If you think influencers are a new phenomenon, then think again. That’s because although social media has definitely made them more visible, influencer culture has been around for centuries.
Cultural historian Leo Braudy gives an insight into this in his book The Frenzy of Renown. This delves into the democratisation of celebrity status.
In 2019, Instagram influencer Belle Delphine sold her used bath water to her enormous following for R513 a pop. It was the gamer girl’s comeback to “thirsty gamer boys”.
She has since been mocked for her seemingly ridiculous PR stunt, but it seems that the joke is on us.
The bath water sold out instantly! It also gained her an amount of clout that would otherwise not have happened.
But how did we get here? Where did things get so weird?
Influencers boast millions of followers and brand deals, and have redefined the status of celebrity completely. But they are, after all, mere mortals also.
Perhaps the first global influencer was Alexander the Great. The reason we still know his name is due to his insatiable need to conquer the world.
He was one of the first to slap his face on items, for example, starting with coins. He removed images of monarchy from coins and replaced them with his own face so his followers suddenly knew him more intimately.
During his reign, Alexander commissioned statues that he altered to portray only “the best of Alex”. Is what he did so different to using an Instagram filter today?
Alexander the Great established the basics of fame we still follow till this day: Be seen!
After Alexander kick-started the culture of vanity and staring at your own face, along came the portrait artist sof the 1500s.
The extremely wealthy could have portraits of themselves painted and this is where famous artists like Leonardo Da Vinci made their mark.
The upper classes adorned their homes with unnecessarily large canvasses with faces no one outside their family necessarily wanted to see.
The portrait, and portrait artist himself, became a status symbol that the rich revelled in and the working class envied.
Then came the photograph in the 1800s and this technology made widespread distribution of your own face much simpler.
The rise of the Industrial Revolution made way for cheap manufacturing and printing processes that made “celebrities” more accessible to the rest of us.
Photography, unlike art, made it possible to copy images for mass production.
And then, with the rise of motion graphics and movies, the celebrity barrier broke down completely.
They and the characters they portrayed on screen became a relatable bunch. This made the audience believe that they too could become famous if more people saw their face.
Once again, you only matter if you’re seen.
In the late 1990s a very specific genre ruled our television screens: Reality TV.
Shows such as Big Brother, Jersey Shore and The Bachelor became iconic overnight and drew audiences of millions.
The characters of these shows were seemingly ordinary people who simply “got lucky”.
This way of thinking fed into our beliefs that we too could easily become famous. All we needed to know was how to party, be beautiful or show some small fragment of a hidden talent.
It seems we are more obsessed with the process of celebrity today than the person themselves.
We become fixated on the way the Kardashians became famous so that we can somehow match their lives to ours.
The modern-day influencer seems to be a casual character who drives success just by being themselves.
We also think that we are deserving simply because of who we are. We project their pseudo-celebrity status onto ourselves because “they seem so normal, right?”
We live in a time where Instagram Reels, Spotify Plays and TikTok views rule in a way.
The modern-day influencer has made it seem that one viral post could change your life too.
Achievements have gone from Alexander dominating the world, to the Youtubers that create snatched brows.
Things have changed a lot, and the next generation of celebrities might even be more ridiculous.
We buy their bath water because they tell us to. Perhaps we buy their bath water because we secretly want to sell our own!