Like Athena breaking through Zeus’ head, an icon was born into the blogosphere in the 2010s. She wore a camel hat askew her long ombré hair, skinny jeans, and Valentino Rockstud heels. Known simply as “the influencer,” she was the latest evolution of the decades-old goal of becoming a tastemaker or socialite—something that seemed easier than ever to do in the age of social media.
Even if her style wasn’t eternal, her influence—or at least her income—was. Some, like Chiara Ferragini and Aimee Song came to earn upwards of $8 million and $5 million, respectively, complete with millions of followers and their own retail brands. Such success put the content creator not just on the map, but on a pedestal of a newly fabled American Dream where anyone could make it by showcasing their individuality. More than a decade after the rise of Tumblr stars, there’s a TikTok niche for anyone, whether it’s sharing recipes or outfit ideas or even pretending to be a medieval barkeep. Even now, more than half of Gen Zers would become an influencer if given the chance. No wonder Goldman Sachs analysts project that the creator economy will be worth $480 billion by 2027.
If you strike gold, being a social media influencer is a flexible, autonomous, and lucrative career. But as more people try it out, competition gets more fierce and rising to the well-paid top becomes more difficult. Three influencers Fortune spoke with pulled back the curtain on what it actually takes to get there: Crafting an illusion of wealth that comes at a cost—credit card debt, draining savings, and hiding behind a facade of financial support and freebies.
Lissette Calveiro, 30, took on $10,000 in credit card debt in the mid-2010s trying to mimic the carefree, fun, and busy influencer lifestyle that dominated Instagram at the time: taking a trip to Austin, shopping at influencer-favorite stores, or dining at trendy new restaurants. “You feel like you have to put up this interesting lifestyle, less so a premium lifestyle,” she tells Fortune. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I have things going on every day, don’t you see?’”
Courtesy of Lissette Calveiro
There’s also the high price of entry—up to $5,000 on average for cameras or even an iPhone, she says—hardly feasible on her $30,000 annual entry-level salary in media advertising. “If I’m buying clothes every day to be able to have a different outfit on my feed, that’s not realistic,” she adds.
Today, Calveiro is a lifestyle creator and business coach for creators, with 80,000 Instagram followers and 45,000 TikTok followers. Fortune reviewed documents that showed Calveiro’s business raked in more than $525,000 last year, $122,000 of which came from content creation alone. Ironically, being transparent about her financial missteps helped Calveiro build a following, establish trust, and get brand deals.
“By the time I opened up about my finances, I had 10,000 followers, not a million,” Calveiro notes. “But I was trying to copy what the girls who have a million were doing.”
Influencers “just keep investing in these experiences or things that aren’t at their level of affordability for their lifestyle,” Calveiro says, adding that thinking of these purchases as business expenses helps some rationalize the behavior. While creators have become a bit more transparent since first hitting the scene a decade ago, she adds, many are still “definitely leading some sort of back-end life.”
A foundation of generational wealth—or debt and $0 savings
Many top influencers come from an existing economic and social privilege, says Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate communications professor at Cornell University who has been studying social media influencers and the creator economy since their rise in the 2010s. “It takes more than pluck and luck to succeed in such a saturated marketplace,” she tells Fortune.
“The majority of people who have made it, especially on Instagram, had someone to lean back on, like a family member or a significant other that made more money,” explains blogger and founder of Bad Bitch Book Club Mackenzie Newcomb. Not being in debt during the 2010s heyday of the Instagram influencer was a rarity, she tells Fortune—especially if you were a single person who didn’t come from generational wealth. “To be an Instagram influencer, you literally had to be rich,” says the book influencer, who has nearly 80,000 followers across Instagram and TikTok. “And if you weren’t rich, then you were gonna have to be in debt.”
