What It’s Actually Like to Be an Instagram Model

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

It's a Wednesday morning in July and I'm watching a relatively unknown woman get ready for a photoshoot at her flat in northeast London. There's no backdrop, no team for hair and makeup, and aside from a camera, no additional equipment or assistants. There isn't an actual client or publication commissioning the photos, either.

"You should wear that lipstick you posted yourself wearing yesterday," says the photographer who has come to shoot 22-year-old Emma Breschi.

"Oh, the Kylie Lip Kit one?" Emma asks. "It's so hard to put on, but OK."

Emma is a self-proclaimed Instagram model—not to be confused with a model on Instagram, the Gigi Hadids and Kendall Jenners who use the app to promote their traditional modeling careers. Emma says she uses the platform as a vehicle for career advancement, creative expression, and a way to earn money. How all that works, and to what end, is where the murkiness of Instagram modeling really comes into focus.

By her own telling, Emma doesn't fit into the typical body norms of either conventional or plus-size modeling. She has a commercial agent, but uses social media to hoist herself into the view of bookers who wouldn't normally work with someone of her body type. She posts the sort of hashtag-heavy, "body-confident" captions—"Note to 13 year old self: Emmerz, it's just a bikini. SO YOU BETTER WERQ IT HUNTY"—that earn her admiration from followers as well as offers for work and free clothes from brands who want to piggyback off that message.

"If someone offered you a lot of money to take a picture of something, would you do it?" Emma asks me. "It depends on the brand, but I'd do it if that brand ties into what I believe. I don't need money to buy expensive things, just money to live off. If I can get a couple of jobs in a month, that's my rent sorted."

Today's she's on a "test shoot" job with Simone Steenberg, a Danish fashion and portrait photographer she met DM'ing on Instagram. Neither of them will be paid for their time, but when they post the pictures from the day they'll tag each other, opting to maximize their nebulous "influence" rather than make actual cash.

If Emma's only work came from unpaid test shoots like this one, she wouldn't be able to earn an actual living. But it doesn't. She also takes photos for brands like House of Sunny, NOE Garments, and Ukulele Fashion—some of whom she models for.

In a good month she says she can earn up to a couple thousand pounds from both her photography and modeling. It's not consistent enough yet, though, so she also works in a pub around the corner from her flat; the owner recognized her from what he called her "well, risky" photos.

Really, though, Emma says she didn't plan to model. "All the people that I tend to follow are amazing women not giving a shit about anyone's opinion, and when I saw that I was like, 'Maybe I should try out that stuff,'" Emma says. "I never set out to be a model. I think of myself as an image-maker, and what I do in front of the camera helps me be better behind it as well."

There's a lot of this rather vague "creative speak" when Emma talks about her job, something that surprised me when I first entered this world. I'd assumed that the women who call themselves Instagram models might be seeking and using male attention as a route to fame, but that didn't bear out. Instead, it seems that they use the platform primarily as a means to an end.

Speaking to 19-year-old Daisy, or @PinkandTonic, feels similar. Daisy, a student at Oxford University, knows she doesn't have the body type to be a conventional model, but sees modeling as a sort of stepping stone to other creative work—making clothes, or maybe styling. "If I already have this massive platform of people established, then anything I want to do, I already have a huge group of people I can market that to."

"I have no interest in guys commenting on my photo," she continues. "It's not about them being a guy, it's about the kind of comments they leave. Comments from girls are like, 'OMG this is gorgeous, I love these clothes, You look amazing'; comments from guys most of the time are a side smirk emoji and a flame. It's so different."

It may be different, but the main trope in photographing Instagram models still appears to revolve around guys looking at women, while photographing them. That concept stretches back to the late 2000s, and the boyfriends of fashion bloggers charged with photographing their girlfriends in their various outfits—see Rumi Neely, Aimee Song, and Chiara Ferragni.

One of Simone Steenberg's photos from the "test shoot"

Today, an "Instagram model" is perceived as a pouting woman in her 20s who relies on well-established, largely male photographers to boost her profile. In some cases, that can all fall apart: Bleeblu, a popular photographer based in the US, was accused of coercing a teenage model into nude photoshoots in public places last year on Tumblr (allegations he has publicly denied). "I was an insecure and naive 19-year-old fangirl," the model wrote, "and he was a 27-year-old experienced and popular photographer. This dynamic made me easy to persuade, despite my apprehension."

"I do think some they're gonna get a big following back in return. But the industry is so small, things get around."

By Insta-fame standards, both Emma and Daisy's followings are modest, at 4,400 and 2,400, respectively. To hear from someone with bigger numbers, I got in touch with Charlie Barker, a 20-year-old model from Nottingham with more than 600,000 followers. She was scouted on Instagram and signed by modeling agency Select in 2014.

Instead of sliding into Barker's DMs, I contacted her through her agent—a sign of how her career has graduated from the ranks of Instagram's informal accessibility. Still, she says over email that it's possible at this point for models to make a living based on Instagram alone, but that they'd probably have to be willing to hawk any old product that comes along—"a lot of promoting detox teas"—rather than opting for a more discerning approach. However, if and when representation from a major agency does come along, as it did for Charlie, an existing fan base means an Instagram model's creative and actual bargaining power could be superior to that of a regular model.

