> Zed Book Club / How ‘Accidental Icon’ Lyn Slater Reinvented Herself and Reclaimed Her Voice

Photos: Courtesy of Lyn Slater

> Bookshelf

How ‘Accidental Icon’ Lyn Slater Reinvented Herself and Reclaimed Her Voice

The retired professor, 70, is still teaching lessons in 'How to Be Old,' a memoir that details her Instagram ascendency, exit from social media and rebirth / BY Nathalie Atkinson / March 14th, 2024


As a fashion intellectual exploring personal style, Lyn Slater, 70, has amassed 772,000 followers on Instagram as @iconaccidental. The retired academic, widely recognized for her eclectic collection of statement earrings, sunglasses and distinctive grey bob, eventually got an agent, became an in-demand fashion influencer – and then she walked away.

Slater’s Instagram handle remains the same, but much has changed. The former professor of social work at New York’s Fordham University has reshaped her Insta platform into a place for reflection and revived her blog, which is grounded in literary stylings instead of selling stuff.

 

Lyn Slater
Slater was a social work professor at New York’s Fordham University when she posted this picture on Instagram in 2016, three years before she retired to be a full-time fashion influencer. Photo: Courtesy of Lyn Slater

 

That journey is detailed in her memoir How to Be Old: Lessons in Living Boldly from the Accidental Icon. Each chapter is an essay about a lesson learned every year since she turned 60, on the theme of reinvention. At 61, it’s “Take Advantage of Lucky Accidents” – like how she was first noticed by street style photographers. By 63? “Fear Not Risks and Welcome Mistakes,” part of her ethos about owning errors, be they small – like failing to recognize a famous designer – or big – like not asserting her worth (initially, she did Instagram promotion for free). 

But How to Be Old is fundamentally about reclaiming control of her voice. Slater, who’s taken creative writing classes at every decade, is thrilled to be a first-time (non-academic) author at 70. “It’s a very special moment for me,” she says from her home in the Hudson Valley in New York State. “It’s sort of been a deferred dream.”

The essays blend reflective memoir with skills from her background as a scholar, critically observing the culture. The pages are peppered with references to writers, from the late Joan Didion to French fashion influencer Garance Doré, 48, to British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, 81. The most influential, Slater tells me, has probably been Deborah Levy, 64. 

Slater just finished The Cost of Living, one of the British poet and novelist’s “working autobiographies,” and responded to the sense of immediacy, as well as the way Levy writes about objects (including clothes) “with such care.” When Slater looks at garments, she likewise sees narratives. “I’m interested in how clothes can communicate your identity… . I have always made that big distinction between fashion and clothing. But when I was an influencer, I lost that distinction.”

The social media fame and crisis of values that How to Be Old chronicles began a decade ago, when Slater felt constrained by academia’s expectations around self-presentation. In exploring her personal style, and looking for a creative outlet, she began to take continuing-ed classes at a New York fashion school, started a fashion blog, got noticed on the street (mistaken for a style editor) and created the Instagram account as “Accidental Icon.” After her visibility, ad campaigns and earnings peaked in 2019, Slater retired from academia and transitioned into full-time influencer. That’s when everything started to go downhill, she recounts, and thinking about her social media presence consumed every waking minute.

I joke that capitalism doesn’t discriminate. “I attempted to do creativity with commerce. I really gave it a good college try,” Slater admits. “And I did believe,” she says, “that I was doing it in an authentic and creative way.” But it soon became controlling – brands would send a brief with both photographic examples “and very detailed notes” – and if her content didn’t conform, demand retakes.

“As a social worker and professor, I had always been deeply aware of my privilege,” Slater writes. “Critical reflection was part of my practice.” When pandemic closures brought influencing to a virtual standstill, she had to confront her growing unease. Surrounded by racks of “influencer clothes” in her cramped apartment, Slater began to realize the dehumanizing effect of selling herself in the service of selling products. Acting on those misgivings, she and Calvin Lom, 66, her partner of 26 years, left New York City in 2021 for the Hudson Valley, where they are restoring an old house near her daughter and the two young grandchildren she helps care for. 

