When Denise Sanchez, now known to 863K people across the globe as @makeupbydenise, launched her Instagram account four years ago, she says it was simply to “connect with old friends.” Like most of us, Sanchez’s page was dedicated to casual posts about her everyday life, seen by a few hundred people: old high school classmates, childhood neighbours. Beauty was a passion of Sanchez’s, and eventually she’d decide to pursue makeup artistry full time. But the thought of becoming an Instagram celebrity never entered her head. “I didn’t expect social media to become such a major part of my life,” she reflects.
Starting out as a makeup artist, Sanchez decided to transition her Instagram into a purely beauty-centric account. It became a hobby, a way to express her love of makeup and to try out new looks and products. As she started devoting more and more time to posting, Sanchez says her following increased. “I noticed my numbers start to grow about two years ago,” she says. “It was a surreal feeling.”
At the time, Sanchez was working primarily as a bridal makeup artist. But as her online digits ballooned, followers came to know and admire her, and before she knew it, she’d become one of these social media quasi-celebrities we refer to as “influencers.” With this status, other gigs materialised. “As my following grew, more opportunities were presented to me,” she says. “Now I’ve had the privilege of working on projects with some of the biggest makeup companies.”
Because here’s the thing: When one’s following starts creeping toward a million, which is a major milestone in the social media industry and can open up big, heavy doors for one’s career, Instagram isn’t just “fun” anymore. “It was enjoyable as a hobby,” Sanchez says, “but in order to be truly successful on social media, time must be dedicated, and work must be put in.”
Those of us with normal lives and humble Instagram followings see a beauty guru with a million followers, and it blows our minds. We wonder 'how did she get so many people to take an interest in her beauty tutorials and selfies? What is her life like now that a million people are watching?' In other words, we’re curious (read: desperate) to know: What is it really like to have a million Instagram followers?
These aren’t the questions top beauty ’grammers are used to fielding from their fans. Luckily, we were able to speak candidly with a handful of women from the coveted million followers club.
Ever wondered what the life of a top beauty guru is really like? To hear it from the ’grammers themselves, read on.
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Log on to Sanchez’s Instagram account, and you’ll mostly find bold makeup selfies and mini tutorials for how to colour-correct your face or create an ombré lip. An average post might get up to 14K likes. “It’s still a strange feeling to process when so many people I’ve never met comment and ‘like’ the things I share,” she says. Australian beauty guru and founder of LoveLoz.com, Lauren Curtis, echoes this sentiment. “It's surreal to think how many people actually like my photos,” she says. “Sometimes I imagine what it would look like to have every single person who liked my photo in a group and see how crazy it would be!”
With Curtis’s following, she’d need a pretty big room. Curtis’s makeup-focused account has 1.4 million followers, and her posts often rack up 80K likes each. But unlike Sanchez, Curtis didn’t gain her original following on Instagram. Curtis created the account after launching her beauty YouTube channel, which now has 3.5 million subscribers. There, you’ll find energetic makeup tutorials, hauls, and Q&As. Curtis says that while her YouTube presence was always public, at first she kept her Instagram separate. “I never shared my [IG] handle because I was scared people I went to school with would find out and make fun of me,” she says. But with the success of her YouTube channel, fans started finding her elsewhere. “[That’s when] my Instagram followers began to grow like crazy!” Curtis remembers. She says she came to appreciate that her YouTube subscribers wanted to see a more personal side of her, and she soon embraced her public Instagram persona.
Like Sanchez, Curtis’s following allowed her to land major beauty brand campaigns and attend elite industry events. Prior to creating social media content, Curtis didn’t have a clear idea of her dream career. “So having all of this fall together for me has been amazing,” she says.
Though watching thousands of followers, likes, and comments roll in is exciting, it isn’t always glamorous. “It’s definitely changed the way I approach [my] posts,” Curtis admits. “You generally become very selective and conservative.” Curtis says that over the years, living under social media’s spotlight has had negative effects on her mood and self-confidence. “[It also affects] your behaviour in real life,” she explains, “because you're opening yourself up to the praise or criticism of others.”
You might think that someone with so much Instagram attention might not pay a moment’s notice to her followers. You might think there are just too many to keep track of, or that she simply wouldn’t care to engage. But according to Sanchez, if you leave a comment, it’s going to be seen. “I read every single comment that is left on my page,” she says. Sometimes, Sanchez even surfs through her commenters’ individual profiles. “I am curious about the people who follow me,” she says, “so about once a week I check out the pages of some of the people that like and comment on my posts.” Just think: You, too, could be stalked by an Instagram celebrity.
Inevitably, women like Sanchez and Curtis aren’t just receiving compliments. Even those of us without large followings have dealt with a case or two of cyber-bullying; for popular Instagrammers, it's amplified. “I used to, and still do, get negative comments on the things I post,” says fitness blogger and Blogilates creator Cassey Ho, who has 1.2 million Instagram followers and over three million subscribers on YouTube. “At one time, it really did bother me, especially when people commented about my appearance.” Ho says she’s since trained herself to ignore the hate—literally scroll right past it, like dead wood. Curtis and Sanchez agree that’s essential to staying above water. “It can definitely be nerve-racking to share,” Sanchez admits. “Sometimes you can spend hours perfecting a look or video and people just hate it.”
