The style issue: Meet Instagram's new 'reality' superstars
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The style issue: Meet Instagram's new 'reality' superstars

Instagram perfection is so last year. Authenticity is trending, and not before time. Exhibit A: Celeste Barber, 3.6 million followers and rising.

By Amanda Hooton

Celeste Barber: "I'm very clear about what I’m doing. I'm making people laugh, I'm going into that perfect Insta world as me."

Celeste Barber: "I'm very clear about what I’m doing. I'm making people laugh, I'm going into that perfect Insta world as me."Credit:Peter Brew-Bevan

Once upon a time, you knew where you were with Instagram. The photo-sharing app has been the most stylish star in social media's crown for years. Its square format, its flattering filters, its global community of photogenic people, pets and poke bowls: the whole thing is ridiculously seductive. If Facebook is the smart one in the social media it-crowd, and YouTube is the crazy one, and Twitter is the one that never shuts up, Instagram has always been the beautiful one, tossing its perfectly tousled hair in the breeze of universal admiration.

Instagram, as we all know, is the place you go to find images unmarred by ugliness or irony or – often – real life. It's a catalogue of perfect sunrises and gorgeous granola bowls; a mother lode of inspiring yoga poses, handwritten lists of #blessings, and hairdos involving a single frangipani flower. It is not the place to look for women in ratty T-shirts gagging over green juice, or swigging wine from the bottle, or in possession of bad hair, enormous pants and ugly bras. At least, not until Celeste Barber.

Until 2015, Barber was a mother and stepmother to four (two small boys and two teenage girls, respectively) living on the NSW Central Coast. She was an actress and comedian, and an occasional Instagram poster. That is, she would post straight photos "of my feet, and here's a green juice I made, and really boring stuff".

Then she and her sister, a nurse in Queensland, started sending each other images of women (mostly models, actresses, and the Kardashian/Jenner clan) doing Instagrammy-type things: lotus poses in tropical gardens; skipping along deserted beaches; wearing filmy lingerie and floppy hats while pouting into the middle distance. Then Barber, to make her sister laugh, would parody them.

She'd find, for instance, a photo of Kate Hudson in a plunging red swimsuit, surging out of a turquoise swimming pool like Venus rising from the waves. Then she'd put on her own (pink and blue, mum-style) one-piece, and persuade her husband, tree-lopper Api Robin, to take a photo of her getting out of a friend's ordinary blue backyard pool. You can still see the result on her Instagram account (@celestebarber).

She's a pale, normal-weight 30-something woman, and her body perfectly demonstrates that moment when you try to push yourself out of deep water using bicep strength alone, and end up lying spread-eagled and grovelling while trying to get your leg up. It's an image that makes you laugh out loud. Then she posted (as she always does) this image alongside the Hudson original. "I still don't think I'm doing it right," she wrote in the caption.

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Three years on, Barber has posted 900 Instagram shots and, in the process, subverted pretty much every style tenet of Instagram. She doesn't do yoga, she is a stranger to floppy hats, she has failed to construct a single still-life moment involving beauty products or a goji berry. As she puts it, her considered philosophical objective is to "take the piss out of the whole thing, really". Today she has 3.6 million followers on Instagram: more than Steve Smith (1.5 million), Jennifer Hawkins (880,000) and Megan Gale (417,000) combined. Among those fans are some of the fatted calves of Instagram themselves: people like Kris Jenner, Ashton Kutcher, Tom Ford. Yes, global icon of style Tom Ford, with his seven million Instagram followers. The Tom Ford who now wants to work with Barber.

Wait. Celeste Barber isn't stylish. That's her point. She's anti everything Instagram style stands for. And yet, if Instagram loves her, what does that say about her, and about us, and about all those lithe-limbed, long-lashed pillars of the Instagram world?

Barber’s take on an Instagram picture of Kate Hudson.

Barber’s take on an Instagram picture of Kate Hudson.Credit:@CELESTEBARBER

Refreshingly, the first Instagram post in history was not remotely stylish. Uploaded by the company's co-founder Mike Krieger (@mikeyk), then a 24-year-old tech nerd in California, at 1.26pm on July 17, 2010, this very first post was, objectively, terrible. It was on a weird angle (No!), through a dark window into bright light (No no!). There was not a beautiful person, pastel paper pompom or chia seed in sight. Instead, it depicted a confusing view of a boat marina and several distant orange shapes which might or might not have been upturned kayaks. Kayaks? As @sanctioned_arth commented incredulously, "Just look at it!"

