What It's Really Like To Be Instagram Famous

by Tori Telfer

As an “art,” Instagram is fairly straightforward. People enjoy photos with bright white lighting. People judge selfies, but “heart” them anyway. You can’t go wrong with a painstakingly arranged photo of coffee, a croissant, and fresh flowers. But what’s it like to have thousands upon thousands of people watching your every Insta-move? I attended an “Art of Instagram” panel at Create + Cultivate last weekend, where blogger Shea Marie of Peace Love Shea, Julianne Hough, Whitney Port, and The Fat Jew appeared as the IRL faces behind those super-popular accounts. Hough says that she gets more likes when she posts duck-face selfies; The Fat Jew noted that “Instagram FOMO” was a particularly serious type of social media paranoia. Whitney Port will unfollow someone if they’re “too narcissistic,” and The Fat Jew will unfollow someone if they post “one more LA sunset.”

But it was Shea’s comments that stuck with me. With more than 700,000 Instagram followers, the blogger has managed to turn her Instagram account into a full-time gig. She noted that she feels “a lot of pressure to post really beautiful photos” and that “basic sweats aren’t good enough anymore — everything has to be perfect.” So what's it like to be Instagram famous? I talked to Shea afterward to find out more about the dark side of Instagram, because if 729,000 followers isn’t the key to happiness, then why am I so obsessed with breaking 200?

1. You get used to having gazillions of followers

Just how surreal is it to upload a photo and immediately get hundreds of likes? "I think that now I’m so used to [having over 700K followers] that I don’t even think about it — I’m not really realizing HOW many people are going to see each picture," Shea says. "I try to quantify it sometimes; I think at Coachella there’s 70,000 people, and it seems like the most amount of people you’ll ever see in your life. And sometimes I’ll be there and I’ll be looking at all those people and I’ll be like, wow, [my Instagram followers are] like this times 10 or more. In that way, yeah, it feels surreal. But normally I don’t even realize it, I don’t think about what’s actually happening."

2. Even Instagram-famous people check for likes

"But is it addicting?" I asked. (I didn't tell her that for me, 20 likes on a photo is, like, NIRVANA.) "I always check for likes," she said. "You’re so curious — sometimes I know what photos will do really well, and sometimes it’s a surprise. I’ll be like, Wow, why did people like this photo? It wasn’t that great! Sometimes I’ll post a photo of me in the mirror when you can totally see the phone, and I’ll think, Nobody’s going to like it. And then it does really well, and I’m like whoa. You never know."

3. Her aesthetic wasn’t always this clean and crisp

She told me that in preparation for the panel, she scrolled all the way down to her earliest Instagrams ("it took two hours") and discovered a very color-happy past self. "Three years ago, I was using all these weird boarders, and stars, and this rainbow effect — but at the time, people were loving it! I remember using this one rose-colored filter, it was like the first filter ever, and my whole feed was rose-colored photos with a rainbow effect and little hearts on the side."

4. Instagram can be incredibly stressful

Once you commit to having An Instagram Presence, you have to keep it up... forever. "I feel pressure for every photo to be better than the last, or to post a certain amount of times a day, or to have an outfit that’s different every day, and it’s really stressful, because I’m working on so many different things," she says. "It does really tire me; sometimes I’m just like, I don’t want to post a photo today, I don’t want to look cute, I don’t want to have to live up to somebody else’s standards. I did this to myself, but I set a standard for myself — and you can’t go back from there, you have to always be getting better."

5. People don’t always understand that this is a job

Shea is a beautiful young women, so of course the world is full of people who assume she's just a shallow rando. "Instagram is such a job in itself for me. People don’t realize it; they think, Oh she’s just a silly girl just posting photos of herself on Instagram," she says. "But even just trying to come up with a different outfit everyday is literally a job in itself, and that just has to be a small, small part of my day with everything else that’s going on."

6. Her Instagram has a positive subtext

You probably won't catch her writing captions like "HATE THE WORLD TODAY/YOU'RE SO GOOD TO ME I KNOW BUT I CAN'T CHANGE." She tries to keep things sunny, and here's why: "I’ve really made a point to be an inspiring woman, to tell women that they can make a life for themselves, and to tell young girls that they can make something out of nothing. In my captions, I sometimes try to convey that, as a really strong independent woman, you can be on your own and you can be successful."

7. She tries to harness the buzz for good causes

Shea basically has an Instagram army at her disposal, so why not encourage them to give back a little? "This Thanksgiving, instead of posting my Thanksgiving meal, I posted that I was out helping others," she says. "Or, I did a holiday toy drive for Christmas and used my Instagram a bunch of times to be like, people, come bring toys, I’ll be there, I’d love to meet you."

8. She’s not 100 percent herself on Instagram

Everyone at the panel was preaching "authenticity" like it was a religion, but I really appreciated that Shea was realistic about it — because, come on, with 700K followers, everything is a lot more performative. "It’s such a hard balance," she says. "I’m in a position where I have a lot of people looking up to me, so I can’t always totally be myself, because I need to realize that there are a lot of people seeing what I’m posting. Sometimes my personal friends are like 'You’re totally not you on Instagram, you don’t show the real you, you don’t show how funny you are, or how not-so-proper you are,' and I’m like, 'Yeah, but you have to think that there’s a lot of young girls who are following me that look up to me.' What I do in my personal life is one thing, but when you’re any kind of public figure you owe it to society to set a good example."