“It’s so fucking cold I’m going to freeze.”
It was mid-January and 30 degrees outside, but getting the perfect ’gram is a year-round endeavor. So Mary Gui, a 28-year-old former advertising exec turned fashion blogger and Instagram “influencer,” who goes by @layersofchicblog, was wearing a sheer black dress for an outdoor photo shoot near the Brooklyn Bridge. “The goal is to not die,” she told me as she climbed the rocks by the pier.
A park enforcement patrol officer told her to get down before she hurt herself, so she complied, waited until he walked away, and then immediately climbed back up. “Let’s get one showing the bag,” she told the photographer. Then one showing her nails. Then one showing her earrings. Thirty minutes later, when she felt she had gotten every possible angle of her outfit, she changed into a pearl-studded sweater and leggings in a pop-up tent, and the whole process began again.
“Once I start shooting, I stop feeling anything,” she told me between poses. “But it takes like two hours to recover from a shoot in the winter, to feel my hands.” She got the shot she wanted, though — windswept hair, Manhattan skyline perfectly framed in the background. And over a thousand people liked the resulting post.
Gui is one of a rapidly growing number of striving Instagram “influencers” who populate their social media feeds with curated photos of themselves in impeccably styled outfits and the latest designer handbags. You’ll find them against a backdrop of exotic beaches in Thailand, or chic architecture in Paris and Milan, or graffitied walls in New York and Miami. Their hair is perfectly blown out, but styled to look natural; their bronzed skin is more “sun-kissed” than “tan.” They might have ab definition in their bikini photos, but never too much, and their flowy maxi dresses hit the wind in just the right way. Their artfully arranged shots of brunch dishes at five-star restaurants are taken from above the table by standing on a chair; their breakfast in bed photos in luxury hotel rooms are framed on white Egyptian cotton sheets, and their newest accessories and beauty products are displayed on marble countertops.
“My best friends know they’re going to eat their food cold by the time I’m done taking photos for all my platforms.”
And in the midst of each carefully edited picture of an influencer just “hanging out,” brands have found a new method of direct yet subtle marketing to young, impressionable consumers. Instagram has become flooded with posts sporting the ubiquitous #ad or #sponsored captions — language that is required by US Federal Trade Commission endorsement laws — underneath photos of a new jewelry line or eye cream. And these sponsored posts have made maintaining an Instagram feed a very lucrative job, with some high-profile influencers being paid in the range of $150,000 per post.
“The industry is so saturated with people, there are influencers everywhere now — the hot girl who wants to become a bikini model, the guy who has like 19 abs,” says Mike Tommasiello (@nydoorman), a 30-year-old microinfluencer (meaning anyone with fewer than 100,000 followers). Tommasiello originally gained online attention for being a fixture in the NYC club and party scene; his Instagram handle is tattooed on his right wrist.
It might seem that all you need is a well-stocked closet, a modest following, a nice camera, and some basic familiarity with photo editing in order to make a living from posting on Instagram. But as the field grows more and more crowded with would-be social media stars, the margins of the business have become tighter, and it takes more than luck or good clothes to build a sustainable career as an influencer. In interviews with BuzzFeed News, people who’ve committed themselves to becoming digital-age style icons — with Instagram followings that range from 15,000 to nearly 5,000,000 — spoke candidly about the hours they’ve spent to make it work, the ins and outs of their budgets, and whether it’s all been worth it.
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