The Secret Life of an Instagram Star


The Secret Life of an Instagram Star

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Devyani Kapoor has been at a boutique hotel in Jaipur for two days now. Out of the 300-odd pictures clicked, she’s made a Snapchat story of about 50 pictures and taken six for her Instagram account. She and the photographer accompanying her have researched the property exhaustively, and they now know which places will get her the best shots at different hours of the day. Emails and pictures were being exchanged for a week before Devyani landed in Jaipur.

Devyani’s photographer is a young man who runs his own marketing gig but shoots Devyani in his spare time. He knows all her angles, preferred filters, and the light that makes her look good. But most importantly, he knows how to make her experiences appear “authentic”. In this case, the experience she wants to convey through these curated photographs, is of her “casually enjoying” the boutique property.

But there is nothing casual about a day and a half of rigorous shooting in the pool, the Satyajit Ray-themed room, and carefully curated corners across the entire property. Just as she wraps it up, Devyani gets a call from a PR agency and asked to attend an evening commemorating the launch of India’s first polo league at the Sujan Rajmahal Palace in Jaipur. It’s a surprise call but Devyani is prepared. She fishes out some high couture from her large bag to attend the gala alongside Saif Ali Khan, Sonam Kapoor’s brother, some Miss Indias, and a few members of the royal family. This two-day rendezvous results in another 300 to 500 pictures, buzz about the league, and a comment on one of her pictures asking about the boutique hotel.

Devyani Kapoor is just one of thousands of regular people, who make up the Instagram influencer industry that peddles “authentic user experiences”. For these influences on Instagram, life is one long photo shoot with a finger perpetually on the click button. Their followers, sometimes in millions, have little idea of how much “curation” the “authentic” actually needs.

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The experience Devyani wants to convey through these curated photographs, is of her “casually enjoying” the boutique property.

Instagram influencers are the heroes in a world where traditional advertising just doesn’t cut it anymore. In this post-Kardashian world were consumers are inured – and sometimes overtly against being “sold” something – Devyani and her tribe are new media vehicles that advertisers ride to reach out to the upper-middle class, aspirational millennial.

Of course, the average millennial’s day looks nothing like Devyani’s, who makes six figures a month by posting pictures of the perfect Friday night-out. Her friend, Protima Tiwary, another Instagram influencer whose Instagram comprises three kinds of pictures – food, Protima at the beach, and Protima working out – adds some clever captioning to further enhance the story.

Protima has an MBA in marketing and a toned body, for which she wakes up at 5.30 am and works out. A lot. Her copywriting chops are on display in the careful captions she puts out throughout the day on her blog and social media handles. After a couple of hours at an agency she consults, she goes out into the night. Like Devyani, Protima lives her life in service to the camera and in creating for her followers the “perfect life” that they can aspire to.

Being a “pretty girl on Instagram,” is an alt-reality that deploys self-awareness as a skill. It also requires a lot of work: hundreds of pictures in the perfect outfit in the perfect light edited through a filter. The end result for the consumer, are pictures of nice-looking women in attractive locales and an “honest” recommendation. For the influencers, it’s a full-time job.

For this relentless documentation of your life, influencers have to create a perfect, all-encompassing ensemble, whose label is constantly in flux. When not campaigning, the projection is to adhere to one’s own personal label, which has to have an authentic look and feel seemingly attractive to advertisers. It can be a mindfuck of a job where the difference between real life and projection is fantastically blurred.

On the other end of the full-time influencing spectrum lies Gursakhi Lugani, who quit the biz to look for seed-funding for her startup. The need to stay “on” tired her out of full-time posting-and-toasting. “Sometimes, I didn’t want to be out for events until 2-3 in the night and have a shoot at 6 in the morning in Delhi winters wearing a sundress,” she told me. “Sometimes, I hated to pick up my phone but had to because I just had to post something,” she added.

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The need to stay “on” tired Gursakhi out of full-time posting-and-toasting.

Lugani’s decision might have sprung out of personal reasons, but an Australian teen model named Essena O’Neill made a real meal of “contrived perfection made to get attention” when she quit Instagram in 2015. The 19-year-old made an incredible living off the social media platform, by plugging products for her 612,000 followers. Each of those posts made her AUD2,000. But her “crisis of conscience”, which coincided with the launch of her website dedicated to veganism and “creative imagery”, triggered her departure from Instagram.

O’Neill began to delete all her posts, but before she shuttered her account, she left a few pictures with edited captions. One of those captions, accompanying a sunny, smiling picture, read: “No purpose in a forced smile, tiny clothes, and being paid to look pretty. We are a generation told to consume and consume, with no thought of where it all comes from and where it all goes.” Another stunning diptych of her in a long white dress was captioned: “I didn’t pay for the dress, took countless photos trying to look good for Instagram, the formal made me feel incredibly alone.” [SIC]

That last caption is especially damning. It also speaks to a larger reality about social media stardom: The larger your number of followers you serve, the more insular and isolated your world becomes. Maybe Devyani and Protima will have an O’Neill moment a few years from now. Maybe the need to be constantly “on” will finally get to them and one day, they will switch “off”. Or maybe not. But for now they are busy clicking their way to fame and fortune, one pretty picture at a time.