‘Auntie Paula,’ the English Influencer Enchanting Black American Women
I was introduced to Hill House Vintage’s Instagram account and the overwhelming charm of its owner, Paula Sutton, under unfortunate circumstances. In April, freelance writer Liv Siddall, who is white, tweeted that after eight years, she was leaving Instagram after a picture of Sutton sent her over the edge. “Don’t know when I’ll be back, but let it be known that this was the image that did it,” she wrote, and attached a picture of Sutton to show everyone. In the photo, Sutton sits on a blanket on her sprawling lawn, wearing a long green dress, surrounded by pillows, a bouquet of flowers, and a bowl of blood red apples, her face hidden by a sunhat as she stares into the pages of a book. In her caption, she quipped about her repetitive gardening and picnicking routine, losing her sense of time (a common theme in our new quarantined world), and always being hungry.
Sutton had staged an image that looked like it could have been plucked from a completely different time. Her Georgian estate and a blue, vintage van (named Daphne) made for a scenic background that could double as the set of a 1950’s editorial spread. The colorful image exuded leisure, simplicity, and modest elegance, themes that certainly feel foreign in the midst of a global pandemic. This juxtaposition is what prompted Siddall’s disdain—and that of commenters who called Sutton awful, misogynistic names—in the first place. But those themes are also staples of a home and garden lifestyle sector that rarely depicts Black women in the first place, which is why Siddall was taken to task by Black Twitter for making Sutton the butt of what Siddall later tweeted was a “joke about me being anxious from wealth fatigue/lush gardens etc.”
But as Siddall received backlash for her comments and even trended on Twitter, Sutton’s picnic photo went viral. She’s amassed over 100,000 new Instagram followers in the weeks since it all went down, and earned herself a new moniker: Auntie Paula. The interior designer, blogger, and country living influencer has captured the eyes and hearts of Black women like myself, who haven’t seen themselves represented as purveyors of such idyllic lives.
One of Sutton’s followers, Angelique Fullwood, appreciates her organic authenticity, telling me that she likes “following content where people are being themselves, and not trying to be something else or [someone] else.” In a sea of vixens, Black girl bosses, and wellness queens, who all put forth their own version of fulfillment, Sutton stands miles apart. ”She’s not trying to project an image or anything, she just finds joy around her,” Fullwood says. “And I think it’s inspirational. We should all, no matter what our class or social status, be able to have joy in life.”
When I reached out to other Black women who follow Sutton, terms like “best life,” “joy,” “whimsical,” and “fantasy” came up over and over again. 30-year-old Jade Magnus Ogunnaike praised Sutton (who she endearingly referred to as ‘Miss Paula’) for her “whimsical elegance, her light and airy approach to social media, and above all, her mastery of the domestic arts.” For Ogunnaike, Sutton’s homemaking skills can be connected to a history of Black women’s work. “I think it was B. Smith who said Black women were the original domestic artists, and Miss Paula is a bearer of that legacy,” she says. Even with this heritage in mind, though, the overwhelming whiteness of Sutton’s industry makes her ingenuity feel like part of storybook vision.
“Black women and girls deserve to be able to see ourselves enjoying our best lives.” —Bridget Todd
Alessandra Hickson, who works for a tech giant in the Bay Area, saw a picture of Sutton reposted on her friend Candace’s Instagram page. For the first time, she saw what had only previously existed as a figment of her imagination: “I’ve always had a fantasy of being a Black woman living in a luxurious home in the English countryside, but it always seemed like just a fantasy.” She said that she had never seen a Black woman living what she identifies as a “carefree life” punctuated by domestic details like tree-laden paths, bouquets of flowers, tall Wellington boots, and even her dog Coco. “I love seeing her so joyful, so comfortable in her own skin. I love seeing her in elegant dresses, gingham print skirts, and wool blazers that people think are only for white folks.”
Digital storyteller Bridget Todd also described Sutton’s online presence as bridging a representational gap. “I grew up thinking that things like softness, whimsy, and comfort were not for Black women and girls. I didn't see myself reflected in images and spaces designed to showcase these things.” She found Sutton’s account while scrolling through vintage clothing hashtags and said that not only does she enjoy it on her own feed but firmly believes that “Black women and girls deserve to be able to see ourselves enjoying our best lives.”
As most of the country tries to ride out another week, another day, another minute of social distancing with their sanity and bank accounts in check, it’s hard to picture what the best version of our lives can look like. Most of us are just hoping for a return to our “just OK” lives, especially Black women, who have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic. Yes, by virtue of being an influencer, Auntie Paula offers us something to aspire to. But in doing so she’s also challenging us to reconsider what our versions of best life can be. I don’t know if Black women will be leading a mass exodus from cities and suburbia into the country, but perhaps they’ll start checking on their own distant aunts in Louisiana or their grandmothers in North Carolina. Or, if they’re truly called to the domestic arts, those might just take an extra 10 minutes to lay out a nice table setting before dinner.