New Gods II – On Selling Out, Believability, and Post-Capitalism

How celebrities selling box dye was never believable to begin with.

Happy New Year!

Continuing our dialogue on celebrity culture and influencers, here is the second installment of my conversation with Aloiso Wilmoth and Anastasia Kārkliņa.

Read part 1 here.

Nikita Walia: I think there was an article about this a few years ago, about "Instagram face" and just talking about how many more people are getting lip fillers or all these cosmetic surgeries because you want to look good in your forward-facing camera.
Because to some extent, we are all influencers to our own immediate networks in new ways, because never, I think throughout human history, have normal people like you and me been able to broadcast authority. Even me posting, "Oh, I got this salad and it was the best salad. You have to go get this salad." Three or four people might actually follow through and go buy the salad.

I think there just hasn't been an ability for people to broadcast themselves. And of course, whoever passes through that window fits in ... Either they fit in the margin of what's acceptable, or they model themselves over time to look like what's acceptable. Or they maybe are not an acceptable body or ability, and they either are politicized or have to politicize themselves in some way to get through.

Anastasia Kārkliņa: Yeah. I'm very interested in thinking about how influencer culture, even as it is, I think shattering some of the cultural norms around celebrity, where we used to admire kind of celebrities that looked very thin, they were probably airbrushed, their skin was lightened, etc. Right? They were really kind of ... Yeah. I think you mentioned that in your little description that you sent us. They were kind of polished, right? They were presented in a certain way. And I want to think about this idea of self-love and self-acceptance as another kind of genre that is now, though beneficial to young people, to women and femmes, but also becomes a kind of performance that is expected of influencers.

And I'm interested in thinking about how that ties in with consumption. Because we are consuming this media. We are consuming these messages. And there is something interesting about, as much as influencer culture has, to a certain extent, democratized the visual space, it is still very much tied to consumption and promotion of consumption, that the good old celebrity was also about, right? [inaudible] promoting products, right? Promoting brands-

Aloiso Wilmoth: Oh my goodness, Instagram is like a strip mall now.

AK: I'm interested in thinking about, yeah, just the way that it's about democratization, but it's also within kind of the framework of consumptions and promoting consumption, which, to me, doesn't feel that much different from when celebrities used to advertise certain products on a magazine cover.

NW: Do you think it's more believable when an influencer is doing a Colgate ad than a celebrity? Or even for years, L'Oréal was doing those hair dye ads with these big A-list female celebrities, and it just never felt real. I'm like, "There's no way she's using box dye." Do you think it's more believable when an influencer is doing the same thing, or no?

AK: I think there's something about maybe trust. It creates trust, in terms of ... I mean, I think most people who are not of the kind of celebrity elite class, most of us, most average working people, I think as much they aspire to be, imagine themselves, perhaps, some fantasies of being like a celebrity, being wealthy or being famous, being attractive. I think there has always been a kind of separation, right, between us and the celebrities. There is a kind of a gap that we know that we are not them. And I wonder if, with influencers, there is increased trust.

And I'm thinking specifically about this TikTokker who is a makeup artist. I believe her name is [Michaela]. I'm not sure about her last name. But she essentially was a staff member at Ulta. And now that she's become a TikTok famous influencer within the makeup space since March, now she is the brand rep for Ulta. And I'm scrolling through these comments and kind of seeing this narrative play out of, oh, wow ... I mean, a lot of great messages of empowerment, specifically women's empowerment, of, "Oh, you used to be just their worker, and now you are their rep." Right? Secure the bags, etc. So I wonder if there is some kind of a more apparent relatability or the fact that someone was living in a trailer and now they are a representative of a brand. So perhaps we can trust them more? I'm not sure.

AW: I'm more inclined to think that artists I see end up in a Nike campaign is cooler than LeBron James, because, it feels like on a ground level. So I guess at that point, I feel more inclined to lean into the believability or that idea of bootstrap theory. ideas of hard work making you shine.

NW: But to this day, I think what's really interesting to me is you go on an influencer's feed and it's perfectly manicured. Their celebrity is in that they're selling you this lifestyle of perfection: the perfect latte on the perfect bed with a furry pillow on the corner.

And you're like, "Why do you have coffee on the bed like that? That's not normal." But you go on a celebrity’s page or something and you look at their photos and they're so terribly filtered and just ugly content. I'm like, "Why is anyone following this?" Why do you think celebrities are so bad at social media and they don't feel pressure to be better?

AW: It kind of reminds me of the point you made in the notes, was they kind of think they're gods in some way. And I always like to think in those kinds of metaphors, and I think of as maybe just regular people on social media who become influencer whatevers, it's like you're challenging the gods of Olympus or leveling that playing field.

You're like a mortal challenging that hegemony. You're climbing Mount Olympus and you're like, "I'm here with my Ulta bag. I'm knocking on Zeus's door like, 'What's up? What's up, Zeus?'" Is the playing field. Like you're Hercules. [inaudible] mortals. What makes me different from you? I'm like a half-god or whatever. I don't know. I think of it like that. It's like that landscape, people actively challenging the gods on Olympus. They have the tools to take out the gods and become a new god or something.

AK: I think that exactly what came up for me when Nikita asked the question. It's almost like there has to be a kind of symbolic gap, the symbolic difference between celebrity and regular people. And I think that it's always like luxury, perfection, notions of being polished, being posh, being elegant have always been part of how we understand celebrity.

And so I think that might be the difference between celebrity and the influencer class, right? With the influencer class, it seems to be that it depends on that relatability, right? I can be on TikTok as an influencer and show my messy bedroom, right? And still, get views, and still get clicks, and still go viral. And with celebrity, doing so it seems would actually crumble the assumptions that actually forming the idea of a celebrity or the elite as being different from us.

