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I am so smugly anti-influencer that a month ago, when a waitress at a fish shack on the side of the road in Costa Rica told me she picked up and left New York in part because she was tired of working with, talking about, and dealing with social media stars during her brief career in fashion marketing, I totally got it.
Yes, influencers have revolutionized the fashion and beauty industries — from forcing brands to reallocate ad budgets to commandeering entire product categories, and forcing even legacy luxury companies to rethink their futures — but I’m tired of hearing about it.
While blogging presented an authentic, accessible backlash to the impossibly aspirational image peddled by the fashion industry, what’s emerged from it has become just as slick and manufactured as what it sought to replace. And I have no interest in buying what they’re selling (because someone gave it to them for free).
So it took me a minute to admit that I’d been influenced. Like, extremely influenced.
Jamie Beck is a 33-year-old photographer, blogger, and OG influencer who used to be based in New York. She moved to Provence last September after having a panic attack on a plane. The very thought that she’d die before living in France was too much to bear, so she just did it. Now she’s basically Belle, wearing a baby blue dress and going to the bakery every morning just the same; in lieu of a chipped tea cup, she acquired a goldfish named Matisse. Turns out I, too, want to be Belle-minus-the-bestiality in the French countryside, and since picking up and moving to Provence is not currently an option for me, I just started copying what I could of her lifestyle in New York.
In pursuit of her glowing skin, I tracked down Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum (and basically forced Cheryl to write about it). I purchased white linen pants and a button-up Mara Hoffman dress. I changed the background on my phone to a photograph Beck had sent out as her holiday card, and I started listening to her Spotify playlist. In April, when her Instagram story showed her back in New York, I panicked. I hadn’t even realized what a blissful escape I’d found in her impossibly idyllic life. Her daily Instagram story soothed my Twitter anxiety.
A thing I should mention is that I know Jamie. We went on a press trip together years ago. She’s lovely and smart and an extraordinarily talented photographer. But I’d separated the two people in my head, almost forgetting that I knew her in real life. So when the Racked office uttered their final groan in response to my latest “Did you see so-and-so on Ann St.’s Instagram?!” I reached out.
“Is this creepy?” I asked Jamie over email, after confessing to everything but the iPhone wallpaper (I wanted her to know I was a genuine fan, but also not be so scared that she wouldn’t email me back). She assured me it wasn’t. Phew.
I wanted to know what she thought of the influencer industrial complex, and figured she might have some insight into why I was suddenly susceptible to the allure of the kind of immaculately documented social media life I’d so come to loathe — namely, her own.
Beck thinks it comes down to authenticity. “This is all new to me, everything I’m discovering,” she says on the phone from Provence. “And if I share something because I like it and I went there and I paid for it and someone else wants to do it, then that’s really exciting, because they like the same things that I like. I like when people enrich my life and I like enriching other people’s lives, and that’s really easy to do right now because I don’t have much stuff. There aren’t stores here, there’s not a lot to work with. Everything’s really meaningful that comes into my life.”
But it can’t be as idyllic as it looks, I protested. “I mean, it’s stupid,” she says. “The whole region smells like roses, every time you turn around there’s a new color you’ve never seen, the sky is always blue and amazing.”
But don’t you ever get tired of sharing? Wake up and think, I’d rather not Instagram my life today? “Oh no, I love taking pictures,” Beck answers. “I’m always taking photographs, I’ve always taken photographs. Having social media happen is the best thing ever because I just had boxes and boxes of photos as a kid — I’ve been shooting since I was 13 — and there was nothing I could do with them. Now it’s great! I can share every photograph I take, and I just love that I have this place for all this stuff to go.”
Even Beck has trouble with the word “influencer,” though. It puts her on a pulpit from which her followers don’t want to be preached much substance. “The second I say anything about anything important in life, like Paris [as in the climate accord, not the French capital to her north], no one wants to hear it.” An Instagram she posted on November 9th encouraged unity but solicited outrage: “Just shut up and take pictures!” After a pause, Beck adds, “I don’t like the idea of influencer tied to commercial goods.”
That is, of course, the weight the word carries right now, even if it’s not the particular brand of influence Beck sought to yield: She’s a photographer, perhaps most famous for inventing the cinemagraph with her husband. She’s self-aware enough to consider what that means, and she didn’t move to Provence to shill stuff. Genuine enthusiasm seeps through the phone while Beck speaks. She’s legitimately having fun, and if trying to buy into that makes me a sucker, cool. Who else should I follow?