Ho’s advice? Channel the hate into something positive. Last year, Ho created a video called The Perfect Body, which was a direct response to commenters criticising her frame. Ho makes it clear that ultimately, the true power belongs to the account holder. She has the resources, the voice, and the reach. The key is learning how best to use that power for good.
Beauty Instagrammers are particularly motivated to use their power for good because they know who’s watching. Most of these accounts’ followers are young girls, looking for inspiration, not only for how to do their makeup but for who to be. “I always want to be a good role-model,” says Ho. Still, content creators agree that the key to growing their followings is to maintain a sense of authenticity. “There is a [myth] that people on IG are perfect and don’t have problems, cry, or doubt themselves,” says Sanchez. “That is not the case at all. We are still people with insecurities.”
But Instagram as a platform is meant for curated, perfected images, so in practice, that “authenticity” has limits. “I only really share images on Instagram if I'm feeling 'photo-ready,’” Curtis admits. Sanchez adds that when she does her makeup in the morning, Instagram is on her mind. She thinks about the content her followers want to see and adjusts her look accordingly. But Curtis and Sanchez deny that their Instagram personas paint a false picture of who they are in real life. Instagram represents the truth, just not the whole truth. And that’s a strategic move. “I feel that my Instagram accurately represents me as ‘MakeupbyDenise,’” says Sanchez. “The world is packed with so much information that if I shared my views on every topic, I wouldn’t have a makeup page.” For example, a raw, emotional post about a breakup or current event just wouldn’t fit.
Lora Arellano, CEO of Melt Cosmetics and holder of over a million Instagram followers, believes that there is a way to represent the “whole truth” on social media—you just have to be smart about matching the right content to the right outlet. Arellano’s IG is dedicated primarily to her daring, colour-centric work as makeup artist, both on celebrities and herself. “I definitely think my look is an accurate representation of me in real life,” says Arellano. “The exception [is] that I don't feel people really get to see my personality on Instagram. For that, there's Snapchat!” Sanchez says that she, too, has gotten personal on Snapchat in ways that she hasn’t on Instagram. “I recently opened up on Snapchat about a silent struggle I’ve been having [with] depression,” she says. “The response was beyond overwhelming. I received hundreds of messages expressing support… people sharing their stories and struggles.” Sanchez says that in the future, she plans to share more of her personal life on Instagram. But for now, she feels like it doesn’t quite belong.
That said, beauty influencers can make a difference on Instagram, beyond teaching their followers how to master the perfect top knot. Arellano says that after Melt Cosmetics first launched, she came across a YouTube video from a follower named Angela, who was reviewing the brand’s lipstick. In a time of uncertainty, Arellano says that Angela’s enthusiasm inspired her to keep expanding the brand, which has flourished in the time since. “About a year later we found out that [Angela] was ill in a coma, and her family was raising money for her medical bills,” Arellano recounts. Arellano was so affected by the news that she donated to the fund and posted about it on Instagram for Melt’s two million followers to see. In situations like this, Instagram becomes more than a platform for “photo-ready” makeup. As easily as beauty influencers can set new trends, they can inspire followers to become a part of something bigger.
Beauty gurus agree that making a positive impact on their young followers’ lives is at once the most unexpected and rewarding part of what they do. “[I love] meeting these young girl's moms and hearing how much I have helped their daughter's self-confidence or helped them get through depression or being bullied,” says Curtis. Ho also gets excited about meeting her followers, whom she lovingly calls “POPsters,” face to face. She recalls one POPster in particular, who registered to become a Blogilates trainer. “When we saw each other in real life for the first time, we felt like we knew each other!” Ho recalls. “She excelled at the training, we became close, and now she is working at Blogilates.” These real-life interactions humanise both the Instagrammer and the people behind the “likes.” “[When] I connect with my followers and they tell me inspiring stories, it’s very humbling,” adds Arellano.
When I think of a beauty guru with a million followers, I picture someone glued to her phone. I picture someone who spends two hours doing her makeup just for a post. I picture a constant deluge of push notifications to her home screen, the likes and comments her very lifeblood. As it turns out, this image is partially true. “One thing I’ve learned in my short time on social media is that it takes a lot of work,” says Sanchez. “Yes, it seems really easy. Buy a camera, take a picture, post it with a catchy caption, and you’re done.” But popular Instagrammers promise there’s a lot more to it: There’s developing your craft in the first place, capturing it in images and videos, keeping up with the latest photo technology and industry trends, posting regularly, and making sure the right people see those posts. In a way, you have to be glued to your phone.
But after posting an Instagram, even one that’s sure to get tens of thousands of likes and comments, there’s no explosion. There’s no fanfare. There’s not even an instant ego-boost.
Talking to these four Instagrammers, I had to ask what their phones look like after posting something they know is going to blow up. For me, it might take 10 minutes to get a single notification. But Ho, Sanchez, Curtis, and Arellano all had the same surprising answer: “I turn my notifications off.” It drains the battery otherwise, they say. Of course, they’ll check back on the post, read the comments, and do their best to respond to each one. Interacting with excited followers is the fun part, they say. It’s inspiring.
But for a few minutes, at least, they close out of the app and take a breath. Maybe they go take their dog for a walk or catch up on some reading. They’ll re-enter the belly of the beast later. But for the moment, their phones are silent—empty—almost like none of it even happened.
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Next up, check out this cool experiment, where we test whether Instagram or Snapchat is healthier for your mood.