Most Americans celebrate their 21st birthdays with a bang. Finally of legal drinking age, they go all out and binge the night away. My 21st birthday, on the other hand, was a rather low-key affair. It was 2003, a year before I started my blog, and I celebrated at home. My mom cooked up a storm for family and a few friends who came to our house for dinner. When everyone left at around 11pm, it was business as usual. I went to my bedroom and did what I did best: I stayed up all night in front of the computer. I remember telling myself repeatedly that evening, “This is not the life I want to have.”
In 2013, I celebrated my 31st birthday midair, in the business-class cabin of United Airlines flight 839 from Los Angeles to Sydney. I was on my way to Bali to shoot several episodes of America’s Next Top Model, on which I serve as social-media correspondent. It was a very lonely birthday. I remember crying for hours until the vodka kicked in.
I spend most of my days travelling, criss-crossing countries and continents to cover events, make appearances, conduct business meetings and take part in shoots. I always find it difficult to answer when my readers ask what my typical day is like. There’s no set schedule. As someone working on social media, I have to produce content almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on different platforms – my blog, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and so on – to keep my numbers up.
On the surface it seems that fashion bloggers are the new jet set – constantly travelling, wearing expensive clothes, all happy and smiley. But what followers don’t know and don’t see is the amount of work involved to produce an image: the sleepless nights, the endless hours flying from one point to another, the hours spent editing photos and content, the sacrifices we make that separate us from our loved ones and close friends.
Three years after quitting her full-time job, the Vancouver-based personal-style blogger Lily Anne Nguyen posted an emotionally charged entry on her website, lilyannenguyen.com: “This is a difficult entry for me to write as this is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever divulged to the internet. Far worse than any heartbreak or tinge of insecurity. Over the years, I racked up US$30,000 in credit card debt on shit I don’t even remember and now, at 26, I’ve learned the importance of saving money the hard way.”
Much of her credit-card debt was made up of fashion-related spending to build her online image. Her most lavish purchase was a $3,000 Gucci handbag. “Being young and exposed to luxury fashion, I developed a bad shopping habit,” she iMessaged me. “I thought I was untouchable. I needed the newest shoes, handbags and clothes. I’m not proud of it but it’s true. I wish I could say most of my debt was from travelling but no, it’s all from shopping.”
Like many online fashion enthusiasts, Nguyen felt pressured to feature new items on her blog. “It’s as though if you’re not posting new items on a daily basis, you’re not relevant and will lose or not gain any new followers,” she wrote.
“There’s definitely a pressure to produce a certain amount of content, whether that means Instagram or blog posts. And yes, newness is a major part of that,” says Lauren Sherman, editor-at-large at fashionista.com. “Followers are looking for things to buy, and to be inspired. If a blogger doesn’t change it up a lot, people get bored.”
As open and honest as Nguyen was on her blog, many online influencers prefer a more calculated approach when it comes to their content.
Armed with various digital tools, a number of young men and women around the world have built lucrative careers by editorialising their lives on digital platforms. The most successful ones have amassed hundreds of thousands, even millions, of followers. “Some social-media influencers started this specifically as their business,” says Tina Leung, a Hong Kong-based stylist and darling of the street-style set. “I understand why, from the get-go, their whole feed is curated and manufactured.”
“Everyone somewhat lives two lives,” says Aimee Song, who blogs at songofstyle.com and has 2.4 million Instagram followers. “People who have a 9-to-5 desk job might enjoy doing other things when they aren’t working but that doesn’t mean they’re not who they portray they are. I definitely don’t share as much with my readers as I do with my friends and family. When it comes to Instagram, I only put content that’s visually pleasing. However, I’ve been more and more active on Snapchat. I don’t filter myself and it shows how I am with people around me.”
For Isaac Hindin-Miller of isaaclikes.com, “There have been times when I’ve been in the absolute worst of the worst places emotionally (going through heavy breakups), but I’ve still taken beautiful photos of the Eiffel Tower and posted them along with nice captions. There’s an element of dishonesty to that, but here’s what I think – blogging is a job like any other job.”