Krieger and co-founder Kevin Systrom (@kevin) – also a tech nerd: he and Krieger met as students at Stanford University – produced nine posts that first day. The five following the kayaks were uniformly awful. They included a classically terrible profile photo of Systrom at his desk (most of the frame filled by his black jumper); a weird shot of several emoji-like symbols on a screen; two dreadful – but prophetic – food pictures; and a truly deletable image of what looks like the corridor of a movie theatre.

And yet, by post number seven, Systrom, a keen amateur photographer, was clearly getting the hang of it. The final three posts of the day were all his. They featured a small photogenic dog; a rustic taco stand; and, lo and behold, a tousle-haired woman holding a cocktail.

So far, so normal. These photos look just like anyone's back in the days when we simply took them, on our cameras or phones. Some were good, most were pretty bad, and that was that. Then Systrom had a historic conversation with the cocktail woman, his then girlfriend (now wife) Nicole Schuetz. They were talking about the new app, which he and Krieger had called Instagram, a conflation of "instant" and "telegram". "[I was explaining how] we needed something to help it stand out," Systrom later recalled. "Nicole then said to me, 'Well, I don't think I really want to even use it, because my photos don't look good. They're not as good as your friend Greg's.' I told her that was because Greg used filter apps. So she just said, 'Well, you should probably have filters on your app, then.' "

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Systrom spent the rest of that day learning how to make a filter, and the fruits of his labour became Instagram's X-Pro II, which still exists today in its original form. And as the benefit of hindsight shows us, it was this small step that turned out to be the exponentially giant leap, propelling Instagram from simple photo-sharing platform to global style juggernaut. With the editing tools of the net and the filters of Instagram, just about everyone can make their photos, and by extension their lives, look fantastic (though not, perhaps, @Mikeyk). As it turns out, that's what we all want. To look fantastic – to ourselves, and to the rest of the world.

The statistics of Instagram are mindboggling. In 2012, less than two years after their first day of posting, Systrom and Krieger sold their 20-month-old app to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg for $US1 billion. A billion US dollars for an app with zero revenue and only 30 million followers – which might seem like a fair few, until you learn that today, Instagram has 800 million monthly active users, and is projected to reach a billion this year. Forty billion photos have been shared to date, and 95 million more are uploaded each day. Today, Instagram registers 4.2 billion likes every 24 hours, is expected to generate close to $US7 billion ($9 billion) in mobile advertising sales this year alone, and last December was valued at just a touch over $US100 billion ($160 billion).

On Instagram, Barber's considered philosophical objective is to "take the piss out of the whole thing, really".

On Instagram, Barber's considered philosophical objective is to "take the piss out of the whole thing, really". Credit:Peter Brew-Bevan

Nor does Instagram only make money for Facebook and Mr Midas Zuckerberg. Two hundred million Instagrammers visit the profile of a business every day, and Instagram "influencers" – people with high numbers of followers and the right kind of profiles – can make increasingly serious coin from paid posts. Last year, according to Forbes magazine, influencers with three million followers (ie, half a million fewer than Celeste Barber) were making up to $US50,000 per post.

"What?!" shrieks Barber when I mention this. "No one has offered me anything like that! I've done 900 posts, and I've been paid for, like, eight! Who are these people, where is that money? Who do I sell out to?!"

In fact, Barber probably could have made a lot of money if she'd been prepared to pony up on Instagram's traditional striving-after-perfection ethos. "I've been offered detox tea, meal replacements, diet pills," she admits. "I could buy a place at Bondi with the money I've been offered. But I'm not interested at all in making women feel they need to look a certain way. And that's where the money is in Instagram." She sighs. "I do not know why I'm not the face of Yellowglen. I could not jump onto that shit quick enough – seriously. Show me where to sign!"

In person, Barber is tall, sparky-eyed, and constitutionally unable to resist a chance to make a joke. And she is taking up some commercial opportunities springing from her growing profile – though not on her Instagram feed. She's done some work with Holden, and we meet on the set of a branded content video – basically, an ad – being made with Mamamia for Kraft Singles. Before I arrive, she's already ad libbed the genius exclamation "Oh Cheesus!" when discussing her cheese platter. A few minutes after we meet she holds up an unearthed pot plant, roots dangling, and delivers the spontaneous line: "I'm decorating my creation with this bush from next door. But if you don't like your neighbour's bush, use something else." All around her, members of the crew are laughing and wincing and making frantic "No, no!" signals.

