What It’s Actually Like to Be an Instagram Model

For many young women, it’s a means to a creative end—but how many of them can make a living from hashtagged photos?

This article curated from VICE.

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 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.

“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.

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.

“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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