The HBO documentary “Fake Famous” opens on a seemingly beatific scene: in the golden sunlight of Los Angeles, to the strains of an operatic score, we see a string of young, seemingly carefree people, posing in front of a hot-pink wall. Mugging for iPhone cameras held by friends, or angling their faces up to their own devices and snapping selfies, they are participating in a popular contemporary rite, the film’s writer and director, Nick Bilton, tells us in voice-over. These people have come to L.A., he explains, not to break from the hustle of everyday life, by relaxing and “taking in the sparkle of Tinseltown.” Rather, they are there to continue the hustle. The pink wall—which, functionally speaking, serves to hold up the Paul Smith clothing boutique on Melrose Avenue—has become one of the world’s top tourist destinations; it’s an eye-catching but blank-enough canvas for those who pose in front of it, and who later post the results to Instagram. Those people, Bilton says, are looking for “likes, which translates to more followers, which is the current currency of the most important thing on earth today—what everyone seems to be obsessed with. They want to be famous.”
Bilton’s interesting if uneven documentary sets out to examine the pursuit of this particular kind of fame, by engaging in what he dubs a “social experiment.” (Bilton is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, where he covers the intersection of tech and politics.) He puts out a casting call that asks its potential respondents one question—“Do you want to be famous?”—and out of the thousands of hopefuls who, apparently, do, he selects three individuals, with the goal of making them Instagram influencers. He is assisted by a team of experts, including casting directors, stylists, and social-media consultants. (“What’s your passion?” one of them asks in grave tones, to learn that the candidate is now “focussing on roller-skating.”) The chosen three are initially enthusiastic participants in Bilton’s plan. Becoming Instagram-famous might lead to collaborations with brands, which will provide the influencers with free products and services, and perhaps even money.
There is Dominique, an affable aspiring actress from Miami Beach, who works at Lululemon while she waits for her big break; Wylie, a fretful assistant to a Beverly Hills real-estate agent, who is struggling to fit into L.A.’s body-conscious, competitive gay scene; and Chris, a Black fashion designer from Arizona, who appears to be the most self-confident of the bunch (“I don’t even feel like I want to [be famous], I deserve to”). For all of them, becoming an influencer isn’t the final goal but a stepping stone to getting what they want: for Dominique and Chris, it means careers in the acting and fashion industries, and for Wylie, a greater sense of social ease and acceptance. Fame seems “like a good thing, and everyone wants it, so if everybody wants it . . . ” Wylie says, as he drives around town, running niggling errands for his demanding boss.
Working a menial job is hard, but “Fake Famous” demonstrates that being an influencer, too, can be a tedious kind of labor. In one amusing sequence, Bilton takes us behind the scenes of a photo shoot in which Dominique and Wylie are shown partaking in one-per-cent-like activities such as sipping champagne and eating chocolates poolside at the Four Seasons, relaxing blissfully on an international flight, and receiving a luxurious spa treatment. All of this, however, is smoke and mirrors: in the pictures, which are shot in quick succession at a single location, a toilet seat held aloft mimics a plane’s window, the champagne is apple juice, the chocolates are pats of butter dipped in cocoa powder, and the rose-petal-infused spa basin is a plastic kiddie pool.
There is a kind of D.I.Y. creativity about all of this, a spirit of making do, which allows the plucky influencer some agency. “Remember, you’re the Lulu girl!” Dominique’s mom reminds her daughter, early on in the film, when Dominique expresses doubts about her ability to make nice at her retail job—and, in her attempts to become an influencer, Dominique’s fealty to Lululemon is exchanged for a commitment to the new version of herself that she has decided to sell online. Dominique wants to brand her own self rather than work for someone else’s, and on the face of it, one might wonder what could be wrong with this strategy, in which, instead of allowing a corporation to harvest the surplus value of an employee’s personality, the employee is able to harvest it for herself. (Slay, kween!) Depressingly, though, as Dominique’s popularity grows—she even starts getting more auditions and acting gigs, thanks to her burgeoning Instagram profile—her success seems to depend not on any surplus of personality but, rather, on a lack thereof. She develops an audience by posting videos of herself unboxing products that she has been sent for free by other brands: a blender, energy bars, slippers, a CBD vibrator. Dominique “is like a piece of Play-Doh,” Chris says to Bilton. Like the pink wall on Melrose, she is eye-catching, but still blank enough.
Most influencers, Bilton tells us—even, reportedly, mega-successful ones, like Kim Kardashian—have expedited their climb to the top of the social-media pyramid by purchasing followers, in order to inflate their engagement metrics. It’s in the best interest of social-media companies and their Wall Street investors to turn a blind eye to this practice, Bilton explains, as whirring stacks of hundred-dollar bills flash on the screen, because these puffed-up numbers equal increased proceeds. None of this is especially surprising, but as if not wanting to weigh viewers down, “Fake Famous” insists on leading them by the hand, occasionally descending to the tone of a cutesy explainer, à la the champagne-flute-brandishing, bathtub-soaking Margot Robbie in “The Big Short.” (At one point, Bilton notes that larger companies have access to “fancy software” that they use to determine the authenticity of influencers’ followers.)
