“Fake Famous” and the Tedium of Influencer Culture


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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 . . ….

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