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This is exactly the response Barber doesn't get from her Instagram followers. There, she can be as outrageous as she likes, and people love her – even the people she's lampooning. In May, for instance, she found a video post on Tom Ford's Instagram that featured a topless model, holding a large bag, getting out of a Rolls-Royce in stilettos and skimpy underwear. Nothing loath, Barber filmed herself, topless, holding an Aldi bag and getting out of a family's SUV in high heels and full-brief undies. Watching her, struggling to cover her breasts and close the car door and walk across the driveway, you suddenly realise how completely lost to any semblance of reality is Ford's original video. Topless? A Roller? Undies? What the...?

But Tom Ford himself, whose cool factor is such that while he has seven million followers on Instagram, he follows absolutely nobody, not only saw Barber's video, but also reposted it. Which means all his followers could see it, too. Why? There seems only one explanation: because he liked it. He thought throwing this dose of reality into his perfect world was funny, or refreshing, or cool. Or something.

"I do think people like Tom – I call him Tom – or Kris Jenner, they get it," says Barber.

"They like what I do." Kris Jenner (mother of Kourtney, Kim, and Khloé Kardashian, and Kylie and Kendall Jenner), is another re-poster of Barber's shots, as are many of her millions of followers. And, thanks to her Instagram popularity, Barber has just toured a sell-out Australian show (#CelesteChallengeAccepted) that she's about to take to the United States. Apparently people like Gwyneth Paltrow, Tina Fey's producer and "Tom" have all bought tickets.

Indeed, Tom's gone further. As mentioned, he wants to work with Barber herself. "Yes!" she says, doing an air punch. "My God. When he reposted my video, that was such a massive moment. And then one of his people emailed me directly, asking if I could meet with him. You know that notification sound you hear when you get an email? Well, that sound hadn't even finished before I replied. And his person – Charlotte – wrote back, and she was like: 'Wow. That was quick.' "

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What does Tom want to do with her? "Well, I was supposed to go over for New York Fashion Week, because I think he wanted me to do some behind-the-scenes stuff. But that didn't happen, so when I go to the US we're going to meet up." She bounces on her chair. "Are we meeting at your warehouse?" she asks a hypothetical Tom Ford. "'Cause that's where you have all the clothes for me? Or will we go to a restaurant? You know what, Tom? It's okay. You don't have to impress me. It's okay."

Isn't she afraid she might get swallowed up in the perfectionist world that Tom and his Instagram kin inhabit? That she'll be sucked into the world of juice cleanses and facial masks and really pert buttocks? "Are you kidding?" she says. "No. I'm very clear about what I'm doing. I'm making people laugh, I'm going into that perfect Insta world as me. I am not going to become a Tom Ford model. That's not the end game. I'm one little lady, fighting a very big machine."

But not fighting it alone. In the last few years, more parodies, more jokes, and more doses of reality have begun emerging on Instagram itself. There's Kirby Jenner, the diminutive, moustachioed, imaginary "fraternal twin" of Kendall Jenner, who photoshops himself into Kendall's more ridiculous Instagram photos, looking pale and skinny and normal, and thus throwing the insane world of supermodelling (standing on top of a horse in a burgundy couture gown, etc) into sharp relief.

Barber’s take on an Instagram picture of Kim Kardashian.

Barber’s take on an Instagram picture of Kim Kardashian. Credit:@CELESTEBARBER

There are artists like Alicia Ulman, who parodied the world of a vapid It-girl trying to make it in LA (including faked breast surgery and pole dancing classes) as part of a 2014 artwork called Excellences and Perfections. She garnered 89,244 followers before revealing that – surprise, surprise – none of it was real.

There are even bona fide celebrities such as Amy Schumer, who posts videos of herself rolling anti-perspirant onto her upper thighs "because I don't want to chafe", and 15-time Grammy-winner Alicia Keys, who wrote in 2016 on Lenny (Lena Dunham's feminist website) that she refused to continue to fit the foxy, skinny, perfect mould that the world – especially the Instagram world – demanded. "Every time I left the house, I would be worried if I didn't put on make-up," she wrote. "What if someone wanted a picture?? What if they POSTED it???" Now she posts photos of herself without make-up, her face freckled, her hair big, wearing tracksuits and baseball caps.

All of which makes you wonder: is this a thing now? Is real the new beautiful in Instaland?

