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A scrapbook career in shreds
They called her "labelwhore," this 28-year-old rising star in the world of scrapbooking, with a silver stud in her lip and a tattoo in Latin on her left forearm: "Art is long, life is short."
Before the Internet bullies bashed her and judges revoked her title in the scrapbooking Hall of Fame, Kristina Contes basked in a reputation built on making pages dedicated to her designer handbags, her Converse sneakers and the word "dude." She showcased her avant-garde designs on websites like ScrapInStyleTV.com, traveled the country teaching classes, and turned down offers to go to Paris, London and Norway.
"It's kind of like being a rock star," Contes said. "It's not what you think scrapbooking is."
A growing legion of 20-something scrapbookers -- with Contes as their pinup -- discovered one another online and bonded over pages that immortalized Coldplay lyrics and honored the Heineken bottle.
The edgier scrapbookers thought of it as an outlet -- much like keeping a diary -- in which they expressed political views, decorated pages of their poetry or paid tribute to television shows like "Project Runway," using torn and faded materials not guaranteed to last long enough for their grandchildren to see.
The new generation stuck out its tongue at traditional scrappers, who cultivated the hobby for decades -- creating folios devoted to baby's first Christmas, their granddaughter's wedding or Sunday's church service -- but rarely featured themselves or their feelings. Conventional scrapbookers, who liked layouts with teddy bear stamps, snowflake stencils and photos of birthday cupcakes, intended for their pages to outlast them.
"They're from the Stepford wife kind of mind-set," Contes said. "You're doing something different, you must be evil."
As popularity soared, scrapbooking -- in all its forms -- exploded into a $2.6-billion industry where enthusiasts young and old, conservative and radical, grudgingly put aside differences to compete in national contests, attend global conventions, build blogs, join chat rooms, create online portfolios, and view YouTube and other online instructional videos.
In that world, Contes stood out.
She created textures with vinyl and made patterns by dabbing bubble wrap in paint. She turned playing cards into mini-scrap pages, cut out curse words from cardboard, and laid out distressed fonts and fisheye photos. She started a blog, co-wrote a book and championed the world of scrapbookers -- until it turned on her.
"Has KC ever done a layout that didn't feature a photograph of herself?"
"My 4 y.o. does better with stickers."
"After you have viewed her work you know she has no class."
"I just want to . . . slap her!"
The trouble in the land of foam stickers and glossy glitter glue all started in February, after Contes won a contest sponsored by one of the industry's most popular magazines, Creating Keepsakes. Her winning pages featured photos of her feet and her hairless terrier, Chloe. Her name went into the magazine's Hall of Fame and her work was published in a book of the top 2007 entries.
But Contes -- inadvertently -- had cheated.
Someone else had taken pictures that ended up in her portfolio. When Contes called Creating Keepsakes to request that her friend receive a photo credit, the staff member approved it without realizing she had broken an entry rule: Submissions had to be solely the contestant's work. The book came out in October with both names published -- to the dismay of thousands.
Disgruntled scrapbookers besieged the Creating Keepsakes chat room threatening to cancel subscriptions, boycott and sue. Scrapbooking bloggers called it "Hall of Fame-Gate," naming it the top scrapbooking scandal of 2007. They compared it to the performance-enhancing-drug controversies involving major league baseball player Barry Bonds and Olympic track star Marion Jones. Someone wrote that Contes was as polarizing a figure as Martha Stewart.
At first, Contes found the uproar amusingly absurd. She replied on her blog: "Apparently, many lives have been destroyed by this catastrophe. The devastation will surely go on for many years to come, and this tragedy will not soon be forgotten."
Her post prompted a barrage of responses on message boards on sites such as Scrap Smack and Two Peas in a Bucket. One message string about her received more than 1,250 comments.
"I guess her response is 'dignified' if you live in the same trailer park as she does."
She "doesn't have a moral bone in her body."
Mortified and hurt, Contes stopped scrapbooking.
"I, seriously, was like the Lindsay Lohan of scrapbooking," Contes said. "I didn't just sign a million-dollar movie contract. I'm not on a billboard on the side of the road. I'm just a scrapbooker."
Many longtime devotees of scrapbooking credit the Christensen family of Utah with putting a spotlight on the craft in 1980 at the World Conference of Records, where they shared albums that captured their family history, the pages displayed in sheet protectors inside loose-leaf binders. The family wrote a how-to book and opened a scrapbooking store selling stamps, and archival and acid-free paper. The concept took off, especially among the Christensens' fellow Mormons, who were particularly interested in preserving their genealogy.
In 1987, Rhonda Anderson of St. Cloud, Minn., co-founded Creative Memories, a company that aimed to take scrapbooking to people of all backgrounds. Creative Memories now has 90,000 consultants who sell the company's products in stores, online and in classes they teach in 12 countries. The company earned $300 million in 2005, and slightly less in 2006 because many people shifted to computer programs to create digital albums, a niche the company is now expanding.
