This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
The excitement of a dull personality
Ever since Bella Poarch came out with her first single, “Build a Bitch,” earlier this month, she’s been back on my radar. IM (musically uninformed) O, it’s a good song. The melody is catchy, the lyrics are cute and pithy, and the video is really fun to watch.
The thing that surprised me more than her song release was how many people unexpectedly took to it.
“Wait oh my god this was so cool” and “never thought I'd like this so much” were some of the top comments underneath her YouTube video, which has now been viewed more than 110 million times.
I can’t speak for the majority of YouTube viewers — but my expectations were so low that I was stunned how good Bella’s song was. It seemed like the headline to this event was less This Song Is Great And You Should Listen and more We Really Did Not Expect Much From Her, Huh.
Last year, the public’s reaction to Bella was a disjointed mess. She became a strange overnight star for the “M to the B” TikTok, which was so hypnotic and mundane that it sent everyone into an existential panic about why it was so popular. People were mad about it; they wrote thinkpieces and uploaded critical video essays to YouTube about why she’s “talentless.” Reporters and sleuthers dug up her past and tried to form a narrative that sometimes edged into conspiracy. Then, fans called her out for having a Japanese rising sun tattoo, a symbol of oppression and imperialism. So Bella had the tattoo covered. We did not know much about her at the time, but we were desperate to make sense of her. We needed to appease our own anxieties about why she was suddenly everywhere, seemingly just for twitching her nose and bouncing her head. We weren’t sure if we should be mad at Bella, or TikTok’s algorithm, or the media, or her fandom for enabling her fame.
I don’t mean for this to sound reductive, but most of her initial hype boiled down to being a conventionally attractive woman who appealed to a lot of people’s horny fantasies. It also explains the vitriol and obsession and panic to rationalize her. She’s hot, and we can’t allow her to just be hot. We didn’t know much about her at the time, because she didn’t speak much in her TikToks and she chose to be quiet and guarded even when paparazzi followed her around.
Today, we know a tiny bit more about her, at least what she has shared with us. She recently did a collab with Vogue about her makeup routine. It was cute and — I don’t mean for this to sound offensive — really boring. Bella Poarch is kind of bland and ordinary! Which is comforting to know, at least as proof that the discourse we’ve created around her is just that: self-created and projected onto her.
In the Vogue video, she talks about posting selfie TikToks leading to a “crazy” year, watching anime, and growing up in a Filipino household. She doesn’t reveal much more than that. She’s plainspoken, like Charli D’Amelio or Addison Rae, which leads me to believe she probably has more in common with the Charli D’Amelios and Addison Raes than anyone else on TikTok. Rebecca Jennings at Vox already started drawing these lines between them in a recent newsletter.
This newsletter is erring on the rambling side. I started thinking about writing it with some succinct thesis about who I think Bella Poarch is, or what we’ve learned about her, or whether all the criticisms and theories about her had any merit. But I ended up learning more about my own obsession with her, our collective moral panic about making her famous, and how low our standards were that we became so awestruck when she held a tune and delivered an entertaining music video.
I’m sure she has a well of lived experiences, opinions, and issues, just like any of us. But her current vibe is very go girl, give us nothing, and I feel assured by it. She’s neither a talentless industry plant nor someone whom we can dump our fetishes and envy onto. She’s been gifted with good genes, a decent singing voice, and she has enough tattoos to give her a shadow of edge. If this is the only image she chooses to project, we might not know more about her — but I think I’m OK with that.
She doesn’t need to be more important than that, and we don’t need to pitchfork her into obscurity to satiate our anxieties.
The moral of her story is the friends we made along the way.
OK, this is a cue for me to sign off — until next time,
The influencers are…not alright?
Last week, Erin Kern, an Oklahoma-based influencer and blogger, made an announcement to her 600,000 Instagram followers. Sitting on the floor and dressed casually in glasses and a sweatshirt, she said she had been privately dealing with a health issue. She has been losing her hair, and doctors think it’s caused by stress.
After dealing with her hair loss, Kern said, she began to wonder what in her life had been causing so much anxiety. Ultimately, she reached a conclusion: She needed to take a break from influencing for a few months.
“[I] need to decide if I want my life available for public consumption and what that looks like going forward,” she said.
Kern has various reasons to believe that quitting Instagram could help her. She said she loves her job and community, but the pressure has been getting to her. That pressure, she said, comes from her experience with Instagram’s algorithmic shifts and the constant competition with other influencers (like with loop giveaways and big, splashy posts). She called the influencer industry, at least as it exists on Instagram, a “broken system.” (I recommend watching her stories, as she has some interesting insights. Kern didn’t return my request for comment to expand upon her stories in this newsletter.)
Kern’s stories echoed a sentiment that influencers have been radiating lately: They are burned out. Which is not a shock. We are all burned out. Tons of thinkpieces have been written about pandemic malaise, burnout facing specific industries (like journalism), and just a general sense of blah. Maintaining our careers during this horrible time has felt impossible for everyone, and we are all starting to crack. As Rebecca Jennings wrote earlier this week for Vox about burnout among TikTokers, the “particular ennui of being a social media star is a microcosm of what’s happening to us all.”
No wonder we’re seeing influencers’ usually cheery demeanor start to falter. Since 2021 began, I have been noticing more and more of them addressing this issue. Like any industry, influencing has its own specific triggers for burnout. There are the algorithmic pressures Kern mentions, as well as the fact that the space has just become a lot more crowded as more and more people launch their own platforms. Loop giveaways have run amok, leaving tons of people with hugely inflated followings and skewing advertisers’ expectations. It is getting harder and harder to stand out.
There’s also the fact that it really seems like people are getting...meaner? My evidence is admittedly anecdotal, but many influencers I have spoken to agree. I have received many DMs from people in the industry saying that since 2020, the hate they get through comments and DMs has become markedly more hostile.
I think the reason for this is twofold: One, many influencers have, both unfairly and fairly, been forced to answer for their many missteps during the pandemic. Some have flouted COVID-19 safety protocols, traveled when they weren’t supposed to, or just generally seemed incredibly out of touch. Many also responded terribly to the calls for more diversity in the influencing industry during last summer’sBlack Lives Matter protests.
While these criticisms were warranted in many cases, some crossed a line. As the pandemic dragged on, all influencers soon became painted with a broad brush, all scapegoated as rich and careless “Covidiots,” a term that the New York Post used to describe Arielle Charnas. This has resulted in vitriol being raised at influencers across the board, whether they really deserve it or not.
Second, influencers are easy punching bags in general. Our lives have all kind of sucked this year — and when you’re angry, it is easy to take it out on someone online, especially if they seem to have a perfect life, as many influencers are accused of portraying.
So this confluence of factors has led to a general malaise among influencers, and I can tell it is wearing on them. Their tones seem sharper, and more and more people are sharing critical DMs they receive. They just seem sad. It’s clear that, like all of us, they need a break.
I hope we can recognize that being an influencer is a job like any other, and we need to give them a little grace. We all have struggled to put on a happy face at our jobs this year, and they have had to do it in front of thousands of people. Let’s take a deep breath and give them the space to adjust. And if they need time off, let them take it.