Forget album covers and ad campaigns. The hottest celebrity pictures are on your cell phone.
Lately, I’ve been waking up with Gisele. Every day, one of the world’s highest-paid supermodels greets me with a beaming smile and an ebullient “Good morning!”—sometimes while she’s striking a yoga pose. It matters naught that the beautiful Brazilian wouldn’t recognize me if she fell off the catwalk into my lap. And I’m not concerned that a half-million other people are in on our conversation. Gisele and I are Instagram buddies, and that means we have a connection.
That social media offers stars a middle-man-free link to their fans is old news—even the Pope (@Pontifex) is directly ministering to the flock via Twitter. What has changed is the extent to which celebrities, who used to claim in interviews that they wanted to protect their privacy, are prepared to grant unfettered access to their lives, homes, and misadventures.
In light of recent public relations debacles like Amanda Bynes’s Twitter meltdown, it makes sense that much of this brand building and faux familiarity is taking place on Instagram: The photo-sharing app allows users to project taste, personality, and a point of view but requires even less introspection than do outlets like Twitter or Facebook. It can be a lot easier—and safer—to share photos of what’s in front of you than what’s on your mind. And while paparazzi shots are often purposefully unflattering (“Stars Without Makeup!”) and magazine and album covers obviously stylized and staged, candid pics promote the fantasy of fan as friend—an illusion that can be extremely lucrative.
Case in point: Rihanna. Many stars provide anodyne behind-the-scenes glimpses into their lives (see Beyoncé) and carefully calibrated examples of their taste (see Lauren Conrad), but the Bajan singer knows her career is based on the public’s perception of her as a good girl gone bad and that there is no point in giving her fans anything else. Those who follow celebrities on social media are four times more likely to also follow a brand and to share that brand’s content with their friends, which may explain why neither MAC cosmetics nor River Island—two mainstream labels that Rihanna promotes—seem to mind seeing photos of their star spokeswoman topless, practically bottomless, raining bills on strippers, and firing up what appear to be gigantic joints.
Thanks to this uncensored approach, Rihanna receives attention 24/7, even between albums. The stagey Instagram flaunting of her “bad” behavior, while counterintuitive in terms of old-school PR, has created a contemporary and compelling meta-narrative of self through which her musical output can be read. There’s no denying she is a masterly image-maker.
According to Emily Segal, one of the publishers of the trend-forecasting report K-Hole, celebrities like Rihanna are not only wresting back control of their image but also creating a guerrilla Instagram playbook. “There are a bunch of poses and gestures that are specific to the medium—the slouch, the snarl, the scrunched brow,” says Segal, who cites Cara Delevingne and Rita Ora as other Instagram exemplars. Such tropes, Segal adds, are influencing the way in which women pose on Instagram and are also infiltrating other areas of popular culture at large. Take, for example, Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” video. “It’s like an amalgam of all these other stars’ microgestures,” Segal says.
Undoubtedly, the stylistic device most endemic to Instagram is the off-the-cuff self-portrait. The queen of the selfie is Kim Kardashian, who is a close second to Justin Bieber in terms of Instagram popularity, with her more than 9 million followers. Kardashian may not be as revelatory and raw in her posts as Rihanna is, but her tireless brand of digital narcissism approaches the conceptual realm of Cindy Sherman. Thinking like a tabloid editor, she markets not only her entire persona but also specific body parts for maximum benefit. While expecting baby North, for instance, she posted images of her chapped pucker to plug lip balm: “Pregnancy lips… @eosproducts to the rescue! LOL.”
Kardashian may be a cultural punch line for many by now, but the fact remains that in our ADD era, when people communicate through photographs as much as with words, and use their mobile devices as both a camera and a phone, this superfast, direct form of engaging audiences and marketing products is here to stay. “Traditional branding now comes off as staged and fake,” says Kevin Kearny of All Day Every Day, a New York content-marketing company. “Instagram allows celebrities to take control of their own image.” For the savviest among them, it also offers a way of extending 15 minutes of fame into a lifelong career.