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‘I view the hurtful messages as sadism’ – what it’s like to be Instagram famous

Making a career out of a hobby might look easy, but living the dream online comes at a cost. Six influencers reveal what its like to be a woman on Instagram, and the truth behind their artfully stylised feeds

In her 1970s book On Photography, Susan Sontag describes the role of the camera in everyday life as a means to construct “a portrait-chronicle of itself – a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness”. She could, of course, be talking about Instagram in 2017, except that we are becoming increasingly less connected to the images themselves. Through filters, colour washes and crops, the images we post can be little more than projections of how we want to be seen by the outside world; an ideal self. And in many cases this image bears only a passing resemblance to the reality.

But what happens when Instagram becomes more than just a pastime? When it becomes a way to make a living? What happens when your followers start to objectify you, or your friends unfollow you because of what you post, or it starts to affect your mental health? What happens when you realise you’ve become “content”? Do you stop? Do you heck. From the biomedical scientist who tries to balance university life with makeup posts to the model who is asked to promote slimming pills, Instagram has a very real, often dark side. And these women should know. Morwenna Ferrier

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‘We just scroll and scroll and scroll’ – female influencers on Instagram

‘People assume this job is really easy but it’s hard work’

Jayde Pierce – @jaydepierce (beauty/lifestyle Instagrammer), 960k followers

Jayde

I started Instagram just like any other person – sharing pictures for friends and family – and the more I would post, the more followers I would gain. I posted pictures of what I was doing that day, but people seemed to enjoy it and a career came out of it. I’ve always loved makeup, beauty and fashion, and now I have a way to share it and make an income. With advertising, as long as it’s a product I like and would use, then I’m happy to promote. I test things out before I do any promotion and if I don’t like something then I don’t go ahead.

Instagram can be stressful. People assume this job is really easy but it’s hard work and as much as there are advantages there are also disadvantages. If you do everything yourself it’s very time consuming. I film and edit all my own YouTube videos and mini Instagram videos. I create content every day (with the help of my partner taking the photos), attend meetings and events, test out products, plan everything. I had a baby six months ago and have just moved into a new home, so I juggle quite a lot in life.

But I’m grateful I’m in a job like this. The main disadvantage for me would be the internet hate and getting judged for everything you do 24/7. People feel like they can tell you how to live your life. It’s very frustrating.

‘I’ve
‘My photos have a certain look, a certain aesthetic’ … Millie Cotton.

‘I can post a photograph from my bed and make money – it’s mind-blowing’

Millie Cotton – @millie_cotton (fashion and lifestyle blogger), 19.6k followers

My Instagram is a feed of curated photos. They have a certain look, a certain lighting, a certain aesthetic. I have a private Instagram now as well, which features “real” moments – not that photographs on my Instagram aren’t real, but they are an idealised reality. I wouldn’t put a personal selfie with my boyfriend on my public Instagram, that would go on my private one.

I’ve been working with brands for the past few years. There’s a lot of product placement – you have to agree an idea with a brand, and then you produce the content and have to run it by them, and then put it on the internet with an agreed caption. You have to declare that they are paid for, but I think as long as the brand is in line with your regular content and the photo has personality, people don’t mind that you’re promoting a product.

Some friends have said “You want to be ­famous”, to which I reply, “I’ve created a business from putting photographs on the internet. And I have creative control.” I can edit and post a photograph on Instagram from my bed and I make money from it, which is mind-blowing!

‘I
‘I don’t think the feeling of loneliness is exclusive to me’ … Alice.

‘It’s crazy that your number of followers going up can make you so happy and excited’

Alice – @alxcext (biomedical scientist and makeup Instagrammer), 191k followers

Everyone in year eight and nine had Instagram; pictures of friends, pictures of what you are doing. It was never that makeup-focused. It would eventually get to the stage where I would come home after school, get changed, sit down and do my makeup at 3.30 in the afternoon, and that’s when my Instagram changed.

