Look up. It’s the number one rule when traveling, according to Vanessa Grall. And yet, no one really does it. “People rarely see me,” says Grall, 38 , motioning toward the windows of her fifth-arrondissement office. Like her website, Messy Nessy Chic, it’s a cabinet of curiosities: White peg boards hold vintage postcards and travel ads; on the radiator, an antique typewriter sits by a Hemingway Bar cocktail menu and the skull of an unidentified rodent (“I found it in the garden!”). There are three floor-to-ceiling windows that open to wrought-iron balconies – the vantage points for Grall’s viral, people-watching-meets-style-spy Instagram reels.
A London-raised French-American who relocated to Paris in her mid-twenties, Grall has made a career of being an observer and an insatiably curious outsider. As it happens, her accent is hard to place. “I went to an American high school in London,” she explains. “I have a musical ear that emulates who I’m with.” After graduating, she spent a year studying at NYU’s Florence campus in Italy. She was supposed to go on to New York, but ended up dropping out of college and returning to London, where she cut her teeth at a scrappy Notting Hill lifestyle magazine. “It was just two guys and me in an old storefront. I ended up writing the whole thing.”
Like many elder millennials in the late aughts, Grall decided to launch a blog. Six months later, she relocated to Paris, and her new city became her muse. There, she discovered her passion for the forgotten, the macabre, and the weird. “At the time, there were a few [Paris] blogs, but none were diving into these weirder stories. [They showed] the classic, I guess we now call it Emily in Paris, Paris.” She also wanted to fit in: “As a kid, I had this fear of looking like a tourist. When I arrived in Paris, I wanted to know Paris really well.”
That combination – stories lesser told but also deeply researched – written in her cheeky, conversational voice resonated with readers. Traffic exploded, and Messy Nessy Chic has since expanded. Grall, the self-proclaimed “founder, editor, janitor, boss lady of this ship,” has a dozen or so freelance contributors and though Paris is most frequently featured, with articles such as “The Ghost Bath Houses of Paris” and “We Went to a Parisian Sex Club for Swingers So You Don’t Have To,” the geographical focus wanders – to remote Swedish islands and 16th-century Italian gardens and a colorful bar in the Mississippi Delta. Instead of SEO, each author’s curiosity drives the content.
Her Parisian North Star
After twelve years as a resident, Grall considers herself a Parisian, and her bootstrapped Messy Nessy Chic universe skews toward an American spirit of entrepreneurialism. But her modesty and tendency to playfully self-deprecate feel British. “I’m not particularly ambitious. I’m probably a hard worker but I do procrastinate a lot. I identify as kind of lazy.”
“Lazy” doesn’t spring to mind when describing an Amazon bestselling author with her own publishing house and a website that at one point rivaled the traffic of Vogue.com. She insists that she’s less concerned with traffic and bestseller lists, and more with the feedback she receives from readers. “A man who had just lost his partner sent me an email as he was packing up his belongings, telling me how much my writing meant to him and that it brought so much joy to his life. That’s more important to me than any accolades.”
To date, Grall has penned two Don’t Be a Tourist books, about Paris and New York City. Currently, she’s hard at work on a third so-called “anti-guide” to London. “The books are not just about restaurants or museums,” says Grall. “They’re observations of the city. A destination might be a weird-looking drain pipe – architectural oddities – or a wise, old man on a bench.” The idea is to share her approach to exploring a city, be it a walk along an abandoned Parisian railway (La Petite Ceinture) or the best place to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations (Le Bar de l’Entracte, on Rue de Montpensier) – perspectives you won’t find in Fodor’s or the Lonely Planet.
“I want [the reader] to feel like we’re sharing a travel diary,” explains Grall. More than anything, she sees her role as that of a curator. Whether she’s penning her weekly “13 Things I Found on the Internet Today” post, choosing a classic French song for an Instagram video, or creating a customized itinerary for her Travel Concierge program, providing value is her final gut-check before she hits “Publish.” “I always consider: Am I giving my readers something, or is this just a flex?”