February 8, 2021

I was on a press trip to Venice. This was in 2019, when press trips were a thing, and not a lavish artefact of pre-lockdown excess. I had the furthest to travel to the airport, so I was the first to arrive, making smalltalk with the PR about the rest of the party. It would be lifestyle journalists, mostly. A representative from the in-flight magazine of a luxury jet firm, which was not a thing I had ever imagined existed. And, said the PR, “an influencer”. An influencer, I thought, with a small thrill of snobbery about what a real-life influencer would turn out to be like.

It is objectively hilarious, as a society, to have invented a whole class of people whose job is to film themselves pretending to be excited as they open boxes of free stuff. Even funnier, there’s a whole other class of people who choose to watch the first class of people opening their boxes of free stuff and pretending to look delighted, and then (this really is the good bit) will go and buy what they saw someone else get for nothing and pretend to be delighted with.

Obviously I’ve done a bit of a disservice to the work of the influencer there. They don’t just open boxes of free stuff. They also go on free holidays, enjoy free meals, show off the free clothes they got in the latest drop from some brand or other — being an influencer is a multidimensional act of self-commodification. If you disdain influencers, and you very probably do, you likely think of them as “people who are paid to post selfies on social media”. Which is a weird thing for influencers to end up being hated for, given that this is pretty much exactly what they’re trying to project.

The word “influencer” suggests a particular kind of person. Reality TV. Taking trips to Dubai under lockdown. Slabs of gym-crafted boy-meat and Fake Bake-coloured arrangements of tits on towering legs. Having your own clothing line of sexy unitards and badly-cut blazers, made in a sweatshop in Leicester. Contouring. Protein supplements. Lip fillers. Misleading filters. Sharing crackpot 5G conspiracies and having to delete them when your brand partners get the fear. Hashtag sponcon.

But the world of influencers is wider than that. You get the beauty bloggers with their immaculately processed pictures on the one hand, and also the real-skin influencers, sharing unfiltered shots of their acne-marked cheeks. The perfectly slim fashion bloggers, and the fat-positive influencers, who are all about normalising that belly roll. Cleaning influencers with their fake nails and neutral walls, and mumfluencers who allow some relatable chaos into their public presence.

All of these have their power as influencers, because all of them — whatever niche they’ve fallen into — represent the same promise. That promise is: I have this life simply because of who I am. To exist is enough.

And wouldn’t we all like to believe that, a little bit. Even when an influencer is, technically, famous for doing something else more conventionally recognised as “work” (modelling, acting, singing, broadcasting, even journalism), their social media profile is supposed to be where you’ll see the real them. Even if the real them is enhanced with an artful vignette.

Which is why, however perplexing the existence of influencers might seem, and however imperilled they might be in the coronavirus economy, they make sense. For as long as advertising has existed, it’s had to accept that it’s an imposition on the public. An interruption to their programme or their magazine. But influencers are advertisers that the public wants to see. Even better, consumers are pre-profiling — brands just need to choose the influencer who looks like the people they want to sell to. No wonder Labour is keen for candidates to cultivate influencers, and reach beyond the kind of weirdos (me) who choose to follow politics.

I could spot the influencer as soon as she arrived at the gate. She was the one who showed up for a dawn flight with her blonde hair extensions ironed perfectly straight, in a bright red suit and red heels. While I spent the flight reading a novel, grateful for a chunk of time in the sky when nobody could ask me for anything, she spent it on her laptop, editing pictures for her Instagram. As we were ferried around the sights of Venice, she was the one antsily asking the PR when there’d be a chance to take the kind of pictures she needed.

I felt bad for her. For me, this was a jolly, but I could see her anxiety rising as a day of content opportunity slipped past. The next morning, I met her at breakfast. I was fragile from a very well-catered dinner the night before; she was perfectly made up, and ready to head back into Venice for another try at the photos. She explained how much time she spends pitching for brand partnerships — sometimes mocking up a whole campaign of posts on spec which advertisers might simply reject. A gig economy, only the commodity is your identity. Deliveroo, but you’re offering your own face.

She asked if I would help her with the pictures. I weighed up my hangover, told her I had to do some work of my own, and went back to my room to nap. I looked up her profile, and the jetset Barbie it showed seemed very different from the intent, focused woman I’d been talking to over my coffee. The Insta version of her was someone I didn’t want to be. The version I’d met at breakfast was someone I’d liked talking to.

She reminded me most of MPs I’d interviewed — the imperviousness to humiliation, the tolerance of rejection that let them go up to the public again and again. She corralled a tourist couple into taking her picture by St Marks. And why had I thought she’d be anything else? Because I suppose, despite my pretended cynicism, I believed the influencers’ own myth that what they show is the whole package. But maybe also because it’s hard to accept that so much work can go into parceling yourself out piece by piece. At least the Devil didn’t make Faustus pitch for it.