Trying to keep up with the Kardashians: The real lives of Irish micro-influencers
We all know the power of a Kardashian-style following - Khloe's army of almost 100 million biddable devotees, ready to do/wear/drink pretty much whatever she tells them to.
But what of the many who aren't at that level? These are the 'micro-influencers,' defined as social-media personalities with a following between 10,000 and 100,000. At that level, the opportunities and potential are clear, but the immediate rewards less so. So what drives these micro-influencers? Is it money? And if so, how much? Is it 'free stuff' ? Recognition? Is this a mission? Is it a career or a calling? And can it take the place of a 'real' job? Also, is this kind of endeavour more, or less, stressful than a traditional nine-to-five job, and what are the main pressure points? Online abuse? The lack of time off? The pain of chasing likes? Or is it the growing push-back - the increased scrutinising of influencer recommendations and endorsements; the recognition that there is a mental-health toll to the perfection of curated lives; even the growing public disenchantment with 'fake' lifestyles?
Today in LIFE, five of Ireland's most dynamic micro-influencers give us an open, honest look at their working lives, and how these fit with their off-duty lives. So would they recommend it as a career? Well, that depends…
Nathalie Lennon, 25
@nathalielennon_ 56.8k followers Fitness, food, lifestyle. Personal trainer and online health coach
"I never intended to become an 'influencer', or set out to establish a social-media following, it just kind of happened," says Nathalie Lennon. "After graduating from my earth-science degree, I began to keep a closer record of my fitness on my Instagram account. From this, I competed a personal training course - and just loved sharing my journey, food, workouts, and the odd outfit. When I started to share content that other people could really relate to, that was then reflected in the slow growth of my following. Sharing my struggles as well as my successes was something people really connected with."
What does she mean by 'struggles'? "I have shared so much about my battles with anxiety, much of which is down to social-media pressure. For example, pressure to have the perfect body." The irony is that as Nathalie's following grew, so too, for a time, did her anxiety. "I did begin to feel the pressure, especially with regards to body image. Luckily, I was able to see the damage that this can cause to mental health before it majorly affected my own. So now it's something I can speak about openly. I try to use my platform to share the message of developing a healthy body, healthy mind and happy life, without being blinded by social-media pressures… ironically, by using social media itself!"
Her main point is that "fitness looks different for every body. I work really hard to promote body positivity and self-confidence. I'm especially passionate about reaching young girls, who may be feeling pressured by social media to always look picture-perfect. To help them see that I have been there, I fell victim to those pressures, and it's not a happy place - happiness exists when you care less about what social media thinks."
To this end, "I post the good and the bad. One of my most popular posts last month was my experience of dealing with adult acne and a bad breakout. I don't try to glamourise my life on social media. The kinds of accounts that do that affected my mental health, so I aim to keep it all as transparent as possible. Of course, I have my dark, gloomy and downright negative days like everyone else, and I talk about this when I touch on mental health and mindset, but I aim to keep as much of my content as upbeat, energetic and fun as possible - because that's generally the person I am!"
Nathalie is adamant that her career is far from one-dimensional. "I still coach clients in the gym and online, and right now I am working on bringing out a guide, which can help my following on a far greater scale, over the next year. I've been able to combine my coaching online, class teachings and personal training, along with brand collaborations, and I plan to always keep these streams open and never become reliant on just one. But doing this has allowed me to fund my own business; website development; equipment for clients and classes; and further education, to become a nutritional coach."
Does she feel she is successful in what she does? "I have definitely achieved some really big personal goals, such as establishing relationships with Reebok UK and Asics Europe. But my ambitions have evolved along with my understanding of this industry. Success, for me, is helping others achieve a greater sense of mental strength and security and self-confidence; perhaps through their workouts and diets, but also by opening up to speak about their problems or issues." It is, she says, "incredible how much people open up to you online if something you have shared resonates with them. It can be very emotionally draining sometimes, as people really confide in you, and share some very deep and heavy stories, but it's such a boost to know that I have helped them or motivated them to look after their mental health and well-being more."
How good is she at creating clear distinctions between 'work' and 'downtime'? "Some days I am fantastic," she says, "but others I feel it just takes up all of my time." This is something she needs to work on, she says.
"I have made the mistake of isolating myself from many social situations to work on social-media opportunities or posts. And I have spent time with other influencers who seemed to forget I am an actual human standing in front of them - not just someone to tag! I do often try to take Sundays off - or at least a solid chunk of one day in each week away from social media, enjoying company, adventures, or relaxing, without feeling like I need to post about it. In the past, I didn't allocate detox time, and my anxiety levels heightened dramatically as a result."