Personal style blogs originated as a web version of “show and tell”. Original voices such as Susanna Lau (also known as Susie Bubble) of Style Bubble, Tavi Gevinson of Style Rookie, Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast and Jane Aldridge of Sea of Shoes all started their blogs as personal creative outlets. I started my blog in 2004 as a travel journal when I went to Russia on vacation for a month and a half. I had about 30 readers in the first three days after I launched the site, and I knew every single one of them. I didn’t check my website’s statistics until I got back home. Then, to my surprise, I found out that my site had had about 800 readers a day. I decided then and there that I wouldn’t stop blogging. Since I was no longer on holiday, I started to talk about what I did on a daily basis. I chronicled everything that happened in my day. My blog felt like an invisible friend with whom I could share everything.
Bloggers, over time, have proven that they too can take part in the conversation and shift product from department-store shelves to closets at home. This has increasingly attracted the attention of luxury brands, who typically have a boring, unified way of reaching out to the consumer. Brands, more used to working primarily with traditional media outlets and celebrities, have embraced digital communication through influencers whom they feel represent them best.
The widespread use of smartphones has revolutionised the way we consume information. Today we want it fast and we want it now! “You have an extremely limited amount of time to get your ideas across,” explains Jane Aldridge, the stylish, flame-haired Texan behind Sea of Shoes. “It is just understood that you have less of your readers’ attention spans. Trying to perform as successfully as possible on all of these platforms most often translates into trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator.”
The golden years of shameless self-promotion were 2004 to 2006. It was a time when young Hollywood and its starlets (Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan) ruled the media. You were probably living under a rock if you had not seen The Simple Life. Young people around the world followed their favourite stars religiously. Gossip websites such as Dlisted and Perez Hilton boomed and thrived. I was so obsessed with that young celebrity culture that I satirically emulated their adventures and mishaps on my site for a period of time, expressing myself in an exaggerated way (wigs, heels and everything else in between) to provoke and entertain people.
My blog moved on from being a personal, factual diary. It had become more of a creative outlet where I expressed myself in an exaggerated way. The crazier my antics got, the higher my numbers went. It came to a point where I got completely addicted to checking my website statistics. In 2006, the tabloid the New York Post gave me my first mention in the mainstream press, including me in their “top online celebrities”. I thought that was hysterical.
Hot on the heels of blogs, social-networking applications expanded the playing field and changed the way we distribute information. Suddenly, we were able to instantaneously express our thoughts in 140 characters or less, post a status update of how we feel and post an image of what we are doing. When image-driven Instagram launched in 2010, many in the fashion industry thought of it as a game-changer, and one that increased the role of online influencers.
“Most of my images are of the moment and not pre-thought out unless they are sponsored. My followers see me as a healthy mix of relatable and aspirational,” texted Danielle Bernstein, the personal style blogger behind We Wore What, who has 1 million followers on Instagram. “I only work with brands I believe in so that makes everything easier. I do it in the most natural way possible and I try to explain why I like the product or brand that I’m endorsing.”
“Today’s social-media influencers are compelled to be more like A-list stars working in big-budget films than up-and-comers giving all they’ve got to an indie,” notes Sherman at fashionista.com. “There are very few truly authentic ones. What we have is a bifurcation of the influencer network. There is a group of phonies who appeal to the masses, and a group of authentic creators who appeal to a particular niche.”
Manufactured content creates confusion for the reader when the lines are blurred between what’s real and what’s not. As Zanita Whittington, a Stockholm-based Australian blogger and photographer, tells me over coffee in her office, “A lot of people who follow influencers believe – and I see it over and over – that the usual girls are absurdly wealthy and that they’re getting paid millions of dollars, or they’re paying for themselves to go to all of these trips and elaborate resorts. What they don’t realise is that so much of it is due to commercial partnerships.” Indeed, very few social-media influencers make a clear distinction between what they have bought, what was gifted and what they have borrowed.