I lived with my mum, dad and brother – I’d shut the door and my dad would have a nap in the afternoon and my mum wouldn’t be back until about 5pm, so I had those few hours to take selfies with my door closed. After that I’d have dinner and do work, and that was it. I definitely think it’s an art. It started in sixth form – I was doing the same thing I’d been doing for years – coming home, taking pictures – but I think what changed was that my actual makeup was getting better. I was able to post pictures on Tumblr – that’s when things started to pick up. Overnight I would gain about 5k followers, and it just went up and up. I remember being so happy about itand – it’s crazy that a number going up can make you so excited. I remember going into school and girls that I wasn’t really friends with would be like, “There’s Alice, she’s famous!” and take photos. I never told anyone at uni. I moved into halls and people were like, “What’s your Instagram?” and I would give them my handle. I would never tell them, they could find out on their own.

Alice

Now I’m in my second year, I’m not that close to many people on my course. One day someone said, “Did you know Alice is Instagram famous?” She was flicking through and saying, “You have so many followers!” And the lecturer caught on to what was happening, and asked if I got paid. I just wanted to fade into the background. My hands were shaking, it was horrific.

A lot of Instagram content is stuff that I don’t agree with, I know that brands contact me because they know I have an influence in some way, but I’m very aware that that needs to be used really responsibly. There are really big accounts that post makeup pictures and the majority are white girls, but I’ve sort of discovered this world where there are so many beautiful brown girls. You just have to find them. I wish it wasn’t like that, I wish back in 2008 I could have found the brown makeup community, but it wasn’t that easy then.

It’s actually been really recent that I’ve found myself following more brown girls and been really inspired by them and how connected they are to their cultures and background and heritage. I’m really pushing myself to get into that and also reflect that in my makeup. I really want to do more stuff connected to my parents and my background. But in terms of YouTube there is actually a big gap where there aren’t many brown YouTubers. And that’s motivated me to do more.

‘I
‘I sometimes get comments that I find disrespectful or creep me’ … Doll.

‘I am very aware that there are stalkers out there’

Doll – @doll_cat_pvssy (feminist sex writer and model), 69.8k followers

My life is definitely not conventional, because I’m so passionate about avoiding the 9 to 5. The best part about my Instagram is hearing about how it has helped other women find positivity in their own bodies and their sexualities. But it’s also amazing to connect with others, who you ordinarily wouldn’t get a chance to meet or speak to. I never went to uni, I started working full-time when I was 16. I’ve done a lot of office jobs and now work freelance. I don’t have an alter ego. I do think there are some people – men in particular – who build up an idea of how you are. And I think that can be quite dangerous with social media. But everyone just portrays the best parts of their lives. You don’t talk about the fall-outs you have with your family. I take my Instagram reasonably seriously because I feel like I’m trying to get a certain message across, that feminism is cool, and I’m cool and I’m a feminist. Using social media makes me happy because it is a great way to see how other people are standing up for certain things – seeing the women’s march, seeing people getting together. When I take a picture of myself I am mostly thinking of myself, I don’t really give a fuck what anyone else thinks of the picture. Getting used to being seen definitely boosts your confidence and people pick up on that and treat you in a certain way.

doll_cat_pvssy

The worst feeling I get from Instagram is that of being misread when a guy doesn’t realise what you are portraying and sees you as an object. But I really just view all the hurtful messages as sadism, a reflection of their insecurities, and if anything I’m like, they must be kind of jealous of me. I’m quite thick-skinned, but I don’t get that much negativity from Instagram. You definitely have to be very careful with posting your location. I don’t put where I am until I have left the place, because I am very aware there are stalkers out there, so I take extra precautions. But other than that I don’t feel emotionally vulnerable. I sometimes get comments that I find disrespectful or creep me, but I let them off the first time because most men haven’t been brought up to respect women and their sexuality. I have always been a very independent person – I love my own company and hated sleepovers as a kid.

