If there is any word sure to strike fear into the heart of a journalist, it's 'influencer.'
At press junkets, these polished upstarts now have their own cordoned-off areas, with well-lit, instagrammable backgrounds and superior snack tables. While hacks whinge about falling revenues and failing business models, influencers are banking it, one product endorsement at a time. They can reach more people with one Snapchat selfie or a clever Gif than we can with any amount of artful prose. They are all young, beautiful, and, in a very studied way, 'relatable'. And, even more unnervingly, they are all totally self-made.
Suzanne Jackson - currently Ireland's number-one influencer and the woman behind the beauty blog So Sue Me -embodies every one of these traits. She is young - 32 - glossy, beautiful, and has managed the social-media art of alchemising herself and her life into a gauzy, aspirational and lucrative dream. She has nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram - even the likes of Rosanna and Roz trail in her perfectly filtered wake. With a nod, she can shift more handbags than anyone this side of Kate Middleton.
She's represented by Andrea Roche, who was ahead of the curve in terms of signing Irish influencers. Suzanne has already begun the move into mainstream media with her own radio segment on Q102, and she has guest presented on TV3's Xpose. She is, most observers agree, going to be one of the breakout stars of 2017.
So, why, after all that, does it not feel like love?
"I think people love to hate us," she tells me. "I don't like the word 'influencer'. I just say that I have a following. I think there are so many who describe themselves like that now that people have got a bit sick of it. And maybe the media has something to do with it. Because you guys have to train and study, whereas people like me are just coming in on a pony, swinging a rope, going, 'Lads, time's up - get out. Influencers are where it's at, sorry!'"
Hashtag sorry-not-sorry. And why would she be? Influencers - or bloggers - might seem like the personnel of a social-media dystopia where all communication is brand recommendation, but it's good work if you can get it. It's been proven that while men blog more, women are better at monetising the activity when they do blog. Suzanne has written books; she's brought out a highly successful make-up line, and launched her own clothing line. Household-name brands jostle to get her seal of approval.
She says recent reports that she earns six figures from the blog are "cheeky", but she doesn't dismiss them. And corporations who enlist her are making a savvy decision. Women drive four-fifths of the consumer economy, and this young woman tells a good many of them how it's done. She is a taste maker. And yet, while she insists those young women all view her as "the normal girl at home with Sudocrem on her face and eating Dominos" (not a plug, she hastily assures me), relatively little is known about her.
She grew up in the suburban obscurity of Skerries and was not academic in school, barely "scraping" her Leaving Cert in 2002. "I got D3s in everything, which wasn't great for my confidence," she says. "To me, it seemed like everyone else had their future mapped out - they all knew they were going to be doctors, lawyers, nurses or whatever. Teachers seemed to prefer the other students. Because I felt dumb, I had to think, what was I good for?"
Internet killed the Feis Ceoil star. Irish dancing was an early passion - Suzanne was a champion - but it was really her slightly millennial sense that, in the end, she "would, after all, make something of myself" that saw her through. She did a bit of modelling - she's friends with model Michele McGrath, who would take her along to shoots - but she paid the bills by working as a receptionist at 98FM and Spin 103.8.
That's when the story takes an irresistible Working Girl kind of turn. In 2010, while on the job, Suzanne began blogging to amuse herself and, slowly, almost accidentally, as she tells it, she began to build a following. You could probably do a business thesis on the decisions she made on pure instinct, but she knew, better than any corporation, what all those bored teenage girls, scrolling on their iPads, were looking for.
"I think it was just a bit of Irish nosiness that drew people in first," she says. "Then people took an interest because I was just a normal girl in a normal job, which was a bit exotic in the blogging context at the time. As the traffic started going up, I started getting emails from brands, asking how much was it to be featured in a competition on my blog, for instance. That's where the first money came from. As regards traffic - which is really advertising from banners - I only started to make money from that later on. Now I use an ad agency, although I am going with less ads these days, based on the feedback of the readers."
She sees herself as a sort of personal shopper. She explains that make-up companies will ask her to endorse their product and then send her huge ranges of samples from which, over a period, she picks her favourites. "I'll test them and then say, 'I like this' or, 'I don't like that'. So I can do a competition or a make-up tutorial or simply recommend the product.
"I only collaborate with brands that I believe in. A lot of my work comes from events. I do business talks or go around the country in roadshows. The main revenue stream is events."
It's only in the last couple of years that she has been making a full-time living from it all, she says. She won't go into the exact amounts she can earn from a single post, but top Irish bloggers and influencers can make around €3,000 for promoting a product. Under new advertising rules, they now have to declare if they are being paid for a post. And, of course, Revenue are onto everything.
What influencers don't have to declare is the amount of work that goes into transforming their lives into carefully orchestrated visions of consumption and fastidious health. There is a whole generation of young women for whom the whole world is but a setting for a social-media shoot. And women like Suzanne are the best of the best. Other influencers have been open about the hundreds of pictures taken for every one that makes it on to their Instagram page. "I'm not that fussy," Suzanne says, "I'd say I take about 20-30 shots of myself before I find the right one, and then, of course, I'll edit it, add filters and so on - everyone does that."
Several bloggers in the US, apparently exhausted by the endless posing and preening (or, perhaps, cynically looking for a new angle with which to separate themselves from the pack) have now come clean on how fake it all is.
Suzanne explains that her curtain is already thrown back. "I think it's more the American market that sells this sort of fake image of themselves. When I'm on Snapchat, they see me at home eating my curry, cursing. I don't pretend to be vegan or that I'm always healthy all the time. I hear people saying, 'You lead a fake life with your Chanel bag and your travel' but, like, I have no kids, so why not? Having Chanel doesn't mean you're fake."
