Welcome to THE DOUGH, an occasional series in which Manjula Martin talks with women in creative professions about money and work.
When I called AB Chao on the phone, she was in New Orleans painting the kitchen cabinets in her new apartment. The cabinets had been “a gross, rental off-white” and Chao was in the middle of a lengthy process of repainting them bright white, not being pleased with the results, then repainting them again. Chao is the kind of person who cares about which color white her cabinets are—she’s a self-employed decorator and interior stylist, though you may know her as a blogger who posts beautiful photographs of her beautiful home on her beautiful website.
Chao has been on the internet since about 1874; as a writer, she’s worked for herself, blogs, magazines, a television show, and at a desk job in communications. Since 2001, Chao’s faithful readers (a.k.a. Chao Nation) have received regular updates on her home (christened Camp Chao), her family (a guitar-playing husband and now-19-year-old daughter), and her headless selfies. In 2008, Chao’s love of photography and design led her to launch a side gig as an interior decorator. By 2012, she had quit her desk job at a telecom company in Monroe, Louisiana — where she grew up — and had relaunched her career as a full-fledged lifestyle blogger and life stylist for hire.
So, as of a few years ago, the business of being AB Chao was looking pretty darn good from the outside. Oh, the cabinets! Oh, the accent tables! Ooooh, that swinging porch bed! As a lifestyle blogger, Chao was genuine, chic, and above all achievable. She could be your cool friend; heck, she could be you, if you only could get your shit together and clear all that crap off your coffee table and develop a genuine Southern “y’all.” Over fourteen years of blogging and designing, Chao had welcomed the internet into her home, and so we felt like we knew her. Then, in 2013, she came out of the closet, telling her readers, “Y’all, I am real gay. For ladies.” She got divorced. She moved. And soon, her blog posts came less frequently. In 2014, she stopped blogging altogether. No farewell post, no “taking a break” — she just stopped. She didn’t, however, stop working. I caught up with her on the phone recently to talk about how she’s making a living now, how she manages her money and her business, and the difference between being a lifestyle blogger and being a real person.
What do you say when people ask, “So, what do you do?”
Wellll… it actually depends on the time of year. I have about 17 different jobs, so if I’m doing a lot of decorating I’ll say, “I’m a decorator,” or if I’m doing a lot of writing I’ll say “writer.”
Okay, so, what do you do right now?
I’m working on a TV show on the “set dec” (set decorating) department and I’m a buyer.
I have no idea what a buyer actually does.
So basically the set decorator decides what they want the sets to look like, and I go out and find it.
What percentages of your income comes from what gigs?
When I was blogging, around 50% was from writing + blogging, which included ad revenue, affiliate programs, and brand campaigns. The other half of my income came from design camps and decorating for clients. It was a weird time when I quit my job in 2012 because you could earn a living from blogging at that time, and then that went away in the span of a couple of years. I continued the design camps for a while, but I quickly hit my limit on the number of people in any given city who were going to sign up for those kinds of things. So I had to find other things to do, but for a while there it was pretty lean.
And at the moment? Is your set dec work your entire income?
I am currently working as a set dec buyer full time, because it is a full-time job (10-12 hours a day, depending on the week). However, there can be long breaks between jobs, so I’d say freelance set dec is 80% of my income and my decorating clients are 20%.
How do you structure your decorating fees?
When I started freelancing I was doing such crazy stuff. I would ask for 50 percent up front and then the other 50 percent at the end. But you know how freelance is, you’re expecting a project to end and then it doesn’t and you can’t pay your rent that month.
How I work is I charge a flat rate for different rooms, and then after that I’ll work as much or as little as they want. I charge an hourly rate to go shop everything out, buy it all, style it up, put flowers in there, etc.
It can be awkward to talk about money with people, but I just do it now. I just tell them, “This is what I cost, and then this is what I cost after that.”
When in the job process do you bring up money?
At the end of the first assessment, I’m like, here are my rates, and nine out of ten times they’re like, okay! My rates are very reasonable.
So you don’t negotiate?
No. If I go somewhere and I can tell from the outset it’s not going to be a good fit, I’ll say hey, you know what, I think this might not be the right fit and I’ll recommend someone else. If I can’t recommend someone because I think the client’s gonna be a disaster, then I just send the client on their way.
When I was a full-time freelancer, I had a list of red flags. Like, if you’re talking to a potential client and they’re just broadcasting all over the conversation that this is going to be a hot mess. That’s a hard thing to learn — that you can hire and fire clients.
Yeah. I mean, they’re hiring me to do a thing but I’m not going to work for somebody who I know is gonna be horrible. It’s happened, and you just learn those things along the way.
It’s amazing how much you learn so fast when you start freelancing. It can be a nightmare if you’re not completely honest and organized. And I’m not! I’m not a naturally organized person, so I have systems.
What are your systems?
That’s the thing I’m worst at— the money stuff. I’m just not organized and it’s very, very difficult for me. I’m a creative person, I’m a visual person; I’m not an accountant. So after running up credit card bills and losing a lot of money and just being stupid, I finally just hired someone. If you can, it’s the best thing. So I have an accountant now, and I’m just like, here, here’s my stuff, dude!
