What do President Obama, Boo the Pomeranian and five million Australians have in common? They’re all on Instagram, the photo-sharing app beloved for its simple interface, limited advertising and friendly culture. It’s not only the coolest social media platform but also the world’s fastest-growing.
The numbers don’t lie. Bought by Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion, the 13-person start-up is now reputedly worth a cool $37 billion. It boasts more than 300 million active monthly users (surpassing Pinterest, LinkedIn and even Twitter), and each day sees an average of 2.5 billion likes and 70 million new photos (that’s roughly 60 times the engagement of Facebook). In fact, the average Instagrammer spends 21 minutes a day on the app.
Why? Instagram is a portal into a fantasyland of perfect wardrobes, perfect meals, perfect bodies, perfect lives – like a painstakingly curated personal PR portfolio. These days, you can take courses to learn techniques for creating the ultimate Instagram feed, employ agencies to manage your account, and even buy followers to fake popularity.
Instagram also feeds society’s obsession with celebrity culture, giving access to stars’ private lives that no paparazzi pic could. What could be more voyeuristically titillating than a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Kim Kardashian in her dressing room, seeing the first image of Justin Timberlake’s new son, or watching a video of Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj giggling through a music video shoot?
A handful of WA public figures are Insta celebrities themselves. There’s WA girl turned Sydney socialite Lauren Curtis (@lozcurtis) who shot to fame for her YouTube beauty tutorials and now has a cool 1.2 million Instagram followers. Others, like musician Regan ‘Ta-Ku’ Matthews (@takubeats, 144,000 followers), West Coast Eagles player Nic Naitanui (@realnaitanui, 47,000 followers) and Olympian Eamon Sullivan (@eamon_sullivan, 27,000 followers), also have large followings thanks to their established fame.
So how do you explain the everyday Perth people who’ve amassed followings of tens, and sometimes hundreds, of thousands of people through Instagram alone? And what about those who’ve built lucrative careers out of it? The answer lies in companies who see these everyday Perth people – and, more importantly, their large captive audiences – as an opportunity to reach a larger slice of the market through word-of-mouth advertising. Many even see social media ‘celebrities’ as having more clout than normal people because they are relatable. Companies will pay hundreds of dollars for a well-followed Instagrammer (the larger the audience, the larger the cheque) to post a single photograph with their product – be it a pair of shoes, a health supplement, or piece of jewellery. The key is to pair brands with Instagrammers who are a good fit, ensuring a more authentic and palatable message.
That’s where media agencies come in.
Australian media agencies like RGM and Ministry of Talent are cagey when it comes to revealing their clients’ earnings, but Brian DiFeo, owner of The Mobile Media Lab in the US, recently claimed his Instagram clients with followings of 100,000 or more were raking in more than US$5000 a month. WA Instagrammers can’t be far behind.
Take 24-year-old uni student Chloe Poliwka (@pegasusunicorn), who joined Instagram in 2011 “just to use the filters to post pretty pics to Facebook”, and who has since gained a quarter of a million followers and turned her account into a full-time job.
“Why do people follow me? I guess it’s because I’m just a normal girl doing normal, everyday things.” That’s how Chloe explains it to me as we meet over coffee. It’s a Tuesday afternoon and she’s in sky-high stilettos, frayed jeans and a tailored leather biker jacket. She’s just come from a photo shoot with Uber, and shows me the snap of her posing in front of the Perth skyline and a shiny black Porsche.
The photo already has thousands of likes.
No, this fashion Instagrammer is anything but normal. She’s got a tinybody that even supermodels would envy, receives mountains of designer clothes, drives a free Renault, and employs a media agency to broker deals that earn her hundreds of dollars per post for simply posing with a product.
So what makes her so appealing to companies? First, there’s the fact that while the average Instagram user has around 250 followers, she has a hefty 246,000. Second, her images are incredibly sexy – mostly provocative poses in teeny tiny bikinis and miniscule gym clothes that show off her toned abs and thigh gap (more like a thigh Grand Canyon).
