In September, model Gigi Hadid--she of the bombshell curves and recent Victoria’s Secret waves--took to Instagram to defy online trolls among her then-6.5 million followers who criticized her voluptuousness.
She reminded them of something people often forget about the genetically blessed: “I’m human, and I’m not going to lie, I did let the negativity get to me a bit.”
It was a bold admission of body insecurity from the 20-year-old beauty who, in the last two years, has become one of most buzzed-about supermodels, up there with her model friends Cara Delevingne and Kendall Jenner.
It was also a defining moment in our age of Instagram and celebrity models—one of many instances of a famous face taking control of her celebrity narrative, establishing herself in a position of power even as she exposes her vulnerability. And it represents a huge shift of power between celebrities and the media.
Gigi, Cara, and Kendall are their generation’s Cindy, Christy, and Naomi: the new It Girl models who have become their own brands, dominating the industry with their striking looks, family lineage, and—most of all—their social-media influence.
Among the surfeit of celebrity Instagram photos posted by celebrities, frequently with newsworthy text or captions like Hadid’s, these models are running their own PR machines. Their Instagram posts are fodder for hot takes and think pieces in mainstream media websites like this one.
Indeed, models are more influential now than ever before because they operate predominantly outside the traditional realm of celebrity influence. They’ve seized control of their image and personal brand from agents and PR reps and the media.
In the three months since Gigi Hadid posted to Instagram about being body-shamed, she’s debuted on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and accrued 4 million more followers on Instagram. Her social media influence has ballooned as she’s become a poster girl for body positivity.
Cara Delevingne, the 23-year-old British modeling sensation, was perhaps the first model of her generation to develop her personal brand on Instagram.
She’s been a fixture on the catwalk and in fashion editorials for nearly five years, but it was on social media where she distinguished herself as a personality and a role model in the past two years or so.
She posts goofy, unglamorous photos and videos of herself to her (now 24.1) millions of Instagram followers, with dry, self-deprecating captions. Her feed is filled with inspirational quotes and cheeky jokes; family pics and cute animal photos.
Nothing is unfiltered on Instagram, but Delevingne has managed to portray a seemingly authentic image of herself as the silly, fun-loving girl everyone wants to be friends with.
Kendall Jenner has twice as many followers as her bestie Cara, who has cut back on modeling gigs to focus more on acting.
Jenner, meanwhile, has become the biggest face of fashion in addition to being part of the ubiquitous Kardashian clan. Her Instagram feed is more sex bomb than goofball, though she occasionally shows us she cares about feminism, family, and friends, too.
This is the “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us” stuff that the tabloid US Weekly has been selling for years--only now it comes directly from celebrities themselves.
Tinkerbell-sized waists and other impressive measurements are still important, but a model’s social media following may be her most valuable asset.
Brands pay models to feature their products on their Instagram accounts, where they have a bigger, more quantifiable audience than they do in fashion magazines and billboards.
Jenner, for instance, is the global ambassador for Estée Lauder, whose president has described her as “the ultimate Instagirl.” Jenner and Hadid both plugged Victoria’s Secret numerous times on Instagram during and after this year’s show.
Lesser-known models are attempting to make a living (and hopefully become famous) on Instagram and other social media platforms alone. This doesn’t always end well.
Take 19-year-old Essena O’Neill, a former Instagram model and YouTube star who recently captivated the Internet with a video of herself mid-breakdown, announcing she was “quitting” these gigs after wasting her teenage years “being addicted to social media, social approval, and my physical appearance.”
The video was disturbing to watch, not only because O’Neill was so visibly distressed but because she was seeking social media fame even when renouncing it.
She redirected her fans to a new website, Letsbegamechangers.com, where she’d rebranded herself as an anti-social media activist.
That site now redirects to O’Neill’s personal website, which advertises her latest project: a book titled How to Be Social Media Famous. Even after “quitting” social media, she’s still trying to make money off of it.
O’Neill is one of a handful of little-known models who have enjoyed fleeting moments of mainstream fame after taking up cudgels against the fickle fashion and modeling industries.
Many of them say they’re inspired by models like Delevingne, who quit runway modeling because her health suffered amidst the pressure to stay thin.
In September, days before Hadid’s Instagram post about body-shaming, Agnes Hedengård, a 19-year-old Swedish model, made headlines after posting a video to YouTube and Facebook claiming she’d been rejected from multiple modeling jobs for being “too big.”
In October, 23-year-old Charli Howard cursed out her modeling agency in a Facebook rant that went viral: “Here’s a big FUCK YOU to my (now ex) model agency… I will no longer allow you to dictate to me what’s wrong with my looks and what I need to change in order to be ‘beautiful’ (like losing one fucking inch off my hips), in the hope it might force you to find me work.”
Howard had in fact been inspired by outspoken models who have distinguished themselves from the parade of walking coat hangers. “Cara Delevingne and [model] Ashley Graham have brought agencies’ treatment of models to light and the stress they can cause,” Howard told the Daily Mail.
It says everything about the perverse Internet bubble we live in that most of us only hear about these models when they mount their own body-positivity publicity campaigns.
We are seeing a new kind of celebrity and celebrity model, and a new set of power dynamics between them and the media.
The celebrities, rather than the publications that write about and link to their social media feeds, have become the primary source through which people consume news and entertainment on the Internet.
The Insta-models have blazed a trail in managing their own images for public consumption. Whether they can parlay this skillful self-curating into new levels of power and influence remains to be seen.