THE GIRL IN THE CAFE
She was sitting by the water in a beautiful, handmade, white lace top. The European cityscape behind her was slightly blurred as the camera focused on her face and the inspired look in her eye. But it was still visible enough to elicit in you a desire to be there, living that life.
As a lifetime artist and budding photographer, I love good photography. I have come to prefer platforms like Instagram even more than Facebook because communicating through photos and words combined allows us to have a much more visceral, felt experience.
I love scrolling through webpages and social media posts with beautiful photography. I love dreaming up my own photo shoots, thinking intricately about how I want the viewer to feel, how I want the image to uplift and liberate, or create a felt sense of an old, warm memory.
When I think of photography and combining it with my online presence, I don’t think of it much as “creating my brand.” Instead, I think of it as creating art that makes you feel something. I think always, what energy do I want to transmit to my community through this image?
Most of the accounts I follow are photography accounts: nature, abstract, journalistic — you name the category, I follow it.
So, it’s safe to say, I loved this photo. It was beautiful.
But something else seemed to “catch” in me as I continued to view the photo, read the caption, and then scrolled down to read through the comments.
There were so many people writing “I wish I could be like you!” or “I wish I could have that life!”. There were comments from people putting her on a pedestal. I could feel, among the inspiration, a whole other level of feelings elicited by this photo in the comments. A feeling that said “my life doesn’t look like that, so I am failing.”
I’ll be honest, I’ve felt that looking at many photographs.
Truth is, some of these photos are starting to all look the same. They have all had their brightness elevated to the max. There’s always a few images of sitting in a Paris cafe with a laptop. Or in an outfit just off the runway.
There are online personal brands who have it in their budget to have elaborate photo shoots several times a year, all to curate an image.
When I looked at this photo and began to consider the amount of photo shoots this person must be paying for every year to create this carefully curated feed, that’s when my mind really started asking some interesting questions.
HOW “CELEBRITY” BECAME OUR OBSESSION
I was an actor years ago in New York City. I had some good success with it. And I loved performing. I loved telling stories on a stage or on a screen that might get a person to think more deeply about themselves and their lives.
I knew how film and theatre had made me feel as a child. How it had inspired me, given me more to hope for during some pretty bleak and abusive circumstances I was sometimes exposed to growing up. It taught me to dream bigger and reach for more. And it taught me I wasn’t crazy for having those dreams in the first place.
That’s what all good art can do. I wanted to create that experience for others through the power of a visual story, so I became an actor.
One night, while working on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, one of my cast members told me about the origin of Hollywood and the concept of “celebrity.”
You see, the glamour of Hollywood that you are used to imagining when you think of those old black and white films, with women dripping in designer dresses and jewels, or the concept of the red carpet, didn’t always exist.
In fact, the concept of celebrity was created by the studios to sell more tickets.
There’s something those clever marketing executives knew about the human mind. It always thinks the grass is greener on the other side. It always wants more. And it loves to compare itself to other experiences.
We’ve been taught to abdicate our power to things outside of ourselves. So we all default to thinking someone else outside of us has the answers to our happiness and desires.
So the marketing executives decided to create the concept of celebrity. They gave actresses elaborate gowns on loan, jewels to drip all over their body, and expensive cars to get out of on the red carpet. Studios had actors under contract that were required to show up with an image of dripping wealth. Why?
Because they knew that if they made people feel that these celebrities were better than them and had it all figured out, people would want to buy more tickets to movies, and even products associated with celebrities in order to get a little piece of what these celebrities had.
Make someone feel inferior or bad enough by positioning your life as so much better than theirs and they will want to buy anything you sell so they can improve their own lives.
Safe to say, the Hollywood movie-executive plan worked. People fell for it hook, line, and sinker. And now we have the cult of celebrity. Head over to any celebrity social media account and you’ll see hundreds of comments with people saying they want to be like them.
People feeling like they are not enough.
This “make yourself appear superior in all your images so that more people will buy things from you” trope is not just limited to Hollywood of course. It’s everywhere now.
Open up a magazine and you have a photoshopped model with a body type considered “ideal” at this moment in society. You have hundreds of articles telling you how to get that body type. How to make your lips bigger. Get “cut.” Be more attractive to men or women. Most of these articles do not feature marginalized bodies, or people of a variety of colors, or even cultural backgrounds. Nope, there is definitely a “type” that gets propagated over and over as the ideal.
