Hustle and hype: the truth about the influencer economy

I was a 14-year-old schoolboy when the rapper 50 Cent released Get Rich or Die Tryin’. The most precocious kids in class declared the debut hip-hop album an instant classic and hailed the rapper’s legend: “He’s been shot nine times, you know?” The failed attempt on 50 Cent’s life was at the centre of his sales pitch as the bulletproof king of gangsta rap. My friends and I were easily sold. His debut was the bestselling album of 2003, selling 12m copies worldwide. Curtis Jackson may have been born black and poor in New York, but as 50 Cent, he was now worth $30m.

There are few things we find more compelling than a fable of overcoming the odds and achieving self-made success. Everyone loves an outsider, because deep down most of us believe we are one, and each generation has its own version for inspiration. For me, it was the constant reinvention of the hustler made good in hip-hop that stuck.

I grew up in Tottenham, north London, a multiracial area between the city and the Hertfordshire suburbs with a character defined by its then underperforming football club and its Caribbean, Ghanaian and Turkish Cypriot communities. My whole life, this corner of the city has been notorious for the anti-police riots that broke out in the 1980s. A Jamaican-born mother had died after her home was raided by police officers, a policeman was killed in the ensuing revolt, and the tension between the residents and the authorities has festered ever since.

By 2003, much of the area could have slipped with ease into the background of a rap video in Queens. My friends and I wore American hip-hop streetwear: baggy Akademiks jeans, Fubu tops and Timberland boots. New-Era baseball caps felt like part of our school uniform. My school had a high intake of students poor enough to qualify for free school meals, but even the poor kids wore luxury streetwear. In the year I completed my GCSEs, 75% of my fellow students failed to get the five A*-C grades necessary to go on to further education. It is unsurprising that the hustler was an inspiration to a student body of underdogs.

At the time we started school, the prime minister, Tony Blair, was announcing his plan to create a knowledge-based economy, and his ambition to get 50% of young people through university. “Aspiration” had become the political buzzword. When there were outbreaks of violence in urban communities like mine, the government blamed a lack of drive, and in 2007, it launched the Reach mentoring scheme, with the focus on “raising the aspirations and achievement among black boys and young black men, enabling them to achieve their potential”.

The problem, certainly in my neighbourhood, was that it was aspiration itself, rather than the absence of it, that drove young men to desperate measures. In recent decades, aspiration has been heavily wrapped up not in what we aim to do, achieve or create, but in what we can afford to buy. Young adults and teenagers have been under more and more pressure to be successful, with fewer means to do so.

Over the past century, political parties and brands have spent vast sums of money on trying to get our attention and influence our decisions. Today, that attention is increasingly in the hands of a new type of hustler. Influencers with thousands or even millions of social media followers can convert their following into an income by making their feeds a living billboard or a peep show you pay to subscribe to. Ten years ago, this pseudo-profession hardly existed, and now the highest-earning influencer, Kylie Jenner, can earn up to $1.2m from a single post on Instagram. Social media introduced a profit motive into our social lives, with a profound impact on the way we behave.

Since I left university, the economic promise made to middle-class millennials has turned to dust. In 2008, I was an economics undergraduate learning about how boom and bust had been banished. We all know what happened next: the global economy crashed. Graduate schemes disappeared before my eyes and the next decade did not live up to the promises made in the one before. As wages dropped and employment opportunities fell, our consumer spending got higher and personal debt rocketed. And this was before Covid-19 struck and making money from home became the only game in town.

It is in this climate that “influencing” seems a viable career, providing a potentially luxury lifestyle with a low entry threshold. Once you have figured out how to get people’s attention, you can monetise yourself as both product and salesman. Often we do not even think of the most successful influencers as digital workers, since they market themselves as relationship gurus, financial experts and activists. Some influencers even offer teaching on how you can emulate their success. One YouTuber named Patricia Bright, who has more than 2.8 million subscribers, has written a book titled Heart & Hustle, which promises “to show you how to hustle like I do”.

The problem is that success in this world is not as attainable as some make it seem, and addiction to accruing followers by any means necessary is warping human behaviour on and offline. For many influencers, deception is lucrative, and becoming increasingly extreme. There are some feigning their wealth, their followers and even their ethnicity while hawking dubious products to their followers. In recent years, influencers have sold laxatives as health drinks, promoted music festivals that never happened and been caught up in serious fraud and multimillion-dollar Ponzi schemes. Companies that sell regulated products such as cosmetic surgery procedures and financial services have increasingly turned to influencers to market their goods, away from scrutiny by the authorities.