Or, you might have to empty out your savings—which seemed like a lesser evil for some influencers, but a different kind of punch to their finances. Wary of accruing debt again after spending over a year-and-a-half paying it off, Calveiro turned to her emergency funds shortly after becoming a full-time influencer in April 2020 when she brought in $0 in revenue. And while lifestyle and beauty influencer Emma Rose Léger says she never allowed herself to go into credit card debt, “I definitely did drain my bank account multiple times.”
Her 2018 Coachella Instagram posts during her early influencer days depict a colorful world of palm trees, space buns, and friends having a blast while wearing fringe jackets. But the reality was less of a galaxy paradise; she says she increased her credit card limit to buy the tickets and had no spending money by the time she arrived. She couldn’t even afford the influencer dinner she attended and got by eating the free fruit in the hotel lobby; her sister had to wire her cash for the weekend.
“No one would have known from an outsider’s perspective and from social media,” Léger, who has 623,000 Instagram followers and 236,000 TikTok subscribers, tells Fortune. “I literally had no money in my bank account that weekend.”
That’s despite juggling “everything under the sun” to make money until becoming a full-time influencer—dog walking, working at a restaurant and fashion boutique, and helping coordinate social media content. Calveiro had a similar strategy, balancing her 9-to-5 in marketing with her influencer veneer, which felt like a second job in itself. When she finally became a full-time creator, she took on consulting gigs helping brands create content. “Most content creators have other streams of income,” she says. “And they’re not disclosing it because it’s not ‘sexy.’”
The dichotomy of being an aspirational, but transparent influencer
By the mid-2010s, influencer transparency—or lack thereof—had become a big problem; influencers weren’t always transparent about the gifts they received, like a Celine bag or $200 La Mer moisturizer. As digital culture journalist Taylor Lorenz detailed in her new book, “Extremely Online,” influencers and celebs alike were being called out for not disclosing ads. In 2017, the FTC cracked down and sent out letters reminding influencers they must let followers know their connection to any gifted items or companies. This backfired, Lorenz wrote, opening up the floodgates for sponsored content to the point where it had become a status symbol and those without brand deals faked them.
And there were plenty of other ways to fake a lifestyle that wasn’t 100% reflective of one’s income. At times, Léger would borrow a nice bag from a friend or on loan from another store just to post a photo of it. And Newcomb became a member of Rent the Runway in 2016—but never disclosed that to her followers. “I would always check the brands I was wearing, even though they were rented, as if they were something I could already have,” she says. Funnily enough, “everyone just assumed I was in credit card debt.”
@mackinstyle Whats your favorite?! Use code RTRMACKENZIEN for 40% off #renttherunway especially my pregnant girls itll save your sanity #pregnancystyleinspo ♬ original sound – Mackenzie
But she’s since started a TikTok series trying on Rent the Runway hauls. It’s a sign of social media’s transformation during what Duffy calls the “pandemic-era ascent of TikTok” in the 2020s. This further complicated the notion that the most successful influencers come from wealth “because it placed a renewed emphasis on ‘relatability’ and because of the virality associated with the algorithmic ‘for you page,’” she explains.
That virality doesn’t always translate to longevity, though, she adds. And the rise of new platforms like TikTok and continuously updated features like reels and stories has only created a more demanding environment in which influencers invest additional labor and money, she says, pointing to the number of course offerings on algorithms or hashtag strategies as an example.
Enforcing the push toward policing and regulating influencer transparency remains difficult, Duffy notes, adding that influencers deemed “fake” or duplicitous still risk being mocked or called out by audiences. While all the influencers Fortune spoke with say they’ve seen a shift toward more authenticity, it’s also a double-edged sword—followers expect a certain degree of escapism, making it hard for influencers to be honest about the difficulties along the way.
“It’s a balancing act, because you’re supposed to be aspirational as an influencer,” Newcomb says. “But at the same time, you don’t want to come across like you are privileged. Because people are really quick to judge, especially in this economy.”
“The point of our job is to create this fantasy and aspiration for people that follow us,” adds Léger, explaining that back when she started it was even more of an illusion as travel bloggers would Photoshop beautiful images. “At the time, it was all about fantasyland.”