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Leah Schrager’s Celebrity Project
via @onaartist

How to create a famous Instagram alter-ego

Blurring the line between art and celebrity, Leah Schrager has been building her online personality, Ona, since 2015. With over 400k followers, she tells us how

Becoming a celebrity is a complex process which is given little credit, as New York-based artist Leah Schrager will attest. The processes of building up a cultural empire from scratch is a full time job; there’s no rest for the fame-seeker. Back in 2015, Schrager created her alter-ego Ona as part of her five-year Celebrity Project, which is a “social, aesthetic and emotional journey” through the throngs of fame and fandom. Ona, a shortened term for “online persona”, is now a burgeoning Instagram star with almost 400,000 followers and is a strong advocate for sex, pornography and social media as a mode of self-expression. Created by Schrager as a way of blurring the boundaries that separate art and celebrity, Ona is her attempt at fighting against what she calls the “puritanical” prejudice of the creative world which chastises women for using their body as exploration of gender and eroticism. This ‘DIY celebrity’ unravels the dualistic male-gaze argument and poses the question: why can’t a female be both sexualised and liberated? 

Schrager created a musician, an artist and a model through Ona and set herself three main goals to achieve by 2020: get a photograph of her ass on the cover of Rolling Stone, hit one million downloads for her music, and pull in ten million followers on Instagram. The manufacturing of celebrity is something that has become more transparent in a post-Kardashian era as we can now see the building blocks of money, power and notoriety at every turn. When the concept of fame itself was once so deeply entrenched in a feeling of superiority and transcendence, it has almost shrunk to a level that even the ‘everyday’ person can become a household name if they put their all into it. Schrager cleverly refers to personal social media growth as “micro-celebrity creation”, because who feels alive if they’re not getting likes? What sets her apart from other artists, however, is an unashamed desire to live the life of an A-lister. Rather than rip the public to shreds for their obsession with celebrity culture and criticise the mainstream, Schrager is pushing back against “elite” artists who create fake personas to undermine the masses because she’s hoping to become a global star herself.

As a self-professed fourth-wave feminist, which she refers to as a gendered performer enabled by the internet, Schrager uses online platforms to continue her catalogue of work which has typically used nudity and sex to examine subjectivity. This latest undertaking is an evolution of her previous work as Sarah White – The Naked Therapist, and it’s as revolutionary as it is controversial. Schrager makes no excuses for the male-orientated world of erotica in which she has created for herself: in fact, she embraces it. @OnaArtist started to garner much more cyber attraction when she became more overtly sexualised, which is no surprise, but the artist does not oppose voyeuristic fascination. As a pro-sex, pro-body “self-made model”, Schrager is a supporter of porn and believes that if you want to fuck men and be a sexual object, you should just do it. Here we chat to her about celebrity obsession, Insta-feminism and the restrictive male gaze/female authority dichotomy.  

Tell us about The Celebrity Project. How did the premise come about? What are you trying to say by becoming Ona?

Leah Schrager: The idea came to me in the last semester of my MFA program when professors (and some students) kept saying that the images of myself that I was placing in my art were too sexy to be art. But when I looked around, I saw a few things. First, there was plenty of "sexy’ in the art world – it was just women presented by what I call "man hands’ (images by male photographers or works that appropriate the images of models or celebrities). Second, I saw hypocrisy because so many art world people seem to love mainstream (industry-sanctioned) celebrities and they incessantly listened to their music and watched their movies. Finally, I felt there was a kind of puritanical art world prejudice against women using their bodies in a sexy way in their art. So I decided to eschew appropriation, fight the hypocrisy, and subvert puritanism by creating a DIY sexy celebrity as an art practice, or what I recently called in Rhizome “a self-made supermodel”.

Social media, particularly Instagram, has been central to this project. I’m really fascinated with online interaction and the dynamics of fandom. Inevitably, I think anyone trying to grow a social media account is engaged in their own celebrity project, so I view what I’m doing to be a kind of metaphor for the general trend toward a universal adoption of the practice of micro-celebrity creation. It's an evolving question – what does it mean to make a celebrity as an art practice? So far it includes being fully in charge of manufacturing all elements of Ona’s artistry, marketing and imagery, and documenting my experience as a kind of social, aesthetic and emotional adventure.

What has the reaction been by online users? Do they know that you are an artist? 