 

Lyn Slater
“Well I’m 70 today,” Slater wrote on Instagram June 30, 2023, when she posted this picture. “Wearing a silk pajama shirt and ripped jeans just because I want to.” Photo: Courtesy of Lyn Slater

 

Creative destruction, Slater points out, is the necessary counterpart of creative renewal, and of a piece with Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela (designers she admires) who walked away from successful fashion careers to pursue other artistic interests. 

“I’m not nostalgic,” she declares. “I don’t like to live in the past, and I want very much to remain modern and relevant.” The constant tenet is to “let my curiosity take me. … It usually leads me to something that I need to hear.” 

To keep up on what’s happening in the culture, she seeks out younger writers – like millennials Melissa Febos and Amanda Montei, who write about bodies. An upside to Slater’s continued high profile is the close relationships with writers and activists such as The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living with Less author Christine Platt; “ironically, through Instagram!” she laughs. 

Slater’s book tour also puts her in conversation with Chloé Cooper Jones, 41, whose 2022 memoir Easy Beauty “has so many things to say about age in the context of disability,” she enthuses. “I’ve been having the most extraordinary conversations, primarily with women younger than me, which have been really life-giving and make me very hopeful about what kind of intergenerational things we might do together.”

How to Be Old is dedicated to her late mother, “who taught me how much fun it is to be a belligerent woman.” In hindsight, the rebellious maternal grandmother who took her shopping as a child was also a guiding force. Inherited contrarian tendencies have served Slater well: In an era when visually driven social media and short-form video content reign supreme, she’s putting the focus on carefully chosen words. Slater now writes about the layers of meaning behind her daily uniform of meticulously mended denim, for instance, and of the ambivalence of having been an “oldfluencer,” as boomer social media personalities are dubbed. 

“I began to use clothes and my appearance as a way to counteract some of the invisibility that comes with age,” was once Slater’s standard interview answer. Yet all the while, she bristled when influencers with little in common (beyond numeric age) were lumped together to form a reductive “Insta-gramma” trend. She disdains the euphemistic terms “seasoned” and “vintage.” It’s right there in the title: old. By the end of the memoir she’s repeating it almost like a mantra.

“The way that we represent being old today is very polarized,” she elaborates. On the one hand it’s a representation of decline, “where you are disabled and demented and depressed and a drain on society, and you’re wrecking everything for all the generations behind you.” On the other, it’s “this ageless, fit and highly resourced, totally independent senior running marathons at age 90 who absolutely needs nothing at all.” (Or, as designer Miuccia Prada recently explained to Vogue, “every single morning I have to decide if I am a 15-year-old girl or an old lady near to death.”)

“And we do have certain needs, but we also have many contributions,” Slater says, but  those two polarities represent maybe five per cent of reality; she wants society to start talking about that middle.

 

Lyn Slater
‘How to be Old’ covers the decade between 60 and 70, when Slater went from professor to  ‘Accidental Icon’  to her reinvention as a writer.  Photo: Courtesy of Lyn Slater

 

Recent Instagram posts supporting the memoir allude to tour appearances and “having to dress up again.” Is she tempted to resurrect the funky outfits and poses of her Accidental Icon alter ego? After all, as Slater writes: “When you’re old, you’re all the selves that you ever were.”

“I am no longer her, and she was a wonderful persona,” is her emphatic reply. “She took me on fabulous adventures. 

“But what started as something that was a bit transgressive became – as society tends to do, they don’t like transgressors – a box.”

Not only has she shed that skin, she’s sold off most of the capital-F fashion in favour of musings that interrogate life – yes, occasionally still through the lens of clothing. 

