Miami-Dade County

They are Miami’s Instagram elite. But they say the life isn’t as glamorous as it looks

Ria Michelle, a digital influencer with an Instagram following of 24,000, has been blogging since she arrived in Miami in 2010. She says Miami’s influencer market is currently “very oversaturated.”
Ria Michelle, a digital influencer with an Instagram following of 24,000, has been blogging since she arrived in Miami in 2010. She says Miami’s influencer market is currently “very oversaturated.” MIAMI HERALD

Here is an abridged list of items Instagram influencer Dianna Hughes never needs to buy:

Bikinis, groceries, shampoo, conditioner, condiments, face wash, mascara and foundation.

Having advertised “anything from ice cream to Vaseline,” Hughes gets essentials sent to her Midtown Miami residence free of charge.

“I do have to buy toilet paper,” she notes.

Even Plan B and condom companies reach out to Hughes, hoping she’ll blast their wares to her 104,000 followers. (She won’t.)

Hughes says people see the perks of the profession — on display to anyone with an Instagram account — and jump to “glamorize the influencers.”

But, she says, influencing “is 100 percent a job.”

For two years, Hughes has made her living partnering with luxury hotels and local dentists, which compensate the 28-year-old for posting enthusiastically about their offerings on her blog and Instagram account. The asking price for a post ranges from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.

Since 2015, the number of Miami-based Instagram accounts that have amassed at least 10,000 followers has increased by approximately 2,600 percent, according to Teodora Thompson, the president of Miami Marketing Co., an agency that connects local brands with influencers.

Thompson estimates Miami is now home to 12,000 authentic Instagram influencers (another 8,000 accounts are too bot-infested to touch).

Yet despite being an increasingly coveted gig, Miami’s professional influencers say few people really understand what it is that they do.

“It’s work” is a common refrain among influencers who feel their career is too easily cast aside as a hobby for the photogenic. Influencing, influencers insist, is a confluence of creative industries: photography, fashion merchandising, modeling, writing and public relations.

“We’re creating ads for brands and making them flow into everyday life,” Hughes says. “That’s work.”

What it takes

“It’s not like I pose and just take an iPhone picture,” says Valeria Barrientos, who prefers to deploy a drone or her Canon 5D.

On a recent all-expenses paid vacation to the Bahamas’ SLS Baha Mar Hotel, Barrientos produced bird’s-eye-view photos of herself posing poolside. She later took to her blog to commend the hotel’s amenities and jalapeño cocktails.

“I would lie if I said it doesn’t feel like work,” she says of the trip’s influencing component. “They gave me something, I have to give something back.”

Thompson says this combination of personal and promotional makes influencers the most effective form of marketing she can provide a brand.

She says a micro-influencer with a dedicated following of 20,000 is more valuable to her than Tom Cruise. “The more natural and authentic, the better,” she says.

Unlike Cruise, Thompson says an influencer comes off as “a real human” and can therefore blur the line between what is reality and what is #sponsored.

The result can be an unbearably glamorous feed of spa treatments, staycations and untouched entrees. But influencers say making it look this good is just part of the job.

Ria Michelle, a Miami-based Instagram influencer with a following of 24,000, points to an ostensibly gently filtered photo of her terrier Nala and a Fudgie the Whale ice cream cake.

“Nothing looks like this, obviously,” she says.

Like all photos on her feed, the Carvel-sponsored shot has been run through two editing apps — Snapseed to enhance the shot and VSCO for touch-ups.

This is a small sampling of the behind-the-scenes magic that goes into producing content for @riamichelle, an account where airplanes are zapped from cerulean blue skies and stray hairs are photoshopped into oblivion. Swim trunks and bikinis are laid out on a marble slab that is revealed to be marble patterned adhesive.

“Every blogger has it,” she says of the prop.

For brands that spurn a “flat-lay” — the industry term for laying items flat — Michelle will haul a series of outfits into her car and find an appropriate backdrop in front of which to model them (the Design District is a favorite). She changes out her lipstick color, so the shots look like they arose naturally throughout the week.