"The traditional family album is alive and well," Anderson said. "But scrapbooking is really changing -- it's not just keeping track of your baby or your family photos in a paper album."
Before Contes stumbled upon scrapbooking, the fashion addict couldn't figure out what to do with her life. She had dropped out of jewelry-making school and given up on a career in interior design.
After getting married three years ago, Contes decided to put together a wedding album, and began researching online. She found traditional scrapbook layouts -- albums featuring pink ribbon sashes, buttons, heart jewels, fabric flowers, and tags with the words "love" and "yours forever" in cursive fonts.
Then she came across a community of avant-garde scrapbookers in their 20s and 30s who had learned to express their loneliness, narcissism and rage on their pages. That's when Contes realized she had found her calling. She took on the screen name "labelwhore," playing off her obsession with fashion.
Many of the people she encountered online were caught in a quarter-life crisis, pondering decisions about whether to have children, questioning whether they were ready to let go of their youth, or wondering why they had not yet found the perfect career or ideal man.
Contes met one young woman who scrapped about her miscarriage. The woman printed a photo of herself for the page, adding stickers, stamps and Coldplay lyrics: "Come on, my star is fading and I swerve out of control. I know I'm dead on the surface but I'm screaming underneath."
Another woman created a page in which she took a picture of herself wearing a different outfit every day for three weeks. In each photo, she held a sign with a word. After laying out the page, the words formed the sentence: "I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up or if growing up is indeed something I want to do."
Some called their style "life art," setting themselves apart from traditional scrappers.
"Scrapbooking," Contes said she realized, "can be whatever the hell you want it to be. It can be messy, it can be angry, it can be angsty, it can be just you."
It was a way to combine her love of art, writing, design and photography. Her dining room became her design studio, the table her easel. She would happily drop $100 on glue guns, embossing powder and transparent paper. She filled baskets with fabric: plaid, leaf-printed, psychedelic-swirled.
Her Internet friends encouraged her. They formed a sort of indie-scrapper club, calling themselves "Effer Dares." Their blog, also called Effer Dares, took off, and hundreds of scrapbookers became fans.
Effer Dares posted daily prompts on the group's blog, challenging readers to focus on a theme, such as: Create a page that is a "letter to your former self."
The friends decided to put their ideas into a book. They called it "We Dare You: Scrapbook Challenges About Real Life." It was published in 2007.
Though the new crop of scrappers had their followers, they were criticized for their self-centered pages. One blogger wrote she wished everyone could go back to the days when "we didn't consider ourselves 'life artist[s]' or 'designers.' We were just plain ol' scrappers."
That was the title of Contes' Oct. 16 blog entry. She didn't mean to break the Hall of Fame rules, and Creating Keepsakes judges should have kicked her out immediately, she wrote, or "burned me at the stake, whatever."
"If I was doing something shady or trying to cheat then you never would have seen the photo credit in the first place (DUH). Wait, I think that bears repeating. DUH."
Contes' defense didn't stand up to her critics.
One person condemned Contes' lack of shame, admitting that she, too, had entered a contest once, and later realized she had broken the rules. "For about 10 minutes I kept thinking 'Don't worry about it, nobody's gonna know,' " she wrote. "But then I thought 'You and GOD are going to know.' " She withdrew from the contest so her children would still be able to look her in the eye, and then "proceeded to cry for about 3 days."
Lin Sorenson, vice president and editorial director of Creating Keepsakes media, said most scrapbookers aren't concerned with the gossip on blogs.
"What people write on their blogs or their comments on the hobby are not of interest to our readers; the hobby itself is important to our readers," she said. "It's a very positive hobby."
On Oct. 20, eight months after Contes won, Creating Keepsakes issued a news release in response to the protests: She had been disqualified from its Hall of Fame.
"We are painfully aware that our error has deeply upset many of you, our cherished readers and scrapbooking partners," wrote Editor in Chief Brian Tippetts.
"Did she have to give back her crown and sash too???" someone wrote on the Two Peas in a Bucket message board. "It's like Vanessa Williams all over again."
For weeks, Contes did not want to look at a scrapbook or talk to another scrapbooker. Her husband told her to focus instead on their restaurant, where she works as a waitress and bartender. She made her blog private, partly to avoid the "hordes of evil stalking" scrappers, and she limited her readers to about 20 friends.
Then one afternoon, sitting in her apartment decorated with framed concert ticket stubs from Lisa Loeb, Weezer and Imogen Heap, Contes felt a familiar feeling.
She started picking through different fonts and photos. She took a prompt from the Effer Dares collection: "Scrap about something that kicked your ass."
She pulled out a sheet of binder paper, and laid down yellow, olive green and aqua letters into the words "hot date." She glued pictures of herself and a friend, and attached typewritten letters about rum and Coke, vodka, a bartender and a night out with friends.