Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
It’s funny sitting face to face with someone you’ve never met, yet know intimate details about.
I know Madeline Argy started growing pubes in Year 3 and that her sister once had an actual worm in her leg. I know that she had a mental health breakdown at primary school and that her seven-year-old beauty blender sponge smells like feet (don’t worry, she’s since replaced it). I’ve seen her cry and watched her shovel cornflakes into her mouth straight from the box. For most people, this kind of stuff takes years of friendship to excavate, if it comes to the surface at all. I’ve been talking to Madeline for 15 minutes.
To be fair, she didn’t sit down and instantly spew those deepest secrets to me in person. Instead, she spewed them into a phone camera from the comfort of her home. Over the last two and a half years, Madeline Argy has been building a TikTok empire. Her USP? Brutally honest, relentlessly candid stories about her life told in quickfire, face-right-up-to-camera sound-bites. In the 497 videos she’s posted since March 2021, at the time of writing, her 4.7 million followers have leaned in, rapt with attention. Combined, they’ve accrued more than 228 million likes.
Madeline never thought she’d download TikTok. Actually, she was downright put off by it. In 2019, while working at an American summer camp, she’d observed some kids gawking at the app and didn’t see the appeal. “I remember thinking: ‘This is so annoying, it’s never going to be me,’” says the 23-year-old, a little shyly. She caved that winter, but not for long. “I deleted it because it was so addictive. At the time, I was into, er, mindfulness. If you’d told me TikTok was something I’d become connected to, I’d have probably been horrified!”
Madeline bursts out laughing in an all-consuming, contagious-to-anyone-in-her-radius kind of way. We’re sitting in a café in West Sussex, where TikTok’s reigning Confessional Queen was born, raised and still lives with her mum.
The area is charming in a typically English way, filled with old and slightly misshapen buildings. “You always [want to] come back to a place like this,” Madeline continues as she sips her cappuccino. “It’s a double-edged sword. There’s a sweet feeling and I like the community. But everyone knows your business, and there’s no getting away from it.”
This isn’t a conundrum she’s coming anywhere close to solving, either. There’s the fact, of course, that Madeline willingly broadcasts the embarrassing minutiae of her life on the internet for all to see. But there’s also her rumoured relationship with Central Cee, former FACE cover star and one of the UK’s best-known rappers.
She’s coy about the whole thing, and Cench, too, has kept schtum. Today it’s the same, at least on record. The internet suspects her and Cench were together when he made hit track Doja last July. That viral bar, “How can I be homophobic? My bitch is gay”, had to be about Madeline, who is bisexual. Post-Doja, the pair dropped breadcrumbs hinting at their relationship, which culminated in the ultimate soft-but-also-incredibly-hard launch: Madeline posting a video of herself wearing an “I ♥ LYING” T‑shirt in her kitchen at home, while Cench, whose face is just about visible under a khaki hood, gets to work buttering toast in the background.
“Why does everybody keep asking if I’m dating Central Cee?” she asks in the video, incredulously. “I’ve literally never heard of him in my life. I’m just as confused as you are. I don’t know what we would talk about.” The post, which Madeline shared last September, has racked up 32.2 million views – more than any other on her page.
But there’s much more to Madeline than her romantic life. Her parents divorced when she was young and she and her sister Jessica, who is a year older, lived with their mum Mikey, an activist and survivor of Thalidomide. The morning sickness and sleeping pill, developed in Germany, was introduced in the 1960s but poorly tested on pregnant women, leading to many babies being born with birth defects. In 2015, Mikey, who was born with shortened arms, was awarded an MBE for campaigning to hold the German government accountable for its role in the scandal. On TikTok, Madeline has spoken proudly about being her mum’s “designated flipper-offer” as a kid – say, if anyone was rude to her or cut her off in traffic.
There’s a theatricality to the way Madeline tells these types of stories, a layer of drama that permeates her one-liners. It’s like she’s chosen you to be on the receiving end of a really big secret; the only thing is, she’s also telling millions of other people. Her anecdotes are often so wild that followers have accused her of making certain things up.
“This is the most frustrating thing,” says Madeline, tugging at the sleeves of her navy knitted V‑neck. “Let me put it out there: I’ve never lied. I do not tell lies in my videos,” she repeats. (That winking Cench one doesn’t count.) “Although I will say my memory of an event tends to be less interesting than I can make it sound.
“The videos that have done the best are usually the ones I almost didn’t post. I’d watch something back and be like: that’s the most annoying, obnoxious, boring thing in the world. But then I’d post it anyway. I try to follow my gut.”
For all the captivating boldness of her posts, Madeline insists she’s the quiet, shy type who doesn’t have much to say offline, at least in social situations. “I tend to keep my mouth tightly shut. I’ve seen off-guard pictures of myself and my resting bitch face, which is horrible. I’ve definitely always been the dinner-time entertainer with my family, but other than that, I don’t speak. I don’t have many friends. I just have a bit of a knack for TikTok, I guess.”
