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The It Girl – Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie

How Instagram killed the It Girl

In a world of constant self-surveillance and curation, we may never see the Parises, the Nicoles, the Taras in the way we once did

Through the use of plastic surgery, make-up, and filters, a single “cyborgian” face has arisen among socially ambitious women – “Instagram Face”. According to The New Yorker, women are now “rearranging (their) faces according to whatever increases engagement and likes”. These women want to be influential, they want to be seen, they want to be what would have once been called an It Girl  – something digital culture mutated into an ‘influencer’. Yet, what made the It Girl of the past so charming was her apparent indifference to her celebrity, rather than her hunger for it. She is fascinating simply because... she is. An intangible quality that bridges the gap between the everyday person and the star, something that no one can quantify but that draws you to her nonetheless. 

Now, due to apps such as Instagram, we are able to put on a mask of having “it”, without having any of the necessary other factors that give someone the “it-factor”. Where the It Girl was dogged by paparazzi, today’s influencers turn the camera on themselves – a paparazzi of the mind. While the It Girl had no intention of becoming an It Girl – it was surrounding culture that gave her that title – the influencer sets out with the ambition to gain the social and economic benefits of this status and does what is necessary to achieve this – often simply copying what other influencers have proven to be successful. Copying others to achieve the same success as them is inherently uncool (especially when what is being monetised is ‘coolness’) but when the only point of seeming like you have the “it-factor” is just for capital, then being actually cool no longer has any bearing. With such a singular vision of what ‘it’ looks like, influencers become a uniform sea of online personas, with very little to tell them apart. Now, everyone can look like an It Girl, but no one actually is one. 

“Now, everyone can look like an It Girl, but no one actually is one”

Clara Bow was the original It Girl, an American actress who starred in the 1927 silent romantic-comedy It. Her charisma garnered her the title “It Girl”, and she became the defining sex symbol of the 1920s. But it was her shabby Brooklyn upbringing and her foul mouth that made her irresistible, not her cyborgian perfection. In 1924, the Los Angeles Times wrote that she liked to “vamp any selected male – the more unpromising specimen the better. When the hapless victim is scared into speechlessness, she gurgles with naughty delight and tries another”. This could have just as easily been said of Nicole Ritchie’s performance in The Simple Life. Such a thing said of Bella Hadid? Never.

Being an It Girl goes hand-in-hand with a certain amount of chaos. It’s that chaos that can make a blurry video of Lindsay Lohan rigidly dancing and showing us how-to-party-in-Mykonos-bitch, a moment that’s basically a modern day cultural artefact. Chaos was the bread and butter of The Simple LifeParis and Nicole’s laissez-faire approach to life was utterly inappropriate for the countryside communities they were let loose in, but to see what unfolded was beguiling. Just as transfixing was their bewilderingly dishevelled appearances, considering the endless hours they spent on constructing their outfits, reapplying lipgloss, and coiffing their hair extensions. It was this same chaos that made Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s ghostwritten society column for The Sunday Times so entertaining. And it was this chaos that lead to the girl-about-town’s reported £400-a-day cocaine habit – which fuelled over a decade of tabloid press enraptured with the shifting structure of her nose. 

No matter how well a girl manages to perfect the “Instagram Face”, her every move will never have the kind of ferocious pulling power of Lindsay, Tara, Nicole, Paris, or Chloë Sevigny (still the coolest girl in the world). There exists a cold obsession with the Kardashians and the Hadids, not because of their exploits or their personalities, but because of their diamond-hard perfection with every move, every post – they are the reigning queens of “Instagram Face”. They may look the part, ticking all the boxes of cool, but It Girls they are not – an It Girl must have flaws, she must be reckless. She has an unquenchable – ultimately destructive – thirst for life. She does all the things that everyone wants to do but are either too poor, too scared, or too exhausted to do themselves. She’s at all the right parties, she’s drinking every drink, she’s shagging every boy and making them all cry. She is an embodiment of a life without limits or cares, she’s the glimpse of what it’s like to drop off a precipice. The feeling of the fall is something we all crave, yet few are brave enough to jump themselves. And so instead we watch the It girl, morbidly fascinated, and live vicariously through her. The role of the influencer today is to never fall, despite how hard she is pushed, she must remain pristine in her humanity, and therefore not human at all.

“The nineties, as seen by millennials, were the last decade of ignorant bliss. The youth of that era made the stoner their totemic figure of cool, whereas the “it attitude” of today is closer to a well-researched paranoiac.” Natasha Stagg, in her book of essays and autofiction Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011-2019, encapsulates the malaise that has settled over the last decade and which also signalled the demise of the It Girl. Stagg explores our iPhone-atrophied lives and our desire for perfection – in ourselves and in others – as we willingly offer ourselves up to increasing surveillance through the use of social media. Such intense internet surveillance does not allow for the uninhibited fast living that distinguishes the It Girl.

“The It Girl exists within the moral grey areas of life, but with the existence of social media, such grey areas no longer exist for her to live in – everything is now black and white, good or bad”

“A typical influencer today is basic – the opposite of avant-garde,” Stagg writes. Influencers such as Amina Blue, whom Stagg interviews, are “self-described homebodies, even antisocial” – happier at home behind a screen than falling out of an after-party, dignity and stilettos misplaced. The It Girl exists within the moral grey areas of life, but with the existence of social media, such grey areas no longer exist for her to live in – everything is now black and white, good or bad. It is now safer for her to stay behind the screen than to interact with the real world. Social media encourages influencers to create a one-dimensional personality, absorbing selected traits that express only the most tepid view or opinion that have been wrung through the mill of wokeness and approved. It Girls were once the trendsetters, but now they must personify already-approved trends in order to be desirable – their selfies merging with targeted advertisements as we mindlessly scroll.

The It Girl encapsulates a way of living that is rapidly dying out due to the paralysing influence of social media. The pop-culture theorist Mark Fisher wrote in his book Capitalist Realism that “a detached spectatorialism (has replaced) engagement and involvement” in our current society. Instead of voraciously living life like the It Girl, we just want to clinically observe it and to be observed  – at our clinical perfection, from behind a screen. In such a world of constant, minute surveillance – of others and of ourselves – it feels impossible that the It Girl can return in the form that she once took. So hyperaware are we of the way that others see us, it can feel like a transgression when we act in a way that hasn’t already been pre-approved. And the point of an It Girl is that she’s doing the things that we didn’t think were acceptable – until she makes them acceptable.

“In such a world of constant, minute surveillance – of others and of ourselves – it feels impossible that the It Girl can return in the form that she once took”

In the recent Jeremy Deller documentary Everybody in the Place, Deller shows footage of early rave culture to a group of sixth-form Londoners. The ravers dance with abandon, they smile and sweat and the sixth-formers are shocked. Not shocked from the illegal nature of the activity but because they cannot imagine living in such a way – feeling able to move and act as they want. “No one’s watching each other... they’re just in their own space,” one girl notices. She says that if this were in the present day, everyone would be recording one another – therefore you can’t let loose because of all those phones picking up every move. Fear of surveillance brought about through social media cuts us off from the physical world. But an It girl must have a visceral engagement with the world around her in order for her to be the girl we all want to be, in order to have “It”. And the more detached we become from the physical world and the more invested in the unattainable perfection of the internet we become, the closer the It Girl is to permanent extinction.