen. (Charnas confirmed they used the elevator of her Manhattan doorman building to leave for their excursion, and wore “masks and gloves” to walk through the lobby.)
It doesn’t matter how careful you are when you could’ve just stayed home. The whispers were getting louder.
“No, I’m not lying about getting Coronavirus and testing positive,” Charnas said in an Instagram story filmed in her Hamptons rental mansion, adding that it’s also “massive BS” that people believe she used her money and wealth to get a test. “I have a bunch of doctors on speed dial, and when I was feeling sick with a high fever, I called one of them… I paid my $40 copay, and got tested for both [the flu and COVID-19].”
In the same video, Charnas also claimed the only reason she got her now-infamous curbside test is because “she was certain she had Coronavirus and didn’t want to infect the [doctor’s] office.” She ends the video by reiterating “how important it is to follow the CDC and what the government is telling us to do as far as quarantining and social distancing.”
How dare you tell us what to do when you’re not even following the rules yourself.
In a viral Twitter thread I wrote on the subject, I pointed out the dissonance here: Charnas denies using her privilege to acquire a COVID-19 test in the same breath she discusses the doctors she has on speed dial. The idea of a “regular person,” such as myself, calling up a “doctor friend” for a highly sought-after test via a drive-through appointment is laughable.
This little self-awareness usually goes hand-in-hand with a lot of of privilege. Her followers were finding this all very troublesome—and although Charnas had escaped previous scandals relatively unscathed in the past, the timeline continued to get more muddled, maddening, and controversial.
In an Aviator Nation sweatsuit and Ugg boots—with the brands tagged, of course—Charnas posted an #OOTD in front of her Hamptons mansion. The caption? “Fresh air,” with a prayer-hands emoji. Angry comments quickly flooded in.
I’m so confused. Do you realize you have a very contagious, and for many, deadly disease? One asked.
Charnas continued to post Instagram stories of herself giggling, playing with her daughters, and flaunting her Hamptons mansion. She posted a picture of herself walking down the street of her Southampton neighborhood while holding hands with her older daughter. Next, a photo of herself cuddling and kissing her younger one. Many of the followers seemed genuinely concerned—not only for Hamptons residents, but for the rest of the Charnas family.
Please do not kiss your daughter if you’re infected with COVID-19, one read.
Other commenters were angry.
How incredibly selfish and irresponsible of you to leave your apartment in New York. I’m disgusted.
Watching a subsequent Instagram Live that night, viewers noted that her husband was overheard asking “if only attractive people get the virus.” And then the most explosive development of the saga unfolded: viewers spotted Charnas’s nanny in the background of the Live video. It seemed to be an accident—Charnas quickly moved the camera. Responding to curious commenters, Charnas explained. “My nanny and I got sick together unfortunately and she hasn’t left us since. But she’s perfect now too!”
Again, as I noted on Twitter, Charnas’s response was a little too convenient. Not only that, but it appeared she’d purposefully omitted this information, hiding it from her followers to avoid these very questions. Something seemed dishonest—even sinister—about her behavior. I wondered if Charnas was carelessly exposing her nanny to COVID-19 and forcing her to work while sick—or if Charnas even had the virus to begin with.
Following the Live, it was business as usual on the @ArielleCharnas account. Swipe-ups for loungewear sets, another #OOTD with prominently featured Chanel boots. But many following the saga had officially had it—and the backlash was swift and brutal.
With fans airing their grievances in comments and direct messages left and right, screenshots emerged of Brandon calling his wife’s followers “losers” and “irrelevant” via direct-message conversations—even going so far as telling a Cornell-educated nurse that “Cornell was a safety school.”
The couple quickly turned off their comments and Arielle deleted all incriminating posts, but they couldn’t hide from the Internet’s ire. The New York Post dubbed Charnas a “Covidiot,” and Vanity Fair suggested that the scandal could end her career. Charnas posted a teary apology video in which she claimed her family received death threats, and issued a lengthy apology that read more as a poorly written justification of her actions.
Her comments section was a warzone. Save the crocodile tears. You could have used your platform to help New York City. Where are you donating? (Charnas has yet to announce any donations in the fight against COVID-19.)
As noted by Pajiba writer Kayleigh Donaldson, there’s a reason this scandal picked up steam in publications that typically don’t cover Internet personalities and influencers. Many of us are suffering, unemployed, or broke, isolated in less-desirable circumstances than the penthouse-dwelling Charnas family. We’re terrified. We’re angry. And for those sitting in cramped apartments, watching children (sans nannies), and thirsting for a distraction, a tone-deaf, privileged woman flaunting Chanel boots and $200 loungewear sets flouncing around New York state while carrying a deadly virus was an easy and delicious target. (Some Internet users are even wondering if the spike in Long Island COVID-19 cases is pure coincidence, or on Charnas’s shoulders.)
Charnas’s brand will certainly take a hit. Instagram users have been demanding her sponsors drop her (which include Volvo, Shopbop, Bandier, and more). Nordstrom—which previously carried her Something Navy line—publicly distanced themselves from her amid the backlash, tweeting and commenting that their partnership ended in 2019 and they have no plans for future collaborations.
Questions remain regarding Charnas’s timeline, including the fact that she held her daughter’s birthday party at the Museum of Ice Cream on March 7, and visited the child’s preschool on March 15—after Charnas’s symptoms had already appeared, according to her apology letter.
Still, Charnas is likely to weather the storm of bad press and dropped sponsorships—she has 1.3 million followers and a legion of seemingly diehard fans. But for a blogger used to flaunting designer handbags and Hamptons mansions, it’s crucial her next steps are tactful. Despite the fact that she’s seemingly lost some followers (and bought some back, according to Diet Prada), more eyes than ever will be on her personal and brand accounts. (Both of them have gone dark in the wake of the scandal—although she left a few comments she left on her mother’s Instagram account, appearing to test the waters ahead of a return.)
This wasn’t Charnas’s first time “going viral,” but it was certainly the most explosive. (People on snark forums—like Reddit’s Blogsnark and GOMI—had been tracking her smaller-scale scandals for quite some time.) Whether she was getting accused of stealing designs or sharing archaic beliefs regarding “post-baby bodies,” the sentiment across the Internet seemed to be: well, this isn’t very shocking.
What I was surprised by: how much attention a Twitter thread about an Instagram personality got from communities who typically don’t care about influencers. Case in point: this writeup on Barstool Sports, a site for bros, comedy, and scantily clad “smokeshows.” Something had clearly resonated here. It could be how the already out of touch are appearing so much more out of touch than ever, and it’d almost be funny if it weren’t so sad.
Of course, there were a few longtime Charnas fans who messaged me to say they hope I get Coronavirus and someone writes a Twitter thread about me when it happens. (Which, okay. Knock yourself out.) I would’ve been surprised if I hadn’t gotten messages from her diehard fans, to be honest. They have Charnas’s back, and they likely always will, despite any real transgressions on her part.