The year is 2019, and the concept of the self-pioneering female influencer is nothing new. The last decade has seen the rise of women in the blogosphere who have successfully transformed their platforms into personal brands, creating everything from beauty collections to self-help books.
According to a 2017 study conducted by influencer marketing platform indaHash, the majority of social media influencers are female. We’re witnessing a time in which women are building this space of the internet from the bottom-up, slowly bidding farewell to a history in which they have been excluded from the realms of production.
But more often than not, the female entrepreneurs who are beauty bloggers and fashion influencers come along with “blogger boyfriends” or “Instagram husbands”—men who have been parodied for following their girlfriends around with a camera, sighing in annoyance when they’re forced to wait to eat their food until the perfect picture has been taken.
Though parodies do exist, sometimes the fact that there is a man behind the camera is hidden from view. While some influencers are transparent about the role their boyfriends and husbands play within their brands, others keep quiet.
Does the presence of a male significant other and his creative imposition disrupt the idea of the girl boss, or does his “secondary” status point to a significant role reversal?
Toronto-based influencer Allegra Shaw has 234K followers on Instagram and 863K subscribers on YouTube. She also co-runs Uncle Studios, a sustainable clothing line. Her high-fashion style features occasional nods to the “influencer” uniform (think: tiny sunglasses and biker shorts), but it’s her un-edited vlogs that set her apart from the rest. In them, she provides her viewers with an intimate look at the art of influencing and showcases her boyfriend’s role, too.
If you want to reach Allegra, you first have to go through her boyfriend, Joey Gollish. In addition to handling Allegra’s email inflow, he helps brainstorm video and photo ideas. He also helps execute them, which might involve shooting the content himself or sourcing a videographer.
But Joey is also the mastermind behind Mr. Saturday, a luxury menswear brand. Although Uncle Studios and Mr. Saturday were created, and now exist, independently of each other, Allegra and Joey help each other out informally.
“Obviously running our own clothing brands, and both being in Toronto, there’s some overlap, and it’s made sense to help each other out,” Joey said. “We do stuff with a lot of the same factories to achieve price efficiencies, we hire a lot of the same people to make our samples, and we order fabrics from a lot of the same companies.”
But this doesn’t come without butting heads on creative direction. “Especially at the beginning, with our own brands, one person would come up with an idea and the other person would want to use that idea,” said Allegra. “That was when we butted heads a lot. Not so much anymore because we’ve figured out our brand aesthetic, but in the beginning, it was a little tough, yeah.”
For Philly-based influencer, Laurelle Gunderson and her working partner-slash-husband, Ross Gunderson, the bickering boils down to things as simple as what constitutes a good Instagram photo. Unlike Joey, Ross isn’t at all associated with the fashion industry. He’s a PhD student in physics, who helps his wife take pictures for her 325K follower Instagram account.
“What I’m looking at when I’m taking the photo is sort of like the composition of the shot, what’s in the background, how Laurelle’s posed,” Ross explained, “but she’s looking at her hair and how her shirt looks. It was a little discouraging to take, like, 100 photos and then you show them to her, and she’s like ‘I don’t like them.'”
“Now he knows that if my hair is in my face, or if my shirt is wrinkled or weird, to look at that, to help me see something that I wouldn’t see without a mirror,” Laurelle added.
When Laurelle launched her blog, Belle By Laurelle in 2015, Ross wasn’t entirely keen on being her photographer. But as her blog began to grow, he became more enthusiastic about contributing.
“Part of this whole process, for me, has been exploring what it means to create art. And as a physicist, it’s not my strong suit. When I think about her blog, I realize she’s creating something to be consumed by other people,” he explained. “The reason you take outfit shots is for other people to be inspired, to be influenced. They’re going to get something out of it. So, when I think about art in that respect, this photo of our appetizers, it’s not just her getting a photo for Instagram, it’s something that she’s going to share with other people, it’s something that they’ll be able to relate to or be inspired by.”
Though Allegra and Laurelle are both very upfront about their significant others’ level of involvement, there are multiple reasons as to why these men might not be making as many Instagram cameos as their roles might suggest.
For Joey and Allegra, it comes down to what Allegra Shaw Media was founded upon. “My brand is me, and I think that’s what my audience is there for,” Allegra explained. “And before Joey, before he was the one taking pictures, it was my best friend taking the photos, my mom taking the photos, my dad taking them.”
“I don’t want to be so tangibly attached to the brand that my presence is completely necessary. Because then it creates this second layer of, almost, inefficiency that has to be overcome in order to provide value in every case, like then I would have to be there all the time, in every photo, rather than doing what I do to provide value, which is making sure that the content is being produced as best as possible,” Joey added. “And I think this is the case for a lot of boyfriends in this space.”
