On a recent week-long yoga retreat to Bali, I made it my mission to finish a book or two, as it’s always been my preferred method of truly unwinding (especially when there’s a frozen cocktail in hand). One of the two to three options I packed away in my carry-on was a preview copy of Noelle Crooks’ debut novel, Under The Influence. Described in media releases as “The Devil Wears Prada for the digital age” I was immediately intrigued, as I’ve had an obsession with the deliciously unhinged Miranda Priestly since I first read the 2004 novel nearly 20 years ago. Would this book and its cautionary tale of hustle — and influencer — culture gone terribly wrong captivate me in a similar way?
Spoiler alert: It did ... and then some.
In fact, from the initial chapters in which I was first introduced to struggling writer Harper Cruz and her new boss the fast-moving self-help guru and social media darling Charlotte Green, I was hooked. The book’s quick pace made it so hard to put down. I found myself reading it in between yoga sessions, at meals, poolside, and in bed. Within two days, I had devoured the novel and was discussing its premise and take on toxic bosses with anyone who would listen.
And while Lauren Weisberger’s early aughts book-turned-film revealed an obvious and blatant abuse of power and influence at the hands of Miranda, Under The Influence’s Charlotte reveals it in a more subtle and manipulative way, often under the guise of inspiration and pep talks. The modern #Girlboss touts an inclusive work-family environment, complete with morning office dance parties and daily motivational intentions while demanding long working hours and total loyalty. It’s a recipe for disaster, and also a story that resonated all too well with me (and likely anyone else who experienced the meteoric rise of the hustle-focused #Girlboss era of the early 2010s.)
“I've come to find, just in my professional career and talking with friends and family that, no matter the industry, there are all types of toxic work environments, especially this hype of work-hard and play-hard that's drilled into our mindset,” says author Crooks in a recent interview with me. “I just feel like it's not a healthy way of actually being productive at work, or in life. The former, work-hard [philosophy], just feels like it's been this driving force for so many people for so long, and that's where Under The Influence comes in.”
Ahead, Crooks gives me the scoop on her highly anticipated novel, which hits shelves today. Read on to hear the author’s thoughts on toxic work environments, girlbosses, and what she learned about her own unhealthy work habits in writing her first book.
How much of your inspiration for this book was pulled from real life experience?
Through ideating the story, I've been able to pull inspiration from a compilation of places, whether it's friends, family, past coworkers, my own research online. Unfortunately, I feel like we live in a [time] where it's not often that you can talk to someone and they haven't had some type of bad boss experience, or some sort of toxic work environment experience.
Do you find that, as the book demonstrates, many toxic work environments are masked beneath the guise of a self-care, community-focused environment?
Yes. I feel like toxic work environments are rarely the ones that are with cubicles, or a formal dress code. It's usually, from what I've noticed, the fun, sexy, innovative companies that have their catchy values splattered on their website, and Instagram grids of smiling coworkers, and an ‘It's so fun to work here,’ [public image] that sadly are the ones that end up being the most [problematic]. The ones that are supposed to be mission-driven companies are often sadly just not really as progressive as they make themselves out to be.
Without giving away too much about the story, would you say, you have worked for a company that's very similar to the one in the book, or have you had an experience similar to Harper's?
I definitely resonate with Harper's story about having a bad boss. I definitely have fallen victim to hustle culture early on in my career. When writing Harper's character, I thought about the stories I’d hear during happy hour, or conversations I’d had with past colleagues. I even thought about 2020 and all the articles out there pulling back the curtain on some of these companies — so I did some research on that, too.
Did writing this book result in any personal revelations?
I've definitely fallen victim to hustle culture early on in my career. I've always just been someone who wanted to do well, and even as a child, the best moments for me, I feel like were the times in elementary school when I was line leader. For me, the fact that I joined the workforce at the time that girlboss culture was just beginning, it was the perfect storm for me. Writing this book, I was able to reflect on my time in this hustle culture era. I really did back then subscribe to the girlboss ideas. I identify as an ambitious woman and the wave that hit the 2010s with the quotes, and the mugs and all of that, made me feel seen at the time.
During my mid to late 20s I would say, is when I had a moment where I thought, ‘Am I building a life that looks good, or am I building a life that feels good?’ I noticed that I was really prioritizing work over everything, like friends, family, health, and mental wellbeing. I was just so focused on work and the next [..] job title, bonus, salary increase, or something. I would say in writing this book it brought me back to that time where hustle culture was such a big part of my life. Now I would say, when I think of ‘the woman that has it all,’ [idea] it really makes me think of the word balance. When I think of a woman that has it all, she is balanced, she's working hard, she's passionate, she's excited about how she's contributing to the world, but she's also making time to go to a workout class, happy hour with friends, putting her phone away at dinner, and binge-watching Bravo — all of those things. Writing this novel really helped me reflect on all of those ideas.
There’s already a lot of comparisons of your book to The Devil Wears Prada. What are. your thoughts on the parallels between your novel’s Charlotte Green character and Miranda Priestly?
It's crazy to even think about that [The Devil Wears Prada] came out in 2004. It's been almost two decades and the story of toxic work environments was so relevant back then, just as much as it is today. It just goes to show you the little progress that has been made on it.
When thinking about Miranda versus Charlotte, I think the latter has a way of delivering things in a pretty little bow. I would say the message is similar to maybe some of the things that Miranda was saying, but the delivery is the key here that I think makes them very different. Miranda was much more to the point, and a little bit more transactional in saying, ‘This is what I want at this time, etc.’ Where Charlotte's demands are a little bit more weaved in an aspirational or inspirational quote, or are a little bit more manipulative. She even leverages social media [to get what she wants], where Miranda [didn’t].
There’s some belief that the girlboss has been replaced with this more self-care-focused time. In your opinion, do you think that the former is still alive and well, but just in a different manifestation, or do you think we truly are going in a more positive trajectory?
With the girlboss [trope] it obviously started as a compliment, and now it's really moved more to a criticism. I feel like that hustle culture I think is still pretty rampant in today's society, and I think social media definitely amplifies that. I'd like to think that even if companies are still fostering toxic work environments, that people are a lot more aware, and they're a lot more skeptical going into interviews, and trying to do more research about companies that may end up selling this dream career. I think people are able now to feel a little bit more equipped to take a step back and question if something does sound too good to be true.