What I Wish I Knew Before I Became an Influencer

Amelia interviews Leandra about the one thing she rarely discusses

07.27.17

Leandra and I have been friends for eight years, and we’ve worked together for four of them. As recreational BFFs who cohabitate in the work space, we know more about each other than a therapist would feel comfortable with. The one thing we rarely talk about, however, is her status as an “influencer.” Last week, I sat her ass down with my phone on record and changed that. I asked questions and she talked. Below: the transcription of her responses. — Amelia


“When I launched Man Repeller, it was 2010. Some of the most popular personal style blogs that were around were Sea of Shoes, Fashion Toast, Bryanboy, Garance Doré, plus the street style photographers like Phil Oh and Scott Schuman who documented them. I didn’t intend for Man Repeller to become much beyond a resume-booster to help me get a job at a publication following graduation. I had a dream of reporting at New York Magazine, or becoming a well-respected fashion editor, which was genuinely an important part of the aspiration. (The respect!) You know the scene at the beginning of The Devil Wears Prada, where the sea of fashion editors are putting on their heels and running across the Soho cobblestones to get to work? I wanted my life to look like that so badly, but it also felt so literal. On the one hand, I loved it, but on the other, I knew I had interests that transcended fashion and putting clothes together. I wanted to write opinions that were independent of style.

It took a year after starting Man Repeller to recognize that I was sitting on what could become a viable business, even though I more or less knew out of the gates that I’d figure out how to monetize Man Repeller. I didn’t necessarily believe I’d grow it to a place where I was funding and employing a team of 15 people, but I knew I would be able to take care of myself — I just didn’t know for how long. So originally, I monetized as a means to ride the wave. How much longer are people going to be interested in booking me as talent? How much money can I make to suffice as a cushion between now and the time I have to find a real job?”

On defending a budding brand

“Only recently (in the past two years or so) did I stop feeling like I need to defend what I do. Brands were genuinely excited about working with Man Repeller from the get-go, but in my social circles, the overarching sentiment for a long time was, ‘So cute and fun that you have that blog, but what do you do for money?’ It took me a while to realize that it’s a really good thing people think what we do is easy; it means we make it look seamless, you know? The audience is always supposed to think, ‘I could do that, too!’ To that point though, I’m also a very honest and vulnerable person, so when I’m going through shit, it’s tough for me to mask that. It’s one of the cornerstones, in my opinion, of what made Man Repeller resonate so deeply. When I launched in 2010, you didn’t hear ‘authenticity’ and ‘transparency’ as often as you do today, but those principles have been such an integral part of my personal DNA and the DNA that runs through Man Repeller.”

On being an influencer and the responsibility that comes with it

“I still find the word ‘influencer’ to be a fairly cringe-worthy one, but there’s no better word out there. Sometimes I refer to influencers as people with large social followings, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue in the same way. I’m not entirely sure what makes it feel so dirty, but I wrote a story about this a few months ago, and a lot of the comments underneath the story were pointed and smart. Some of the opinions deposited were something to the effect of: To be an ‘influencer’ means you’re a sell-out. That you take money to exist and sell an unrealistic life. And it can feel that way, but I also think the conversation around being a sell-out, or being inauthentic for making money from a sponsored post, is dated. You’re not a sell-out for taking money, you’re a sell-out if you sacrifice your point of view for the money.

I feel like people can do whatever they want with their social media following so long as they’re adhering to FTC regulations. Personally, I don’t care what people are presenting, sharing and showing, versus what they’re not. People are allowed to do whatever they want. It’s their life, their social media platform. But they should be aware of the personality and lifestyle they’re projecting, and how comfortable they will be aligning with it in the future.

I know myself to be an open book, to be someone who’s all about heart and soul and wearing her guts on her sleeves, and it would be impossible for me to project a life that didn’t feel reflective of the one I’m actually living. The difference, I suppose, is that I don’t share as often as I used to when I’m feeling down. Recently, the lows have become so much more frequent, they’re almost the rule, not the exception, so I end up not posting at all. That’s curious too, you know, because sometimes it can feel like even though I don’t want to say anything, I’m also silencing myself.”

On whether she’d do it all over again

“If given the chance, would I do it all over again? I think so, yeah. I’ve built a brand on a number of important principles and beliefs that define my core. There’s a sense of humor and intellectual curiosity and fuck-it attitude but also thoughtful inclusiveness and, paradoxically, a secret-club-like-quality about Man Repeller. But the best things about being in this world have been the relationships I’ve developed. If you’re someone who has always admired the fashion industry from a distance, earning access is dreamlike. Suddenly you have relationships with these people who once seemed mythical. The access to clothes is a blessing and a curse; when a hobby becomes your job, it’s no longer recreational, but I don’t get too caught up in that.

Positive reinforcement from the community — Man Repeller’s audience across the various channels we use to connect — has been a huge part of what keeps me going. It’s remarkable that we can strike such intimate friendships in 2017 with people we’ve never met.”

On how she’d approach doing it all over again

“I think it’s better that I was naive going into this. There was no proof of concept, no learnings to glean from when I started because there was no industry dedicated to new media, or becoming ‘Instagram famous.’ If I knew everything then that I know now about being an ‘influencer,’ I don’t think I would bat an eye before pursuing it again — I know myself well enough to know that I’m a narcissist. I get a real kick out of myself! I have a big personality, I’m comfortable sharing, I’m extroverted, I’ve got all the makings of what defines talent on the internet, right?

If I knew everything I know now about running a business, though, I would probably think three or four times about whether I was actually cut out for it — whether I was genuinely interested in launching a media brand. Because that’s what has really shaken me to my core, and made me feel, at times, so profoundly unlike myself. But I hope that I would push myself to do it again.”

Advice

“When people say they don’t know what they want to ‘be’ when they grow up, I think that’s because they don’t know how to talk to themselves yet, or ask the right questions. All the answers that inform the decisions we make, no matter what, come from within. Nobody else is going to be able to answer your grander life questions for you. I think that’s been the big revelation of marriage for me: I got married at 23. I was incredibly young. There is a ton of formative growing that happens over the course of a person’s twenties, and I’ve spent the last five years depending on my husband to grow for me. At a certain point this past winter, though, I hit a wall and realized that I still needed to grow for myself and by myself. What I needed was to get really comfortable feeling lonely; that was the only way that I’d get through it. Which I’m still working on, of course. Our respective humanities are a work in progress.

I think this is a good lesson for anyone trying to figure out a career path, too. Your mom can’t really tell you what to do, or speak to your soul the way that you can speak to your own soul. Your favorite teacher, or whoever you’ve decided is a mentor to you — your best friend, your heroes! — can help guide you. They can ask all the smart questions, but the answers can only come from deep within you.”

Photos by Krista Anna Lewis and Edith Young. 

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