Laurelle always shares the fact that Ross takes her photos when followers ask but doesn’t go out of her way to credit him on Instagram. “He’s not trying to build a following himself,” she said.
For travel blogger Jill DeConti, the decision to place herself at the center was a response to her followers’ female-only preference. In 2015, Jill and her fiancé, Patrick Byrnes, quit their jobs in marketing and finance, sold almost everything they owned and booked a one-way ticket to Thailand, where Jill’s blog, The Luxe Travelers, was born.
With WordPress experience, Patrick built the website and installed a Facebook pixel. Though he runs his own online businesses now, he continues to help Jill take photos.
Although Patrick sometimes makes an appearance in her photos as her “adventure companion,” Jill is ultimately at the center of The Luxe Travelers. “When I first started traveling, I’d post photos of Patrick and I, and they wouldn’t get as much engagement as photos of just me,” she explained. “We would’ve added more photos of him, but I kind of went with what my audience was wanting and just responding to that.”
Perhaps there’s something to be said, then, about the historical significance of females as the “face” of brands. In the world of influencing, it’s the female face that sells. But the difference is that now, women are the “brains,” too.
“When it comes to Allegra’s personal brand, she really retains all of the control,” Joey said. “I’m really just there to be like a filter and help her curate it a bit.”
“I think it’s super cool, as a guy, coming from male-dominated markets, to see so many women working in this space,” he continued, “specifically in fashion and beauty, and then the associated industries that surround that—the PR companies, the fashion and beauty companies themselves, the management, the networks.”
But Allegra noted that female domination of social media is limited to fashion and beauty. “YouTube specifically is still very male dominated. I think the top 12 earners on YouTube are all men,” Allegra said. “There are a lot of gamers and vloggers and stuff.”
If there is one thing that these female influencers agree upon, it’s the fact that their significant others provide the moral support necessary when deciding to make their lives public, in the very judgmental place that is the internet.
Ross is Laurelle’s soundboard. “He gives me advice, lets me vent, tells me what to do in sticky situations,” she said.
“It’s kind of hard to put yourself out there, especially when you’re saying something that people might not agree with… He encourages me to just believe in myself. So I’d say that’s the biggest thing he’s done for me,” Jill said of Patrick.
So what we might perceive as a role reversal—a man working for a woman—might really just be a representation of what working relationships look like in an age where “living” and “working” are synonymous. When a lifestyle has the potential to take the form of a brand, it’s hard not to involve loved ones in the process.
“I just think because it’s such a big part of Allegra’s life, it’s obviously going to be a huge part of mine,” Joey explained.
“It’s just too big of a job for one individual,” added Laurelle. “It’s a new business, and you need all the life and support. It’s like if your friend was starting her own business, you know, like a salon, you’d probably help her any way you could, like paint a wall or something. A lot of times, friends or family will come and help someone out when they’re starting a business or an endeavor, and I think it’s kind of similar to that.”
It’s worth mentioning, though, that being a “blogger boyfriend” or “Instagram husband” definitely comes with perks.
“I think the travel side and staying in beautiful hotels, that’s the good part of it for [Patrick],” said Jill. “Whenever I get free clothes, he’s like ‘Oh man, I wish I could get some free clothes.'”
If a female influencer does decide to feature her boyfriend, there is a good chance that he will grow a following himself—a chance that, in a female-dominated field, might not have otherwise been available to him. But according to Laurelle, this isn’t a case of a man leeching off of his girlfriend or wife.
“A lot of the people who get really big and end up having enough of a following that their boyfriend or husband gets one too… those are people who are almost personalities, and people just connect with them so much, and a lot of times their significant others are a part of their life, so their viewers are going to connect with them, too,” she said. “I don’t think it’s stealing, it’s a really natural progression. It’s the people, their character, their personality, that’s what people are drawn to.”
But the very fact that work and play coexist in this world can also be a downfall and is perhaps the main inspiration behind any “blogger boyfriend” parody. The intersection of the two realms is what makes it so hard to “shut off.”
In such parodies, real-life moments are constantly being interrupted by the pressure to record. The couple’s travel is impeded by photo shoots; the boyfriend’s iPhone has run out of storage; the girlfriend believes it absolutely necessary to show everyone how “amazing” their lives are.
“That does exist to an extent, but we have a bit of a rule that’s like, if we know that we’re going somewhere aesthetically pleasing, we do the work as quickly and efficiently as possible, and then we’re there living. Eating, being in the moment, that kind of thing,” said Joey.
“It’s a challenge, because every night out, every dinner out, we have to be careful that we actually have time to spend together, and it’s not just about the blog,” Ross added.
“I think there’s a big difference between making content for a living and then living for content,” Allegra continued. “And I think that we do a really good job of living our lives, and then creating content along the way, instead of putting so much pressure to constantly make content. We’re still trying to enjoy our lives and be present.”