"When I first got signed, my modeling and Instagram were very separate," she says. "Although I see them as segregated I think clients see the creativity I endorse within my page and want something more than 'just a model.'"

Even if they don't get to a Charlie Barker level of followers, talking to Daisy and Emma you get the impression that fame isn't necessarily the goal. This isn't thirst-trap Instagram, with bums angled at phone cameras in selfies to ultimately lead to some free tickets to Lovebox. It's more like shrewd career planning that builds on and relies on other people's "likes." Daisy enjoys modeling "like I enjoy shopping—that doesn't mean it's all I want to do with my life."

"Instagram has become such a big part of—I don't want to say life, but maybe I should—what I'm trying to achieve," Emma says. "But I'm not just a model."

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We Asked Drag Artists at a Family-Friendly Festival if Drag’s Gone Mainstream

All photos by the author

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

RuPaul, international drag champion and mastermind behind the hit American TV show that bears his name, recently said in an interview that drag "will never be mainstream." This weekend London plays host to a "family friendly" festival of contemporary drag, where The Glory—a queer cabaret-driven East End pub—collaborated with cultural behemoth the National Theatre. Together they're set to deliver three days of performance to the type of audience more likely to go for Saturday strolls by the Southbank than glitter their faces up for a night at Sink the Pink (perhaps to Ru's surprise).

With a collaboration on this scale, that's merging alternative culture with one of the most traditional theatre spaces, surely drag's crossed over. Rather than just take RuPaul's word for it, I headed down to the theatre to ask some of the Glory Days performers one question: has drag gone mainstream?

Edith Pilaf

I certainly think with shows like RuPaul's Drag Race, and with drag queens now getting more exposure, it's certainly going more mainstream, but I don't think that necessarily means its underground roots are being compromised. The sort of RuPaul brand of drag is very female impersonation-orientated and the fact that in east London there are women that are drag queens, means it doesn't necessarily have to be one gender pretending to be another—it's really incredible as it's become more about deconstructing gender as an idea.

A Man to Pet

Oh yes, it is definitely more mainstream than it used to be. I started ten years ago and there are more people doing it now, expressing it. It doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman either—I think everyone can express themselves a little bit better when they have some kind of outfit that changes who they are. Prosthetic boobs or a wig, it just gives you a different kind of character, and I think people are currently loving that.


It's been mainstream for quite a few years now. Drag Race has changed the whole face of drag completely—everyone's doing it now.

VICE: RuPaul actually said drag could never go mainstream because it's so different.
Pffft, that bitch made it mainstream! And there is a place for drag in the mainstream, as transgender issues especially are changing a hell of a lot, becoming more prevalent and getting major press. I think the general public are becoming more accustomed to not living within gender binaries and the grey areas between. RuPaul is full of shit—go out there, perform the shit out of it, and change people's perceptions of the binaries by being fabulous.

Adam All

Yes I do think it's becoming more mainstream, but there are limits. As drag kings one of the major things we look at is breaking down those boundaries; if the boundaries weren't there then we wouldn't be able to break them. There will always be boundaries and there will always be things that need to be raised and talked about.

Baby Lame

I've already seen some little queens in the front row that are just like "I wanna put a dress on daddy, I wanna put a dress on!" So I think it looks like drag's going to take over the National. People are becoming more and more genderless so hopefully we won't even realise we're doing drag. That's what I hope it's going to be like.

Mzz Kimberley

It's an exciting time for drag because the general public are starting to see what it's is about; it's not just some men dressed up in women's clothes, going out and miming to records. They've learnt from RuPaul that just putting on makeup is an art form, being creative with the clothes, the dance routines. We don't just go out and get drunk at night time, sleep all day—no. We're not drinking, we're in dance classes, I'm in voice classes—acting classes, speech classes, you name it.

Jonny Woo

Lily Savage was pretty mainstream, she was on breakfast TV, she was on Blankety Blank. That was drag going mainstream. What we're doing here with the National Theatre, I don't know if it's so much mainstream as bringing our art and our nonsense and our stupidity and being offered a platform to show it to people. And the National Theatre is acknowledging that.

What a ridiculous statement for RuPaul to make—his "Supermodel (You Better Work)" was a huge pop song. Is that mainstream? If not then what is? Crossdressing a man to a woman, gender politics aside, is still viewed by the mainstream as provocative, weird, difficult, and entertaining—there is room for that in mainstream but I think that comes down to how that person behaves in the moment. The sexualized nature of performance can challenge people sometimes.

John Sizzle

It's having a renaissance since probably the 80s. I think the last time there was high-profile drag was Lily Savage during Blankety Blank and when she was doing the Royal Variety show and things like that. It's always been about hasn't it—Dame Edna and that.

Obviously there is a subversive side to it and we don't need to become so mainstream that it's completely acceptable, as it'll lose its power if it just becomes another thing that you see everyday. It has to be a bit darker and a bit naughty.

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