Does she worry about losing her right to privacy? "I have shared some really personal stories, experiences and rock-bottoms. But I don't see this as a privacy invasion - more so an opportunity to reach others who might be afraid to speak about these issues. I try to separate romantic relationships and family situations from my Instagram - it's important to keep some parts of my life private.'
And equally important to be transparent. "If a company reaches out to send a free product which may be something my following might have an interest in, or something I wholeheartedly support, then I will go through it on my stories. If a company offers to send me something that I know I won't have any need for, I will respectfully decline. I've turned down so many protein supplements, skinny teas, and 'quick fix' products, that I have lost count at this point. To endorse such products would be misaligned with my message and overall goal."
So where does she make her money? "Luckily, I've been able to channel many different revenue streams. In the last year or two, some bigger opportunities have knocked on my door, but I have also turned some high-paying opportunities down, because they don't sit with my message. And yes, it has been a learning curve, understanding my own worth in terms of working with a brand. As my friend Brian Keane [personal trainer and author] says, 'your mess becomes your message'.
For Nathalie, there is a big question around creating a following that is real, and sustainable. "Building a profile can get very frustrating," she says, "It's become so clear what images and context serve as really good clickbait - the more revealing picture-perfect physique shots. This is one way to go about building a profile, and you may see it happen faster - but it's not a route I want to go down. Sharing more helpful and relatable content may not always be as sensational, but I think it's far more sustainable long-term. You can't let yourself become consumed by losing a few thousand followers [which can easily happen]. I think when content becomes forced, in order to just build and build, people lose interest. For me, it has never been about how much money I can earn. It's about how many lives I can impact."
As for whether she would recommend this as a career, Nathalie says, "You need to be passionate about the subject you are promoting; you need to be OK with doing so for free and feel utter fulfillment. You have to be prepared to develop a very thick skin. You need to be prepared for a lot of criticism, and learn how to absorb what is constructive but block out that which is destructive.
"That's the hard part."
Yvonne Mellin, 41
@ystyleireland, 71.6k followers Mom of three. Fashion blogger and lover of style, interiors, and food
Yvonne did a commerce degree at UCD, specialising in HR, something she describes as "a totally safe degree". She always wanted to work in fashion, "but I couldn't draw and had really no clue how to get into the industry." Degree in hand, she got a job as a trainee manager in Penneys, "hoping to get experience in retail and get into the buying office. That was my masterplan. So 18-year-old me got my first suit, started my first proper job - and handed in my notice after two days. Hated it!"
Her parents, she says, "went a bit berserk and my dad - like Irish dads can - got me an interview as a pensions administrator. I got back into the suit, did the interview and got a job." It was, she says, "the most boring job, but the best crack ever." This is also where she met Paul, whom she married, aged 23.
After her first child, Matthew, was born, Yvonne gave up work and stayed at home, and had two more children; "A lot of time was spent honing my eBay skills," she says with a laugh. Once Matthew started school, Yvonne decided, "this time, I was getting that job in fashion. I did a personal styling course - I didn't learn a huge amount, but it gave me the confidence to go, 'I can do this!'" She set up a Facebook page, YStyle, in September 2014, "with no real solid plan. I only wanted to advertise my services as a stylist, but it grew from there. I had no clients at the start, so I used to spend my mornings taking headless pictures of myself in various outfits from high-street shops, and the following grew."
As Yvonne's following grew, the concept changed. "Initially, I wanted to do personal styling with clients, but over the past four-and-a-half-years I've stopped styling individual clients, as it all became a bit too full-on. Pretty quickly, it went from a part-time job to a full-time 24/7 job because of social media. I started Instagram Stories just over a year ago, and that just takes over. I do love it, but it's much more demanding than Facebook, as it's like I'm 'on' all the time."
The main source of income for Yvonne is collaborations or sponsored posts, for which she earns from €300 up per post, and commission from certain brands. As for whether she makes money, "Let's just say I'm glad Paul has a job! I look at my job as the family bonus; it's like the holiday fund and the trips and experiences. Starting this, I had nothing to lose. I was just really taking a chance, knowing that if all else fails, I can dust down the HR CV."
Success, for Yvonne, means "being able to make some money! Also getting to work with brands I have loved for years, or getting recognised by these brands - that is really great. I don't set goals and I'm not a great planner, but I'm happy with where I am now. I'm not crazy ambitious. I just try to share what I like, and I'm always myself. My number-one priority is family, so I try to keep that in mind, when I am losing it!
"At the start I was so excited with any freebie. I couldn't believe it, and would post anything. Now I only post about products and experiences I genuinely like. Otherwise my honesty is jeopardised, and then what do people believe? I say no to collaborations eight out of 10 times."
And yes, it's a career that eats into her days. "I am useless at switching off. I work while the kids are in school. Then try to be 'present' when they are home, and then I go back to the PC in the evening, and that is like a time Tardis - I can lose hours. I need to get more disciplined. I also have my phone in my hand when we are watching TV and when I go to bed. I am always trying to answer all the questions and get to zero unread messages - I need to stop that! Unless I go for a walk or for dinner with Paul or the family, I am pretty much always on. I accidentally turned off messages on Instastories a few weekends ago, and it was so quiet. But then I got paranoid that maybe my stories were super boring, so no one was bothered messaging!"
The downsides? "The negative comments take a while to build up a resilience to, and I'm not sure you ever get used to them. I used to get really upset at the start, and now I try to ignore them. I guess I've toughened up a bit but also, one word of advice: never, ever read what groups are saying about you online. It's better not to know."
It can also be stressful "Totally. Life is stressful anyway, for everyone. I worry about the kids, Paul, my family and then this job. I question, 'Am I good enough?' 'Will I run out of ideas?' 'Where did these new wrinkles come from?' 'Is that another bloody grey hair?' At the same time, I try to go 'Yvonne, cop on! You are showing fashion, food and a few cushions - calm yourself!'"
Her parents are, she says, "very supportive, but I know they really don't know what I do. My mom will say, 'Oh, I met so-and-so at Mass and she said the Nikes you recommended are very good and did I see your post, and I'm like, "Sure don't I talk to Yvonne every day, why would I follow her on Facebook to see what she's up to?"' That probably explains it best."
So what next? "Honestly, I don't know. I'm not sure I can keep up the pace of social media forever. I'm also officially old in this blogger world. I'm 41, and sometimes feel ancient! I think maybe a more structured job would be nice - I would still love to be involved in buying. I would love to help a brand or advise them. I wouldn't recommend this career," she says candidly. "This is not something that is guaranteed or predictable. If the kids said to me they wanted to do what I do, I would be like my dad - 'Get that safe degree first'."
Niamh O'Sullivan, 27
@niamh_osullivan, 32.9k followers Food videos, travel and sustainability
"I started my blog before moving to New York almost four years ago, as a way of showing off my skillsets to potential employers in the US," says Niamh O'Sullivan. "My background is in business, IT and digital marketing, so I built and designed my website myself." Once in NY, she began to use the blog "as a sort of online diary," to document her experiences, and "slowly but surely, people started to show an interest; they began following along and engaging. Bit by bit, the objective of my blog has totally changed from a hobby to a business."
Niamh spent three years working as a social-media manager in a New York-based company, "creating content across different social media platforms for a handful of brands, strategising and implementing digital campaigns. Through that, I gained a real interest into how this industry worked in the US, at a time when it was just kicking off in Ireland."
Eighteen months ago, Niamh moved home to Dublin. "I had every intention of getting straight back onto the corporate ladder, but one thing led to another and I decided to take a chance on my blog. I'm so lucky that the risk paid off, but it took a lot of perseverance and a huge amount of hard work."
Has doing this felt like sacrificing other career areas? "Yes, definitely. My potential career path and progress with potential employers felt, and still feels like, a really big sacrifice. Having worked for three years in the industry and learned so much, giving that up was definitely a drawback. But that said, I guess blogging is so relevant to the digital-marketing landscape at the moment, that if I ever decided to go back to full-time employment, at least what I'm doing now will hopefully stand to me."
The best aspect for Niamh is "the freedom. Working from wherever I want. The worst aspect is probably the isolation. I never thought I would miss seeing different faces every day in the office! Also, the line between free time and dedicated work hours is completely blurred for me. But, that's not an issue exclusive to bloggers - I think most people in the industry will agree. At least it's all for my own personal brand, as opposed to someone else's."
Does she take structured time off? "Not really. Sometimes if I'm feeling completely overwhelmed, I'll turn my phone off for a day or an evening, but I don't have a set time that I consciously try and switch off, although I really should!"
Far from measuring her success in 'likes,' Niamh says, "I stopped taking it personally a long time ago. My aim was and is always quality over quantity when it comes to the blog. It's so much more important to me to have an engaged audience, rather than focusing on growing my numbers. I'm very careful and conscious about what I post. I definitely have boundaries with what goes online and what doesn't, and I think that people respect that - I rarely get invasive questions, or feel like my private life is invaded."