All of it is screaming in your face: “You are not enough, but these people are. So if you buy their cream/album/clothing line, you can be just like them and get out of your shitty life.”
I’ve seen the same concept of celebrity in the online marketing, personality brand, and coaching world.
I learned online marketing from people who were telling me to hit pain points and triggers. I was told if I didn’t do this, that I would never succeed. It only took a few times of trying that to see how out of alignment that felt to me.
I decided to do things my way, and lo and behold, I still succeeded.
I’ve not been perfect at it. I’ve had to take some time to dis-indoctrinate myself from the things I was taught about marketing when I was learning.
If you start to pay attention to the ads you see, the messages from experts and coaches, you will notice many are still employing these practices of dangling a “we have the secret and you don’t” carrot in front of your face. Some of these coaches and programs DO improve lives and help a great deal.
Perhaps, you’re a person who has had great success using trigger/pain-point marketing concepts. Perhaps, you very clearly try to position yourself just like a celebrity in Hollywood would.
I see so many coaches positioning themselves as celebrities to trigger the same “my life is better than yours and you want to be like me” reaction. And I have seen them be VERY successful. Millions of social media followers. Everyone buying their products.
This approach — it really works. Like gangbusters. Unfortunately, we fall for it more often than we’d like to admit.
I love a photo that gives me a hope to go for something more. I love feeling inspired by someone’s hike up to a stunning location, or imagining myself as a billionaire on a yacht with a laptop. You bet your booty I adore looking at Dior’s dresses on Instagram or someone’s trip to the Azores as they relax in front of jewel toned water. I’ll admit, I love the escape some of these photos give me.
But what is the cost when this is all that we see?
What is the cost when THIS particular image of life is portrayed as the only one to be wanted?
Or the “best”?
What are we losing when we begin to think that the only way to present ourselves is through the lens of celebrity?
As much as I love a glossy, “brightness to the max,” perfectly curated outfit kind of photo that took an entire crew of photographers to capture… as much as I love seeing that bright pink wall behind you as your feet kick up from your skirt to reveal perfectly matching shoes, I also love seeing edges. I love what is real and gritty too.
One of my favorite yoga teachers on instagram regularly posts pictures of herself with breast milk smeared all over her shirt and her hair a mess as she adjusts to having a new baby in the house. She does videos with greasy hair after a long night of staying up with baby. She does this to let her readers know: this is real life too.
A picture, person, or life doesn’t have to be perfectly lit or designed in order to be truly luminous. Sometimes a perfectly curated image is counterfeit sparkle.
What about the beauty of a body not normally depicted in a magazine?
What about the inspiration I get from someone sharing a struggle and overcoming it?
As much as I love to escape through photos, I also love art that brings me back to the perfection within my own imperfect self. I love photos that explore darker subjects like death, loss, or body confidence struggles.
Because that is part of life too.
And there is nothing wrong with you or me if a moment of having your child vomit on you is just as fulfilling as sitting in that cafe in Paris on your laptop.
INTENTION IS EVERYTHING
This doesn’t mean that anyone who takes beautiful photos is trying to position themselves as a celebrity to trigger the “I’m not enough, so I want to be like you” factor in their audiences and get them to buy what they are selling.
It doesn’t mean you can’t be an artist and curate your Instagram feed or website with photos that make you happy and drip what you see as beauty. I do that because it feels aligned and joyful for me. Instagram is where I get to do my art. My feed looks beautiful because I like thinking of Instagram as a place to write more creatively and practice my photographic arts.
If we start trying to control all art and saying it must depict certain scenarios in order to not trigger people, we run the dangerous risk of limiting a variety of human perspectives.
AND there is nothing wrong with wanting more for your life and using that inspiration you get from someone’s photos to want to move ahead as well.
But for those of us who have online presences, the most important question we can ask is “what is my come-from?”
What is your real intention in posting that photo? In hiring teams of photographers to take photos of you all over the world in various scenarios to post on your social media account?
There is a shadow I feel in many photos which says, “here I am, positioning myself as a celebrity, badass, superior entrepreneur type so that more people give me celebrity cred and then want to buy more stuff from me.”
It’s so subtle. But I feel it sometimes in photos. And I don’t even think those who do it are aware they are doing it, because it has been so deeply ingrained in us that we all have to be celebrities with people who worship the ground we walk on, in order to be successful.
I think many of these people who I see doing this in their photos subconsciously don’t even know this is what is driving them. You might be one of those people.
