Sometimes a look is worth a thousand words. But few have nailed a nation’s feelings as neatly as Harriet Ellis, aka #eyerollgirl. The student from Bristol was caught on camera last week, in the middle of a televised Channel Four debate about Brexit, executing such an epic eye roll behind Nigel Farage’s back that Remainers thought they’d found their queen. “We are, in a very real sense, all Harriet,” tweeted the Labour MP Karen Buck, as the gif went viral. And that was just the beginning.
“I got marriage proposals; I had people asking me to be their best friend,” Harriet, who is reading Classics at the University of Birmingham, tells Grazia. “Someone asked me out for dinner in Toronto. Someone else offered me money to run an anti-Theresa May campaign. On the other side people assume I’m a fascist or a Remoaner or like a stoner who just goes to university and smokes weed.” A surprising number, meanwhile, just wanted to know what Farage was actually like up close: “A lot of people asked me how he smells. You know when people used to be able to smoke in pubs? He smelled like that, beer and stale tobacco.”
So it might surprise some that while 21-year-old Harriet is no fan of Farage or his take on immigration, she actually voted for Brexit. She’s wanted to leave the EU for years because “I don’t like the bureaucracy, I don’t like the fact that you don’t know who’s running it” and what actually annoyed her was Farage rubbishing the prime minister’s proposed Brexit deal: “Anything he says merits an eye-roll, but he was saying that we’ve now got a Remainer Brexit which just confused me because we definitely haven’t. Remainers definitely aren’t happy. Theresa May’s trying her hardest to make a Brexit that works for the people that voted for it.” As she says, it’s striking how much people assume from a facial expression. A reminder, maybe, that viral images don’t always tell the story we think.
But if her eye-roll was universally relatable that’s partly, she reckons, because the Brexit debate is normally so impenetrable. “I think people are just looking for something they identify with, because a lot of our politics isn’t identifiable. My sister works for the civil service, she does Brexit stuff, but when she talks about it it’s all in acronyms. I voted for it, I feel quite well informed and I keep up with politics but it’s just inaccessible. If a gif of me rolling my eyes represents that, so be it...In a way it’s like how boring was that debate, that this is the thing people are remembering from it?” Maybe it’s not that young women are apathetic about politics, so much as turned off by what they’re hearing. The record number of women elected in this week’s US midterm elections, on a high female turnout and amid furious debate about the threat Donald Trump may pose to their rights, suggests plenty of women do engage when the issues are vivid enough.
Nonetheless Harriet, who only ended up in the studio audience after a friend roped her in and swears she had no idea she’d be behind Farage, has no political ambitions herself. “God no. I want to be a teacher, I’d rather change the world through that. I’m barely well known, but if this is a fraction of what it’s like to be famous I don’t know why anyone would want it.” She’s already begun pleading for people not to follow her on Twitter - “I spend my days watching Waterloo Road and doing my dissertation, I’ve got nothing to say!” - but can she at least disclose how she does what’s been called her unique double-axle eye roll? “All I can say is I talked to my mum about it and she said ‘you do roll your eyes a lot, must be all the practice.’