She’s dancing on a gulf shore beach, toeing the place where the surf meets the sand.
She’s smiling with one foot forward, a 1990s throwback in Vans and a t-shirt, framed by a mural of angel's wings on a wall the color of cotton candy.
She’s laughing into the camera, backlit and blonde and beautiful without makeup, stuck inside a tent whose sides are threatening to cave in from the rain.
So relatable. So authentic. So real that you could be her, or at least be friends with her. The screen on which she appears isn't a barrier but a window, one she's opened wide to invite you in. You could reach right through and touch her, you could climb bodily into her wild, inspirational life.
And then you remember: she’s dead.
Gabby Petito occupied the liminal space of the influencer, straddling the line between artifice and reality. Look at her social media feeds and you'll find a cropped, curated, filtered and entirely tantalizing glimpse of something that isn't a real life, but looks enough like one to fool you into wanting it for yourself.
If she'd had more time to build her following on Instagram and her YouTube channel, Nomadic Statik, there's little doubt Petito would have done well. She was a natural: beautiful, but in a low-maintenance, accessible way. In photographs she often appears to be caught by surprise, not even posed, as if she had no idea anyone was taking her picture. It's all an illusion, of course, but that special brand of photogenic spontaneity is what sets a truly gifted influencer apart from the rest.
Petito, who, as the whole world knows, was traveling the country in an adorable camper van with her adoring fiancé, Brain Laundrie, sold us a dreamy vision of a no-fixed-address lifestyle with just enough grit (see: that rainy day in the tent) to seem like anyone could do it. This was hashtag-vanlife: a magical and aspirational thing that bears no resemblance to the cramped, uncomfortable, shitting-in-a-bucket reality that is living in a van.
Today, Gabby Petito has more than one million followers on Instagram. As news spread, in mid-September, that she’d gone missing, they flocked to her page in the way that people rushed to watch the news on 9/11, gawking as tragedy unfolded, seizing on each new report from the scene and tearing it apart in search of meaning. Feeling like they were part of something. The lack of information in Petito's case only made it that much more like a spectator sport, as everyone debated and discussed what was going to happen — or what already had.
Was she dead? Probably. Was it murder? Yes. (On Tuesday, the Teton County, Wyo., coroner said that the cause of death was strangulation and that she had been killed three to four weeks before her body was found.) Would the Instagram boyfriend be brought to justice? (He’s still missing.) Could we, the internet public, even be instrumental in cracking the case? (TikTokkers, in particular, were all over this.)
Commentators including Joy Reid rushed to declare this yet another tiresome case of Missing White Woman Syndrome, with only the briefest of polite pauses when Petito's body was found September 19 in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park. The exasperation reached a fever pitch as the wall-to-wall media coverage pivoted from Petito’s disappearance to a manhunt, in Florida, where Laundrie’s parents live, for her missing (and, presumably, murderous) fiancé. (According to the latest conspiracy theory, Laundrie is hiding out in a bunker behind a flower bed in his parents’ backyard, in North Port.) It wasn’t that the poor girl deserved to die — but could everyone stop acting like she was the first person to ever do this? Where was the outpouring of interest for all the murder victims who weren't internet-famous? The indictment was not against Petito, but against us, the slavering public, for making it into such a story. The accusation was a familiar one: "You only care because she's white, young, and pretty."
This is wrong. Reid assumes we care for reasons of race and youth, but the deeper, darker reality is whether we care at all. Do we really care about a woman — this one or any other — who we know is lying to us about the life she’s supposedly (but not really) living? Scratch the surface of the parasocial relationship between Gabby Petito and her audience, and there's not a scrap of true feeling to be found.
As much as we praise influencers for being authentic, for inviting us into their lives, we understand intuitively that what we’re seeing is just a performance: one perfectly calibrated to feel real without ever being too much. Social media celebrities become simultaneously more and less than human, and we treat them accordingly, like TV characters rather than people. The fact that this show sometimes breaks the fourth wall, in the form of a reply or a like, doesn't change a thing. The acknowledgment doesn't make the person on screen more human; it just makes the viewer feel seen.
Hence our nationwide obsession with Gabby Petito. It’s not about missing white women, and it’s not about the cult of the influencer, either. It’s about how a life becomes a narrative. It's about how a narrative craves a conclusion. And it's about how we, the engagement-driving audience, will always secretly yearn for the dark and delicious drama of an unhappy ending to the fairytale. The only thing more enticing than a beautifully curated Instagram feed is the satisfaction of knowing that it was all a facade, that the perfect-looking life you craved was not just unattainable but actually bullshit. After all, just look at what happened.
There’s a macabre joke to be made about how many influencers would die to reach the million-follower benchmark, but this is quite literally what happened with Petito. Of the 1.3 million people who now follow her account, fully 1.2 million of them didn't show up until she was already gone. All of them, all of us, gawking at her digital remains like rubberneckers slowing down to peer into the twisted wreckage of a crashed car, squinting to see if there's any blood left behind.
There’s one other video of Gabby Petito, one she didn't post herself, and never would have. It's too raw, too real, too much. An unguarded portrait of someone who knows she's being filmed but is too distraught to care: the bodycam footage from a police stop in which Petito and Laundrie were pulled over and questioned after someone saw them fighting and called 911. She's uncertain, apologetic, crying the entire time, and the pretty veneer of her Instagram-perfect #vanlife shatters into a million pieces as the police debate whether they should give the couple a way to spend the night apart — because the alternative, dangerous and undesirable, is to leave them to battle it out in a 48 square-foot space that is the only home they have.
The bodycam footage isn't great content. It’s meandering, unscripted, unedited, repetitive, and it goes on for over an hour. But as of today, it has been viewed more than 14 million times. Why do we watch it? Not because we care, but because we know what happened next. This story will end in tragedy, and we watch it with the smug, dark detachment of the fates, omniscient and uninvolved. Look at her: so pretty, so relatable, so real, and so doomed.
And when an influencer dies, it only makes her more interesting — because she’s gone. All that’s left is us.
Kat Rosenfield is a writer. Her latest novel, “No One Will Miss Her,” is out this week from William Morrow.
Meantime, just up on Honestly, an episode very much related to Kat’s piece. It’s called: Was the Internet a Horrible Mistake?
Listen here to my conversation with the technologist, philosopher, and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier: