The women turn­ing IG memes into lu­cra­tive ca­reers

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - Contents -

The phone was buzzing so hard and so fre­quently, it woke Clau­dia Oshry Sof­fer up. It had been a huge night – she’d landed in LA and started par­ty­ing, but she was sure she had fol­lowed her golden rule: don’t post when drunk. Why was her phone blow­ing up, then? Bleary-eyed, she started scrolling – and sat bolt up­right. Mes­sages, hun­dreds of them, all telling her the same thing. The most im­por­tant thing that could ever hap­pen had hap­pened: Harry Styles, ar­guably the world’s big­gest pop star, had fol­lowed her on In­sta­gram. For Clau­dia, the hard­work­ing gal be­hind @girl­with­no­job, it was ‘ev­ery­thing’.

‘I couldn’t breathe, I was dy­ing – hon­estly, it was one of the cra­zi­est mo­ments! To think he would know about me – oh, my God – it was a big deal,’ she says with her trade­mark rapid fire, stop-start de­liv­ery.

It might have been a ca­reer and per­sonal high­light, but the then-21year-old Clau­dia was get­ting used to high­lights. Just a few years be­fore, she was a dis­grun­tled in­tern and New York Univer­sity stu­dent, tak­ing out her frus­tra­tions with her co-work­ers on her un­known blog. By the time that morn­ing in LA rolled around, her full-time job was sim­ply post­ing on In­sta­gram – and ex­perts es­ti­mate she was earn­ing fees in the tens of thou­sands to do so.

How did a young woman who got fired from her first in­tern­ship be­come an In­sta­gram sen­sa­tion and one of the most in­flu­en­tial mil­len­nial voices on so­cial me­dia? One word: memes. For a long time, memes were the nerdy on­line equiv­a­lent of a high-five, but are now a pop-cul­ture phe­nom­e­non.

A meme be­gins life as an im­age, a video, a car­toon char­ac­ter, or a catch­phrase. What makes it grow is the abil­ity for thou­sands of peo­ple to play with it, change the text and make it their own – while keep­ing the in­side-joke feel. We quote memes to­day the way we quoted lines from sit­coms 10 years ago – as a short­hand way of show­ing we be­long to the same tribe.

In­sta­gram ac­counts of cu­rated and orig­i­nal memes are at­tract­ing mil­lions of the best kind of fol­low­ers: en­gaged, loyal and of­ten ob­ses­sive, which, ICYMI, rep­re­sents big money IRL. Re­lat­able, vi­ral and funny, memes are a mar­ket­ing dream; Gucci re­cently col­lab­o­rated with ‘in­ter­na­tional meme cre­ators’, and awards cer­e­monies are all about the post-event memes.

Some of the most suc­cess­ful meme cre­ators are women in their 20s. Meme mavens such as Jes­sica An­teby (who is mar­ried to meme wun­derkind El­liot Te­bele of @Fuck­Jerry fame) has 3.7 mil­lion fol­low­ers at @beige­cardi­gan. Over at @betches there are 6.2 mil­lion. Then add in the shares and re­grams, and their place in pop cul­ture, and these women eas­ily have some of the most in­flu­en­tial ac­counts on In­sta­gram.

Lola Tash sat on a plane destined for LA, al­ready miss­ing her best friend, Ni­cole Ar­giris, who was stay­ing in Canada to study. She usu­ally would have turned to Ni­cole and joked about how ner­vous she was on the in­side, de­spite look­ing to­tally put-to­gether. But, for the first time since they met in high school, her best friend wasn’t be­side her. Lola pulled out her phone, found a photo that made her laugh, added a cap­tion that said it all and posted it on the In­sta­gram ac­count they had set up to­gether. ‘It started like an on­line diary: ev­ery­thing that hap­pened, we’d meme,’ Lola says. She and Ni­cole didn’t set out to win In­sta­gram when they be­gan @MyTher­a­pistSays in July 2015. Yet after just six months, their ac­count had 500 000 fol­low­ers.

The pair cre­ated their own memes by find­ing pho­tos that in­spired them and study­ing memes they liked. ‘We got the hang of it quickly,’ says Tash. ‘Within a week, we had 2 000 fol­low­ers. And it was just us, liv­ing our day-to-day lives.’ These days, 2.7 mil­lion fol­low their self-dep­re­cat­ing memes, from mini com­edy scripts cap­tur­ing bit­ter­sweet mo­ments of modern life, to pictures of an­i­mals with ex­pres­sions that con­vey deep hu­man truths about dat­ing, weight and tex­ting.

