Social media star Lena Situations shoots to literary fame in France, ruffling feathers

Lena Mahfouf's book, a self-help guide for young adults published in fall, has sold over 280,000 copies so far.
Lena Mahfouf's book, a self-help guide for young adults published in fall, has sold over 280,000 copies so far.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

PARIS (NY TIMES) - Léna Situations shot to fame in France by sharing fashion advice and tips for living a positive life with millions of her followers on social media.

A 23-year-old of Algerian heritage whose real name is Léna Mahfouf, she has notched up 1.8 million followers on YouTube, another 2.9 million on Instagram and won a People's Choice Award, a coveted accolade for viral video stars.

Last fall, her first book topped nonfiction charts in France for six weeks in a row - dislodged only by the appearance of the first volume of Barack Obama's memoirs.

And then came the inevitable backlash from a prominent figure in France's literary establishment.

"147 pages of emptiness, 19.50 lost euros," writer Frédéric Beigbeder complained about her book Toujours Plus (Always More) in Le Figaro, a leading conservative newspaper.

The young author, Beigbeder wrote in a November column, was "one of the many victims of Mark Zuckerberg".

The comments by Beigbeder, a bestselling novelist who has been a juror for several prestigious literary prizes for more than two decades, caused outrage on French social media, from Mahfouf's followers but also from activists who saw a touch of racism and sexism in his critique.

Mahfouf brushed off Beigbeder's column with a widely shared tweet: "Do I owe him money or what?"

France's literary gatekeepers are already under fire for being too insular and clubby. Critics of Beigbeder's comments said they showed how reluctant the French literary establishment is to recognize voices like Mahfouf's.


Lena Mahfouf has 1.8 million followers on YouTube, another 2.9 million on Instagram and won a People's Choice Award. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"As a gatekeeper, Mr Beigbeder aims to protect the entrance of the literary field by using a classic disqualification strategy in the world of letters: stigmatising social media sensations," said Delphine Naudier, a sociologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research who specializes in gender inequalities in literature.

Mahfouf's highly successful writing debut, a self-help guide for young adults published in fall, has sold over 280,000 copies so far - an unusually high figure for a first-time author in France.

On average, winners of the Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize, sell around 350,000 copies, according to market research institute GfK.

So far, Mahfouf seems to have taken all the attention she's getting in stride.

"I love challenging myself, coming to environments where I am persona non grata and proving that I can make a place for myself," she said in an interview in her Paris apartment.

Mahfouf is one of France's most prominent fashion influencers, along with Sanaa El Mahalli and Marie Lopez - who have also gained millions of online followers by sharing tips on make-up and outfits, and personal anecdotes about relationships or mental health.

Last February, she covered a Balmain catwalk on YouTube at the invitation of Loïc Prigent, a well-known fashion journalist and admirer.


She started sharing low-price fashion advice and make-up tutorials on her YouTube channel five years ago. PHOTO: NYTIMES

At the time, she was relatively unknown, and she was wearing clothes made by fast-fashion brand Zara. But her excitement and sense of humor were evident as she greeted - and was generally ignored by - the other guests.

When told that the later people come to the show, the more important they are, she joked: "We arrived before they even installed the lights - that means we are really not important."

Since the Balmain show, Mahfouf has become something of a new force on the French fashion scene. She has been chosen by Dior to promote its items online and her purchases have gone more upmarket - Yves Saint-Laurent heels and trendy Jacquemus bags lay scattered around her living room during the interview.

But in the eyes of her followers, Mahfouf is still accessible and down to earth.

Born of parents from Algeria who fled the country's civil war, she grew up in a middle-class family in Paris. She started sharing low-price fashion advice and make-up tutorials on her YouTube channel five years ago, as she was juggling several odd jobs to pay for her studies in a fashion marketing school.

Her videos are often low-key and feature family and friends. Other videos take on a more activist approach. She has expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, talked about her feminism and how naturally curly hair should be acceptable even if artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna have straightened theirs.

"One positive aspect of social media is that it gives minorities a space," Mahfouf said. "I hope that this dynamic will take off from social media to real life."