Madeline comes off a little timid at first, but as we settle into the rhythm of our interview, she gets more comfortable and the dinner-time entertainer emerges. Still, there’s a sense that the whole operation is a bit absurd; that Madeline thinks her shtick does what it says on the tin and isn’t worth reading into. But in reality, and perhaps most interestingly, she’s helped shift the goalposts of what it means to be an influencer. Madeline, the young woman who’s comfortable showing her followers close-ups of her yellow teeth, looks embarrassed when this is brought up. Does she think “influencer” is a dirty word?
“There might be a bit of sexism behind the way everyone hates that term,” she says. “But at the same time, I wouldn’t use it to refer to myself because I feel I’m not even there yet. When I think ‘influencer’, I think of someone like Addison Rae [who has 88.4 million TikTok followers]. Even though this is a big part of my life, can I really call myself that? Have I earned that badge?”
True enough, Madeline isn’t an influencer in the traditional sense. She deals in a “rotten” authenticity, which, in today’s online climate, is the only currency that matters. “All my friends are rotten girls as well,” she says, smiling. “We can all get ourselves together, go out, hold down jobs and relationships. But then we retreat into our rooms and we’re rotten. I love that.”
As recently as 2021, she could never have predicted this would become her trademark on such a public-facing platform as TikTok. Back then, she was in the first year of a forensic linguistics degree at the University of Kent, a field Madeline felt inspired to jump into after watching an episode of Criminal Minds. Her original plan was to go to Edinburgh, then York to do a masters. “I foiled that last minute because I didn’t get in and had to go through clearing, which was hell. I was still planning on York, but then came all of this,” she says, gesturing towards her phone. Maybe that was for the best, anyway. Madeline loathed uni. “There’s not a house on the market in Canterbury that isn’t damp,” she says with a scrunched-up nose. “I lived in squalor and, over lockdown, I think I lost my mind.”
Mid-2021 and, by her own admission, mid-spiral, she started posting. First came short videos of herself pulling faces and mouthing along to popular songs. But things really started gaining traction when Madeline spoke directly to the camera. She leaned into her uninhibited persona almost from the jump – one of the first videos in which she speaks out loud is about lying to your therapist to convince them you’re actually, really, promise, fine.
Shortly before that, though, Madeline was anything but. At one point, her depression was so paralysing that she let a plate of lamb rot in her bedroom and covered it up with blankets to hide the smell. “Putting it in the bin? That would require going to the kitchen,” she says. “If I’d started my page even a year before, I’d have had a very negative response. I had a very different energy – I was defensive and very angry about things. I was unstable, but not in an attractive, mysterious way. No one would have been drawn towards me at all.”
Madeline relays this information self-deprecatingly, with the unflappability of someone who’s pushed past a dark period in their life and can look back on it with pragmatism. She carries this into her videos, too, sharing stories about mental health struggles with a pleasantly obnoxious vulnerability that disarms people and makes them laugh.
Because, really, Madeline is a walking contradiction: vulnerable yet confident in her delivery, shy but willing to embarrass herself online. She lives with her mum in middle-class suburbia while dating a prolific rapper. Even at her most “rotten”, she looks better than the rest of us on a good day. When she’s dressed up, you could easily mistake her for a model. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, she contains multitudes – therein lies her appeal. It’s the material she draws on in her videos, playfully pushing the boundaries of what’s considered respectable in the process.
“I’ve done things that are by no means OK,” says Madeline, “and I’m aware that a lot of the things I say breach a certain line of acceptability, especially for men, and would not be acceptable if I didn’t look at least clean.
“One time I told a story about how I used to piss in my period pads when I was really depressed. I remember thinking, if anyone had said that who didn’t meet the standards of conventional attractiveness, they would have got slated. Obviously, I do realise why I can say certain things and, even for me, there’s a limit.” She pauses for a second, knowingly. “But there is [other] stuff I do that is so rank, I’ve not even talked about it to anyone.”
Madeline rarely drinks booze. She’s pretty ambivalent about going out and feels a little socially awkward about dancing. Sometimes, she goes with her friends to a salsa night at a local pub. Her ideal weekend activity involves picking up her best friend Cat and driving to pick up Starbucks and cookies. Given she’s a self-professed homebody who lives an extremely low-key life, I wonder how Madeline has handled the scrutiny and invasive curiosity surrounding her rumoured relationship with Central Cee, the artist who has ruled the summer with his Dave collab Sprinter, the longest-reigning UK rap Number One in UK chart history.
“I don’t experience it because I don’t look,” she replies, shrugging. “I don’t tend to be in an environment where people can ask me stuff to my face. So it’s up to me whether I’m going to look online, and I just don’t. Most stuff is positive. There’s definitely negativity, and what I have seen is very intense. It comes from people who, for whatever reason, don’t like what’s going on. But I’m not going to read a comment and get hung up on it for hours when that person wrote and posted it within 10 seconds.”
