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What This Week’s “Bachelor In Paradise” Debacle Should Teach Everyone About How The Influencer Economy Actually Works

It's hard to get followers, it's harder to maintain them.

Posted on September 10, 2021, at 8:01 a.m. ET

This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.

ABC

Natasha speaking the truth

For the past several years, contestants on ABC’s Bachelor franchise have all been aware of an obvious but rarely discussed fact: Going on the show can make you an influencer, and a rich one at that.

Since the mid-2010s, when the influencer ecosystem began to explode, several people have launched successful social media careers off the backs of their appearances. Suddenly, going on the show didn’t just mean love or fleeting fame — it meant sponsorship deals, millions of followers, and never having to go back to your day job.

In my opinion, this phenomenon peaked from around 2016 to 2019, when many of the most-followed Bachelor Nation alums appeared on the show: 2019 Bachelorette Hannah Brown, with 2.5 million followers, holds the title for most followed, with JoJo Fletcher, 2016’s Bachelorette, close behind with 2.3 million and Brown’s runner-up, Tyler Cameron, in third with 2.1 million. Several other contestants from this era, like Hannah Godwin (1.5 million), Caelynn Miller-Keyes (1.4 million), and Tia Booth (1.1 million), were able to grow monster followings despite not even coming in first place.

By the time Peter Weber’s season rolled around, 21-year-old aspiring creators were racing onto the show and barely keeping up the facade that they were looking for love. This annoyed fans, who complained it had become an influencer factory rather than a reality show. The backlash grew, and nowadays, it is much harder to get an easy million off an appearance on the show. (The most recent Bachelorette, Katie Thurston, just cracked 1 million followers after her season finale.)

Despite this, many Bachelor contestants are still hoping to turn their appearances into influencer careers. But there’s one thing that they, and many people, don’t really understand about the industry: It’s not enough just to get followers. You have to work to maintain them. Influencing isn’t a matter of showing up and reaping the rewards; it’s a long game of getting people to stick around. Followers giveth, but they also taketh away.

This is a lesson being learned the hard way by two contestants on this season’s Bachelor in Paradise, Brendan Morais and Pieper James, who apparently thought they would be handed influencer careers on a silver platter just by showing up. They attempted to execute this vision in possibly the least thought-out way in the history of reality television — and the aftermath has been fascinating.

Here’s the gist. Bachelor in Paradise contestants only get to advance week after week if they get a rose. So, either you find someone you like who likes you back and thus will give you their rose or you befriend someone and agree to help each other stick around.

Brendan, 31, and Pieper, 23, had met each other a few months prior to filming and gone on several dates. This is not uncommon (Bachelor Nation is rather incestuous), and a preshow love triangle actually spurred a major storyline on the last season of the show. Brendan and Pieper, though, were in a pickle. They liked each other and wanted to date, but if they chose to forgo the show to pursue their relationship, they’d lose out on potentially thousands of followers. However, if they could go on the show and market themselves as a Bachelor Nation couple, they could probably be even more successful in gaining fans.

So, the couple apparently agreed they would go on the show, and whoever appeared first (contestants appear on a staggered schedule, with new people arriving once other people get kicked off) would find a way to stick around until the other arrived.

I, and all viewers, know all of this because they admitted it. Brendan was one of the first contestants to arrive and embarked on a seemingly promising, if not a tad stilted, romance with 33-year-old Natasha Parker. There were rumors among the contestants that Pieper and Brendan had been dating before the show, but Brendan insisted to Natasha that he and Pieper were casual and he was genuinely interested in exploring things with Natasha, securing her rose.

When Pieper arrived, she chose Brendan for her first date immediately. Then, in one of the least strategic and most boneheaded reality TV moments I have ever witnessed, Pieper got Brendan to reveal the plot on camera. He explained that while multiple women had asked him why he was here when they heard he was dating Pieper, he told them they weren’t exclusive. Pieper, apparently not realizing he was attempting to not blow up their spot, questioned whether he had second thoughts about them being exclusive before she arrived.

