There are four cardinal rules for joining Hot Literati, an online Tik-Tok community of “hot, cool, well-read people,” according to Hailey Colborn ’22:
Rule #1: “You have to have a book with you at all times ... It can be Dostoyevsky, it can be Colleen Hoover.”
Rule #2: “The second someone walks into your room, they should be like, ‘Oh, this person read reads.’ How do you achieve that? It's all about book placement.”
Rule #3: “Read everywhere.”
Rule #4: “If you're ever about to take a thirst trap, stop; go get a book ... A thirst trap with a book elevates your photo to a thirst trap for the mind and the soul.”
With over 82,300 followers on Tiktok as of publication, Colborn’s account @hotliterati features content about the intersections of literature, film, and music, and has accumulated over 5 million likes. From analyses of womanhood in “Madame Bovary” to aesthetic youth in the works of Lana Del Rey and Eve Babitz, Colborn approaches literature through the lens of inclusivity and femininity.
According to Colborn, the name of her TikTok account, “hot literati,” draws on the campy, ironic hot girl identity that has defined the online zeitgeist over the last few years. This identity emerges from the morphing aesthetics of popular makeup, fashion, music, and literature. She sees hashtags like #lanadelrey, #coquette, #1960s, #evebabitz, #joandidion — all amassing millions of views on TikTok — as defining a new feminist aesthetic online.
“Eve Babitz’s work is like if you put a Lana Del Rey song into a novel,” said Colborn in one Tiktok, holding a copy of Sex and Rage.
Though Colborn has used this aesthetic to appeal to a wider audience on her platform, she says she initially struggled with how to make her platform more inclusive.
“I originally had in my bio ‘hot literate girly girl’ or something,” said Colborn. “But I thought [literate] might come across a little elitist, so I was reevaluating a more inclusive way to state the vibe I wanted. I stumbled upon the word literati when I was reading ‘The Gift’ by Nabokov and I kind of took it as a sign. Everyone’s very much into this ‘hot person energy’ since Megan Thee Stallion.”
Colborn’s hot girl brand applies a modern, pop culture lens to classic literature. In another TikTok, Colborn compares Lana Del Rey’s dark, seductive music to “Wuthering Heights.”
Although Colborn takes a playful approach to literature, she also dissects feminist issues in the classics.
“I think it's interesting to take a contemporary lens in relation to works that are older,” said Colborn. “In the last book I finished, “Absalom[, Absalom!],” Faulkner talks about how manic it is for [women] to wait for their man to come home from war day after day even though they have their own very real, deep lives because they literally can't do anything else.”
Before TikTok, Colborn’s claim to fame was winning Miss Teen USA in 2018, right before her first year at Princeton.
“When we got to Princeton, everyone kind of knew her because she won Miss Teen USA,” said Colborn’s close friend and fellow Princeton alum Richard Yang ’22.
Colborn is primarily concerned with using literature and media as a vehicle for exploring wider societal and feminine issues with her followers, especially intimate issues such as body image, eating disorders, and the sexualization of girls’ bodies.
In one Tiktok posted on August 4th, 2022, Colborn shares a picture of her competing in a pageant at age 14, dressed in a swimsuit and high heels, set to Mitski lyrics: “I was so young when I behaved 25, yet now I find I’ve grown into a tall child.”
Colborn has been particularly aware of her own body since she was a young child in both ballet and pageantry, and explained the focus both activities can place on physical appearance.
“I used to read Pointe Magazine and I read this article when I was 11 that said the perfect ballet body is two to one ratio: small head, long neck,” recalled Colborn. “There was always this undertone of skinny that no one would say and everyone knew.”
She takes to both TikTok and her writing to unpack these issues, hoping to help other young girls address their own body issues.
“I think eating disorders and body image [are] such a tough thing for women because we’re taught to feel so much shame,” expressed Colborn. “I talk about it openly, even though it's not always the easiest thing to do, because the positive reaction is always worth any discomfort.”
Colborn recently won Olde Wolf’s writing contest for her poem “To Learn Technique” about her complicated experience with ballet. In the piece, she writes of ballet’s dichotomous nature as an art form that is both destructive and beautiful.
“She terrified me, made me want to be small, to crawl into a jagged crevice to change, to break my feet every night, to go back to the beginning before anything and plead with God to use a different mold,” writes Colborn, referring to her ballet teacher. “But I wanted to make her proud. She helped me do something beautiful. And I loved her for that. I still do.”
While still navigating a difficult relationship with ballet, Colborn appreciates the resurgence of the ballet aesthetic online.
“All my coquette ballerina off-duty girls, this one’s for you,” said Colborn as she showed her TikTok followers her old wrap skirt, her favorite leotard, and two pairs of worn, pastel pink pointe shoes.
Despite her longtime interest in examining these issues through different types of media, It wasn't until her senior year at the University that she began posting on social media.
“I posted a video of just me and one of my best friends in my eating club. I was doing my makeup and [my friend] said something so stupid it blew up,” Colborn said. “I didn't have content about literature really taking off until [around] January of my senior year.”
After a few months of consistently posting about her reads, Colborn created a book club with her followers. Now in their fourth month, the Hot Literati Book Club has read “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh, “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin, and “All About Love: New Visions” by Bell Hooks.
“Having time to read is such a luxury nowadays, and if people are choosing to take the time they have to read something with me, it's so flattering,” Colborn said. “I want to have a conversation anyone feels like they can be a part of.”
A book lover since childhood, Colborn had her nose in a book since the age of three. “It’s one of the purest activities,” she said.
“Right after her older brother went off to kindergarten, Hailey came up to me and asked me why I hadn't taught her to read yet, so I started taking her to the library after school,” said Denise Colborn, Hailey’s mother.
Hailey’s father, Kevin Colborn, recalls her “voracious” reading habits, even as a young child.
“She would bring a book into the theater with us while we were watching a movie so she could read right up until the movie started,” said Mr. Colborn.
At Princeton, Colborn studied English literature with certificates in Gender & Sexuality Studies, African American Studies, and Creative Writing with a focus on screenwriting. She credits her creative writing professors like Aleksandar Hemon for permanently transforming her perspective on film.
“He drew a lot of lines between fiction and screenwriting,” noted Colborn. “When I’m looking at a film, I think of it in the same way I think about books — the cultural implications, the plot, and story building.”
Colborn plans to explore this link between fiction and screenwriting in her career. Currently a freelance writer and content creator, she is in the process of writing a novel that she hopes to ultimately adapt into a film.
“I can give it the introspection I want to as a novel, and somewhere down the line, I'll revisit it as a screenplay,” said Colborn.
The novel in question follows a young girl in the 21st century navigating a tense relationship with her mother. The book draws on Colborn’s own personal experiences with pageantry and girlhood, while also emulating the long narrative style of “Girl, Interrupted” and “Rattlebone.”
“I love these really lengthy works where you kind of grow up with a young female character,” said Colborn. “[The novel] is about the dissociation inherent in girlhood and how you’re raised to see yourself through the lens of someone else.”
Ultimately, Colborn’s cool-girl online persona depends on this ironic aestheticization and awareness of destructive things.
“I'm enjoying it, but I do have a suspicion that it's bad for my mental health,” says Colborn in a viral TikTok video, referring to Ottessa Moshfegh’s feminist satire and recent Hot Literati book club pick, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.”
Valentina Moreno is a staff Features writer for the ‘Prince.’
Please direct any correction requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.