Social media celebrities: Life behind the likes

The Story So Far

“I wanted to make money from Instagram.  I wanted it to be my business.”

Twenty-one-year-old Rebecca Marshall is better known as @bexalicemarshall, or ‘Bekki’ to her 38.7k Instagram followers.  You would be forgiven for thinking that she was a reality star or professional model with an Instagram feed full of candid shots from Glasgow to LA taken on her £400 Olympus Pen E-PL7.

In reality, she is a Law student who has taken advantage of the growing popularity of social media celebrities.  One of the most popular kinds of social media celebrity is those who make their name on Instagram.

Term Definition
Social Media Celebrity someone who has become famous by means of the Internet, also known as internet celebrity, blogebrity and online celebrity (Wikipedia).
Instafamous “A person who’s famous on the popular app Instagram because they have thousands of followers. Person is usually a pretty girl who posts a thousand pictures of her face or whatever food she’s eating.” (Urban Dictionary)

“Instafamous” comes with a definition that sounds almost comical, but is completely accurate on many accounts.  Portraying this sort of lifestyle is not uncommon among social media celebrities and regular users alike, with #blogger having 34m posts on Instagram.  With the hashtag #instafamous having 12m posts, it seems that everyone wants in.

It makes sense:  our obsession with social media is at its highest with over a billion YouTube users, 1.23 billion daily Facebook users, 400 million daily Instagrammers and 313 million Twitter users a month, making these the most popular social media sites.


We see people like Marshall every day who become anything from our fashion inspiration to our #fitspo (41.8m Instagram posts) and with all of this constant exposure, it is no wonder that our interactions with social media celebrities may be affecting us more than we realise.

Recently, there has been discussion about the negative impact that social media use can have on our mental health.  Comparisons made on social media are more likely to lead to depression than social comparisons made offline, according to a 2016 study at Lancaster University.  Most Instagram celebrities only showing a glamorous representation of life, people of the same age and from the same area will find themselves thinking more and more, why not me?

Our buying habits can change as well.  Advertisers know the influence of popular personalities on social media and reach out to them for collaborations to give their products exposure to the right audience.  What better way to get new customers than to grab them from successful social media stars?

It all sounds pretty serious, but let’s see just how big the problems behind our favourite social media sites are, and what the rise of social media celebrities is really doing to us.

The Impact of Advertising on Social Media Users

The Social Media Celebrity





Meet Bekki.

Rebecca Marshall was just 19-years-old when she decided to capitalise on social media.  She has had Instagram for four years, but it wasn’t until two years ago that she saw the opportunity to make money and went for it.

Marshall knew that her Instagram was becoming popular when she started to receive emails from companies wanting to collaborate, and such partnerships have only become more common for her.

“Brands know the people who follow my account will trust and like what I recommend to them,” Marshall says.

An anonymous Instagram star reported to the Guardian that you generally need 10,000 followers to make a living from your Instagram account.

So the formula seems simple: get 10,000+ active followers and wait for your favourite brands to send you free stuff.  Do we really need to question why lots of young people are pining to be on social media and have the fame that seems oh-so easy to reach? Adam Pliskin addresses how this obsession all began in Elite Daily:

“Social media sites allow us to experience something eerily akin to fame. They give us a captive audience. They feed our egos by incessantly assuring us that someone is listening, that someone cares. This is what it is to be famous.

“[Social media] creates a need for celebrity. It gives you a taste of it. It allows you to imagine what it might be like to be famous.”

A statement that was written almost three years ago, but with everyday Joe’s appearing to make their careers out of social media, it is one still true today.

Even Marshall was greatly inspired to start her own journey by looking at others on social media.

“I had always liked Tumblr-style fashion photos, and would spend hours scrolling and trying to recreate that vibe with outfits that I put together.  Initially, I would constantly tag the companies in my posts – mainly ASOS – trying to get myself noticed,” Marshall says.


Marshall featured on the ASOS Instagram, @asseenonme, six months later.


When Becky White started working in PR 11 years ago, this wouldn’t have happened.   Social media celebrities, or “online influencers” simply weren’t a thing and it wasn’t until White began her own PR agency, Becky White PR, that connecting clients with bloggers became part of the PR package.

White credits this to the blog, Kingdom of Style:  one of the first to get endorsement deals.  Today, online influencers are a big part of her business where she works mostly with brands who offer free products to influencers, rather than paying them.

White states: “I’m very selective about what bloggers I match my clients with, and vice versa.  It’s very obvious when a company does blanket gifting.  You’ll see a range of influencers posing with the same item in the same way, and it looks very forced.”



White believes that matching the right collaborations means that regular social media users don’t have to be too wary of sponsored posts.  She states:

“We try to make the advertising as organic as possible by choosing the right person from our network of bloggers.  The blogger needs to like it, so we make sure the product on offer is something that will be of interest and relevant to the blogger and their followers.

“It needs to be right because they are putting the product out there under their name.”Despite this growing trend, it is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all formula.

“If I’m honest, it doesn’t always work.”

A big social media name can post about the brand, but it might not be the right fit for their audience, so to work it really has to look authentic.

“I don’t think it ever works on it’s own.  It needs to be paired with the right PR campaign,” White adds.

So why is it still something we see brands do so often?

“Brands can get lucky.  If the sponsored post is put up at the right time and seen by the right people, it can hugely increase the brands following and shift a lot of product,” White says.

Roughly 15 per cent of advertisements in the United States and Europe use celebrity endorsements and this is happening more frequently on social media, according to a 2017 study.  The success of marketing on social media seems to be dependent on the influencer being as genuine as possible, in order to be trusted by possible customers.

“While it is tempting to dole out free stuff to people with lots of followers on social media, it can be counter-productive because it tarnishes the reviews,” Tim Anderson wrote in the Guardian.

His warning to brands was published in 2013, but since then advertising via social media celebrities has only increased.  The percentage of marketers using Instagram grew from 36 per cent in 2015, to 44 per cent in 2016, which was the only main social media site to have seen a growth in the number of marketers using it between these years, according to the social media marketing industry report.

Marketers know that customers spend large amounts of their free time on social media, so a lot of their budget now goes towards digital advertising and social media, a 2016 study reports.

With a growing number of individuals having large followings on social media, collaborations between celebrities and advertisers are becoming harder to spot and the lines between reality and reviews are blurred.

Diet food and juice detox delivery company, Fuel Station, know all about the benefits of using online influencers as they have grown to become the UK’s leading juice cleanse detox and diet providers with the help of social media celebrities.

“We advertise this way because our customer demographic is 80% female and the majority are 18-40-years-old. We can then look at collaborating with those whose following fall into this category in order to build our brand awareness,” a Fuel Station spokesperson states.

When Marshall started receiving offers she took every opportunity, but is now a lot more selective.   She boasts ambassador deals with the likes of Boux Avenue and Abbott Lyon, has published sponsored posts for countless fashion brands including Pretty Little Things and MissPap, and has become pretty good at negotiating deals.

She says: “I pick all the clothes I wear.  When a company comes to me now, I chose all of the items I want them to send me so I have no real moral issue with publically supporting the companies.

“I want to represent myself truly.  I refuse anything leather or suede for ethical reasons.  It wasn’t always like this and I used to never ask about the ethics behind what I was accepting.  I used to advertise Tea Mi detox tea – and I have never drank tea.”


A lot of social media celebrities who are paid to flog products will reveal their collaboration by putting the likes of ‘ad’, ‘sc’ and ‘spons’ on their posts, as instructed by the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) endorsement guidelines.

Term Definition
Brand ambassador People who team up with businesses to promote products or brand campaigns on social media. “These promotions take the form of photos, hashtags and captions, and compensation depends on the brand, scope of the project and influencer’s bargaining power.”  Also known as social media/online influencers (The Huffington Post).
#ad This is an advertisement.
#sc This is sponsored content.
#spons This is a sponsored post.

Even with these hashtags, such posts are not daunting to fans and still prove incredibly popular.  This was shown when Selena Gomez’s sponsored Coca-Cola post held the title of the most liked Instagram post ever, until February 2017.  It was captioned, “when your lyrics are on the bottle #ad” and has received 6.7m likes to date.

Even though the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that vloggers must disclose paid content back in 2014, it is very easy for this to be done discreetly.  For the most part, even tagging brands in a post can be enough to dodge any legal issues.   However, in April 2017, the FTC sent out warnings to over 90 social media celebrities and marketers, saying that they need to do more to disclose sponsored posts.

The Regular Users

Still, the chance to make money and feel a small rush of fame adds to why more young people are aspiring to this lifestyle.  Nineteen-year-old law student Ben Urquhart is a self-confessed Instagram addict and has recently started trying to grow his own page by creating a second Instagram account with the aim of getting a mass amount of followers in as short a time as possible.