The instore music complements the skimpy clothes that have made Fashion Nova in Los Angeles a market leader in ghetto chic and timeless hoochie wear. You can buy similar styles in the store next door, an unbranded clothes shop called Mode Plus, or in the budget womenswear shop opposite, called Queens (the menswear shop next door is Kings). The same tight party dresses produced for cents and sold for dollars are for sale in all of them, and can be found in any other makeshift store in low-income Latina communities from Los Angeles to London. However, Fashion Nova has come a long way from its humble first store in LA’s Panorama City Mall.

The company’s impact could not have been predicted when that store was opened in 2006 by an industrious Iranian American named Richard Saghian. But Saghian knew the world was changing. He wanted his company to target the kind of girls who went to clubs to dance to hip-hop and desired to be on a VIP table – girls who wanted to be famous. Most importantly, they had to be able to turn heads on Instagram.

From about 2013, Fashion Nova began recruiting micro-famous brand ambassadors who fitted the vision. Young women with big followings were given free clothes, and those with huge ones were paid a fee to post online. They were told to always tag Fashion Nova to help its followers grow and boost awareness. Some ambassadors were also allowed to earn money from sales of clothes via a discount code that paid them a commission. Where the company achieved major success was in its aggressive penetration of the hip-hop scene. It paid rappers for shoutouts in songs and signed up artists such as the reality TV star turned rapper Cardi B as highly paid brand ambassadors. It even gave the African American and Latinx entertainers who now dominate US pop culture their own Fashion Nova lines. The company had bought a seat at the table. But it also stole scraps from it, too.

In February 2019, only a day after Kim Kardashian was photographed in a gown by the exalted French designer Thierry Mugler, Fashion Nova began selling a replica. When Kim’s younger half-sister, the even more influential Kylie Jenner, threw a star-studded 21st birthday party, dresses worn by guests were cloned within hours. Fashion Nova was not just fast fashion, it was the fastest. The process of recycling runway designs is well known and widely practised, says Bimi Fafowora, who worked for Nova for nine months overhauling their marketing and branding. “Celebrities wear these gorgeous gowns, they release it on social media, fast-fashion brands pick up on it, release it to the mass audience,” says Fafowora. “These people wear them for about a day … because on Instagram you can’t wear anything twice.” (Fashion Nova did not respond to a request for comment.)

The Fashion Nova website in February 2022.
The Fashion Nova website in February 2022. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

As Fafowora and I sat on the roof of the Nomad, a luxury London hotel frequented by holidaying footballers, she remarked, “I think we’re in an age where people aspire to something greater, something higher, more famous, more popular, more loved, and fast fashion has allowed for that. It’s allowed for people to shorten the gap between [them and] unattainable celebrities.”

In 2021, Fashion Nova surpassed 20 million Instagram followers. Three years earlier, it had become the internet’s most-Googled fashion brand, and the company posted revenues of $294m. Fashion Nova invites aspiring influencers to buy and model its clothes, then tag their photos @fashionnova and #NovaBabe. More than 10m posts have been made by ordinary young women auditioning to get the brand’s attention. Each is hoping to become a paid “NovaBabe”, an ambassador who receives free clothes, the Instagram equivalent of being on the VIP table.

Fashion Nova’s website has a callout for aspiring influencers: “Wannabe a #NovaBabe? Do you have what it takes to be a #NovaBabe? Are you the OOTD [outfit of the day] queen who can literally rock anything?! Do you have your own style that is admired by others?? If that’s you, we want you to join our #NovaSquad!”

Many aspiring influencers pay for hauls of Fashion Nova clothes to review and model, viewing it as an investment in what they hope will become a job. In reality, they’re providing the company with free labour as promo girls, giving the brand adverts they did not have to pay for. The small number of women the company actually hand-picks for free clothes tend to have a similar aesthetic. They are young, most of them with narrow waists, wide hips and thick lips. Many have hourglass figures and wear clothing that clings to their skin: an aesthetic known as “Insta baddie”. If these women are black, they looked mixed-race or light-skinned, and if they’re white, they mostly have dark hair and bronzed skin.

Today, Fafowora runs a boutique branding firm that recruits models and provides marketing content for new…

Read More: Hustle and hype: the truth about the influencer economy

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments