Soraya Roberts | Longreads | October 2019 | 8 minutes (2,145 words)
Part two in a three-part series on the influencer economy. Read part one, “White Lies.”
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It’s hard to find an influencer who doesn’t fit the profile. I could’ve spoken to a blond female beauty Instagrammer easily. Or a blond male gamer, even. Everything else was a nightmare. Try coming up with a tech influencer who is not a man. Or a man of color who is anywhere near grooming but not drag. In order to find the Travelingfro, Jakiya Brown, an African American woman Instagramming the globe, I had to go to a series of black culture sites. I might have discovered Mina Gerges, who lives in Toronto like me, if I ever walked rather than ran through a Sephora (he’s in the new Canadian campaign), but it was a Twitter callout that eventually brought us together. Surprise: “gay, genderqueer Egyptian beauty influencer” isn’t much of an archetype. Now I’m actually questioning whether being an influencer is a real thing either.
“You don’t do influencing,” Brown explains. “That, to me, that’s not a job.” She sees influencing as a side effect of admirable skill in one area (or, in the famous cases — from Kim Kardashian to Gigi Hadid — of having a name already), a way of selling brands on the attention you already have. She remembers working in beauty marketing several years ago and getting a flood of barely legible, text-style emails from beauty bloggers demanding free products. It was an easy no every time. Speaking of easy nos, I slogged through a sea of influencer-speak — I am now immunized from ever using the word “journey” again — to parse how Brown and Gerges slogged their way through a sea of sameness to get the influencing industry to say yes to them. Here’s how they got past the filters by appealing to reality.
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You may already know Gerges for his “celebrity recreations,” a series prompted by a break up. Some guy ditched him in 2014, but not before mocking Gerges for being effeminate, and the first thing he thought of was that image of Beyoncé with mascara running down her face from her “Why Don’t You Love Me” video. “So I did that,” he says. The response was polarized. Social media stars were big with The Youth at the time, but they weren’t as pervasive in the mainstream as they are now. Gerges had some people thinking he was hilarious, others thinking he was weird: “When I saw peoples’ reactions, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I think I’m on to something.’” So he went nuts, producing scrappy imitations of everything from Kim Kardashian’s intricate Cavalli at the 2015 Met Gala (beige curtain, paint) to Beyonce’s twinkling Givenchy (garbage bag, rhinestones). In January 2015, Buzzfeed’s David Mack picked up his site — “Bow down, Instagram bitches” — and that was it. Gerges’s discount replicas were everywhere from Time magazine to Kim Kardashian’s fingertips, and people even started to copy them (that part was annoying, he says). He began to think he could make a living from this thing.
At the same time, Gerges was in recovery, having started his account while struggling with anorexia. “It became so amplified by the culture around Instagram,” he tells me. “Thin, muscular, white men having hundreds of thousands of followers.” He was proof that looking right could make you popular. As if to double down on this cliché, as he got well and gained weight, commenters stopped praising his work and started criticizing his body. It got to the point that he couldn’t look at his own reflection without comments like “What the fuck happened to you?” running through his head. He searched online for other men who might be struggling like him — nothing. “I realized there were no men talking about it,” Gerges says. “We’re conditioned to just take it and be quiet because men shouldn’t be vulnerable.”
He tried to figure out a way to work with Instagram so he didn’t have to hate both the platform and himself. After five months, on February 19, 2018, he had it: Gerges posted a series of images of himself shirtless and disclosed his eating disorder to his followers. He explained how he got sick at the age of 20, how he would starve himself, how he would spend hours at the gym, how he never felt satisfied. The post was covered in Teen Vogue and Paper and has since received almost 11,000 likes. “It took a very long time, because I was horrified to do it,” Gerges explains. But it wasn’t a fairytale ending. A year later he was considering deleting his Instagram account entirely. His work had turned increasingly vulnerable and he was increasingly bullied. And he would later find it impossible to make a living off his site, having sent out media kits and getting rejected left and right. He had a bad experience with an agent (he jokes that he’s now both Kris Jenner and Kim Kardashian in one). On top of all that, he felt discouraged watching all these white cis influencers constantly being hired. “There was not a single brand that wanted to work with me,” Gerges says, “not a single one.”
Then the brands got a kick in the ass. As the media awoke to representation, it confronted various industries, including the fashion and beauty machines, on their lack of diversity. Up-and-coming designers of color were more inclusive in their campaigns and on the runway, and old-school companies were shamed into progress. Fashion magazines started approaching Gerges; he landed the gig with Sephora and, more recently, an underwear campaign with Calvin Klein. That which had isolated him then — his gender, his sexuality, his race, his body type — now made him indispensable. In the aftermath of the Sephora campaign, Gerges told me he was researching Egyptian culture through history in order to come up with ways to queer traditionally straight historical narratives. He plans to get a friend to photograph him on film — “I don’t edit any of my photos,” he says, “I think that’s another way for me to introduce an element of vulnerability and honesty” — which he hopes to unveil as an Instagram series, probably at a scientifically suboptimal time for maxing out the likes. Because aside from not Facetuning his images, he doesn’t rely on apps to tell him when to post or how to hashtag. “My value is not that I have, like, a, fucking whatever percent engagement rate,” he says. “My value is my story, my value is who I am.”
