The women turning IG memes into lucrative careers
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
‘IT’S ALL ABOUT CREATING POWERFUL HUMAN CONNECTIONS – AND NO ONE DOES CONNECTION BETTER THAN WOMEN’