Free stuff, “blatant lies,” internet fame and strings attached: It’s all part of the job.
Jenny Mollen’s novel “City of Likes,” (NacelleBooks, 266 pp., out now) chronicles the life of copywriter Meg Chernoff, whose world is flipped upside down and slapped with a blue check after she meets Daphne Cole, an It-girl mommy influencer who takes Meg under her wing and welcomes her to the wild, materialistic side of Instagram influencing.
For Mollen, an actress and writer who has appeared in “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” “Girls” and “Buffy” spinoff “Angel,” “Likes” was born of her own experiences as a New York City influencer. Now, she’s spilling on the good, the bad and the ugly.
“It’s a different stratosphere: The wealth is out of control and the access is insane,” Mollen says of the New York City influencer scene. “The things that I was watching were so off the wall that I’m like, ‘I really want to write about this, but if I write about this, I’m gonna be driven out of town.'”
But the novel isn’t calling out anyone specific, she stresses. If anything, it was a “confession of missteps” and a reminder to herself of what not to become.
“I had to just keep feeding this insatiable, bottomless pit and it was never enough,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘If I don’t write about this, I’m gonna become it.'”
“City of Likes” is a work of fiction, but it’s influenced (pun intended) by the industry the author is surrounded by, and there are plenty of details about the real-life business of influencing littered throughout. Dying to know what goes on behind the curtain with your favorite influencer? Here’s what Mollen taught us.
Free stuff is fun – and can be life-changing…
You name it, someone with a hefty social media follower count can get it for free, or at least for less than what you’re paying for it. Mollen has seen fellow influencers get discounts on apartments, private jet flights, vacations, nose jobs, designer clothes and bags, and more.
“The thing that surprised me at first is you think, ‘Whoa, everything is free?’ That part is alarming at first,” she says. “They pay their rent with their phones. That’s not bad – more power to them. But it is just, like, insane.”
The flip side of what seems like a purely materialistic way of life is that it can be life-changing to someone living paycheck to paycheck (see the character in “Likes” who struggles to keep up with rent until sponsored Instagram posts come into play) . For Mollen and plenty of others, it was an opportunity for stability in an often-unstable field.
“Without (social media), I was just another struggling random actress/writer,” Mollen says. “It gave me the opportunity to really create a brand and name for myself.”
…until it feels like an episode of ‘Black Mirror’
For all the perks, Mollen also warns that receiving a never-ending barrage of free packages can feel like an episode of “Black Mirror.” Because they aren’t really free – they come with expectations. “So many people following along from their homes glamorize it and they don’t realize the horror of it,” Mollen says. “Getting free (stuff) sounds fun, but what about if it never stops and there are obligations and strings attached to everything?”
Ditto with glamorous party invites. See: the “power mama supper club” Meg attends in “Likes” that incites more drama than an episode of “The Bachelor.”
“You feel like the only reason you’re invited to anything is to film it,” Mollen says. “The pics are the most important part of any event. Without them, it’s like, who cares? Were you even there? Your support means nothing if you didn’t post about it.”
Podcast ads sometimes dictate exactly what to say – even if it isn’t true
Ever listened to a podcast in which the host raves about a product during an ad break? They might genuinely like the product. But the ad agency might have also told them what to say, “word for word.”
Mollen has turned down ads for her podcast, “Third Wheel with Jenny Mollen,” in favor of staying genuine with her listeners.
“The script will literally read ‘I use this every day. I love it. I’ve given it to all my friends,'” Mollen says of some ads. “It’s blatant lies, which I just will not say. … Because if you lose your credibility, you’re done.”
Influencers can get paid millions of dollars per ad campaign
Sponsored influencer posts can vary wildly in amount of work and pay.
A major influencer campaign might include an Instagram post plus a day of press, talking to a reporter for an article and creating some video content. That could generate upwards of “six figures” for an influencer, Mollen says, while “one-off posting” usually stays under $100,000.
“I’ve made more money off one-off influencing gigs than I made writing a feature film for Warner Bros.,” she adds. (Mollen has a handful of screenwriting credits including an adaptation of her 2017 book of essays, “Live Fast, Die Hot,” the film rights to which were acquired by Anne Hathaway.)
‘You’re not relevant forever’
In “Likes,” characters who are only “app famous” – ie only successful on Instagram – are punching bags for those who are “internet famous.” In real life, Mollen has seen what happens when an app loses popularity or goes under (RIP, Vine).
TikTok is the latest app sensation, but Mollen warns that new influencers need to be “ready to pivot.”
“I know how ephemeral fame is. I’m also married to a man who has been in every seat on the Ferris Wheel of success,” Mollen says, nodding to her husband, “American Pie” actor Jason Biggs. “You’re not relevant forever. … Most of us are going to disappear into obscurity at some point. And it’s how you cope with that.”
The multi-hyphenate creator has found plenty of mediums to create with, but she also knows that the person presented across those vehicles isn’t the most important version of herself.
“I really hope that the takeaway is that we need to choose our real lives over our virtual lives,” she says of her book. “Choose your kids and choose your real life over the virtual life in your phone. I needed to tell this story because I needed to say it to myself and to my kids: ‘I choose you. I will always choose you over all of it .'”