This photo is of me on Dec. 21, 2020, literally trolling the world with kindness. The picture was taken by a photographer, Stephen Yang, for the New York Post the evening after a magazine story about me and my relationship with “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli nearly broke the internet. (The image is reproduced here with Yang’s permission.)
All day long, Yang and a photographer for another tabloid had been lurking outside my one-bedroom “garden” apartment — a fancy term for “basement” — in a Harlem brownstone to catch an image of the newly-crowned “queen of cringe,” or whatever I was.
To their credit, my landlords, a couple who owned an art gallery on the floor above me, didn’t seem alarmed. One sent me a text alerting me to the photographers’ presence. “Why are there people from the Post outside looking for you?” she asked. “I fell in love with my book subject and it became a big story,” I replied. “Oh. Ok,” she said. “We told them we didn’t know you.”
SMIRK is a reader-supported publication. Sign up here for a free or paid subscription.
But as the day wore on, and the photographers lingered, I grew worried that their vigil might become a nuisance. I did need to walk my dog, Jack, and I didn’t want that to result in a bunch of paparazzi-style shots of me stepping out of the brownstone, which could possibly draw my landlords and their art gallery in my publicity mess.
With an eye toward negotiating some sort of compromise, I looked in my phone and saw a text message from a reporter I knew at the Post, Reuven Fenton. I replied to him, promising him an interview. Then I told him I’d be happy to be photographed, but could he please ask the photographers to move away from my landlords’ building?
A deal was struck.
Yang and his colleague, who had relocated themselves to the entrance of nearby Marcus Garvey Park at my request, were amicable and pleasant when I finally stepped outside, despite their hours of hanging out in the cold.
Having already appeared conspicuously glamorous in the photos accompanying the Elle piece, I didn’t think it wise to try to beautify myself much for them. The only thought I put into my wardrobe was my T-shirt: It said “be kind” — the one statement I wanted most to amplify. I left my winter coat unzipped on purpose to allow the lettering on the shirt to show.
As I crunched along the snowy path in the park with my dog Jack in tow, Yang asked me if I wouldn’t mind removing my Covid mask. Although we were outdoors and well over the recommended six feet apart, I politely declined. “This is for the Post. I’ll get killed for it,”I replied, laughing, imagining a searing headline about Martin Shkreli’s ex-girlfriend being bare-faced and possibly spreading germs to helpless citizens. He nodded, seeming to understand.
When I returned to my apartment, Reuven called me. I showed my gratitude to him for defusing the situation with the photographers by letting down my guard. For that past day, I had been responding to critics on Twitter, trying not to let a single crack show in my resolve to be Martin’s loudest supporter (God knows he needed it, whether he wanted it or not). But thinking over Martin’s dismissive statement in the Elle piece — “Mr. Shkreli wishes Ms. Smythe the best of luck in her future endeavors” — I bared my teeth a little.
“He basically dumped me through his lawyers,” I snarled. When Reuven asked me if I was ready to jump back into the dating pool, I replied that I was “open to it,” and that I was not likely to continue remain celibate. Martin had always urged me not to make that sacrifice, but I also knew he was also a little bothered by the idea of me being intimate with other men. More importantly, I simply hadn’t wanted to be with anyone else until then.
Soon after that conversation, Reuven published his story: “Martin Shkreli gal pal Christie Smythe is ready to date again,” the headline proclaimed.
It was met with befuddlement and, of course, cynicism by the people at the top of the media pyramid who had already lit into me once. “Wait. The conceit here is that a New York Post reporter and photographer just ran into Christie Smythe as she walked her dog and recognized her *with a mask on*?” tweeted a well-known political journalist. “‘Caught out in public for the first time since she revealed the oddball pair’s romance in a sensational magazine piece Sunday’ lmao,” he added. “Written like she’s a Kardashian.”
Sure, I hadn’t been “tagged” by the journalist, but he must have known I would see the tweet. Try being the “main character” for a day and not notice what people with big followings of snitch-taggers are saying about you; it’s not easy.
The message he (and others making similar comments) conveyed was obvious: I should feel embarrassed. No, worse: I should feel humiliated. I should feel regret…for everything: for loving Martin, for choosing Martin, for making my choice known to the world, and for now not even having him as a supportive significant other, after all that.
But I didn’t feel regret, or humiliation, or anything close to those emotions. I felt vindicated.
