Somewhere between editors, photographers, models and activists, influencers have become our modern muses — here’s how you pull it off.
Yet whiplash, once just a condition caused by a minor car accident or roller coaster ride gone awry, is now an occupational injury for any traditional media fan monitoring its recent trajectory. From the workplace misogyny unearthed by #MeToo, to pandemic-triggered lay-offs and the exposed racism toxicizing cubicle culture, the publications that once told us who to watch, listen to and even be, have been set alight. So, who lit the match?
Easy, Instagram. The content-sharing platform has presented a new world order. While to be 'in vogue' one needed to be, you know, in Vogue, now various online ecosystems have their own leaders: 'influencers,' who don’t necessarily need their name bolstered by a decades-old masthead to find fans. One by one, influencers have upended every creative industry — for better, or for worse. Fashion now gravitates toward followers. Musicians only need a few seconds of access to millions to achieve virality. Even fine art values and is valued via its online presence.
And from the ashes, many, many stars were born. Everyone found their niche — YouTube and Vine, TikTok to Twitch — never straying from the platform that not only supplements their reach, but made it all possible: Instagram. Of course, as with anything that promises big return on a seemingly small investment, the market became saturated fast; our daily scroll a consequently calculated, inauthentic virtual Hunger Games wherein the hottest and funniest among us compete to be crowned the hottest or funniest. But how does anyone actually win against the algorithm?
Ironically, says Sydney Carlson, authenticity. Carlson was just 16 years old when her family founded Wildflower cases, the smartphone accessories that have become a must-have for every it girl. By sheer luck, the company’s kickoff coincided with Instagram’s inception, and Carlson, alongside her older sister Devon, splashed in the shallows of what would soon become the backbone of business promotion: social media marketing. At the same time, the siblings were each growing their personal 'brand' (a word re-appropriated by the digi-gen to articulate how one’s identity manifests online). Now 23, Carlson boasts leagues of YouTube subscribers and over half a million Instagram followers — her engagement upswinging each time she was openly vulnerable with her disciples. Carlson has even “cried on camera a few times.”
“When I am naturally my most 'me' self, is when I notice the more positive comments and interactions,” Carlson offers. “I’ve always been pretty open about mental health online and sharing my own experiences for others to relate to. Being online and surrounded by other personalities, it is easy to lose sight of yourself and forget who you are. The rule I’ll always go back to is being myself.”
“Being herself” encompasses pieces to camera chronicling her journey with anorexia, alongside Diplo-cameoing videos in Ibiza and bikini hauls — the latter highlighting the power of her endorsement (“I'm such an impulse buyer that i legit just bought 2 bikinis off this site syd,” reads one comment). Perhaps for that reason, or her adherence to authenticity, Carlson is determined her collaborations feel “organic” and only promotes products that she herself would use — and Wildflower, of course.
Social media has similarly amplified the creative output of LA-based Guinean model-actress, Mariama Diallo, who also realized early on that consistency between her offline and online presence — as well as her posting schedule — is key. It’s imperative she stay “genuine and true to who [she is],” which means reciprocating her followers’ investment as if they’re her IRL friends. She involves her fans the same way a company might a focus group, calling for content ideas that best relate to them. As such, her accessibility has fostered a niche follower loyalty, and the engagement is steadily growing.
“Before social media, models never really had a voice nor control over their branding,” she explains. “Social Media has changed that. I use social media to brand myself into how I want to be represented. I also use it to share my journey on set and help anyone who wants to get into the industry.”
After years of routinely sharing her highs and lows, Raven Tracy can also proudly claim her online existence is “100 percent authentic to [her] actual life.” In 2015, the model-entrepreneur gained 20,000 followers in 24 hours. She hit one million followers after six months of strategizing — launching a loungewear label that counts Kylie Jenner among its acolytes in the process — and now sits at two. Unfortunately, the rapid rate of her growth was a recipe for disillusionment. Realizing she was losing her sense of self, Tracy considered deleting her account altogether.
“I felt vain, having so many people following me to look at 'pretty' pictures,” Tracy recalls. “I went through a period of time where I didn’t feel like my followers knew who I was as a person, what my interests and beliefs were, and I felt a little alienated because it all happened so fast.”
To learn to embrace her platform Tracy was first forced to acknowledge she had one. As we navigate a global civil rights movement — much of which is playing out digitally — we’re witnessing a shift in online dynamics. Now, more than ever before, there’s a social imperative: utilize any minutia of “influence” you have to address racial injustice. For those with larger online followings, that pressure intensifies tenfold, but they’re okay with that.
“What is the point of having a large platform if not to utilize it for a cause bigger than yourself?” Tracy queries.
“Having a company, I want to show who we are as a brand and what we stand for,” adds Sydney Carlson, explaining that the profits from Wildflower’s latest release will be sent in entirety to Marsha P. Johnson Institute — a charity protecting and defending the rights of Black trans people.
For Diallo, who is passionate about supporting survivors of sex trafficking (she also starred in a short film on the subject released last week), it’s a “waste” to not exercise her reach: “I strongly believe that with a large platform comes responsibility. We all have a purpose in this world, and if you are not working on making this world a better place then what are you really doing?”