Brendan told her he had to do “certain things” to “navigate to bring us to this particular moment.” Pieper finally got it, telling him, “Thanks for playing the game.” Of course, this was bad news for Natasha, who Brendan dumped the next day. Instead of letting her down easily, he insisted they never had a romantic relationship, then said behind her back that she had “no prospects” and was “annoying” and basically just acted like the biggest douche canoe of all time.

Brendan and Pieper could have left it there and probably would have been branded “villains.” But for some reason that I honestly cannot comprehend, they proceeded the next day to continue to brag on camera about how their romance would make them famous. They discussed a June article in Us Weekly, which speculated they were dating. “You got a lot of followers from that — you’re welcome,” Pieper told Brendan, noting that she got nearly 10,000 after the article came out. “That’s insane,” Brendan said. Pieper said she had risen to about 78,000 followers when she left for the show.

ABC

Clowns being clowns.

“The best part is the amount of times your name is gonna be brought up before you’re on the show,” Brendan said, implying that her numbers would continue to grow.

The conversation was the most nakedly honest contestants have ever been about going on the show for Instagram fame in Bachelor Nation history. As scorned woman Natasha said, it seemed the duo had gone on the show “for clou-T!” But ultimately, Pieper and Brendan’s thirst for fame is what doomed them.

Soon after the episode aired, followers began to show their anger by hitting the couple where it hurts: Instagram. (The couple did themselves no favors by also posting snarky things on social media before the episode aired.) People began to unfollow both of them in droves. If they wanted to try and use the show’s viewership for social media fame, the viewers would make it hurt. Brendan — who progressed much further with his Bachelorette, Tayshia Adams, than Pieper did with her Bachelor, Matt James — had gone into the week with nearly 349,000 followers. His numbers began to fall faster than Theranos stock after the episode aired on Monday, dropping to fewer than 262,000 by the time of this writing. Pieper, who had topped 81,000 prior to the episode, has dropped back down to around 78,000.

However, fans have also actually made someone else’s influencer career a reality: Natasha’s. Her following has exploded, with many fans rallying online to give her the career prospects Brendan and Pieper desperately wanted. Many said they wanted to see Natasha pass Brendan in follower count (“LETS GO GIRLS! TIME TO GET NATASHA ABOVE BRENDAN!” wrote one person). Since the episode aired, Natasha has gone from 78,000 followers to over 375,000, and her numbers continue to climb.

Suzana, a K–12 technology director who in her spare time runs an Instagram account (@BachelorData) that tracks data related to the franchise, told me that Brendan’s precipitous drop and Natasha’s explosive growth are among the biggest she has seen since she began doing her analysis in 2018.

“I think the movement that happened on social media as soon as the conversation happened on the show really triggered an avalanche that caused some really unique trends,” she said. “I’m still confirming with my historical numbers, but I think it's safe to say [Natasha’s] is one of, if not the, highest growth trends we’ve seen.”

Brendon, she said, is also dropping faster than other past villains, even the notorious Jed Wyatt, who broke Hannah Brown’s heart on national television. His attempts at damage control, apologizing in an Instagram story on Wednesday and promising more contrition, have not staunched the bleeding.

This whole saga is actually a pretty pivotal moment in the franchise, and maybe for the influencer economy at large. One of the misconceptions today about the industry is that it is easy. Most people believe you look hot, you take photos, you get paid.

However, being an influencer is much more complicated than that for various reasons. The one that’s relevant to this conversation is it is so much harder to maintain an audience than it is to grow one. Sure, many of the women of the franchise in its halcyon days of Instagram fame, who gained followers easily, got lucky in some respects. But the ones who have stuck around, and actually made a career out of their platforms, have done so only because they learned about the business, carved out a dedicated audience, and have been able to maintain it.

Brendan and Pieper weren’t the first people to think this career path is easy. Bet they don’t think so now.


A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.