Why 'influencer' isn't always a dirty word and Huda Kattan transcends it
It’s in vogue to deride influencers, and while I’m viscerally embarrassed when I open Instagram and see someone touting questionable diet tea, I’d be lying if I said I’m not susceptible to influence. We all are.
A friend recently posted about a new Dubai florist on an Instagram story. I bought a bouquet that day. If I’m deciding on a new café to visit, I go to its Insta’ account, check tagged photos, and if the coffee looks bad, I won’t go. I’m currently in the market for a new bed. Have I turned to catalogues from West Elm or Ikea? No. I have a Pinterest board.
So, I admit it. I am influenced – daily, probably hourly. And yet I still regularly say, ‘pfft, influencers’ with an eye roll, and with the sense that the perch I sit on as a journalist is far loftier. But you know what? It often is.
The ‘traditional’ media has values, checks and balances, a code of conduct: if an advertiser spends money with a media brand they align with, they can usually count on the fact that brand won’t spontaneously spout heinous hate speech (unless they have a pre-established reputation for such a thing). Kuwaiti beauty influencer Sondos Al Qattan’s complaints over Filipino domestic workers having a day off proved this isn’t the case with today’s influencers.
But still, the power of influence isn’t a new thing. We’ve been sold cars via movies, ovens via TV shows and shoes via red carpets long before Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger were even a twinkle in the eye. So why all the hate today?
Well, it might come down to the fact that you can now be nought but an influencer – and the barriers to entry are so low (in fact, maybe there’s an inherent snobbery in the disdain: you don't have to plump for a degree to sell yourself as a brand).
Why Huda Kattan isn't an 'influencer' in the derided sense of the word
For me, the essential issue is that someone can now describe themselves as, first and foremost, an influencer. ‘An influencer of what?’ I’d ask.
But the judgement is often thrown at the wrong people. Not every individual who promotes things via Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or Facebook is vacuous. Huda Kattan, for instance, is often unfairly grouped with the most talentless of Instagram stars whose followers are bought bots (notice how a random personal trainer keeps commenting 'keep it up!' on your posts? That's a bot at work).
Conflating Kattan with these people, as I often hear happening, is unfair: the 34-year-old Iraqi American began as a makeup artist, started a blog back in 2010 all about makeup, and now has her own mammoth beauty business, valued at $1 billion, that goes well beyond a few posts showing off contouring.
Her Facebook Watch video series, Huda Boss, is viewed more than 8 million times every week (she clearly has actual fans) and she spends a lot of time promoting other young bloggers via her Instagram. I do actually wonder if the fact that she’s thrown in the ‘dirty influencer’ pile has a lot to do with the fact that she’s a pretty, and female, face occupying an industry that speaks mainly to woman.
I don’t, for instance, think a former athlete who had a thriving footwear business and a strong Instagram following would be seen in such a two-dimensional manner. Kattan is a hard-working, multi-dimensional businesswoman with a genuine brand, and the UAE should be proud of the fact it was the place in which she managed to thrive.
So yes, if you’re a chef who has been toiling away in kitchens for years, ruining your back, working your way up form minimum wage, and you now happen to have a YouTube channel that builds you a brand, good on you. If you spent long nights at design school learning the ins and outs of your craft, and you now occasionally get sent a product to test and discuss, I value your opinion. If you're Huda Kattan, and have built an empire in five years, I want to read your business book when it comes out to absorb all the information I can.
But if you’re someone who paid robots to spam people to follow you, forced friends to take ‘back shots’ of you wherever you go (upping the saturation every time) and now insist that brands pay you in the thousands to promote things you feel no connection to, I’m out. You don't influence me.