Initially, her parents "didn't know what to make of it all. Having spent a long time studying and working in big companies, they probably would have preferred if I stayed on that track. But with time, they have a much better understanding of how everything works."
Niamh's main source of income is "sponsored posts by different brands on my Instagram and Instagram Stories," and her "rule of thumb" is "I would never recommend a product that I wouldn't recommend to my mum."
So is she making a living? "Yes. I'm extremely lucky to make a living from this; to be able to survive off my blog alone. I wouldn't take that for granted for one second."
As for where she sees this going, "I really don't know. I keep saying over and over that I'm 'riding the wave', and 'I'll go where it takes me'.
"I keep trying to upskill in different ways and different areas so that I can be as prepared as possible for any opportunities that might come my way, or if it all goes belly-up in the morning! I recently completed a cookery course, and next on my list is something in basic graphic design."
"Would I recommend this as a career? It's definitely subjective, but I love what I do. I love everything that goes along with this industry, from web design to campaign planning to photography and more. It has its highs and lows like any other job, but I find it incredibly rewarding."
Emma Kehoe, 32
@emmakehoe 38.9k followers Positivity, body confidence, self-love
"I originally wanted to be a fashion designer and did that in college but realised it wasn't for me, so I went and did a buying course, and that led me to being a fashion buyer," says Emma Kehoe. "I wanted to share my love of fashion so I started my first blog over eight years ago, The Blonde Bob Blog, back when Instagram wasn't even a thing. As Instagram and outfit posts started to grow, so did my following. But that wasn't the main message I wanted to portray. I wanted women to feel good about themselves, as it took me 30 years to feel good about me. Once I started letting them in on my own personal experience, people started relating to me for this. Seeing women message me, on how I have helped them get into a bikini, motivate them to go back to the gym, or maybe wear that bodycon dress - these messages are an achievement in themselves, because you have helped another person feel good about themselves."
Emma still blogs, but has changed the blog name to her own name, as "the other one was bit of a tongue teaser. I still work full time in retail, as well as blogging/influencing, and I do some modelling work at the weekends, too. It took me time for people to relate to me for what I was putting out on my platform, which was body confidence, positivity and self-love, which I think is so important - not only for women, but everyone."
Emma's main source of income is, still, her full-time job. "I still see myself as a working gal, just with a following on Instagram! In fact, I wouldn't say influencing is a job, as I love doing it and inspiring and helping others. I am a very driven person, and my career is important to me; I want to own my own business one day and be a girl boss. I have ideas of what that business might be, but I'm not 100pc sure yet; I just have to wait and see how it unfolds."
In terms of the lifestyle she showcases to the world, "I would say most of the time it is close to reality. I like to be as real as I can be with my audience. And I would only share something with my followers if I really liked the product or have used it for some time. I think it is really important to be transparent to your audience as they are the ones who look to you for this."
She is also strict around time off. "Doing [social-media] definitely eats into my free time, but I try to restrict myself as much as I can. I have a rule that I don't check my phone in the mornings. I turn off my alarm and then I ease myself into the day by listening to one of Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations podcasts. I'm addicted. I don't tend to 'digitally detox', I kind of just go by how I feel.
"There are days I will be full of energy and want to create loads of content, and then there are days where I am just not in the mood and don't want to put anything up. I don't think you should feel the pressure of having to post all the time - even though I admit I do sometimes. You have to learn to accept that it's OK to have a day or a little time off, and get out into the outside world and switch off. I think it is important to have some downtime," she says.
"I love getting out into nature and going on walks in the park with no headphones and just walking and listening. It is so refreshing for your mind, and recharges your batteries. I also like to read before going to bed, rather being on my phone."
How personally does she take it when a post doesn't get the exposure she had hoped for? "I would be lying if I didn't say yes, I can take it personally, and I think most people would agree. I had this conversation with my sisters [fellow influencers Ashley and Claudine Kehoe] last week and we do all feel this from time to time."
The best part of what Emma does is, she says, "hearing how you have inspired someone. I got a private message today from one of my followers saying I motivated her to join the gym. For me, that gives me tingles, as I was once that girl who didn't want to go to the gym, or was too embarrassed, and seeing that I can help people just gives me more drive to keep going. As regards the worst aspects - it would be nasty comments or online bullying. Overall though, I am very lucky with all my amazing followers, and I would definitely recommend this as a career. Social media is only getting bigger and bigger, and with so many platforms now to choose from there is always a way to create, inspire and influence."