Urquhart is currently searching the archives of the camera roll on his phone and taking trips into London near where he studies to get photos to keep his content constant.


Urquhart says:  “I’ve always liked photography and using this to express myself online.  I used to upload videos to Instagram of my workouts at the gym, but since following accounts like @jayalvarrez – a normal guy who now has over 5 million followers – I’ve become more inspired to create and grow a brand.”

Gathering 160 followers on his second account in four weeks, Urquhart still has a long way to go, but averaging a photo a day and spending hours a week in his room editing photos on Adobe Lightroom, he is determined.

He continues: “I imagine being a social media celebrity is stressful.  It’s almost like running a second life and being a different person, but that could be a good thing.

“I’ve already found it to be an escape when studying is getting the better of me.  There is a whole community of like-minded people I have found by using hashtags.”

The glamour that social media celebrities present online is very appealing and can outweigh any inhibitions about pursuing the lifestyle.

This is something that 21-year-old sales assistant Agnesa Thaqi certainly thinks.  She follows 811 Instagram profiles, most of which are the accounts of social media celebrities rather than people that she actually knows.  Why?

“Instagram is where I get my fashion inspiration.  When I see a blogger in an outfit, I already know that it will look good in a photo if I was to buy it.

“It’s also great for discover new brands.  Everybody knows Topshop, but bloggers help me find something new and different.  For instance, I would never have heard of PrettyLittleThings if I hadn’t seen their clothes on a blogger, and now I’m a regular,” Thaqi reveals.

Beyond simply knowing the clothes will look good on, Thaqi is persuaded in other ways by the use of bloggers in brand’s marketing.

She states: “I follow these accounts so that I don’t miss any of the discount codes that usually come with such posts.  I know that most of these are ads, but I don’t care.  The bloggers are doing me a favour and I trust their opinions.

“They usually tag who they are wearing which is so convenient – I can just click on the tags and get myself the look.”

Even with Instagram becoming a one-stop shop for downtime and shopping, admiring these still does bring up other feelings in the followers of these accounts.

Thaqi says: “I feel both excited and sad when I look at their posts.  They have my dream job.  I think it’s absolutely brilliant that people can get paid to look good and wear clothes, and I would do it in a heartbeat if I had a bigger following online myself.

“Don’t get me wrong, I know it won’t be easy for them – It can take me an hour just to edit one photograph for Instagram, never mind the pressure they will have to post all the time.  But if they get free clothes and money at the end, it seems worth it.”

Of course, not every keen Instagram user feels the effect of social media celebrities and their collaborations with brands. Nineteen-year-old maths student, Katie O’Neill says:

“If anything, I’m put off by pictures that look sponsored.  Anyone posting a picture of them in town in a fancy dress in the middle of the day has clearly just put it on for the photo and I’m not sure why those posts are supposed to appeal to me.”

Twenty-one-year-old barman Gavin Neilson is equally unimpressed.

He says: “I only use Instagram to follow my friends, cute animal accounts and the odd celebrity.   Even when I see their posts, I’m never tempted to interact with them or persuaded to buy what they’re selling.”

Following the advice of social media celebrities might end up with an unused product here, and a fashion faux-pas there, and for many, this is as bad as it gets.

However, for some this can become a deeper issue.   Marshall talks about the negative effects on her.

She states: “Sometimes it is hard. You might have to take photos for a company within a certain time limit, which means cancelling plans and trying to deal with bad weather conditions – which happens a lot in Glasgow!  Last week, I went into town to take promo pics.  I had a lot to shoot in not a lot of time so had to get changed in the car.

“I’ve also had comments before like ‘her body is hideous’, but most of the criticism I get comes more locally from people I know.  They don’t understand what I’m doing and can be quite negative.”

Marshall says that social media affects her the most when she becomes the user rather than celebrity.

“If I’m using Instagram for too long, I start to compare myself with other users which can make me feel down and I start to think ‘why can’t I look like that?’  At that point I need to take a break for a few hours,” she adds.

Even with tight deadlines from advertisers, and spending hours on Instagram, the idea of being a social media celebrity is captivating.  I wanted to find out to some degree what that lifestyle was actually like.  So I gave myself the challenge to grow and maintain an Instagram in the style of a social media celebrity, trying to find out more about the effects of this career.  I listed my top tips for becoming a social media celebrity below.


The account I applied these tips to on Instagram can be found at Instagram: @sarrachristine_


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