A Black woman with darker skin, Torontonian Gershona Annor (known professionally as @herapatra) recognizes her consistent display of confidence alone is revolutionary for younger women who share her complexion. Describing her Instagram presence as “unapologetically Black,” Annor is grateful to the pages dedicated to dark-skinned beauties that have fast-tracked her connection with those women. Now, she’s overwhelmed with messages from Black girls who have been encouraged to similarly love their skin.
“I want Black people to be heard. [I want] to bring awareness to what is happening yesterday, today and tomorrow. Police brutality is real. Racism is real. Colorism is real... We are the trail blazers," she says. "Inspiring little Black girls like me that you too are beautiful, your skin is gorgeous and we are just as much a part in the beauty community.”
Nonetheless, there’s bound to be backlash when those “pretty pictures” morph into political posts. Supporting Black Lives Matter is the first time Diallo, also a Black woman, has received such a slew of hateful messages. For others, some negativity from followers is inevitable — although it does require adjustment. Tracy admits she is still “triggered” over various comments and frequently takes breaks from social media. While Annor has mastered the art of “not giving a damn,” maintaining her mental health can still be a challenge.
“I let myself cry it out, hard,” reveals Annor, who would wake up every morning to delete distressing comments and block the perpetrators. “I always give myself mental days to just breathe and center myself. My family and my friends help me a lot during those times of depression.”
Carlson’s technique is to simply ignore malicious feedback, but Tracy tells aspiring influencers to “blockity, blockity, block.” Diallo, who also regularly deletes the Instagram app, agrees.
“I'm very big on protecting my energy therefore when anyone comes to my page with anything hateful, I block them,” she says. “Simple.”
Herein lies the often overlooked reality of a career in content creation. At a salaried position, rarely does your professional life bleed into your personal — but there’s no off-switch when your business is you. Each woman notes that the widespread misconception is that Instagram modeling requires minimal labor, and while it may seem less taxing than a regular 9 to 5, there is so much more to lose.
“There are highs and there are lows,” Tracy echoes. “Sometimes, there will be lots of ways to make money from social media and sometimes it will be limited. Everyone may love you today and hate you tomorrow.”
“I’ve heard people talk about wanting to do social media as a full time job and thinking it’ll just be a slice of cake,” seconds Carlson. “Having the creative ability to not only create a platform for yourself but make it different, unique and stand out is not easy. If you’re looking at social media as a way out of hard work, I think you’ll be surprised at all that goes into it.”
Describing her rise to social media fame as “stressful,” Tracy claims she used to hire a full production team for paid content shoots of four different looks. Annor will film her makeup application for her YouTube channel, before allotting hours to scout locations, discover worthwhile lighting and start snapping pictures. Even then, sometimes it’s not enough. Despite charging three to four digits for feed and story posts, Annor has recognized being Black hinders her ability to charge the same as her white counterparts. Still, she recommends to always know “your worth and add tax.”
Diallo will spend days planning content. “The turn around in this industry is extremely fast, you are always looking for new ways to engage with your followers,” she says. “The hours that go into editing is crazy. There are millions of emails, contracts, creative briefs and deadlines between the client and content creator that people never hear about.”
But work isn’t slowing down any time soon. There's a reason brands en masse shell out hundreds of thousands to advertise on young women rather than in storied fashion publications. “From a consumer perspective, I am more likely to buy an item when I see it on someone I trust — someone who looks like me and has similar curves,” Diallo explains of promotion. “Instagram and influencer marketing was able to bridge the gap where traditional marketing was lacking.”
Like Carlson, each woman is extremely selective as to which brands they feature. They ensure their values align, and the partnership feels organic. Apparel companies require “clear, precise shots,” reveals Annor, good lighting and to be the only person tagged in the photo. She now expects direct messages from strangers about the fit or feel of a garment: “If my followers like the outfits they tend to go and get it.”
“A lot of people believe that we just wake up, take a photo and head to the bank,” Diallo continues. “In reality that is far from the truth. It takes dedication, consistency, and hard work to stand out and grow your platform — sometimes it takes years. I respect everyone in this industry because I know how much work goes on behind the scenes.”
Due to the stigma surrounding the term, Carlson explains she prefers not to identify as an influencer. She’s disappointed to see the term so “downgraded” when growing an audience from an executed vision should be an accomplishment, not unlike other creative pursuits.
Tracy shares her view: “There’s a negative connotation [to the word ‘influencer’], that we do nothing and make money. My Instagram has afforded me the equivalencies of a salaried position at a traditional company and more, therefore you bet your bottom dollar I work just as hard.”
Adjectives used by each model to articulate the public perception of influencers range from “narcissistic” to “dumb”. But to them, these feel unfair, and rightfully so. Arguably, there isn’t a woman online who doesn’t rely on beautiful women they don’t know as a resource. They’re not just “a snack,” but a three-course meal — our modern muses motivating us to elevate our own personal brand, online or otherwise.
“We feel closer to the people we follow cause we’re tapped into their lives,” asserts Annor. “It inspires us.”
But before you decide to feed the masses, Diallo advises to know what you’re getting yourself into. “Do your research. It is very important to know the industry before deciding to start as there's more to it than simply taking a picture,” she says. “It is also important to find your voice, know what you stand for and be ready to hustle.”