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An anonymous model on how Instagram can make or break your career

An anonymous model recounts the pressure of using Instagram in an era when your follower count can make or break your career

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A meander through a pretty-people purgatory, The Model is a four-part series of pieces written by an anonymous ex-male model. Instalments explore social media, body image, and what it’s like chasing success in an industry always hungrily in pursuit of the new. Stay tuned.

C and I started at our agency around the same time. He was slightly taller than me, had a perma-tan that defied winter and had recently left a liberal arts college where ostensibly all he had done for two years was swim. He had been an NCAA div. 1 swimmer, which I knew from his shoulders and also because it was right there on his Instagram profile. His hands were non-webbed, and he seemed to breathe gill-free. He was, to be frank, extremely well adjusted to non-aquatic life for someone who put it front and centre on their social media profile – above, in fact, the handle of the agency we had just signed to. 

C was in possession of two things that I would come to be not inconsiderably envious of. The first was that he had an almost freakishly perfect physique – pure lithe muscle, the kind that made you think that fat must emulsify in water before being expunged from the body through osmosis. The second was that he had absolutely no shame. 

C was extremely good at leveraging these two attributes to propel him forward on social media. He understood Instagram in an innate way. I spent most of my time on Instagram dissecting it; trying to understand its complexities and what it was doing to me and my friends and failing to reconcile a way to operate on it ‘authentically’. C just ploughed through all of that bullshit and gave the platform exactly what it wanted. 

“If I arrived at a casting and the sign-up sheet asked for an Instagram handle, I knew with almost perfect clarity that I was wasting my time”

Almost daily he posted a topless photo of himself and underneath he’d write a caption to an imagined ‘you’. There he’d be, in the kitchen, defying all health and safety advice by frying eggs topless (caption: ‘Makin’ you breakfast, babe’), there he’d be, topless, hanging from a basketball hoop (‘Playing past your bedtime’), there he’d be flexing in a mirror (‘Securing that bag for you’).

Within two months of us signing with the agency, C already had a four figure Instagram following. In the grand scheme of things, not much – but considering I had actually managed to lose followers in this time and not progressed beyond a low four hundred, it seemed fairly significant. He had dropped the swimming thing and put the agency handle front and centre on his profile description. He changed his appellation to ‘public figure’ (which seemed tautological, to me, the overthinker, because surely by being on Instagram – as models – we were all now figures in public). 

I never, in my two years of modelling, put an agency handle on my profile or posted a modelling picture. I don’t say that with any pride. It significantly handicapped my modelling career. It’s kind of like admitting I had tried to beat C in a swimming race while wearing my shoes. If I arrived at a casting and the sign-up sheet asked for an Instagram handle, I knew with almost perfect clarity that I was wasting my time.

One of the hardest things I found with modelling was that so much of your career is out of your hands. You are, to all intents and purposes, a look for hire for brands – a clothes hanger with a pulse. As such, the three-dimensional aspects of your personality – that you completed a bachelor’s degree, that you speak multiple languages, and that you are, you promise, an actually nice human – all the things, basically, that you were told in school and by career counsellors at college that you needed to have to graduate to the next level of life and be a functioning adult – all of these are subsumed into the painfully two-dimensional portraits of your face and body that you carry around from casting to casting and that are glanced at for the briefest whisper of time by a casting agent who will then look past you and shout next. 

“While modelling, you are very much at the mercy of your bookers, of casting directors and of photographers. This makes sense, because you are no longer you. You are a product for sale. You are what the brand is looking for to put its clothes on, or you aren’t”

While modelling, you are very much at the mercy of your bookers, of casting directors and of photographers. This makes sense, because you are no longer you. You are, in fact, a simulacrum of yourself. You are a product for sale. People don’t buy a chair from Ikea because it was captain of the lacrosse team, they buy it because it has lumbar support and is in their price range. Same with modelling. You are what the brand is looking for to put its clothes on, or you aren’t. It’s really that simple. 

There is little you can do, beyond looking as you do and maintaining your body within the dimensions of the sample sizes that season, to influence your career – beyond, that is, having a strong social media profile that helps you stand out. Gone are the days when models were spotted in McDonald’s (Gisele Bündchen) or in airports (Kate Moss) – now they’re found on Instagram, which means that any model today is effectively competing with anyone with a face and a phone. This, as you can imagine, makes the odds of landing a campaign not particularly high. 

Some campaigns don’t bother scouting models anymore. Marc Jacobs cast his AW14 campaign over Instagram (it was so successful he’s doing it again). IMG has a dedicated digital scout and launched their own hashtag #wlyg (we love your genes) to scout models. In 2015, within three months of launching, there had been over 100,000 posts using the tag. 

The two main years of my modelling career, 2015/2016, coincided neatly with the rise of the Instagram model; the fact that I managed to find an agency to represent me and then book a few jobs is more representative of the fact that I was still operating in the very dim twilight of the analogue-era of fashion. I mean, at least I wasn’t in direct competition with computer generated virtual influencers. Now, that liminal space closed, I imagine that were I to try again with the same lax attitude to social media, I would get absolutely nowhere.