THE SCROLL

Three Canadians Authors Shortlisted for the US$150,000 Carol Shields Prize for FictionClaudia Dey, Eleanor Catton and Janika Oza are finalists for the largest cash prize celebrating American and Canadian women writers


Donald Sutherland, 88, to Detail His Journey to Hollywood Fame in Long-Awaited MemoirThe Canuck screen legend's first-ever autobiography will hit Canadian bookshelves on Nov. 12.


Camilla Leads Miniature Book Initiative to Celebrate 100th Anniversary of the Queen’s Dolls’ HouseThe miniature book collection includes handwritten tomes by Sir Tom Stoppard, Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Sir Ben Okri and other well-known authors


2024 Giller Prize: Noah Richler, Kevin Chong and Molly Johnson Among Jury MembersAuthor Noah Richler is chairing the jury for this year's Giller Prize, an award's body his father literary icon Mordecai Richler helped launch in 1994.


Queen Camilla to Offer Weekly Reading Recommendations in New Queen’s Reading Room PodcastThe Queen's Reading Room Podcast will feature Her Majesty's book picks as well as literary discussions with authors and celebrities every week.


2023 Booker Prize: Irish Writer Paul Lynch Wins For Dystopian ‘Prophet Song’Canadian Booker Prize jury chair Esi Edugyan called the novel a "a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave."


Sarah Bernstein’s ‘Study for Obedience’ Wins 2023 Scotiabank Giller PrizeThe author, who gave birth to a daughter 10 days ago, accepted the award remotely from her home in the Scottish Highlands


Governor General’s Literary Awards: Anuja Varghese’s ‘Chrysalis’ Among This Year’s WinnersEach of the 14 writers, illustrators and translators will receive a prize of $25,000


Giller Prize Winner Suzette Mayr Among Finalists Shortlisted for 2023 Governor General’s Literary AwardsThe 14 winners, who will each receive a prize of $25,000, will be announced Nov. 8


Five Authors Shortlisted for This Year’s $100,000 Scotiabank Giller PrizeDionne Irving and Kevin Chong are among the finalists who "probe what it means to be human, to survive, and to be who we are"


Norway’s Jon Fosse Wins Nobel Literature Prize for Giving “Voice to the Unsayable”The author's work has been translated into more than 40 languages, and there have been more than 1,000 different productions of his plays.


Scotiabank Giller Prize Longlist Recognizes 12 Authors Who Demonstrate “the Power of Human Imagination”The 2023 longlist includes the prize's 2005 winner David Bergen and debut novelist Deborah Willis. 


Duke and Duchess of Sussex Buy Film Rights to Canadian Author Carley Fortune’s ‘Meet Me at the Lake’Prince Harry and his wife Meghan have purchased the movie rights to the bestselling romantic novel, which was published in May this year.


Booker Prize Longlist ‘Defined by its Freshness’ as Nominees RevealedEsi Edugyan, chair of the 2023 judges, said each of the 13 novels "cast new light on what it means to exist in our time."


Barack Obama Releases His 2023 Summer Reading ListThe list includes the latest novel by Canadian-born New Zealand author Eleanor Catton.


David Suzuki Takes Inspiration From His Own Grandchildren for New Kid’s Book ‘Bompa’s Insect Expedition’The book features Suzuki and two of his grandchildren exploring the insect population in their own backyard.


Milan Kundera, Author of ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Dies at 94Kundera won global accolades for the way he depicted themes and characters that floated between the mundane reality of everyday life and the lofty world of ideas.


Cormac McCarthy, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Dark Genius of American Literature, Dead at 89McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 novel 'The Road.'


Remembering the Life and Loves of Literary Bad Boy Martin AmisThe legendary British author has died at 73. His absence will be keenly felt, but Amis leaves behind a book shelf’s worth of novels, including 'London Fields', 'Money' and 'Success', filled with shambolic anti-heroes raising a finger at society. 


Sophie Grégoire Trudeau to Publish Two Books Related to Mental Health and Wellness With Penguin Random House CanadaThe upcoming releases include a wellness book for adults and a picture book for children, which will roll out over the next two years.


