Right before lockdown began, I received a package at Broadsheet’s office. Inside were two packs of playing cards: Reflex, “a self-development and critical-thinking game”, and Reflex Party, an MA 15+ version. A handful of enthusiastic stickers fluttered out of the package onto my keyboard: “BIG ENJOYMENT”, read one. “I LEFT SMALL TALK IN 2019,” read another. I opened the pink Reflex deck and pulled out a random card. “Do you respect people with views that radically oppose your own?” it asked. Yikes, I thought. The question seemed to be speaking directly to me, like it knew my exact foibles – but in a good way.
That’s how it feels to play Reflex, a non-traditional parlour game that’s designed to encourage meaningful conversation and self-development through a series of questions that prompt critical thinking.
Each card and pack is printed with a fun, vibrant illustration of the creator, Flex Mami (aka Lillian Ahenkan), a 26-year-old DJ, TV presenter, podcaster, DIY-er and self-described “fairy nut mother” (more on that later) based in Sydney. Flex could broadly be described as an influencer – she has roughly 93,000 followers on Instagram, which she’s leveraged into partnerships with brands such as Maybelline and Sportsgirl – but that term doesn’t really do justice to her online je ne sais quoi. The word “influencer” evokes a specific kind of internet aesthetic – flat-lay shots of breakfast bowls, beach holidays, the occasional moody selfie accompanied by musings on vulnerability – but Flex isn’t that kind of influencer. She’s much more fun to watch – and way more thought-provoking.
I first encountered her IRL, which is a funny way to meet someone who’s famous for being extremely online. She appeared in the doorway of Broadsheet’s Sydney office in February last year (after an interview with editor Sarah Norris about dating) dressed in a green two-piece outfit that was so fabulous it actually made me gasp (Fenty PJ top and Topshop pants, just FYI). She was warm, down-to-earth and unaffected. I immediately followed her on Instagram.
After a year of close analysis (i.e. scrolling through social media at midnight), I’ve come to the following conclusion: Flex is one of the most charismatic Australians on the internet. She will convince you of the necessity of spray-painting your shelves lime green and interrogating your own internalised racism. Like the Reflex cards, her Instagram posts and stories prompt conversation and self-reflection, exploring everything from orgasms (aka “premium gourmet nuts”, which she wants everyone to have, thus “fairy nut mother”) to therapy to racism to DIY home decorating, often starting with an open exploration of a philosophical, psychological or ethical question she’s been pondering.
Flex certainly isn’t the only person exploring these topics on social media, but she does it with a generous, no-bullshit, curious, non-judgemental finesse that elevates the conversation beyond sanctimony and flame wars.
She invites her followers to contribute, too: last July, for example, she asked them to DM her opinions they were too afraid to express out loud, which she collated into a series of (anonymous) posts and stories, leading to a thoughtful critique of bigotry, privilege and performative wokeness. Reading along, I felt like I was eavesdropping on an anonymous mass confession – with Flex as the confessor, lovingly but firmly calling her followers on their bullshit. It never got nasty. (“How you engage with people who don’t think just like you says a lot about you,” she wrote at the time.) It takes a certain kind of genius to pull that off online.
Flex was born in Sydney in 1994, the third child of Ghanaian immigrants who divorced when she was three months old. She grew up in the eastern suburbs, mostly in Kensington, where she lived with her mum and two brothers.
“We come from a matriarchy, so [my mother] was always aware of her worth as a woman,” she said in a recent episode of her podcast, Bobo & Flex.
“There are no male figures in my lineage where I’m like, ‘Oh, you run this shit.’ No. It’s my grandma, my auntie, my mum. They run this shit. Everyone’s afraid of them, they’ll fuck you up,” she laughed. “Where are the men? I don’t know where they are ... I always attributed really dominant characteristics to women because that’s just what I knew.”
Her mother was committed to building an environment where the kids could “apply themselves, and, you know, be awesome and do awesome things”, Flex told me over the phone. Undergirding that love and support was a pragmatism typical to many immigrant parents, with an emphasis on the security of traditional professions. (“You can be anything – but be a nurse, be a doctor.”)
“I think what separated me from a lot of my peers is that I was introduced the concept of money quite early,” says Flex. She realised she’d only be able to buy the things she wanted if she had an independent income, so she got her first part-time job, at Macca’s, a few months shy of her 15th birthday.
Throughout her adolescence and early twenties she was a proto-slashie, working multiple jobs in retail and hospitality while she finished high school. She briefly studied PR, then worked her first couple of jobs in PR and digital communications. Not surprisingly, for a creative person with an innate entrepreneurial nous – and a desire to ultimately own her own business and create her own products – Flex was bored by the monotony of her day job. So, with no experience whatsoever, she talked her way into a recurring early DJ slot at one of her favourite club nights.
This chutzpah characterises her burgeoning but wildly successful career, which started with DJing (self-taught), and led to presenting for MTV, podcasting and general influencer wizardry under the Flex Mami banner. Like a lot of things Flex does, her moniker is half deliberate, half improvised: she wanted to be Flex when she started DJing in 2014, but since that handle was long gone, she needed a suffix to complete the name – so after brainstorming with some friends she settled on Mami, which passed the test of not being too “naff”.