Clau­dia, too, be­gan meme­ing on In­sta­gram as a side hus­tle. ‘I had started a blog called Girl With A Job, where I ba­si­cally talked shit about ev­ery­one I worked with. I hated that job,’ she says. ‘When I got fired, I changed the name to Girl With No Job and took to In­sta­gram. My aim was to let peo­ple know about the blog, but then I fell into meme cul­ture and cre­ated a whole new brand.’

In both cases, it was a per­fect storm of nat­u­ral tal­ent meet­ing the ideal so­cial plat­form. Ac­cord­ing to Lola and Ni­cole, ‘we knew we were witty, funny, sharp and wry and quick; peo­ple always grav­i­tated to­wards that and said we should have a stand-up rou­tine. But we have zero peo­ple skills, so on­line is where we live and die.’

Life and death on­line is bru­tal: you ei­ther get liked or you don’t. They be­lieve the se­cret of their suc­cess is au­then­tic­ity. ‘Ev­ery­thing on the ac­count is us with­out any bar­rier. We have never com­peted for an au­di­ence; we just main­tained our voice, be­ing as gen­uine as we could. We didn’t know so many girls felt this way. So many of us have anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion, mild forms of men­tal ill­ness... We just aimed to put a smile on their face for a day.’

Clau­dia also recog­nised the im­por­tance of stay­ing true to her voice. ‘My “thing” is PG-13 con­tent that is fe­male-fo­cused and pop cul­ture-cen­tric,’ she told Ga­lore. ‘Ev­ery­thing I post fits un­der that um­brella.’ In a Huf­fPost in­ter­view, she de­scribed her­self as ‘ob­nox­ious, re­lat­able, fem­i­nine-driven, out­ra­geous and don’t-take-any­thing­too-se­ri­ously-on-my-page-or-I’ll-have-to­block-you’.

Get­ting likes is one thing; stay­ing power is an­other. Ac­cord­ing to Mau­reen Polo, senior vice-pres­i­dent of Brand Stu­dio at Fullscreen Me­dia, ‘hav­ing the passion to carve out what makes you unique, then be­ing con­sis­tently au­then­tic to that voice

– that’s the hard­est thing to do.’ She works with dig­i­tal stars to mon­e­tise their brands and be­lieves women are par­tic­u­larly well suited to these kinds of me­dia plat­forms. ‘It’s all about cre­at­ing pow­er­ful hu­man con­nec­tions to drive mon­eti­sa­tion – and no one does con­nec­tion bet­ter than women. It all starts with that au­then­tic con­nec­tion: if you are true to your­self, true to your pas­sions, money will come,’ she says.

De­spite the job de­scrip­tion of Meme In­flu­encer look­ing like ‘abil­ity to lie in bed on phone’, stay­ing on top in this new fron­tier is hard work. ‘Women have to find their niche, work a lit­tle bit harder… They have to build a busi­ness plan around them­selves and be a pho­tog­ra­pher, edi­tor, videog­ra­pher, pro­ducer, a per­son­al­ity; and anal­yse their au­di­ence and pro­gramme their con­tent,’ notes Mau­reen.

Clau­dia’s days are full, in a modern way. ‘I wake up at 8:40, out of bed at 9am after check­ing what I missed while I was asleep – a lot of celebrity stuff hap­pens in LA overnight. Then I head to the Ya­hoo! Stu­dios in Times Square to record my pod­cast, The Morn­ing

Breath. By 11am, I’m ready to go: tak­ing calls, meet­ing with brands and agen­cies, go­ing to events and cam­paigns.’ She memes on the go, post­ing four to five times a day. ‘It’s im­por­tant to keep it spon­ta­neous so I can pre­serve au­then­tic­ity and be

com­ment­ing in real time on pop cul­ture events. At some point in the day, I have to catch up with re­al­ity shows and en­ter­tain­ment news – I have to stay in the know at all times.’