Queen Camilla Celebrated Her Love of Books by Having Some Embroidered on Her Coronation GownThe Queen's coronation gown also featured tributes to her children, grandchildren and rescue dogs embroidered into it.


Better Late Than Never: Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Unpublished Novel Set for Release in 2024'En Agosto Nos Vemos' or 'We'll See Each Other in August' was deemed by the late author's family to be too important to stay hidden


End of an Era: Eleanor Wachtel leaves CBC Radio’s ‘Writers & Company’ After More Than Three Decades on the AirAfter a career interviewing what she describes as the "finest minds in the world," the long-time radio host says she's ready to begin a new chapter.


Canadian Independent Bookstore Day Features Deals, Contests and ReadingsOn Saturday, every book purchased at an indie store qualifies you to enter the Book Lovers Contest, with a chance to win gift cards worth up to $1,000


Translation Project Will Bring Literature From the South Asian Continent to English-Speaking AudiencesThe SALT project aims to translate and publish 40 works by authors from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka


The Book Thief: An Italian Man’s Guilty Plea Ends a Caper That Puzzled the Literary World for YearsFilippo Bernardini’s elaborate phishing scam netted 1,000 unpublished manuscripts by prominent authors including Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan


The Late Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison Is Honoured with an American StampThe Obamas and Oprah Winfrey pay tribute to the writer whose poetic interpretations of the African American experience gained a world-wide audience


Five Canadian Writers Make the Long List for the Inaugural Carol Shields Prize for FictionThe US$150,000 English-language literary award for female and nonbinary writers redresses the inequality of women in the publishing world


The Furry Green Grump is Back in a Sequel to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”Dr. Seuss Enterprises will publish “How the Grinch Lost Christmas!” in September


Chris Hadfield to Publish a Sequel to His Blockbuster Debut, “The Apollo Murders,” on Oct. 10"The Defector” brings the Cold War intrigue from space to Earth as the Soviets and Americans race to develop fighter jets


Prince Harry’s ‘Spare’ Continues to Break Worldwide RecordsThe book also seems to have put a dent in the popularity of members of the Royal Family — including the Prince and Princess of Wales.


Prince Harry’s Memoir Breaks U.K. Sales Record On First Day of ReleaseThe publisher of the new memoir, 'Spare", says it had sold 400,000 copies so far across hardback, e-book and audio formats.


Barack Obama’s Favourite Books of 2022The former U.S. president’s 13 titles include Canadians Emily St. John Mandel and Kate Beaton, as well as tomes from Michelle Obama, George Saunders and Jennifer Egan


Here are the 5 Books on Bill Gates’ Holiday Reading ListThe billionaire philanthropist is giving hundreds of copies to little libraries around the world


Sheila Heti and Eli Baxter Among 2022 Governor General’s Literary Award WinnersToronto writer Sheila Heti took home the fiction award for 'Pure Colour,' a novel the GG peer assessment committee called "a work of genius."


Suzette Mayr Wins $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for ‘The Sleeping Car Porter’The 2022 Giller Prize jury called Mayr's novel "alive and immediate — and eerily contemporary."


Writers’ Trust of Canada Awards: Authors Nicholas Herring, Dan Werb Nab Top PrizesThe Writers' Trust of Canada awards amounted to a combined monetary prize value of $270,000.


Bob Dylan Releases ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song,’ a Book of Essays Dissecting 66 Influential SongsIn his new book, Bob Dylan offers up both critique and historical insight into various musical recordings of the last century by a variety of popular artists.


Prince Harry’s Memoir ‘Spare’ Will Be Published in January 2023The long-awaited memoir will tell with "raw unflinching honesty" Prince Harry's journey from "trauma to healing", his publisher said on Thursday.


Sri Lankan Author Shehan Karunatilaka Wins 2022 Booker PrizeKarunatilaka won the prestigious prize on Monday for his second novel ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’, about a dead war photographer on a mission in the afterlife.