This isn’t a complaint. It makes no sense for a brand to book someone with a low-three digit following when there is someone they can book with hundreds of thousands of followers for the same fee and get their product seen by all those eyes. In any market economy you have to add value – looks are naturally subjective, and everyone in front of a casting director is pretty enough to have gotten there – coming with a large social media following is to significantly up your chances of booking jobs. It should come as no surprise that the highest paid model of 2018 was Kendall Jenner. 

Social media is democratising in a sense. Modelling scouts typically pounded pavements in hip areas of cities trying to find new talent, and in doing so created their own selection biases – anyone who couldn’t afford to be in those parts of town or didn’t feel comfortable in them because of racial profiling or simple demography was immediately excluded. It also meant that if you weren’t in London, Paris, Milan or New York already, then you had to hope a model scout happened to be on holiday (and alert) in your part of the world, or that you had a reputable mother agency in your country with stable links abroad. Social media also allows a model to craft their own look (to the extent that this is done by them and not directed by their agency) and present something slightly more rounded – a look mediated by an online personality constituting a personal brand. 

But yet I struggled with it every day of my life as a model, and I still struggle with how I want to present myself online. Even though I was cognisant intellectually of how leveraging social media could help me alter my career, practically I just flat-out wasn’t good at it. I overthink it, always. This was compounded by the fact that while modelling I never felt I was quite there yet to start posting as a model. 

Even signed to a good agency in New York I didn’t feel like I was ready to start uploading pictures of me at castings or hanging around with other models after. Maybe year two, I said, once I had really decided modelling was for me and I committed to seeing through my three-year contract. Or, I said I’d start when I regularly booked work. Then I started doing shoots, but I didn’t feel they were quite good enough, the brands not big enough, or cool enough, or whatever it was, to start posting about them. 

“I struggled with it every day of my life as a model, and I still struggle with how I want to present myself online. Even though I was cognisant intellectually of how leveraging social media could help me alter my career, practically I just flat-out wasn’t good at it. I overthink it, always”

I also never felt good looking enough, ironic as that might sound, to craft an Instagram profile that had my face plastered all over it (I still don’t. There are 30% more pictures of clouds on my Instagram than there are of me). Modelling also, unsurprisingly, did nothing to help me feel less insecure – wading through a headlong stream of rejection I could never seem to anchor myself in the currents long enough to put up the latest shots I’d gotten from a test-shoot or at a go-see. 

It was a vicious cycle because as my modelling career slipped further away from me and people like C started accelerating in the opposite directions off the back of their successful Instagrams, I became more and more insecure about posting anything about modelling. 

C kept right on with the topless photos directed right at you. One day, had you been following him, you’d have seen that C and a few other models from my agency had been booked by a major brand for a show in Paris. It was to be C’s first trip out of the US (you would learn that via his Instagram). You watched as photos behind the scenes of the lookbook shoot went online. You watched as C got a pretty, shall we say, fashion-forward haircut. You watched as the whole thing unfolded until the day of the show, when oddly there wasn’t the post you expected; the one of him on the runway. You could see other models from the agency posting those photos, but C didn’t. Instead, C’s Instagram went quiet for over a week.

When I left full-time modelling and went to grad-school I ended up spending a lot of time reading Foucault (roll your eyes). Considering he spent a lot of time thinking about the self-regulatory practices of the body and the role of surveillance he would have had a lot to say about social media. I could give you a very deft and well-referenced argument about how through Instagram we’ve hyper-realised the panopticon; built our own mirrored cells, done away with the prison guard, and decided to police ourselves and each other in a mutually constructed gulag of personal brands and sponsored content. 

“It was a vicious cycle because as my modelling career slipped further away from me and people like C started accelerating in the opposite directions off the back of their successful Instagrams, I became more and more insecure about posting anything about modelling”

But I’ll save it, because I also saw, intimately, how leveraging social media could fundamentally alter a person’s life. There is clearly a happy medium somewhere between Fyre Festival and living off the grid selling artisanal honey to hitch-hikers. Sure, I balked at all the models living in grimy shitholes in Bushwick, getting fucked over by their agencies for the rent, who would scurry onto the rooftop at sunset to snap pictures that made it look like they lived the sun-kissed joy-life eternal, but I also can’t help but admire them. I was never able to do that, never able to craft a personal brand, and my career never really took off. There is something to be said for using the tools at your disposal. 

A few days after C’s trip to Paris I ran into him at a casting. I asked if he was going to another one up-town (models from the same agency can often have pretty similar casting schedules) and we rode the subway together. I asked how Paris had been and he started to get misty-eyed. It turned out that at the last minute another, more famous model, had shown up and taken his spot. That model was supposed to be in Milan on a shoot, but it had finished early and he’d jumped on a plane and C was dumped. 

Objectively, C had got a good paycheck, a trip to Paris, was in the look-book and would almost certainly work for the brand again in the future (he did) but I could still understand how disappointed he felt. I awkwardly put an arm around him and we rode the subway basically in silence till we got to our stop. We left the train and climbed up the stairs to street-level. 

Outside it was one of those bright winter days in New York, a high blue sky with no clouds and a cutting breeze. The sun beamed down through skyscrapers, casting long shadows and there, in the shadow between two buildings, a ray of light landed perfectly on the exposed brick wall of a bodega. C looked at it for the briefest of moments, rubbed his weepy eyes and threw his top off. He handed me his phone and flexed his abs. They almost perfectly aligned with the bricks behind him. He was doing it for you