After shooting and editing, Michelle writes a caption within whatever constraints the brand has imposed. An alcohol company may ask its influencer to refrain from using the word “lit” in the caption, lest they appear to be promoting overconsumption. They may also ask that the bottle is shown with the cap still on and that whatever cocktail is being served is not being sipped. The subject should also appear to be enjoying themselves.

In March, Michelle walked the line in a striped suit, posing next to a limited-edition bottle of Grey Goose and a full glass.

“People only see the perks — ‘Oh, you’re getting your hair blown out again,’ ‘Oh, you’re getting free dinner somewhere,’ ‘’ she says. “But they don’t understand that this is literally our job — to make things look amazing.”

A gig on the rise

The Miami that Michelle arrived to eight years ago was home to approximately six similar bloggers. She made seven.

She showed up at fashion shows and clothing line launches and took photos of the attendees, who would later visit her blog to check out themselves and their contemporaries.

As Miami established itself as the destination for luxury condos and clubbing, Michelle noticed that Miamians weren’t the only ones who cared what Miamians were wearing.

People started to “take Miami a lot more seriously,” she recalls. They seemed genuinely interested in the glitzy life of the city’s completely average occupants — including herself.

She stopped photographing Miami’s glitterati and started posting exclusively about all things Ria Michelle — what she purchased, pined for, primed her eyelids with. Soon, big brands like Levi’s and Macy’s were asking to partner with the 20-something blogger with a background in website design.

“That’s when I kind of knew, ‘Oh you can make money on this,’ ” Michelle remembers.

Today, it would seem everyone knows. Michelle says she no longer recognizes many of the influencers she sees on the circuit. “I’m like, ‘Where do you people come from?’ ‘’

Instagram has no gatekeepers. Anyone with the app can fashion themselves an influencer. The Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach gets so many people looking to influence on its behalf that the resort just created a form to streamline the process.

Full-time influencers say their platform is overrun with wannabes. Some will purchase their audience — 500 followers cost about $6.99 — in the hopes of being catapulted to relevance. Unsuspecting brands impressed by the following may partner with the aspiring influencer, not knowing the bots are unlikely to purchase so much as a hand soap.

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Thompson says she routinely has people come to her office and tell her “you need to hire me because I’m an influencer and have 16,000 followers.” She says the majority of accounts she sees are bolstered by bots.

“Those millennials,” she says. “They want to rule the world, they all want to be influencers.”

But, she says, “they don’t want to work at all.” She estimates there are maybe a dozen people able to influence professionally in Miami.

“It’s a very oversaturated market,” Michelle says. ”It’s even hard for me, being a veteran, to continue working.”

She says the key to staying power is good branding. “There are people who post really terrible pictures, actually, but that’s their brand,” she says.

That is not Michelle’s brand. She prefers “opulence.” She stamps her posts with a #LiveLikeRia hashtag, which, she says, connotes being herself, unapologetically.

This month, living like Ria meant strolling through a juice bar that forbids dogs with a puppy on a pink leash. Historically, it has meant attending launching parties for face masks and staycationing at hotels up the road from her South Beach home.

Not all aspects of Michelle’s life are worthy of a hashtag. Everyday nuisances — like flyaway hairs and coding her website — don’t “really fit into the narrative that you’re selling.”

Recently, Michelle posted a photo of herself geotagged at Bal Harbour luxury department store Neiman Marcus.

“Every time I look at the photo now, I just want to delete it,” she says, noting a stray lock of hair. “It ruins an immaculate photo.” She concedes that no other human would ever notice such a hair.

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A post shared by Miami Fashion Blogger | Ria (@riamichelle) on

Perfectionism is a workplace hazard. Hughes says when she began influencing, she used to pounce on each underperforming post, debating whether to wipe it from her account. When a carefully crafted shot failed to bring in likes, she says, “it hurt your pride.”

But Hughes is a professional. Now she puts her phone away immediately after she posts.

“I don’t go on Instagram to play.”