Chloe says her followers don’t get scared off by the sponsored posts, because they’re eager to know what she’s wearing or what she uses to stay in shape. She’s endorsed everything from sports bras and tanning lotion to vodka and vitamins. “I feel a sense of duty to only promote products that I would personally use. It isn’t a question of selling out.”
No, she’s got bigger problems. Namely, allegations that her images promote an unattainable – and some might even say pro-anorexia – body image.
“I’m all about inspiring people to have a healthy and active lifestyle,” says Chloe. “People come in all shapes and sizes, I just happen to be at the leaner end of the spectrum. That said, I’m still vigilant with my diet and diligent with my exercise regime. Like everyone else I try to do the best with what I’ve got. My focus is ‘fitspo’ rather than ‘thinspo’, as everyone is built differently but everyone can be fit and active.”
It doesn’t stop her from giving her followers what they want: skin. Little surprise her posts inspire comments like “OMG perfect body”, “dat ass” and “Feck your hot”. And those are the tame ones.
“I used to post photos with my boyfriend but every time I did, I lost 1000 followers,” Chloe says with a straight face. “So I stopped. I think they prefer the idea of me being single.”
Instagram’s currency is followers, so maintaining the fantasy is vital. “My goal is to reach a million followers so I’ll be able to do pretty much whatever I want. I’d like to be able to design my own brand one day.”
It’s a goal shared by another prolific Perth fashion Instagrammer, Helen Janneson Bense (@gypsylovinlight). The 38-year-old mother of two has more than 429,000 followers who swoon over shots of her walking WA beaches in bikinis or flowy boho caftans, her tanned and taut body covered in shimmery flash tats, rings and body jewellery.
“It started out as a hobby a couple of years ago,” explains Helen. “I was just posting what I love, like jewellery and travel pics. Then it got to the point where I thought, ‘You know, I really love doing this’. So I stopped my naturopathy work – I had been doing it for 15 years and I was exhausted – and focused on my Instagram. And from that moment, it just flipped. I mean, it had taken a year to reach 10,000 followers but within a couple of weeks I was at 20,000, then a couple of weeks after that 30,000, then 40,000. It’s like the moment I decided to put my entire focus on it, it just exploded.”
But unlike Chloe, who employs the help of a media agency, Helen has her hands firmly on the business reins. She fields the constant deluge of emails from companies keen to work with her, styles her own shoots, manages her online shop, and features in nearly all of the images. Thankfully she has the help of an assistant to send out orders, and her husband Bobby to take her photos.
Like Chloe, Helen gets paid for her sponsored posts – around $200-400 – but says she’s turned down the chance to earn much more because she prefers to work only with designers that align with her style and vision. Instead, Helen’s bread and butter is her online shop, which each Instagram photo links to, detailing the individual pieces that readers can shop for. She wholesales stock from a half a dozen labels; the rest of the unwanted products she receives, she sells on eBay at a discount of half or more off retail price. Her followers obviously love the savings, but how do the companies feel?
“They’re ok with it,” says Helen.
“As much as they’d like the free promotion, they understand that you can’t work for free. You can’t live off product. I have children and a house, and bills to pay."
"I mean, it takes about an hour or two styling and then an hour or two shooting and then, of course, there’s the editing – that’s about six or seven hours on each look. And all they’ve done is send me products.”
Perth’s most popular fitness Instagrammer, 22-year-old personal trainer Steph Pacca (@steph_pacca), is just as business savvy. She’s amassed a whopping 587,000 followers in two years, but uses the social media platform primarily to support her personal training business, and new eBook series and exercise program, 30 Days to Body Confidence.
“If you want to be a successful personal trainer today, then having an Instagram account is really a must,” says Steph. “I mean, 90 per cent of my clients come to me via Instagram. Plus, my book wouldn’t have had the same instant success that it’s had without it. I’m really lucky that I’ve got that support.”
She takes great care to foster her following by only endorsing products that she believes in – activewear, fashion and health products.
“I’m approached by a lot of different companies for sponsorship but I’m not going to promote anything and everything,” she says. “My manager helps me decide what will be good for me in the long run, as opposed to something that will just earn money. He helps me focus on the long game.”