Leah Schrager: I have had great reactions from male fans and have been surprisingly welcomed into the Instagram modelling world. Many of my fans tell me I’m an awesome artist just based on the photos I put on my @OnaArtist IG, which now has over 400,000 followers. I also share my music and videos and sometimes my visual art there as well. Some of my followers know I’m also an ‘artist’ and some don’t – it depends on their interest. All they have to do is look a little deeper, but some don’t care too. But in the end, my IG aesthetic actually isn't mainstream-celebrity or Instagram-standard. I’m quite influenced by Cindy Sherman, and my photos come from hundreds of different locations and my goal is to explore different looks (as opposed to pushing a single image brand). 

“I like to think I popularised the meta-selfie (photo of the model taking a selfie) and some unique butt-selfie angles” – Leah Schrager

How did you build up your following from zero to 400K? Was there a moment it began to snowball? When did it start to gain more momentum?

Leah Schrager: I paid close attention to what other Instagram models were doing to learn the ropes and in a year (from April 2015 to April 2016) gained almost that entire 400K! (I recently wrote an essay for Rhizome that describes this process and the world of IG models in depth.) The turning point for me was when I paid for one of my photos to be on @the.buttblog in April 2015. Since I was ‘new in town’ that led to a bunch of my pics being posted on numerous big Instagram collection pages and followers began flowing in. Then I did a lot of SFS (‘spam-for-spam’), which in its most powerful form (for me) is that I post a photo of myself and ask my followers to check out a collection page, and that collection page posts a photo of me and asks their followers to follow me. This is a free/trade exchange, but it takes work to arrange and navigate.

My @OnaArtist Instagram is highly curated to be likable while staying creative and sometimes being racy. I was very engaged with the platform and focused on making novel content. In fact, I like to think I popularised the meta-selfie (photo of the model taking a selfie) and some unique butt-selfie angles.

As part of my celebrity project, I’ve actually recently shifted my focus away from growing my IG, as I realised I faced a ceiling within it (I lack impressive cleavage or an ability to spend lots of money to promote myself) and without it (it still does not substitute for the mainstream covering your music). Recently I’ve been focusing on making music videos for my band and producing my first album, Lullabies for Daddy. I’ve also recently started a new IG page, @OnaMania, which is more like a SFW-celebrity profile and has 4K followers (so it's gained more followers in a month than my @LeahSchrager profile has in two years!)

How have you gone about actually building your celebrity persona – can you tell us more about the photo shoots/clothes/cost etc?

Leah Schrager: I do an eight-to-ten day trip every two months to generate new content. I’m from the country and I love travelling around rural America, so many of my trips are there. Given my content, it’s hard to know I live in NYC! I see my aesthetic (and reality) as the American Dream – working girl moves to the big city and tries to make something happen for herself. And this ties in with my musical style of ‘bedroom rock’ / ‘sexy rock’n’roll’.

The project – and my aesthetic overall – is very populist and DIY. I don't have a background of modelling agency support or socialite it-girl cred. That’s one thing I learned paying close attention to Instagram – a celebrity will gain status by posting pics of an expensive-looking vacation, an agency model by hanging out at the right parties and shooting with the right photographer. But gaining status as an Instagram model happens through showing your body in an appealing way, and they are the DIY models of our time. So I’m trying to make my own route... and we’ll see where it goes.

The photoshoots are done by me and sometimes an assistant. For clothes, I find the cheapest stuff I can online (as I don’t have skills or money for fancy clothes). The biggest expense comes in finding the set, AKA the locations, on the trips. Producing and promoting the album are the other big expenses. I design and build my own websites and I make money off my pay site.

Are you mocking society’s obsession with “celebrity’?

Leah Schrager: Not at all. I totally get the desire for celebrity and the love of celebrities. Rather, I’m just trying to create a real-world celebrity to try to discover what it takes, to learn about it, to document the experience, to see what it does within my art practice. I will admit, however, that sometimes in my mind I call it The Anti-Celebrity Project, mostly because I’m doing so many things that no one who’s actually become a celebrity would ever do. Like, I have a naked pay site, and I’m all over the place with my image, and I do everything myself. So perhaps a better name for it is The DIY Celebrity Project

One really interesting thing that I’ve discovered is that mainstream celebrity is largely driven by female fandom. For instance, just take a look at the profiles of the ‘likers’ on @kimkardashian, @beyonce, @lanadelrey, @selenagomez, etc. They are mostly females. But what about male fandom, and what about the females who like to perform for males? They are pretty much not covered in mainstream media, and are relegated to porn. So our current idea of celebrity is really only one side of what celebrity could be if our mainstream media outlets weren’t so obsessed with keeping everything within the narrow confines of what everyone can agree is ‘safe-for-work’. 