Up until that point, no one who knew the story, not even Martin, fully understood its power. Over my many prison visits with him, Martin and I had talked playfully about who I might offend if I revealed myself as his girlfriend. But the prospect apparently didn’t feel “real” to him until I actually made it happen.
When I had disclosed my plans to go public to my close journalist friends, they debated what kind of “peg” or “angle” I would need to get people interested in the relationship. While I nodded along, I privately sensed nothing like a “peg” or an “angle” was needed. The story was so explosive, and the contrasts between us so stark, it would make its own impact crater, I thought.
And I had been right.
“A harrowing and utterly bananas record of how a respected journalist blew up her life,” was how The Cut summed up the story. (It’s amazing how rare it is for a woman to be described as “respected” in print without it being juxtaposed with her doing something that’s purportedly not respectable.) I read the article, and so many other similar accounts by other well-known media publications, with a sense of grudging satisfaction.
Enjoying SMIRK so far? Sign up here to get new posts sent directly to your email inbox.
I had known the negative reaction was inevitable, necessary, and likely temporary. Somebody was always going to find out about me and Martin, and write about it. Participating in the Elle piece gave me a measure of control over the timing and some input on the narrative.
But I also had confidence that the storm would blow over, the “bad” stories that had been written were unlikely to be written again, and the internet would move on to other scandals and other conflagrations.
And I would remain standing.
While the tsunami I sparked online spooked the startup founder I was working for at the time — I had told him about the relationship and the magazine article ahead of time, but he was dumbstruck by the level of blowback, and I resigned so as not to cause him undue stress — another media startup swiftly hired me and viewed my newfound “fame” as a plus instead of a liability.
I quickly hit my stride as a writer at the publication, refining my voice, and attracting fans among the venture capitalists and tech founders we covered. Within a period of months, I rose through the ranks and became the site’s editor-in-chief.
During the darkest period of the pandemic, when people were (temporarily) “fleeing” New York City, I took my savings and moved out of my basement rental apartment.
I looked at sale listings and found, to my great surprise, a sunny two-bedroom, two-bathroom co-op in Harlem that I could afford. My landlords were disappointed to lose me as a tenant, especially during the lull in the market, but they graciously wished me well. “We’re happy when good things happen to good people,” one of them told me.
After I moved, they stayed in touch, and kindly let me know when the occasional piece of errant mail arrived for me. Months after I moved, an old letter from Martin did.
The date stamped on the envelope was April 2019, and it had been sent from the Federal Correctional Institute Fort Dix in New Jersey. Martin had written it during one of his multiple stays in the “SHU” — the Special Housing Unit, otherwise known as solitary confinement. On that occasion, back in 2019, he was thrown in after a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal declared that he was running his drug company from prison with a contraband cell phone.
I made myself wait until I was back inside my co-op before I opened it. Martin’s SHU letters, which were scrawled with a safety pencil while he was locked for weeks on end in a room that was no bigger than a walk-in closet, had usually been his best letters. They were introspective, occasionally poetic, and often extremely affectionate. Once he ended one by writing about how he hoped after we died that our consciousnesses would be uploaded to “the cloud,” where they could coexist forever. It was silly emo songwriter stuff, but still touching.
This one didn’t disappoint me. Although we had “broken up” around the time of the Elle article, and I hadn’t seen him in person since I last visited him in February 2020, the words still pricked something deep and almost brought a tear to my eyes. It was like opening a time capsule whose contents somehow perfectly resonated with the present.
"There's a really good quote in this months' Men’s Health from a Game of Thrones star who says ‘fame is never about you. It's about fitting into a narrative but you personally are not responsible. It will drive you crazy if you think otherwise,’" Martin wrote in safety-pencil chicken scratches. "Something like that. It's great to keep that perspective, I think."
"I don't think the rest of our lives should be us vs. the rest of the world," he continued. "I hope that doesn't kick a leg out of the stool of our relationship, but I do think that is a bad foundation. I feel like there's a motherly/loving instinct to right injustice and I love you for it.”
But, he added, “it’s impossible to change the weather,” referencing how unlikely it was that he would ever be viewed publicly as anything but a monster, or ever seem like he belonged with a “good” woman like me. “I’d just as soon learn to love the rain.”
Want more SMIRK? Sign up here to subscribe.