She’s endeared her loyal following through daily photos of her unbelievably toned body that’s part Amazonian warrior queen, part sex kitten. One day she might post a mid-workout pic from a Bali fitness retreat she’s leading, and the next a snap of her squeezed into a bandage dress for a night out. Unsurprisingly, the most popular pics are those where she’s wearing the least.
“Training photos or bikini photos do the best,” says Steph. “Just showing that you’re confident with your body. People love that.”Steph admits that a tradeoff of being so popular on Instagram is relinquishing control of her image. “There’s nothing stopping people from screenshotting your photos. I’ll scroll through Instagram and see myself like five times. I’m used to it by now, but it’s still weird.”
You’d assume the misappropriation of images would be even more annoying for photographers, yet 24-year-old Jarrad Seng, whose music and travel photos have earned him a following of 46,000, shrugs it off.
“I’m not too worried about it,” says Jarrad. “For me, the value of a photo is in its exposure. Having 100,000 people see a photo is worth much more than the price I’d get if I sold it. It’s about building my profile. Because that’s how I get hired – when someone’s seen my work and heard about me.”
When he’s not touring with the likes of Passenger and Ed Sheeran, Jarrad often gets commissioned by tourism bodies around the world.
“I see myself as a hybrid of a commercial photographer as well as a social-media influencer,” says Jarrad. “Any client wants their photos to be seen by more people. I mean, if you hire a photographer with a million followers, that’s a million more people that will see your ad campaign.
“And that’s why I’ve been focusing more on – ok, I hate to say it – my brand. I started realising that, as the photographer, I am the brand, so it helps that I have a unique look and that people recognise me,” Jarrad gestures at his black, waist-length hair.
“It’s not just the quality of the photos that matters, but how many people follow your work. That’s a real currency. It might be the best photographer doesn’t get the job, but the second best photographer with 10,000 more followers.”
It’s a concept seasoned WA photographer Russell Ord (@russellordphoto) is coming around to, albeit grudgingly. The 40-year-old Margaret River local is famous for capturing the region’s biggest waves and the surfers gutsy enough to tackle them. He’s been a pro surf photographer for 15 years, but only joined Instagram in 2014. Yet despite being a late adopter, he now has 42,000 followers.
“I’m really not into social media,” says Russell. “But one of my sponsors was like, ‘Mate, it’d be good if you started an Instagram account’. Still, I don’t really concentrate on it. I don’t hashtag. I probably don’t do anything right, to be honest. I just sit back, shoot and hope for the best.
“I get why the Instagram photographers put so much effort into it. They can go to a client and say, ‘Look how good I am on Instagram. I can offer you this, this and this.’ Whereas for me, I’d rather just get employed because I take really good photos."
“I’m just past it, actually. I mean, next year I’m going to live on a boat in the Pacific and go off the grid. I just want to do my thing and take really good imagery, and if I’m happy with it, then that’s all that matters,” Russell hesitates for a moment.
“Then again, I have a documentary coming out later this year, so it’d be nice to have the numbers to help promote it. Guess I can’t write Instagram off completely, can I?”
Advice from Perth’s Insta stars
“Post what you like and stay true to your own style. Don’t post things that are simply trendy at the time.”
“Have a clean look. My photos are really detailed with all the jewellery, so I like bright and simple backgrounds, like the beach.”
“Don’t post too often. It’s annoying! Also, just be real and open – if people ask you a question, then answer it. The important questions, at least, not the stupid ones.”
“Instagram is a community; it’s all about engaging with others. If you want more interest in your work, you have to put the time in to support others as well – it’s a two-way street.”
“A lot of people just don’t understand copyright. You’ll see a lot of up-and-coming photographers post photos and tag ten different companies, basically giving away their imagery. It’s crazy. If I see a big surf company take one of my images and put their logo on it, I’ll just send them an invoice. And they pay it!”
“For artists, and especially illustrators, buy a scanner and scan your work! It makes a world of difference. Your page has to look pretty and attractive in the end.”
“Share your own photos. If you do repost, then be sure to credit. Not doing that is the biggest no-no.”
Perth’s Insta Dogs