I was not on top of it when I first started doing this, with small clients in 2008. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. And my husband at the time was like, hey, do you have your vouchers for your quarterly taxes, and I was like, “My what?” I didn’t even know that was a thing you had to do until I got a letter from the state of Louisiana. So now I just save everything, and then I hand it over.
How do you organize your receipts and expenses and stuff?
I have manila folders. A manila folder with the client’s name on it. Which shows how little I know about this stuff!
Hey, man, if you’re not the person who’s putting all your receipts into an Excel sheet every night, you’re just not that person.
To me it’s like torture.
How is your business structured, for tax purposes?
I’m an LLC, and I’m here to tell you that I have no idea what that even means. I was advised by my accountant to get that one, and that’s why I have it. Basically, my way of being a professional is to just ask other professionals how to do things!
If someone had told me when I started freelancing that I was going to be saying the word “tax” so much, I would have just stayed in that cubicle for the rest of my life.
Now that you’re self-employed, how do you get health insurance? Do you have Obamacare?
Yeah, girl. Thank god for Obamacare! I was so excited about Obamacare because when I first quit my job we had to get Blue Cross, and it was zillions of dollars. And I have a kid. And now we all three have Obamacare.
When it comes to money and work, who has influenced you?
In my decorating life I had a really wonderful mentor, her name is Lori Andrews and she’s on the internet as the “10 cent designer.” I would send her emails in the middle of the night being like, I don’t know what to do, how much should I charge, how do I buy things at 20 percent off? I did not know anything. She was amazing, she was like here’s how you do it, here’s how you be a decorator. One of the best tips she gave me was that as a decorator I’m basically a salesperson. My job is to sell beauty to people.
As far as influences go, my parents, on the other hand, are totally down to earth, “get a job out of college and stay at that job and keep your head down for the next 40 years” people. All of my little, “I’m gonna do this now” work adventures have really been stressful for them. They were just like, what are you doing, this is crazy, I don’t understand!
How do you explain it to them?
It’s hard. You just have to get to the point where you’re like, look, this is what I’m doing. I’ll probably fail, or fail a little bit, and if I do, then I’ll find something else to do or go get a job at Walmart or wherever.
But, I mean, that’s the least of their worries now—they have a super gay daughter!
Yeah, I guess coming out as gay to your parents probably trumps coming out as an independent contractor.
They are small-town Louisiana, so they were mortified, basically. It was weird because so many people in my life that I expected not to be supportive when I came out were the most supportive, and some of the people I wanted to be supportive were not at all. But what can you do? Nothing, really. I finally had to tell my parents, until you can support me on this, you and I are not going to have a relationship. And I haven’t spoken to either of them in over a year. I don’t think it’s forever, though.
Whether it’s something huge like coming out, or something more everyday like switching jobs, as a lifestyle blogger your brand is mostly you. So what happens when your life changes?
Well, on the internet you become sort of a brand but you also are sort of a fictional character. People don’t know 90% of what’s really happening in your life. Especially when you’re a design or lifestyle blogger, all of your success is based on presenting the best face that you can. It’s aspirational. So when I would take pictures of my house on the internet or when I re-did a room or whatever, I was obviously only gonna post the best pics. But nobody saw the huge fucking mess behind me. So a lot of it is about presenting your best face to the world. And having done that for so long becomes really exhausting. I mean, I started my blog in 2002! It’s been over fifteen years. And I just got to the point where I didn’t want to be a fictional character in someone else’s life anymore. I wanted to live my life. I wanted to wake up in the morning and have a coffee and not worry about, “Is this pretty enough to take a picture on Instagram?”
After I came out, it was even more intense. And there was a lot of drama, and I didn’t want to talk about it. So I didn’t. I was like, I’m just gonna do me, and I’m gonna do it off the internet. And it’s been AWESOME.
Yeah, I would imagine those two experiences — realizing a core aspect of your identity and feeling like you were presenting a false identity on the internet — might be related.
Definitely. I was like, I’m tired of not being a real person. Especially when I realized, oh my god, I’m gay. I felt like even more of a fraud.
After your divorce, you guys sold your house in Monroe and you moved to New Orleans, where you’re renting a place. Do you find it freeing not to be a homeowner?
Yeah, girl! When the toilet’s broken or something falls of the wall, I just text my landlord! It’s kind of awesome.
Okay, enough serious stuff. Time for a multiple choice question. Which of the following songs is your preferred financial anthem?
- Money (Makes the World Go Around) from Cabaret
- Money Changes Everything by Cyndi Lauper
- Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems by NOTORIOUS B.I.G.
- She Works Hard For Her Money by Donna Summers
- Material Girl by Madonna
I feel like Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems is my theme song. For sure.
Manjula Martin has written for the Virginia Quarterly Review online, Pacific Standard, Aeon, Hazlitt, and The Awl. Her hobbies include making Who Pays Writers? and Scratch.