Anouska Proetta Brandon, 28
@anouskapb 91.3k followers
Travel and lifestyle
"Social media is the highlight reel of your life. So yes, what I show is my real life, but it is a glossy version of it," says Anouska Proetta Brandon. "I talk more openly and candidly these days than I ever have, particularly about mental health. But overall, I believe I have always been true to myself, and my followers have always respected that."
This career is something Anouska "sort of fell into. Back in 2011, I started a blog. I had no idea it would ever amount to anything. There definitely wasn't any way to make money from it back then, nor did that even cross my mind. I just enjoyed sharing my looks and photography, which people responded to. I used the blog as a personal online diary - I documented what I wore, things I did and so on, and I guess it turned into a place of inspiration for others. It has evolved over the last eight years. I've been doing alright financially since my early 20s - however, I think people think I earn a lot more than I do."
In fact, she says, "The biggest sacrifice I make to do this is that I never get paid on time, like I would in a 'regular' job. The price you pay to work for yourself is that you spend your life chasing invoices. It's funny," she muses, "it's always so incredibly important to get the work over in the shortest turnaround time possible, but when it comes to clients paying me, they can sometimes take up to six months to pay out. It's a pain in the ass!"
Success, she says, is "that I enjoy what I do, have a job that doesn't feel like work and I achieve great job satisfaction. However, I don't believe I'll ever assume that I have 'made it'. I think that is a state of mind rather than anything else. But maybe when I have my own house by the sea, a dog or three, and a passport full of stamps from all over the world, I may feel kind of successful."
Building cleverly on her social-media success, Anouska has started a new business: "I have launched Objective Media with my business partner, Laurence, and it feels like a very natural progression from the work I've been doing for the last nine years. This is a human-first digital agency, where creativity meets strategy. Having almost a decade of social-media experience, I understand digital marketing and the power of beautiful, inspiring imagery and video content. Eventually, I see myself being the creative director of my own successful company, fingers crossed."
Because of this, Anouska is "taking small steps back from earning off the back of my Instagram with campaigns. I sometimes feel quite restricted with my creativity when it comes to brand deals, so I just want to create what I want to create, like the good old days. That's why I am focusing all my energy on Objective Media, so I have more space and freedom with my own channels."
Does she think influencing alone can be a career strategy? "I think a lot of people can make it these days without having another job if they work hard enough and are smart about what they do. However, I don't think that is a good long-term plan. I think it's always a good idea to look at your strengths and not focus solely on using yourself as your brand image, because it can be hard to separate yourself from what you do mentally. Those things are very different, and I think a lot of people get caught up in that."
But this is something she has learned the hard way. "I used to find it very hard to separate myself from my online presence," she admits. "I felt obliged to always be 'on', then I realised no one cares. It's not that big of a deal. And it's better for your mental health to get offline for a while every now and then. I put my phone on airplane mode about one to two hours before bed, which has, in turn, given me more time to read, which has been wonderful. Recently, I started doing digital detoxes, which have been the best thing I've ever done for myself. I don't always structure them, but they are so important. When I have a digital detox, I uninstall all the social-media apps on my phone, bar Twitter, because that brings me such joy every day."
And yes, she can feel her private life invaded. "The hard part about sharing a lot of your life is that sometimes you can get it wrong. For example, if you're showing off someone you are dating because you feel so happy and smitten, and it all goes a bit pear-shaped, you're left with questions from people who follow you asking where this person is. People feel entitled to know about your life because you have over-shared, so that can feel a little invasive. Over the years I have made a lot of mistakes and learnt from it, so now, I don't feel invaded in the slightest because everything I put out there is very selective. It can be very difficult to separate yourself from your work when you are your work. That took a long time for me to understand."
What Anouska loves about her career is that "I work for myself and have done since I was 22 years old. I have never had a proper routine, but that suits me down to the ground. I am high-energy and love being my own boss. On the flip side, however, a lack of routine can be difficult, and the fact that I never get paid on time is also a massive hassle, but again, that's the price you pay for freedom. I also love that my grandmother knows what I am up to every day since I got her to download Instagram. She only follows myself, my brother and my cousin. It's lovely whenever I ring her to have a chat, she says 'Darling, I know, I saw it on your Instagram!'"
It's a career and a lifestyle that isn't, she points out, "for everyone. Your work doesn't end at 5pm, Monday through Friday. There's no such thing as sick pay or maternity leave. You don't have job security. You won't get paid on the same day every month. It can be lonely. You need to know how to sell yourself. No one will pat you on the back if you've done a good job. You will constantly be undervalued and asked to work for free. However, if you can put up with those things to do something you love, then yes, do it!"
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Chloe Brennan
Sunday Indo Life Magazine