Canadian Council for the Arts Reveals Governor General’s Literary Awards FinalistsThe finalists for the Governor General's Literary Awards spotlight books in both the English and French language, as well as translated works.


New Penguin Random House Award Named After Michelle Obama Will Honour High School WritersMichelle Obama Award for Memoir will provide a $10,000 college scholarship to a graduating public school senior based on their autobiographical submission.


French Author Annie Ernaux, 82, Becomes First French Woman to Win Nobel Prize for LiteratureThe author said, of winning, that "I was very surprised ... I never thought it would be on my landscape as a writer."


Hilary Mantel, Award-Winning British Author of ‘Wolf Hall’ Trilogy, Dies at 70Wolf Hall, published in 2009, and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, released three years later, both won the Booker Prize, an unprecedented win for two books in the same trilogy and making Mantel the first woman to win the award twice.


Prince William “Cannot Forgive” Prince Harry, According to ‘The New Royals’ Author Katie NichollPrince William “just cannot forgive his brother,” according to Katie Nicholl, author of 'The New Royals: Queen Elizabeth’s Legacy and the Future of the Crown.'


Five Finalists Announced for Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for NonfictionThe winner — to be announced on November 2 — will take home the annual $60,000 prize.


Peter Straub, Bestselling American Horror Writer, Dies at 79Friend and co-author Stephen King has said the author's 1979 book, "Ghost Story," is his favourite horror novel.


Rawi Hage, Billy-Ray Belcourt and Sheila Heti Make the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize Long ListThe jury read 138 books to choose 14 titles for the long list, one of which will win the $100,000 prize, one of the richest in Canadian literature


Salman Rushdie, Novelist Who Drew Death Threats, Is Stabbed at New York LectureThe Indian-born novelist who was ordered killed by Iran in 1989 because of his writing, was attacked before giving a talk on artistic freedom.


Raymond Briggs, Creator of Beloved Children’s Tale ‘The Snowman’, Dies at 88First published in 1978, the pencil crayon-illustrated wordless picture book sold more than 5.5 million copies around the world while a television adaption became a Christmas favourite in Britain and was nominated for an Oscar.


Canadian Author Emily St. John Mandel Makes Barack Obama’s 2022 Summer Reading ListObama's list includes everything from fiction to books on politics, cultural exploration and basketball.


Canadian Author Rebecca Eckler to Launch RE:books Publishing House Focused on Female Authors and Fun ReadsThe former National Post columnist says her tagline is ‘What’s read is good, and what’s good is read.’”


Brian Thomas Isaac’s “All the Quiet Places” wins $5,000 Indigenous Voices AwardThe B.C. author, a retired bricklayer, drew on his childhood growing up on the Okanagan Indian reserve for his coming-of-age story set in 1956


Canadian-American Author Ruth Ozeki Wins Women’s Book Prize for “The Book of Form and Emptiness”The UK judges said her fourth novel, inspired in part by the Vancouver Public Library, contained "sparkling writing, warmth, intelligence, humour and poignancy."


The Bill Gates Summer Reading List Includes a Sci-Fi Novel On Gender Inequality Suggested by His DaughterBill Gates' summer reading list includes fiction and non-fiction titles that cover gender equality, political polarization and climate change.


American novelist Joshua Cohen wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “The Netanyahus”The 2022 Pulitzer prizes include this satirical look at identity politics, focused on the father of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a crucial time in the Jewish state’s history


Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro Among Canadian Authors Recognized in Commemorative Reading List Marking Queen’s Platinum JubileeThe authors are among six Canadian scribes included on the The Big Jubilee Read list.


Queen Elizabeth II’s Aide Reveals Details of Life in Royal Pandemic Lockdown in New Addition to BookAngela Kelly, who's worked for the Queen for 20 years, discusses everything from cutting the Queen's hair to "the light and laughter that was shared ... even in the darkest moments."


New Leonard Cohen Story Collection, ‘A Ballet of Lepers,’ Set for October ReleaseThe collection features a novel, short stories and a radio play written between 1956 and 1961.