How do your ideas and concepts tie into feminism and body image?

Leah Schrager: I’m into fourth-wave feminism (the kind of female performance enabled by the internet) and pro-sex feminism (the kind that believes that engaging in ‘porn’ is cool and that sexuality is a positive thing). I’m also pro-all bodies. I don’t believe that any type of body should be censored. But I am also against the idea that the produced presentation of women’s bodies that are thin or fit or ‘pleasing to the male gaze’ are somehow damaging to women overall. If you’re really going to be pro-all bodies, then you need to go all the way and support whatever kind of body wants to show itself, even if some of those bodies are considered by some people to be ‘ideal’. 

Are you an advocate of social media for self-expression or are you critical of it? 

Leah Schrager: While I am somewhat critical of the puritanism of many of the platforms, I am overall very positive about social media as a force for self-expression. Like anything, it has its pluses and minuses, but what it has enabled in the world is incredible.

In what ways are you interested in blurring the lines between creating a celebrity and actually being a celebrity?

Leah Schrager: In my practice, I’ve found that my personal biography is basically forced into the reading of my art (as often happens with female performative bodies), and I’ve chosen to embrace that. I’ve seen artists fabricate or fake a celebrity, but that’s not interesting to me. Because I’ve almost always been a performer in my work, I feel I actually need to try to be a celebrity in order to create work on and about one. So it's not a case of ‘elite New York artist makes fun of the dreams of the masses’. I actually am not into that vibe at all, as it’s quite the opposite. I’ve always had a real folkloric, humanist take in my work, and so living it (while not always easy) is how I’ve practised my art. From the start of my @OnaArtist Instagram I’ve had some family, friends, and art-world figures be negative, insulting, and/or slut-shaming to my engaging in the Instagram aesthetic.

“Like anything, (social media) has its pluses and minuses, but what it has enabled in the world is incredible” – Leah Schrager

Have you chosen to sexualise your Ona persona? Are you challenging the male gaze or upholding it? 

Leah Schrager: Ona is very sexual for several reasons. First, I like sex and I think discussions on and expressions of it should be supported. Second, being sexual has worked for me. It was when I started to push the sexualisation of Ona that I started becoming a bit of an Instagram celebrity. Finally, I’m interested in pushing the envelope when it comes to how sexual a celebrity can be. Of course, I’m very aware that a lot of people look at what I do and discount it because I’m making work that seems to ‘pander’ to the male gaze, which apparently means you can’t be an artist or make art. But in all honesty, I find the discussion around the male gaze to be overly simplistic. If a heterosexual woman presents an image of herself that happens to garner a large number of male likes, it’s assumed by some that she is somehow alienated from her true self, that she has lost agency, that she has objectified herself, is behaving like a puppet. This seems absurd and even cruel to me. 

The question of the male gaze is complicated. The idea that there is a ‘world of freedom’ beyond the male gaze that heterosexual women can live in is absurd. We are sexual beings and we behave and perform for our sexual other. Being obsessed with being free from the expectations of the thing you sexually desire seems like a pretty miserable way to live to me. Maybe what you’re doing as a woman feels like you’re just totally free of what men might want you to be doing, but if you’re interested in men then whatever you’re doing is partly geared toward being attractive to them. It’s called sexual selection, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

How is The Celebrity Project an extension of your previous work?

Leah Schrager: Ona carries on the pro-sex and pro-virtual touch message of Sarah White – The Naked Therapist and the pro-self ownership of my visual work. Also, Sarah White was my first foray into mini-celebrity, but since it’s based in therapy, which has an ethic of confidentiality, I didn't feel comfortable using a lot of the material in my art. So the idea is that this project is public from the beginning so any of the material can be used in my art. One of my favourite recent pieces is ‘50 Favourite Comments From Fans’ where I screengrab an Instagram post and highlight my favourite comment and then part of the sale of the work goes to the commenter. This makes the work collaborative, which I like.

What was your motivation in creating Sarah White – The Naked Therapist?

Leah Schrager: I thought it made sense for nakedness to be in therapy, and nakedness related to a lot of the performance art I was studying. So I just tried it and it took off. Overall I’d say that Sarah White started me on a path of social practice art that continues to this day. I fully embrace the mostly male world I perform and make my celebrity art for, and I find my interactions with my fans to be very informative and satisfying. The stark split between the images men look at to be aroused and the images they look at to be aesthetically intrigued seems really backwards to me. I’m interested in bridging these two worlds through my work and seeing what happens when they coalesce.

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