I don’t feel like I’m losing time to hang out with my friends when I’m using social media. If anything, I think it’s forced me to meet other creatives and make art together, so I think I’m more social because of it.

I think everybody uses social media to seek some form of validation. You definitely get more likes with the more flesh you have out – sex sells and that’s always going to be the way. Instagram likes might encourage people to reveal more flesh, but essentially it was more about revealing a new layer of confidence. It wasn’t about the likes – it was about exploring myself. I would advise somebody who wanted to build up an Instagram account not to be commercial and to be really raw. That might come across as a bit controversial – it might make you feel uneasy when your boss confronts you about it. You need to be aware that your family is going to know. You just have to be really confident in yourself and if you’re trying to gain followers you need to keep it personal. My family have been surprisingly supportive, and my mum loves to tell her colleagues. It definitely helps to have that support.

‘Suddenly
‘Suddenly I was gaining thousands of followers every day’ … Joanna Kuchta.

‘Without Instagram I wouldn’t be working in my dream industry’

Joanna Kuchta – @joannakuchta (Instagrammer and model), 1.1m followers

I think it’s completely OK to monetise your content by advertising brands. We all have to make money some way, and this is how bloggers have been making money since before Instagram. I enjoy working with fashion brands and creating content for them. However, I don’t do a lot of paid posts, because when I started out three years ago I didn’t intend to make money. I just used it as a creative outlet for fashion and photography and I want to keep it that way. I don’t want to sell anything I would not myself use or wear. I would not advertise any teas, shakes or pills that promise you can lose weight.

Joanna

I’ve been approached by these companies. It’s really transparent what they do – they approach skinny girls and ask them to pose with the product and claim that they use it. No amount of money would make me promote a product like that to my 71% female following. Some of my followers have been following me since I turned 18, when I started using Instagram properly. I feel so connected to them, because they have seen me grow so much.

When I started I lived in a tiny village in Ireland. I loved fashion and taking photos, so I did that for fun. Then suddenly I was gaining thousands of followers every day. It became my career. With such a large following comes a responsibility that every public figure has. I make sure my followers know that half of the clothes I wear I wouldn’t be able to even afford myself as they are sent to me. I’m so grateful, because without Instagram I wouldn’t be here working in my dream industry.

‘I
‘I just see myself as a content creator’ … Ama Peters.

‘There’s a divide between white commercial stuff and people with my skin tone’

Ama Peters – @ama.peters (finance student and lifestyle Instagrammer), 38.3k followers

I made my account when I was about 15 and was just into posting selfies and hashtags. When I started getting emails from companies I realised it was quite a good way to network, so I thought I might as well pursue it. I like to dabble in a few things, but I’m trying to find a specific route to go down so I’m easier to market to brands. Some people who are naturally superficial might get attached – they can’t separate it from real life. But if you have the basic grounding, then I think it’s easy. Because I really couldn’t care less, I just see it as my job, advertising and marketing. But I don’t really care about if I get 2,000 likes on a selfie or one like. It isn’t going to follow me when I’m enjoying my life with my friends.

Ama

We’re the influencers, but the people being influenced don’t have a clue, they think it’s real life. And that’s kind of dangerous. As an influencer, you have aresponsibility to not exaggerate things too much. I feel like society is just a massive quest for influence in general. I just see myself as a content creator. It’s like if you work for an advertising agency, you get given a job and you create the content. This is the same, but you’re the content. I don’t take selfies for fun, I think about the best way to show off the product that I’m posting.

I think race affects the work I get. Working with a lot of British brands, they kind of favour the average English-looking blogger. I want to break through that ceiling and show other people they can have a career in fashion, blogging or anything, no matter the race they are. Because I think there’s a divide between white commercial stuff and people with my skin tone – they get completely different jobs. And it’s not fair at all. It’s difficult because I get way fewer jobs than someone with the same following and the same or even worse content quality, just because they fit into the stereotype of what these brands imagine their customers to be like. You’re missing out a huge amount of people who can’t relate to that. There needs to be more diversity.

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