Trolls, by now, are part and parcel of any highly visible person’s online experience. What Madeline has gleaned from her time on TikTok, however, is actually quite profound. She struggled massively with her mental health as a teenager (“I was basically house-bound for three years”) and found comfort in living vicariously through others on YouTube.
“It feels touching to have made it to the other side, to be the one having those experiences now. Having the ability to go outside is never lost on me and I’m grateful every time I do it. To film that and put it out there is a fulfilling thing. I still struggle sometimes with panic attacks, but I push through the stuff I couldn’t before, and I really appreciate that.”
She sees TikTok as a kind of fun, personal project that keeps her accountable rather than a one-way ticket to financial security: she doesn’t get paid to post on TikTok, for now at least, and can count her sponsored Instagram posts on one hand.
“But I’ve always felt like, if no one’s watching then I’ll decline. It’s sad not to feel the same responsibility towards myself as I do towards other people, but I’m working on that. I just dare myself to do things and trust that I’m doing them right.”
There have been some expansions to Madeline’s kingdom of TikTok, though, even if they weren’t born out of strategy. Over the last 10 months, she’s been posting longform videos on YouTube, with titles such as “fighting as a currency of love” and “rejection and redirection”. Essentially, they’re filmed podcast episodes recorded from the comfort of her banged-up Vauxhall Astra (“most cars have a pump which lifts a seat up or down – mine’s snapped off so I have to sit on a pillow or I can’t see over the dash”).
Each lasting around 30 minutes, they’re like turbo-charged self-help sessions, mostly geared towards teenage girls who feel disillusioned with the modern dating landscape and dejected by the expectations thrust upon them by, you know, society. To them, Madeline is a prophet for handling heartbreak. “Mads [sic] podcast is literally my entire life like i cannot physically live without this im so serious,” says @ricapluto in the comments. “These videos are so comforting but this one especially made me feel very hopeful and at peace,” writes @c.8192.
“My audience is quite young – I think most people who watch my stuff are around 13 to 18,” says Madeline. “You have to have that in mind when talking about nuanced things that they might not have perspective on yet, like sexuality, which is a big one I’ve shied away from, because I can’t trust I’ll articulate it in the right way. But that’s something I definitely want to talk about a bit more.”
For now, Madeline seems pretty happy with the place TikTok has landed her – she has a peripheral level of IRL fame, a solid relationship, has enjoyed trips to Los Angeles and Monaco to catch the Grand Prix with Cench, and is currently planning a move to London. In August, Madeline announced her signing to Unwell, a talent network spearheaded by fellow viral sensation Alex Cooper, who hosts the celebs-bare-all podcast Call Her Daddy.
On 25th September, Madeline will premiere her own podcast on the platform, Pretty Lonesome. Dropping every Monday from that date, it promises to show “a side of her [fans have] never seen before.” The pod, essentially, will function as an extension of Madeline’s YouTube videos, delving deeper into taboo conversations around anxiety, imposter syndrome, sexuality and mental health – ones listeners might be too nervous to have with anyone else.
“I tell little tales! I share thoughts! It’s not that deep,” she says of her overall no-holds-barred approach. “There’s never been an agenda. Every time I post a video, I think that’s the last one because I can’t possibly have another thought. And then one crops up, thank God. Maybe I’ll need to go to a past-life regressionist soon, once I’ve maxed everything out.” But what matters most is the life she’s built outside of the four corners of her phone screen. “No matter how financially valuable or how genuinely in love I am with the work, what’s always going to be more important is what I have right here,” says Madeline, sat in a local café surrounded by locals, in the Home Counties neighbourhood she still calls home.
“If someone hacked my account tomorrow and deleted it, I know that what I’ve got now can sustain me. And it’s OK if people misunderstand me. I’ve never set out to be understood.” Whatever comes next, one thing’s for certain: it beats sweating over a laptop while going through clearing and letting the smell of rotten lamb fill her bedroom. Both of these things have helped to make her a household name, on social media anyway. Madeline’s only human, and those are the kinds of stories the rest of us want to hear about.
HAIR Franziska Presche at The Good Company MAKE-UP Lucy Bridge at Streeters SET DESIGNER Harriet Ellis-Coward at Studio Augmenta MOVEMENT DIRECTOR Eric Christison at Parent Global PRODUCTION The Arcade PRODUCER Thea Charlesworth PHOTO ASSISTANTS Hudson Hayden and Morgan Shaw DIGITAL OPERATOR Alys Morrison STYLING ASSISTANTS Fan Hong, Fainche Burke and Maszia Oettgen HAIR ASSISTANT Kennedy Rough MAKE-UP ASSISTANT Kyle Dominic SET BUILDER Cous De La PRODUCTION ASSISTANT Kate Rosewell