In the manner of the market, Bilton, too, purchases thousands of followers, likes, and engagements for his budding influencers. He does this from the get-go, skipping over an attempt to grow the trio’s follower base organically, which appears to implicitly dovetail with his larger thesis: influencers are nearly exclusively fake, so why even bother trying to create a following that depends, at its origin, on real engagement? Because this strategy has indeed seemed to work for many others, it’s hardly a shock when the growing popularity of Dominique, Wylie, and Chris, though false, begets real-life boons—real followers, real products, real gym sessions, real vacations, even interest from potential real employers—though the documentary does some work to present this as an unexpected outcome. “Something started to happen that we didn’t anticipate,” Bilton says, of Dominique, adding that brands “started to find her.” A bit later, he reports, “Then, out of nowhere, Dom got a private message on Instagram, inviting her to . . . an all-expenses-paid, V.I.P. influencer road trip.”
Although all three of them expand their followings significantly, Chris and Wylie decide that they aren’t fit for an Instagram-famous existence. Wylie says that he is uncomfortable living a false life propped up by bots, and Chris refuses to fit the mold of influencer that Bilton and his team have created for him. “I can’t believe some clowns actually book this thing,” Chris says, when taken to a fake private plane that is rented out by those who wish to present a jet-setting image on social media. “It feels not right for me,” he says. “I’d much rather just show me.”
Influencing is not for everybody, but Chris’s complaint highlights the limits of Bilton’s strategy. In his social experiment, Bilton seems to try to create a one-size-fits-all version of an influencer, the too-big-to-fail kind that showcases a fantasy of a luxurious, if anodyne, life style—one that Dominique slides into almost too well, and which Chris and Wylie struggle to embrace. As Hana Hussein, a social-media manager, explains in the film, there are many different breeds of influencer. “There are the fashion influencers, the life-style influencers, the home-and-interior-design influencers, the wellness influencers, the health-and-fitness influencers,” she says. (There are, of course, more niche categories, too: literary influencers, celeb-gossip influencers, plus-size-fashion influencers, Ikebana influencers, stick-and-poke-tattoo influencers.) A plan that would have taken Chris and Wylie’s idiosyncrasies into further consideration—in order to create, from scratch, influencers in a more authentic and specific mold—would surely have been more difficult to implement, but also more compelling.
There is more than a hint of reality TV in Bilton’s social-experiment gambit. The repackaging of individuals into a more commercial and skilled version of themselves reminded me of any number of shows, not least “America’s Next Top Model,” with its makeovers and photo shoots. And so it seemed like an odd swerve when “Fake Famous,” as it proceeded, increasingly reverted to overt hand-wringing about the lust for social-media fame and what it’s doing to our culture. Influencers “don’t make you feel better about yourself,” Bilton says, toward the end of the documentary. “The entire concept of influencing is to make you feel worse.” This statement is followed by an ominous montage of designer-label-clad children posing on Instagram, harbingers of a future that has already arrived. All this seems a bit rich coming from a project dedicated to the remaking of regular people as influencers. (Imagine Tyra Banks railing against the modelling industry as she readies contestants to master it!)
And yet, I kind of got it. This is a confusing business, a confusion I am not exempt from. As a writer who often shares her life and work online, I’m aware of my own tendency to post culturally covetable content to my Instagram and Twitter feeds, and of my greedy desire for the niche social capital that I imagine it might bring me. (While I was watching the film, it was hard for me not to keep opening Instagram on my phone, to check how many likes I’d received on my latest post, although I knew full well that no number would ever feel like enough.) Dominique, too, is confused. “It’s so artificial and surface-level,” she says, late in the documentary, of influencers who post about their seemingly gorgeous lives, even after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. “But I think I’m in that boat, too, because people think I’m an influencer.” She tells Bilton that, in recent months, the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests have made her think that she’d like to use her influence to make some sort of difference. A video that she had recently posted had gone viral; in the clip, she tries out a free bidet that she received in the mail and becomes comically perturbed when experiencing the device’s effects. “I’ve had so many people say, like, ‘This made my week, I was laughing so hard,’ ” she says. “If I could do that for more people, I think it would be incredible.”
While writing this piece, I opened Dominique’s Instagram profile. She currently has more than three hundred and forty thousand followers, and has been promoting the mattress brand Awara and the fitness-class-booking app ClassPass. Most recently, too, she has been promoting “Fake Famous,” on HBO.