Archived Letters Reveal How Toni Morrison Helped MacKenzie Scott Meet Future Husband Jeff BezosBezos hired Scott at the hedge fund where he worked after receiving a recommendation from Morrison. Shortly thereafter, the pair married and Scott helped Bezos launch Amazon.


Prince Harry’s Memoir is Set to Rock the MonarchyFriends say the California-based royal got a million-pound book deal to write "an intimate take on his feeling about the family."


European Jewish Congress Asks Publisher to Pull Anne Frank BookThe Congress says 'The Betrayal of Anne Frank' has "deeply hurt the memory of Anne Frank, as well as the dignity of the survivors and the victims of the Holocaust."


Canadian Author Details Anne Frank Cold-Case Investigation That Named Surprise Suspect in Her Family’s Betrayal in New BookAhead of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Frank's 'The Diary of a Young Girl' in June, a team that included a retired FBI agent and around 20 historians, criminologists and data specialists identified a relatively unknown figure as a leading suspect in revealing her family's hideout.


Man Who Tricked Authors Into Handing Over Unpublished Manuscripts Arrested by FBI in New YorkFilippo Bernardini, an employee of a well known publication house, has been arrested for stealing hundreds of unpublished manuscripts.


Hollywood Legend Betty White Has a Last Laugh in New Biographic Comic BookThe creators of the biographical comic book have released similar books about Hollywood legends like Carrie Fisher, Lucille Ball, David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor.


Barack Obama Reveals His List of Books That Left “A Lasting Impression” in 2021Obama's favourite 2021 reads include two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead's 'Harlem Shuffle' and 'Klara and the Sun,' by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro


“Interview With the Vampire” Author Anne Rice Dies at 80 — Tributes Pour in From Stuart Townsend and OthersThe author, who was best known for her work in gothic fiction, died on Saturday evening as a result of complications from a stroke.


Norma Dunning wins $25,000 Governor General’s English fiction prize for ‘Tainna’The Edmonton-based Inuk writer explores themes of displacement, loneliness and spirituality in six short stories


Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Giller prize for “What Strange Paradise”The former Globe and Mail reporter, who published "American War" to acclaim in 2017, tackles the global migrant refugee crisis in his second novel


South African Author Damon Galgut Wins the Booker Prize For ‘The Promise’Galgut received nominations for his 2003 and 2010 works before finally taking home the prize this year. 


Hollywood Legend Paul Newman Discusses Life, Acting and Aging Gracefully in Newly Discovered MemoirPublishers of the newly discovered memoir say the Hollywood legend wrote the book in the 1980s in response to the relentless media attention he received during that time.


Here’s What You Need to Know About the Toronto International Festival of AuthorsDirector Roland Gulliver lands in Toronto to open his second, much-expanded virtual festival with more than 200 events


Tanzanian Novelist Gurnah Wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for Depicting the Impact of Colonialism and Refugee StoriesGurnah, 72, is only the second writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win one of the world's most prestigious literary awards


Miriam Toews Garners Third Giller Prize Nomination for “Fight Night” after Shortlist AnnouncedSophomore efforts from novelists Omar El Akkad and Jordan Tannahill join debut books from Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia and Angélique Lalonde


Tina Brown’s New Book, ‘The Palace Papers’, Covers the Royal Family’s Reinvention After Diana’s Tragic DeathTina Brown's sequel to her 2007 release 'The Diana Chronicles' is set to hit shelves April 12, 2022. 


Audible.ca Releases Andrew Pyper’s Exclusive Audiobook “Oracle” For New Plus Catalogue LaunchThe thriller about a psychic FBI detective is one of 12,000 titles now available for free to members


Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen to Release Book Based On Their “Renegades” PodcastThe new book will feature a collection of candid, intimate and entertaining conversations


Prince Harry Will Publish a Memoir in Late 2022Harry says he's writing the book "not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become."


> STAY UP TO DATE

Sign Up for the Weekly Book Club Newsletter