Lola and Ni­cole are also busy, post­ing every two to three hours. ‘We used to find an im­age and toss cap­tions back and forth, but now we’re both trav­el­ling so much, we take turns and pick up if the other one can’t post,’ says Lola.

‘It’s a full-time job now,’ adds Ni­cole. ‘It’s not an adult job, but there are adult re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and we’re very con­sci­en­tious and re­spect­ful.’

Adult job or not, work­ing as in­de­mand creatives re­quires staff and sup­port net­works. These women need peo­ple around them they can trust and, for the most part, they’re keep­ing it in the fam­ily. Lola’s two older sis­ters both con­trib­ute to @MyTher­a­pistSays. ‘One of my sis­ters de­signed the web­site, my other sis­ter helped de­sign the cloth­ing line and our mothers have been so in­cred­i­bly sup­port­ive,’ she says. ‘When we’re on the plane and can’t post, we send them the meme to post for us. They’re so help­ful and proud, and they never have to say, “Get off your phone and do some­thing pro­duc­tive.” They’re more likely to say, “Do not re­move that phone from your hand!”’

Clau­dia, who re­cently signed with a tal­ent agency and a man­age­ment agency, still op­er­ates on her own but col­lab­o­rates with fam­ily: she co-hosts The Morn­ing Breath with her sis­ter, Olivia. Clau­dia’s hus­band, Ben, who en­cour­aged her to con­sider mememak­ing as a ca­reer, has joined the field as an in­flu­encer strate­gist. The cou­ple work to­gether oc­ca­sion­ally, par­tic­u­larly for branded con­tent, but oth­er­wise lead sep­a­rate on­line lives.

Armed with mil­lions of fol­low­ers and data to prove their reach, suc­cess­ful In­sta­gram meme ac­counts can earn sig­nif­i­cant coin. Han­dles such as @Fuck­Jerry, with about six mil­lion to seven mil­lion im­pres­sions per post, charge a cost per 1 000 im­pres­sions, or CPM, of $5 (R68). This means brands can ex­pect to pay at least $30 000 (about R450 000) for a piece of spon­sored con­tent, which they are in­creas­ingly happy to do in or­der to get their brand in front of an en­gaged, younger au­di­ence.

Other sources of in­come in­clude set fees, en­dorse­ment deals, fees for post­ing from an event, and in­come from fran­chis­ing their brand. Lola and Ni­cole were hired to work on Gucci’s meme cam­paign and Clau­dia has worked for Uber, Food Net­work and Spanx. Hélène Heath, senior edi­tor at Dash Hud­son, a New York-based vis­ual in­tel­li­gence plat­form, told web­site High­sno­bi­ety, ‘There’s no rule book when it comes to what in­flu­encers can charge for memes. It can climb into the thou­sands real quick.’

If these women are earn­ing money, they are not openly spend­ing it. Lola and Ni­cole are rein­vest­ing most of their meme in­come into their pod­cast pro­duc­tion, and do­nate to men­tal­health and an­i­mal char­i­ties. Their only splurge so far has been a trip to Europe, choos­ing each lo­ca­tion based on where their friends were. ‘We got text mes­sages and we were like, “Okay, we’re on our way.” We went to Mykonos, Istanbul, Vi­enna and Lon­don. It was such a spon­ta­neous sum­mer.’

Clau­dia is stay­ing closer to home. ‘Hon­estly, I am a cheap bitch. Be­fore, when I was a reg­u­lar kid, I never re­ally thought about money, but now I am earn­ing it, I am as cheap as hell,’ she says. Her one dream pur­chase? A com­mer­cial frozen-yo­ghurt ma­chine in­stalled in her home.

Yet it seems there’s not much time for splurg­ing when you’re build­ing a me­dia em­pire. Lola and Ni­cole are writ­ing a book to­gether, de­sign­ing a range of ath­leisure wear, de­vel­op­ing their pod­cast and in talks about a tele­vi­sion show. ‘We’re cross­ing stuff off the bucket list pretty quickly,’ says Ni­cole.

‘We’d love to work for Chanel – Karl [Lager­feld] is so meme­able,’ adds Lola.

Mean­while, Clau­dia has given her dream list of projects for the next five years to her agents at Cre­ative Artists Agency. ‘I fully in­tend to take over the world from my bed­room,’ she de­clares. ‘It’s go­ing to be won­der­ful.’ mc



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