The mood on social media right now is a roiling mashup of emotions. As our reality shifts beneath our feet daily—even hourly—influencers and celebrities who once surfed atop the zeitgeist, driving pop culture and sales in equal measure, are struggling to adjust their tone and offerings in real time.
We’ve had heartwarming: A flute-playing Lizzo sending sandwiches to health workers; Kim Kardashian announcing her shapewear brand Skims is donating $1 million U.S. to COVID relief charities; her sister Kylie Jenner responding responsibly to the U.S. surgeon general’s call to encourage her young followers to take the situation seriously.
We’ve had silly: Chrissy Teigen officiating a stuffed animal wedding at her Malibu beach house; Kate Middleton’s brother James hosting a dinner party for his dogs; a rare peek at Ariana Grande’s natural curls in the absence of her hairstylists.
Everyone who depends on digital exposure to support their work is struggling to find the right balance between two modes right now: health and community PSAs juxtaposed with distracting, uplifting and relatable quarantine content. But fashion and beauty influencers possibly have the trickiest line to walk, since so much of their content is related to non-essential luxuries that belong in a non-isolated world.
For one Canadian influencer, this balance is second nature. Ottawa-based Dominique Baker works on her fashion blog, Style Domination, by night and works at the Public Health Agency of Canada by day—needless to say, her worlds are colliding in a unique way right now. “I’m constantly harping on at my followers to stay at home as much as possible, practice social distancing and sound hand-washing techniques,” Baker says. (She cites her “big boss,” Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, as the influencer of the moment. “She’s compelling to watch and listen to, calm and comforting—and frankly, a force.”)
Baker is balancing the health information with a select mix of her usual content. “There are a lot of people out there who just want to feel normal during this time, so I haven’t stopped my regular beauty and fashion content altogether,” she says. “But I am painfully aware of the huge amount of people who have been laid off. I’m sure the last thing some of these people want to see right now is shopping hauls.”
Baker usually uses a pro photographer, but now her posts and videos are being shot on the fly by her husband. “The reception has been fantastic so far,” she says. “People seem to be really appreciating the more authentic, less polished ‘regular’ content.”
“Now is the time for brands, their founders and creators to show their humanity,” says Tara Salloum, co-founder of the influencer agency Counter Culture and a fashion influencer herself at @taraleighrose. “We’ve taken up the United Nations’ Open Call to Creatives and will be leveraging our roster to share credible information to help combat fake news in such a critical time.” She is also encouraging creators (the industry’s preferred job title, rather than influencer) to give shoutouts to local businesses that need support. And the agency is working on crisis communications strategies with its brand partners, “focusing on quantifiable actions versus cheeky creative marketing,” says Salloum. “We’ve focused the communication on coping and adjusting to quarantine in a positive way.”
Roxy Earle, a.k.a. @luxuriousroxy, Real Housewives of Toronto alum turned founder of the size-inclusive #mysizerox movement, has some 90,000 followers on Instagram. “I feel an immense responsibility to do my part flattening the curve,” says Earle. She jumped in to publicize underwear brand Knix’s GoFundMe initiative for protective gear for frontline workers. And she happily joined in the Smash + Tess Virtual Romper Party last weekend; Earle says the fundraiser for WHO COVID response was also “a great way to socialize while physically distancing” with actor Ashley Greene and another Real Housewife, Carole Radziwill.
At the same time, feedback from Earle’s followers is that they want her to “keep it light, fun and fresh,” she says. “I am trying to bring them light and happiness along with the negativity.” While she says her approach has always been “very raw and real,” her current aesthetic is much less polished than usual as she plays her part social distancing sans glam squad. “Everything has changed, and we are all trying to navigate this new normal,” she says. Earle acknowledges that the business side of things is in flux. “Along with my brand partners, we are figuring it out and adapting to handle the hurdles.”
For now, much of influencers’ efforts are unpaid, as the money-earning aspects of product promotion are on the back burner. “Many of our creatives rely on branded promotions as their source of income,” says Salloum. “We’ve also seen a concern around outstanding payments—I encourage brands to really think about that, especially in this crisis time.” Another key source of influencer income is affiliate programs, wherein brands and retailers pay a commission on sales made through links to recommended products—a sum of nearly $7 billion last year, according to Business of Fashion. Many large retailers, such as Net-a-Porter, Ulta Beauty and Ralph Lauren, have sent out announcements in the past weeks announcing that they’re slashing those commissions for the foreseeable future.
If there is a silver lining, it is that social media is being stripped back to basics, with creators focusing on “providing entertainment for their audiences that are in quarantine,” says Salloum. “We’re going back to why we became creators in the first place!”
On that note, here’s a previously impossible but hopeful thought: Maybe this slow-down is an opportunity to hit a mass refresh on the social media machine. As influencers and celebrities merge their “real” lives with their polished online personas, perhaps we will arrive at a place where we aren’t all hiding behind shiny fake images of perfect lives. Because we are all in this together right now, and Kylie’s vast purse cupboard just doesn’t feel relevant anymore.
Earle, for one, remains characteristically positive: “I know we will all come out stronger, better and more creative than ever.”