For some reason Ja'mie from Summer Heights High comes to mind: "Just because I'm rich doesn't mean I'm a bitch." But any beauty salon owner - even an online one - knows you need a bit of decent bitching to go with the blow-dries. The internet is also not just the font of all human knowledge, but the receptacle of all human bile. And Suzanne knows that trolls go with the territory.
"Out of all of the successful bloggers in Ireland, I got the negativity the most. I was the first, so I had nobody to learn from. People were like, 'Who does she think she is?' I remember one day I was away on holidays and I put up one of the photos of me trying on a dress, and some girl commented, 'The size of your back, you could land a plane on that'. To this day, that comment still goes through my head when I'm trying things on."
The negative comments niggled away at her to the extent that she sought hypnotherapy at one point. "I got really upset one time on holidays with my fiancé, and I asked him, 'Tell me straight: am I too broad?' And he said: 'Suzanne, I'm a personal trainer - women like broad shoulders because it makes their waist look thinner'. But still, even when I'm doing a shoot and I have to say my size, I say: "I'm a 10 on top because I'm bigger there." So it does cross my mind. But then I think to myself as well, 'They're leaving a comment on my page, so guess who's winning?'"
One only need look at the luxuriously lit Instagram posts to know the answer to that one. The trolls are dust beneath her chariot wheels. And if her success does represent the aspirations of young Irish women, then we might surmise that these are still, despite the inroads of feminism, mainly about romance and beauty. For instance, Suzanne's most successful post ever was the one where she announced her engagement to personal trainer Dylan O'Connor. He proposed while they were on holidays in the Maldives, and then they had a champagne reception in Residence on Stephen's Green when they got back.
They now live together in a five-bedroom house, although she doesn't want to say where, lest people come traipsing to the door. They will be married in June in Powerscourt, but she's drawn the line at commercialising aspects of it. In fact, she says she's looking forward to it as a day for switching off from social media ("except for a few shots, obviously").
She's also cognisant of her future husband. Like a lot of social-media stars, those around her are drawn into the production. "If I was to go back and change something, it might be how much I involved Dylan. He's more sensitive to hurtful comments. He said to me once, 'I wish you didn't push me so much out there'. He gets stopped all the time because of the association with me, and he doesn't like it. People even come up to my sister now. It can be a bit much."
Especially when the fans turn into dirt-digging influencer groupies. "Girls have come up to him on a night out and asked him for a kiss. I presume they're just looking for a story. One girl did crack on to him in a nightclub. I think she was just trying to see, 'are they a good couple?' I had to laugh, really. I was saying he should have let on and then just ran away from her."
And why would he eat hamburger when he has steak at home? Up close, she is stunningly beautiful, but in common with Rosanna Davison, Vogue Williams and other social-media stars, she wears as much make-up as gravity will permit. In ways, this is just a function of an international trend - contouring having long since made its way from drag to the mainstream via Kim Kardashian - but, Suzanne explains, there is also a particularly Irish element to it.
"Do you know what it is, I think we all grew up in the 1990s, and that was the era of a load of make-up. It was all Pamela Anderson tan and lots of lip liner and eyebrows plucked to nothing, and now it's all young girls rocking freckles and a dewy look and big eyebrows. But because we are all that age, maybe we are a bit old-school."
She says that everyone has vanity but some people are just a bit better at being vain. The key to taking a good selfie is the light, and she can instantly tell where the best light is in her immediate environment. She used to comment a lot on her posts, but latterly she has realised that a great image stands on its own.
Perhaps for this reason she doesn't see the point of Twitter. "I'm on top of all the new platforms. I focus on Snapchat and Instagram, because those are more visual. Twitter is smart remarks, and people think they can tweet you what they want, and it's men. I'm like, 'You don't know me'. Older men commenting - I look at them and I'm, like, 'You're old; you've a family, chill'."
Can you see why the young ones love her? She's slowly turned herself into a one-woman lifestyle brand - her make-up ranges are stocked in Penneys and pharmacies across the country - and she has a team of staff working for her.
Of late, she has also found out that there are limits to her reach. Her clothing line, which she released in time for Christmas last year, didn't do as well as she'd hoped, and won't be continued. And while she says, "I will always be first and foremost a beauty or make-up girl", there has also been some controversy around her own make-up range, with it being alleged that her lines are produced using so-called private labelling. This phrase basically means buying grosses of pre-made products and selling them on with new labels.
It was reported recently that this is the process through which her products come to market, but she vehemently denies this. "You tell the labs a brief - I might say I want it creamy; I don't want any ingredients tested on animals, and so on. Then they send samples and I test it. That's how it works."
As most of her readers know, the haters are gonna hate. If Suzanne rises above criticism, it might simply be a brilliantly self-aware branding decision. She knows that her huge and mostly young fan base see her as a woman's woman who can take the high road. Without the advantage of celebrity connections, a Miss Universe title, or the benediction of mainstream media, she has already become the best.
"Ireland is a small place to be competitive and bitchy, but I am competitive and I'm not going to deny that," she says. "We are mocked all the time. With us [influencers] we do text and build each other up. There is no 'I'm not tagging her because she'll get my followers'. But, even though they're my pals, I'm also thinking, 'How do I stay at the front?' That's the name of the game."
See sosubysj.com; sosueme.ie
Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes
Sunday Indo Life Magazine