AW: It's selling realness. That's what it is. I look at a celeb, I don't see anything real, as opposed to an influencer. You're seeing a human side when you see an everyday person, a messy bed or something like that. a recurring theme of realness. that just keeps coming back to my head. this sense of authenticity. Even though that authenticity can be very much fabricated and fake, it's selling us the idea of realness back to us.

AK: Right. And I wonder what it is in us that desires that now, right? I do think it is selling that kind of idea or in some instances illusion. But we also want it. And I'm curious about what it is in this particular moment that makes us desire that.

NW: I think, for me, especially working in marketing, working in branding, every single day, you'll read some report that says, "90% of consumers say that they desire that brands and whatever be more authentic. They want authentic corporations, whatever." Then a brand will send you their deck, and they're like, "We're authentic, honest, open."

And I'm like, "Is that not the baseline of what you should be? How is this making you any different?"

I think people crave authenticity. And it's been so commodified and turned into this thing that's bought and sold, because we're living in this media environment that you literally cannot trust ... It feels like you cannot trust any one piece of information, any one authority, any one news outlet.

We're just curating these bubbles of what is acceptable aesthetically, politically, whatever, to us, and that is authentic to us. For me, my bubble might be art and design, and New York. But for somebody living in middle America or the South that subscribes to Trumpism ... Their authentic is that New York Times is the fake news and whatever Breitbart or whatever they're reading that day.

AK: That makes perfect sense.

NW: I think everybody is creating their own version of what's authentic and trying to share it with other people, and it's just creating a big distance from authenticity.
We have digital influencers like Lil Miquela now, and brands are making deals with her.

How is it on one end that we are so craving realness, but on the other, people think this digital avatar is the coolest thing ever? That's such a disconnect for me, personally.

AK: Not to by cynical, but I think the case study of Lil Miquela, who actually I wasn't familiar with until you introduced her to us, and I think as a case study, she is precisely an example of this digital presence, democratized digital presence, while still being a performance. I think the fact that she seems so relevant and popular to the point of having a fan base tells me that the writers are very consciously thinking about the kind of cultural scripts that would make Lil Miquela appealing to audiences. And I wonder how different that is from the kind of script that influencers have to follow, right?

Which I guess brings me to another point, which is that I really like the way you said, Nikita, kind of commodified authenticity. And so it makes me think about authenticity and kind of these effective notions around honesty and being
self-loving, and self-caring, self-accepting, outspoken, etc. as kind of new commodities in this visual space that we're selling. And it's not only [inaudible] magazine covers of old-school era celebrities selling bags but now we're selling something else. We're still selling bags, but we're using ... We are selling something about effect, about how we show up in these visual spaces as a vehicle for consumption.

AW: It's a byproduct of capitalism. There are so many contradictions, any direction you turn, there's a contradiction in front of your face – this whole year is a contradiction.

Like Nikita said, we can't even agree on what's true anymore. Post-capitalism, late capitalism, it's to the point where we're being sold something that doesn't exist. It's ontology. I feel like that's what a lot of influencer culture is. You can't see it. Once you think about it, it's almost like what is ... Well, to me, what is that authenticity? I don't know. It's so ontological, I literally don't know what I'm being sold. Is the algorithm controlling my brain? It reminds me of a lot of stuff Mark Fisher would talk about. It's just this kind of ... It's just very strange.

NW: And I think, too, even just thinking about influencers, I feel like there is an inflection point, always, and I think you see this with anyone that's an upstart.

You are an upstart DJ and then you go get a Nike deal and you've sold out. You're an upstart influencer and people love you because you're the girl sitting in your bedroom, you're doing your makeup on the floor in front of a mirror and it's real, but the moment you can move on up in life or whatever, it's suddenly not authentic and you're selling this different thing and you'll lose some fans, and some will stay with you, like, "Go, girl, you pulled yourself up by the bootstraps. You got out of this situation."

But it's just so weird to me that these people somehow change in our eyes, also, when they get some kind of success. For better or for worse, suddenly, they don't stand for the same things. And it seems like a lot of people can also become victims of their own success when they join this influencer class. You can go from being this beloved person dancing in your basement to oh, you're everything that's wrong with society.
So I just think it's an interesting contradiction. And to your point, Aloiso, I think to some extent our modern world has just become way too complicated for us to understand.

AW: Agreed.

NW: I literally just think about that tweet all the time that's like "monkeys don't talk so they don't have to pay taxes". And sometimes I'm like, "That's really all humans are."

AK: Yeah, I think Charli D’Amelio as an example is so fascinating to me because I struggle to make sense of the number of likes that her videos get, right? Like with about a million and as a cultural theorist, I find it, her content, not as engaging, not that creative. No offense to her, but in my personal opinion, I'm not really seeing-

NW: You’re not buying it.

AK: Talent or ingenuity that is rewarded in other sides of TikTok. But there's this just mass of people, right?

I would be curious, really, to see her follower demographics who are liking her content. And Aloiso mentioned mediocrity, and to me, that's kind of an example of what I was talking about earlier, about the kind of problem of thinking of the influencer classes, as democratic, right?

It seems that Charli, being who she is in the world, can go on TikTok but doesn't have to do much to gain absolutely fame that is, to me, outside of proportion in a way that makes me wonder what it is about someone like her. What does it invoke in us? What kind of desire does it spark that is just so massive for so many people?

NW: One, I personally don't really see her on my TikTok a lot, and I think a lot of people... There are sides of TikTok and they're always like, "Oh, Charli D'Amelio is straight TikTok." So I can only assume that the majority of her audience is
cis-hetero, white, largely white. And so she’s winning with that dominant audience.

AW: It goes back to the normative gaze, what generally gets awarded within society.