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Well, maybe, says Kirrilie Smout, a South Australian clinical psychologist and author who often works on issues relating to appropriate social media use. But let's not get carried away. "My feeling is that some people – even quite young kids, 12 or 13 – can be quite savvy about Instagram these days," she says. "They actually make fun of that idealised life: they'll post ironic images of their dinner – 'Here's my food'.

"But I think that's still the minority view. Among young people especially, it's complex, because teenagers love bucking the system and going against the establishment: so if that's how they view Instagram, that's what they'll do. But from a biological and evolutionary perspective, they're also desperate to fit in. So they're very vulnerable to a platform that literally gives, or takes away, approval.

"And certainly, what we see is a big cohort who get completely immersed and sucked into that fake perfect world, and spend scary numbers of hours taking literally hundreds of pics and posting one, and who are made extremely anxious by the idea that this is what their life should be."

In his book, SelfieHow the West Became Self-Obsessed, British journalist Will Storr describes this process as the curse of "perfectionist presentation". There are numerous studies to back him up, showing that adolescent girls are increasingly unhappy with their bodies; that more and more men are suffering from muscle dysmorphia, the belief that they're frail and underdeveloped; and that – though a causal link has yet to be established – depression and suicidality are increasing in young people alongside the rise of the mobile phone and excessive use of social media.

Celeste Barber subverts the classic Insta dessert pose.

Celeste Barber subverts the classic Insta dessert pose.Credit:Peter Brew-Bevan

Instagram certainly has a lot to answer for. A report published last year by the UK Royal Society of Public Health (the #StatusofMind survey) found that Instagram is the platform most closely associated with anxiety and depression: compared to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat, it scored worst overall in categories associated with mental health and wellbeing, including sleep quality, bullying and body image. As Storr wrote, "we're living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills. People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they're failing to become."

Surely Celeste Barber and her ilk are a healthy step away from all this? Yes, says Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist in private practice and a member of Sydney University's Cyberpsychology Research Group. But it might be a mistake to think of such people as real, in the sense of being average. "The truly average person doesn't get followed by thousands, or millions, of people," she points out. "Real isn't necessarily also popular." Ultimately, "we're not really interested in the mundane. We want the escape and 'inspiration' of other peoples' fantasy lives."

This seems true. Amy Schumer and Alicia Keys are still superstars, living lives as far removed from the daily reality of most of us as if they're on the moon. Kirby Jenner, meanwhile, has had a cameo role in the Kardashians' reality TV show, and has, arguably, become part of exactly the same fantasy machine he began by satirising.

But even if it's small, and arguably just another kind of shtick, the Instagram reality drive does appear to be growing. Simone Bevan is the head of integrated marketing at Magnum and Co, a Sydney agency with expertise in influencer marketing. "I think in the past couple of years we have started to observe a greater diversity," she confirms. "So you've still got those really top-tier influencers, with millions of Instagram followers. But there's also a bit of a changing tide towards micro influencers, who are people with 5000 followers or less; and even customer advocates, who are just people like me or you, who might be loyal customers to a particular brand."

Both these groups are valuable, explains Bevan, because they have "genuine authenticity. People are becoming more savvy these days, and they know what sponsored content is." Their followers can be put off by this, because it feels fake; whereas they tend to trust real people, who seem more like them.

Even so, she goes on, most influencers in Australia are still working that aspirational groove. "There are quite a big group around that are at that one million, two million followers mark, and they're mostly in the area of fitness and lifestyle, across to beauty and travel. They tend to have that sort of premium content, those inspiring images." The infinity pools, the tropical sunsets, the vintage convertibles under the palm tree are going nowhere, in other words. "That's why people follow them," explains Bevan, echoing Brewer. "Because of that aspirational edge."

Celeste Barber and co, it's clear, are still a tiny speck in the Instagram universe. Who knows if the big bang will come: if we'll open Instagram in future and see our feeds entirely composed of people in floppy T-shirts with rat's-nest hair; bad holidays in rainy places; plates of packaged food sitting beside microwaves. Who knows whether we'll open Instagram at all, if it comes to that. "I could be working in a cafe," warns Barber. "Instagram blew up, another app came out: 'Insta-what?' Look at Myspace! Nobody cares!"

In the meantime, though, she's got other worries – such as a husband with newly discovered aspirations for luxury travel. "The producers for my US show are talking about tour buses," she confesses. "So Api's been googling 'tour bus' and going, 'This one's got a master suite at the back!'

"I'm like, 'All right mate, calm down, we're not Kevin Hart. Let's just get real.' "

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age.