She attributes her drive, in part, to her mum’s influence – and pragmatism. “The way my mum described it to me ... she was like, ‘If you want to do something, you have to do it for yourself. You can’t occupy spaces thinking that someone’s going to see your talent, elevate you, turn you into a star. You just have to do it for yourself.’”
Her card game, Reflex, is an extension of the discourse she’s been cultivating online the last few years, both on social media and on her podcast, which she started with her friend Bobo Matjila, a New York-based influencer, philosopher and photographer, in January 2019. They’ve discussed everything from incels to Love Island to white supremacy to capitalism – and dating, communication, relationships and sex are all recurring topics too. Flex has a talent for asking probing questions that invite you to reflect on assumptions you take for granted – which is key to both dating and podcasting well – and she soon found she was receiving dozens of DMs a day from followers requesting questions to ask on dates.
“It’s a no-brainer to me – you ask people questions you want answers to,” she told Broadsheet. “[But] learning how to articulate and ask the right questions and ask interesting questions is more of a skill than I’d realised.”
She was wary of the relationship with her followers becoming “one-sided in terms of the transaction”, with her constantly doling out prompts like a therapy vending machine (and thus also “gatekeeping good conversation”, as she puts it).
Flex is candid and smart about the transactional nature of her relationship with her audience, whether those transactions are tangible (financial, follower count) or intangible (influence, consciousness raising, anti-racism work, helping a stranger on the internet date better). “We’re in an industry where we’re performing,” she said in an interview in July 2019. “And by nature it’s contrived ... so it’s hard to find the balance between how to be genuine without commodifying what it is to be authentic. But I think the essence of how to not do that is to communicate why you’re doing what you do.” She’s also clear about her boundaries. “I always say I owe my audience candour, but I don’t owe [them] proximity to me.”
She realised that developing a product based on her conversational skills and talent for accessible analysis was the natural next step, to help free her from the pressure of her DMs and tilt that exchange back in her favour. She’d previously published an ebook that “was accessible and ... also quite lucrative”, but she realised that pulling up a PDF on a date wouldn’t be the sexiest move.
Instead, she decided to make a “cute little game you could bring [on a date]” – more playful than interrogative – and asked her friend Bianca Bosso, an Australian illustrator based in New York, to design a deck of cards.
Each deck comes with 46 cards (and playing instructions) on a range of topics, including love, life, religion and politics. A few of my favourites: “What is the one thing you wish people would talk more about?”; “Are introspection and self-analysis doing you more damage than good” (meta); “Is your political correctness more motivated by judgement or empathy?”; and “Do you believe aliens exist?” Playing with friends feels a bit like group therapy meets earnest teen D&M meets uni politics tute, which is to say, it’s extremely my thing. The blue Party deck contains different questions, some of which touch on sex and drugs, such as “Would you rather live without orgasms or romance?” (So you might not want to bring that version to lunch with your parents.)
The game started out as a “little experiment” in May 2019 – just a couple of hundred packs were produced for the first run, which sold out in 24 hours. She says several thousand units have since been sold, via the Flex Factory store, Sportsgirl, Gertrude & Alice in Bondi, and Paddington hair salon Extra Silky. Two 21-card expansion-pack collaborations – one with Matjila and another with Aussie hip-hop artist Joyride – were released on June 3 and also immediately sold out.
Reflex sales went “gangbusters” during lockdown, says Flex, which makes a lot of sense: it’s a fun, contact-free activity you can do one-on-one or with a small group of people (or over Zoom). It’s also a good conversation-starter for dinner parties, brunch with your mates, and – of course – dates, all of which we can do again (for now, at least).
“Anyone can benefit from good conversation, but I’m intrigued by how surprised people are to have enjoyed this game,” she says. “Groups that people [might] think wouldn’t enjoy it, like older people or straight men.”
She’s received lots of positive feedback – one man who’d been married for 30 years messaged her to say it had enriched his conversations with his wife, and many young women have told her that it’s helped them communicate with emotionally reticent male friends.
So, which question is Flex’s favourite? She couldn’t name just one, but “Do you think you are or can be seen as problematic?” immediately came to mind.
“It illuminates a level of self-awareness that somebody has for themselves,” she says. “I might talk to people who identify as being quite liberal and progressive, who’ll rush to say, ‘No, of course, I’m not problematic.’ But ... to somebody who’s right-leaning, you are problematic in your ideals and your views.” She’s interested in people who can address the question “from all sides of the lens”.
“It could be something as simple as having a job under capitalism or identifying as your gender,” she says. “These are all things that can be seen as problematic in different circles.”
It’s also a question that’s particularly apt right now, when people all over the world are protesting systemic racism – and many are asking themselves tough, important questions about what it means to benefit from discriminatory social and political systems. What makes Reflex so special – and compelling – is that it asks you to transcend your emotional reflexes, slow down, and engage with challenging questions deeply and openly. No wonder it keeps selling out. It’s the perfect game for 2020.