How To Be Old

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Last Updated on July 7, 2024

The Accidental Icon on the Influence of Authenticity

Lyn Slater realized the dream of nearly every social media influencer and then realized it wasn’t her dream. She found a huge audience but lost herself along the way. The influence she wielded was not the kind she had aspired to, so she walked away from lucrative brand deals to pursue a more authentic, less commercial but more powerful type of influence.

You’ve likely heard Slater referred to as The Accidental Icon which is a blog she started in 2014 at the age of 61, and led to a sphere of influence that includes over a million online followers. She’s been profiled and quoted by major publications and news outlets worldwide and her first book, How to be Old: Lessons in Living Boldly from the Accidental Icon, is already being called one of the best books of 2024.

In 2014, Slater was a professor in Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service with no connection to formal fashion, and no thought whatsoever about becoming a global influencer. Driven by her endless curiosity, she enrolled in a college course called Building a Vintage Business with a focus on upcycling and selling vintage clothing. She had no trouble fitting in with classmates young enough to be her granddaughters. “I was not really aware that I was the oldest person in the room because I was so engaged in learning something new,” she says. “The students would say, ‘You have really good style. You should start a fashion blog’. I was interested in writing in a more expressive way than you’re allowed to write in academia. So, I just started the blog as a pleasure project and to find out about an area that I didn’t know.”

For the next three years, anxious to learn all she could about the fashion industry, Slater attended fashion shows, visited designers, and began doing a little modeling. “I was just having fun. In 2017, I went on a casting call that turned out to be for a Valentino eyewear ad. They basically said, ‘If we use your picture, we’ll pay you $1,000.’ A few weeks later they sent me the check and I didn’t think any more of it. A couple of months later, my friends started blowing up my phone. I was in a full-page ad for Valentino eyewear in every major fashion magazine in the world. That brought me to the attention of a modeling agent from Elite Models London who I then signed with, and I sort of blew up.”

Slater was unlike other older models. As she writes in her book, “I am unique in my stark self-presentation. No retouching, no filters. The way I dress, my unsmiling demeanor, my sunglasses, my not-classic beauty, my wrinkles, my white hair. I project an attitude that implies a blasé response to the world around me, a cool nonchalance. I am calmly demanding my right to self-creation on my own terms. I don’t care if you like me or not. I appear unafraid of being old.”

As Slater gained attention so did her blog, which initially had nothing to do with age. “I was not even thinking about my age. I never talked about age, and I didn’t write about age. It was not my intention. When the media started to write about me, it became all about age. ‘Oh, look at her. She is involved in fashion and she’s 62. Oh, look at her. She’s good at social media. Oh, surprise, she’s 64.’”

Slater quickly became one of the most powerful 60+ influencers on social media. She was one of the first to flaunt gray hair, and not just embrace, but celebrate aging. She was a rebel. “I’ve always been a rebel. My friends call me the good bad girl. I was a teenager and a young woman in the early 70s. We challenged authority. And so, I think that my generation is coming to aging with a very different attitude than our parents or our grandparents. Anytime that I am put in a box, stereotyped, or categorized in any way that does not feel authentic to me, I will push back against that.”

And that’s exactly what she did when social media began to define her. “When I started to work predominantly on Instagram, doing sponsored posts, I really began to lose myself and just became swept up in this constant scroll of social media. My narrative got hijacked as this poster girl for how we should all be aging. At some point, I felt like I stopped being a unique person and became a brand. I colluded in my own disappearing by becoming an influencer in the capitalistic sense of the world, not an influencer of cultural change which is what I originally aspired to be.”

Slater stopped doing sponsored posts. She turned down easy money to hawk products and focused on living her own, unique, authentic truth. “I feel privileged to be alive and healthy at 70 years old. And so, I decided to take that word ‘old’ and reclaim it as part of my narrative until it gets drained of all the negative connotations that society has put on it.”

That doesn’t mean that Slater has a Pollyannish view of aging. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Every single year and decade of my life, I have had opportunities. I have had challenges. I have had losses. I have had health and I have had sickness. I have had to figure out, how do I respond to those things so that I can move forward? To me, this stage of my life is exactly the same.”

Slater is bothered by two polarizing narratives about aging. “On one hand, you have this decline narrative that we’ll all be disabled and have dementia. We’ll be dependent and a burden on our family and society and wrecking it for all the generations behind us. And then there is the other narrative – the older person who is ageless, exceptionally fit, running marathons, highly resourced, very hot, completely independent and needs nothing. I think these unrealistic views reflect maybe just 3% of the aging population. Most of us are in the middle.”

It’s that malleable middle that holds nearly unlimited opportunity to continue learning, growing, and changing. “I’m still evolving, still reinventing, but I’ve given up this thing that I call ‘the striving,’ which was part of my younger life. And now, I just do the things I do for the enjoyment of them. I am in touch with so many older women who are saying, ‘Finally, this is my time. I can be the painter I always wanted to, or I could go back to school, or I could just be in my garden and be contributing to my community.’ The difference now is that we have this massive toolbox of experience, skills, memories, and successes accumulated over a lifetime.”

Four sentences from the epilogue of her new book sum up Slater’s narrative for authentic aging. “The next decade stretches before me, like a new notebook waiting to be filled with classes to be taken, essays to be written, mistakes to be made, and serendipitous occasions. There will be losses and gains, good times and bad. I will probably lose my way and find it again. I feel that little sliver of excitement that comes with asking myself what now.”