In spite of being criticised in the past, I like to make such distinctions clear – this is what I bought; this is what I received from the brand as a gift; this is what is being sponsored or paid for. I find it personally insulting when readers assume my purchases (resulting from my hard work) were gifted or lent. At the same time, I’d be running foul of US law if I didn’t comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s disclosure requirements for bloggers.
“We have come a very long way since Tavi started her blog, with her eclectic grandma-chic looks and her seemingly unbiased take on fashion,” says Julie Zerbo, founder of thefashionlaw.com. “I personally have noticed the shift in terms of presentation and depiction of fashion on individuals’ social-media feeds. It has become some sort of alternate reality in a sense, where a lot of people build these super-fashionable personas – some of which are certainly authentic, some of which are not – and we all just kind of go along with it.”
Fashion, at its absolute core, is aspirational. Which is why some of the most successful online influencers are the ones with carefully crafted and calculated identities. Their manufactured lifestyles provide the perfect setting for luxury brands. They make high fashion accessible by selling or emphasising the prestige or social status associated with the products and de-emphasising the price tag. By doing so, both the influencer and the brand touch those who can afford the products and also those who can’t.
“This promotes fetishism and the idea that these products bring happiness in themselves, and a sort of way of life for the person who is consuming it, following it or liking it,” says Dr. Samantha Boardman, clinical instructor in psychiatry and public health at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “It’s the idea of selling the sizzle, not the steak.”
Is there relevance or value in trying to seek authenticity in “Insta-land”, where avocado toasts, colourful macaroons and bowls of berries are used as props to promote 18-carat gold Juste un Clou Cartier bracelets and loaned Louis Vuitton Petite Malle clutch bags?
According to Christy Wampole, professor of French literature at Princeton University, the distinction between real and unreal or authentic and inauthentic has troubled philosophers for centuries: “The ever-increasing level of mediation between people and their experiences has complicated this problem even further, making it easier to create a convincing second self that is accepted as a first self. I’ve begun to think that authenticity is an issue not only for the one being looked at, but also for the one doing the looking. If you say you can tell the difference between the authentic and inauthentic influencer, this has to do with your own eye, not just with what the person is projecting. All of this social media is a two-way street but for whatever reason, we tend to think more about the way information is projected than absorbed. Absorption is, to me, the more interesting problem.”
“From a reader’s perspective, it is worth taking that step back and thinking, ‘Wait a minute. This is glamorous, fun and not all of it is real!’” says Dr. Boardman. “The responsibility is on us to make that distinction. Much of what we see online is not a portrayal of real life.”
When I first started blogging, I presented myself in a “raw” format. I was totally unfiltered. I used a regular point-and-shoot camera. I didn’t even edit my photos. I presented things the way they were. Unscripted, uncalculated. Almost 10 years later, I shoot with two DSLR cameras and, depending on the situation, I switch between four different lenses. The photos are edited post-production as well. What readers wanted 10 years ago was very different from what readers want now.
Today’s tools make it easier than ever to alter the reality we present online. The moment you swipe your finger on Facetune to erase your eye bags or smooth your pores, that image becomes unreal. One of my best friends told me to stop using the term “Facetune” and rename it “Nosetune” because I mostly use the app for instant rhinoplasty.
My blog has gone through many changes over the years. It went from a travel journal to a creative outlet where I provoked and engaged with people. I used it as a platform to connect with readers all around the world. Now, after many years, it’s a highly produced, editorialised version of my life. I don’t blog as much as I did because of my schedule but when I do, I make sure I only offer the best of the best.
Someday, when people ask me what I do for a living, I’d like to be able to say, without flinching, “I inspire people to dream.” It’s fair to say that most of my dreams came true. Now it’s my turn to help my readers have the same dreams as I do, or to inspire them to have even bigger dreams.
This is my reality. §
All images © Bryanboy (@bryanboycom)