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Before Jakiya Browne started @travelingfro, she had a lucrative marketing career in New York with L’Oréal and Coty, for which she scouted talent online. “I would stay on YouTube, like, all day watching these bloggers,” she tells me. But even back in 2014, finding influencers who weren’t interchangeable was a bit of a chore. “The ‘I just got out of college, I fell into YouTubing, now I’m a millionaire’ — we didn’t really want those types of girls,” Brown explains. On one of the influencer trips she hosted, however, she met the kind of woman she realized she herself wanted to be, the kind of woman who creates and sustains a brand outside the confines of an office. “It wasn’t like, ‘I want to become an influencer,’” she clarifies (she will repeat this a few times during our interview), but she was tired of the corporate grind and wanted to travel.
Brown quit her job in 2016. She roamed the world for a year, which sounds impossible, but she supported herself with the “substantial” savings she had amassed over her career and supplemented that with consulting gigs for smaller beauty brands. Still, she had a strict budget: $1,000 a month. In places with a lower cost of living, like Mexico and Eastern Europe, it wasn’t hard to stick to that. Otherwise, she stayed with people she had met during her marketing career. “I just started getting scrappy,” she says, “which is like: creative on how not to spend money.” Once Brown grew a following, her room, board, and transit were covered by sponsored posts. “People were always like, ‘How did you get these brand partnerships when you had like 3,000 followers?’” she says. “I know how to convince them that it’s more than just numbers.” That she was a black female traveler was “low hanging fruit” — there weren’t that many women of color in the travel space — but her high engagement helped too. She only had a few thousand followers but got hundreds of comments per post, which means that a brand could appeal to a market that wasn’t entirely white, and this market would bring sustained attention. Brown thinks she earned her audience’s loyalty by being honest not only about the good, but also about the bad, like whether or not she had the stamina to keep traveling indefinitely. That, and she was good on camera (Brown was an early Instagram Stories adopter), which many influencers weren’t: “If you couldn’t talk to your audience like your friend, and you were super awkward, people disconnected.”
The Travelingfro is now a brand that has had more than 100 clients, offering courses, consulting, and workshops to help “tired nine-to-fivers” find the freedom to “do the things they love, like travel the world.” Last fall, Brown took some time to refine her brand, which included researching literature on digital marketing. In that time, she realized she could marry her marketing and social media experience in order to teach influencers the business side of things. As she wrote in a recent post sponsored by Numi Organic Tea, “Keep building. Show up even when no one shows up. Keep going when everyone thinks you should stop. Keep following whatever it is inside that keeps you from giving up. Watch what happens.” Why a tea company? Because tea is part of her morning routine. Brown only works with brands as long as they work with hers. “If you’re working with, like, detergent one day, and then like plant food the next day, and then like these boots the next day, and then AmEx cards the next day, you’re a walking billboard,” she says. “I’m not about that.” She’s about keeping expenses down, rolling contracts, spacing out your earnings to account for dry spells — in short, being practical. “No exchanges,” she adds. “Like a backpack? I can’t eat that.”
As a marketing veteran, Brown used to know the industry standards, such as they were — companies apparently have piles of cash for influencing that they divvy out arbitrarily — but she doesn’t care anymore. She prices according to how much time and work goes into her posts. “If I feel like I am worth $2,000 for two Instagram stories, that’s what I feel,” she says, to which I say: Jesus. But that’s not even on the high side: at one point, Brown revealed that within a recent quarter she made $50,000, which happens to be my annual income. “You’re like, ‘Oh, my God, things are great, I’m rich,’” she says. “Then something happens and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m broke.” (Usually I’m just broke.) Apparently influencers serially undervalue their worth, particularly influencers of color who see an overrepresentation of white faces. Brown thinks the opposite should be true — in any other industry, the rarer something is, the more valuable it tends to be.
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Neither Brown nor Gerges set out to be influencers, which is probably why they are so good at it. Instead of conforming to the industry standard, they exploded it. Gerges injects the beauty field, which has been largely marketed as white and female, with Middle Eastern queerness. Brown, a black woman traveling the world, also dominates a space that has been overrepresented by white bodies. Which makes her all the more savvy about how precarious it all is. “Instagram can pack up and go any day,” she says. “You do not own that space. You don’t even own the content on there.” I hate to use this term (especially since she didn’t), but Brown diversified in order not to stake her entire livelihood on one platform. Most influencers, however, in her experience don’t have a plan B — a book or a workshop or some other source of income. “They’re all kind of riding this wave,” she says. “Until there is no more wave.” Gerges is doing everything he can to ensure that he is not one of those people. For him, the work goes way beyond appearances. “It’s not just an aesthetic or a filter that you toss on every photo,” he says. “It’s about a larger idea.” Whether or not anyone else can see that is out of his control. But influencing on its own is definitely precarious considering the dilution of the industry by superficial infiltrators who pose as something more. “I hope that people can get to a point where they can differentiate between what’s actually authentic,” Gerges says. “And what is just fabricated to look authentic.”
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.