Walid Sharks is taking a nasty beating at the AO Arena in Manchester, England. It’s the second round of his fight against “Deen the Great,” and he has just been knocked down by a punch to the face. “His eyes are rolling right now,” says a commentator. “He doesn’t know where he is!” But Sharks doesn’t mind: he’s fighting before a sell-out crowd, with a million people live-streaming at home, and they’ll be loving the drama. Hit “is jaw off!,” someone in the stands shouts to Deen the Great, wishfully. Sharks isn’t a professional boxer, but a social media “influencer.” Being used as a punchbag is worth it to grow his internet following.
This is the industry turning online attention into cash and celebrity. For Sharks and Dean the Great and the twenty-two other influencers who fought in the ring on that evening last fall, the rewards are great. The main bout in Manchester was between Logan Paul, a YouTuber, and Dillon Danis, a former jiujitsu fighter who was boxing for the first time. Paul started on YouTube as a teenager a decade ago and now he’s a rich man with millions of adoring followers. On camera he’s raced Ferraris, hung out with supermodels and wrestled a bear. He’s made his life an epic and tireless drama and earned a load in return. He goes further than most other YouTubers to get subscribers. A few years ago, he filmed a dead man hanging from a tree in the Aoikigahara forest in Japan, a suicide hotspot. “I want to entertain you guys. I want to live life with you guys. I want you guys to be able to live life through me,” he told his subscribers in a video.
The idea is that the fame and the riches once reserved for sportsmen, actors, musicians or models can be possible for anyone. You just need to get followers. Convince people to gawp at you all day so that brands will pay you to market their stuff to your fans. It’s why more young people today want to be an influencer than a doctor, lawyer, teacher or banker. They spend hours a day on sites like Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitch, and see people living like Paul. But life for most people who try to “make it” on social media is tragic. They end up selling themselves online with little hope of success.
Between bouts in Manchester, a teenager called Christian toured the arena with a cameraman, interviewing influencers for his YouTube and TikTok channels. He hoped that his association with more famous influencers would get him a bigger following. He dreamed that someday he might fight at a sold-out show. An adoring teenager might interview him.
“I want to have my time in lights,” Christian said. He told me about how he looked up to Olajide Olatunji, a YouTuber known as “KSI,” who put together the boxing in Manchester. Olatunji started his channel uploading short comedy sketches, and now he has more than 15 million subscribers and is the co-founder of a billion-dollar energy drink company. Christian wanted to have an impact on the world like KSI, and he had a plan to make it happen. He’d work for the next six months or so “building out” his operation, going to concerts, soccer games and the Formula One season to film the stars. Then he’d refine his “brand” and try to make his face recognizable. His only dream was to be an influencer.
But Christian only imagined the fun side of influencing. In a business where attention pays, it’s hard to separate real and fake. Danis guaranteed publicity for his fight in Manchester by calling Paul’s fiancée “a whore” on Twitter, and in the months before the fight, Danis tweeted explicit photos of her. His following on the platform tripled. Paul’s fiancée sued for harassment and was apparently granted a restraining order, but Danis kept going. “I’m making her more famous than she’s ever been,” he said. “She should be the ring girl for the fight!” In the final round in Manchester, Danis jumped on Paul and tried to get him in a chokehold. A security guard stepped in the ring to protect Paul, and Danis swung at him and missed. More security got involved, and so did Paul’s dad and brother, and Danis’s corner too. It became a brawl and everyone in the crowd screamed for more.
If you’re not at the top, influencing can be a boring slog, going to sad events and pushing products you’ve no interest in. A few weeks after the fight night in Manchester, in a warehouse in north London, a few hundred small-time social media personalities turned out for the launch of a new “collaboration” between the pop star Rihanna and the sports brand Puma. They’d been invited by a PR agency to promote a trainer called the “Creeper Phatty,” and in exchange they got pre-poured cocktails all night. Arrangements like this are common. There was a DJ, and people danced and drank and did photoshoots on their iPhones in front of the Rihanna x Puma branding. A young woman called Destiny stood at the bar and looked like she didn’t want to be there. “My agent was like, Destiny, you have to put yourself out there!” So she did what she was told.
Of course Rihanna didn’t turn up; she had better places to be. Dami Hope, the next best thing, arrived near 11 p.m. He’s an influencer with 750,000 followers on Instagram and he came third on Love Island. Fans in the warehouse asked for photos. Hope, like Destiny, didn’t look like he wanted to be there. You’d think he was past this kind of thing and he probably thought so too. “I don’t leave my house unless I need to,” he admitted. “It’s all networking, bro.” Hope has done advertising campaigns with Jack Wills and Gordon’s gin on his Instagram page, and he seems to always be at parties or on vacation. But he was still with the wannabes. Most young people will never get as big as him.
In most professions, people work hard to get ahead. But not influencing. You hand your life to the internet and risk total humiliation. It’s why Sharks took his beating, Paul went to the suicide forest and why some women are trying to get a following by making porn. They post nude photos and sex tapes on websites like OnlyFans, which charge customers to unlock explicit content, and they grow an audience that way. Elle Brooke ranks in the top 0.01 percent of OnlyFans earners.
“I normally fluctuate between 0.01 and 0.03 percent,” she said on a call. “But 0.03 to me is a bad month.” Brooke started doing OnlyFans at university a few years ago, and now she’s got six full-time employees, including her mother, helping her make homemade porn. Brooke hangs around with normal YouTube and TikTok influencers, and now she has a following she plans to move into their scene and do less of the OnlyFans. “It’s about the longevity of my brand,” she explained. She’s got a TikTok account with more than 2 million followers. She wants people to know the real her.
Olesia Popova wants to become a fitness influencer, inspiring women to go to the gym. She’s Russian, lives in Thailand and posts photos of herself in gym clothes on Instagram to 200,000 followers. Porn clearly worked out for Brooke, who says she earns millions a year, but lots of young people putting their life online won’t get much back. Popova livestreams half-naked on Twitch for a few hours a day, as well as doing Instagram. She hopes it’ll increase her following and give her a better chance at becoming really famous. She’ll sit in underwear in her bedroom talking to anonymous viewers, telling them about her dream of becoming a fitness influencer and talking about her mental health problems. “The people watching my stream are my best therapist and my best friend,” she said on Zoom. “I’m not really a social person.” thousand people watch each time she livestreams. “I always think that I know not enough, I look not good enough.” If people don’t follow her, after she’s shown and told them so much, what does she have left?
Most people like Popova who are trying to become influencers will fail. It’s just too competitive. They’ll show some of their personality, some of their body and nobody will be interested. But still, exposing your life to the mob is the only thing that seems to work. Get beaten up in a boxing match, do porn, film a dead man hanging in a suicide forest in Japan. Whatever it takes. And even for those who do make it, the world of influencers is sad and depressing.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.