Hetty Douglas is perhaps best known as an artist who often incorporates humorous text onto her colorful canvas art. At least, she was until she became internet-famous in the summer of 2017. You see, that was when she spotted a group of workmen in a McDonald’s one day and shared an image of them on social media. Sadly for her, though, the internet wasn’t amused.
Douglas is a 25-year-old promising artist who grew up in Nottingham, England. As a child, her career path seemed pre-determined. After all, her mom studied fine art at university, and many of her other family members also have an imaginative streak.
“I’ve always been creative because my mom’s a fine artist,” Douglas explained to the website Ssense. “My aunt is an artist, my cousin is a graffiti artist. My brother is an artist, too. I’ve always been around creative people.” It’s clearly an influence that rubbed off on an impressionable young Douglas.
She continued, “From a very early age, I would be in my mom’s studio or at university and college with her because she went to art school as a mature student. I was about ten when she was studying.” Indeed, the young Douglas would often cut school to hang out with her mom at university.
Douglas eventually moved to London to attend university herself and study fashion illustration. “If anything, it taught me exactly what I didn’t want to do,” she explained to Ssense. So she soon quit her studies to focus on her own work and modeling for trendy clothes store Supreme.
Douglas has since enjoyed moderate success as an artist. Her work has been exhibited in London and the U.S., for instance, and she’s worked on a perfume project for Dazed and Calvin Klein. It would be her action in a McDonald’s restaurant, however, that got her name in the spotlight.
So what happened? Well, in late summer 2017 Douglas had entered a McDonald’s restaurant in London. While there, a group of workmen soon caught her eye. Seizing what she saw as a photo opportunity, Douglas took a picture of them, unknown to the men, and added a caption.
The text accompanying Douglas’ photo of the workmen read, “These guys look like they got 1 GCSE.” In the U.K., students study up to ten subjects in their GCSEs. If passed, it would be the equivalent of earning a high school diploma. Someone who earns one pass, then, would be considered below average intelligence.
Seemingly without further thought, Douglas shared the image, complete with her tagline, with her 15,000 Instagram followers. But it turned out that some don’t share the artist’s idea of humor. In fact, some even had remarks of their own to add to Douglas’ supposedly “challenging” observations.
Certainly, Douglas’ Instagram post was shared by London-based photographer Rhi Harper. Alongside a composite of the original photo with a picture of Douglas looking prudish, Harper wrote, “And you look like a spoiled rich girl gentrifying south London.” That tweet subsequently went viral.
Among the 18,000 retweets and nearly 74,000 likes Harper’s tweet has received to date, some passed their own judgement on Douglas. “All they wanted was a McDonald’s, she needs to chill,” one said. Another remarked, “Those guys look like mighty fine hard working men to me.”
Chelsea Clarey, who said she was the wife of one of the workmen Douglas mocked, waded in. “That’s my husband in the photo and we have enjoyed reading all the replies to your tweet tonight!” she replied to Harper. “To be fair, she could have mocked them to their faces and they would have laughed in hers.”
Douglas’ photo also includes scaffolder Warren Butt. “I would like an apology,” the 40-year-old explained to the Sun Online. “I do not think it’s right she can take a picture of us without us knowing and say that. I’m just working – just earning a living for me and my son.”
Butt and his colleagues were in a central London branch of the fast food chain when they were targeted by Douglas. He told the Sun Online, “It’s not very nice. It’s made us look like a load of idiots when we are just trying to crack on and do some work.”
Butt in fact graduated with no GCSEs and instead earned a working qualification equivalent to five GCSEs in a trade he has practiced for 20 years. “What gives her the right to look at me or us in that way?” he said. “She’s no better than me because she can draw.”
The backlash was even enough to drive Douglas into hiding. Yes, the artist, whose dad is a builder, took down her Instagram page in the aftermath of the incident. A family friend told the Daily Mail, “Some of the comments directed at her are very threatening and she’s terrified of reprisals.”
The friend added that Douglas hadn’t left her house for fear of attacks should someone recognize her. Interestingly, it was further claimed that there was context behind the image of the builders. Specifically, the friend believed Douglas had responded after the men aimed abuse toward restaurant staff.
“They were being rude and swearing at those youngsters working behind the counter and Hetty thought they were out of order,” the friend told the Daily Mail. In her defence, Douglas’ close friend described the artist as “a very nice, polite, well mannered girl.” She had merely wanted to teach the workmen a lesson, the friend said.
Two of the men in the picture, however, were given the chance to critique Douglas’ work by the Sun Online. Butt joked, “Hetty is emulating her simmering existential turmoil on canvas. There is a hint of Picasso’s impressionism, fused with Jackson Pollock’s hectic style.”
“Her attempts at creating reactionary 21st century symbolism in abstract form are crude and ignorant,” Butt continued mockingly. “But seriously, I’m not going to have a go at her and say it is rubbish – beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The art speaks for itself – only she knows what they are about, and she appears to be angry.”