THE QUESTIONS YOU WANT TO ASK YOURSELF
The next time you book a photo shoot or post a photo, ask yourself: am I doing this because I’m wanting people to see me in a certain way or control the perspective someone has of me?
Or: am I doing this photo with my laptop in a cafe in Paris because I actually do work in cafes in Paris and it’s my favorite thing in the world, so it’s authentic to me?
What is your come-from?
Is it to inspire other people through the energy transmission in your post or photo?
Or is it to establish celebrity cred so everyone will want to be like you?
Are you saying “this is the only way to live life” with your images?
Or are you saying “this is what I personally love and what brings me joy. This is my own personal perspective that I’d love to share with you.”?
Two very different come-froms that can be felt viscerally when we are viewing your photo or reading your content.
I have a friend who loves designer clothes and is always posting her favorite outfits and shoes in her photos. She looks fab and I LOVE it. I never get that weird feeling from her photos. Because you can feel that her intention for sharing is her pure joy and love of dressing well.
Conversely, I know another online influencer whose images of her designer clothes and shoes always give me that, “I’m making myself look like a celebrity so that you want to buy more stuff from me” vibe.
Same photos, different energy transmission because of the different intentions for posting.
Understand that your images will create totally different experiences when someone is viewing your photo.
Do you want someone to feel challenged, uplifted, inspired, and more confident in their ability to create happiness and fulfillment in their lives as a result of viewing your image or reading your post?
Or do you want to simply continue to press the trigger point of the status quo which says “you are not good enough. Be anyone but yourself.”?
This doesn’t mean that you can control everyone’s reactions to your content. I’ve posted content that I know came from an authentic and good place within me, and there will always be people who still want to project their own issues onto you, compare themselves to you, take what you said the wrong way, be offended, or take it personally.
Yes, that happens. You can’t always control the personal projections and triggers of millions of people, no matter how good and pure your intentions may be.
But, there are a lot of people in the public eye who talk about wanting to serve, help others and make a positive impact. If you’re reading this, you ARE making that kind of impact already.
And yet many fall short of helping by unconsciously participating in the cult of guru-worship and celebrity positioning.
I can’t tell you how many events I have been to where people want to come up and take selfies with me, or someone else, NOT because it’s just a friend-photo to share or celebrate our friendship, but more because they want people to see WHO they are hanging out with; so they look like they’re “in with the in-crowd.” (I’m not saying I believe in an in-crowd, or that I think I am part of one. I think that is an illusion, and I don’t view myself as being part of any in-crowd — I’ve always disliked that sort of thinking, and have always done my own thing).
This “pretending to post random selfies with my famous friends but really positioning myself for my followers with this selfie because of the person I’m standing next to” approach is meant to do a very specific thing. It’s meant to make their followers believe there is an in-crowd and get them to want to be in the “in-crowd” too. This leads to followers purchasing more stuff from them, hoping to get closer to what they perceive as the “in-crowd.”
For that reason, I’ve started avoiding most selfies. And many events. Not everyone has good intentions for taking a selfie or coming to an event. When I go to an event it’s to really connect with my colleagues, see people I love who I haven’t seen in a long time, and to glean creative inspiration from my fellow artists and entrepreneurs. It always throws me off when I encounter people who are only there because of the cred they feel it gives them to be there, or expecting to be worshipped by those in attendance.
If I post photos, I try to make sure to check my own come-from before I post photos with friends or at events that might happen to include influencers. It’s not always easy — it’s very tempting to post a photo with a “celebrity” to give yourself cred when that is what your mentors in marketing have told you you MUST do in order to be successful. It’s very tempting when you have seen it help people make a load of cash. But is that how you want to make your money?
As leaders who are impacting the world with our energy, words, and actions in media, we send out a unique energy transmission to the world with our words, images, and messages.
One transmission of yourself can shatter the illusions that have kept feeling people “less than” for so long. It can show them they are whole and sacred just as they are. I call this, “authentic luminosity.”
The other can keep people feeling that they are broken, powerless, and that they will never be enough. I call that “counterfeit sparkle.”
Which kind of leader will you decide to be?
P.S: Did you ask yourself the questions? Did you find yourself unconsciously falling into some of these “celebrity positioning” traps? I want to hear from you!
P.P.S: Let’s keep it kind and not use the comments below to trash other people; rather inquire within ourselves where we may sometimes get swayed by “celebrity cred.”