On March 18, Kylie Jenner shared an Instagram post with her 222 million followers, urging readers to donate to a GoFundMe page dedicated to Samuel Rada. The makeup artist had undergone major surgery costing upwards of $10,000, after being involved in a serious car accident.
In the post, the youngest of the Jenner sisters said, “May God watch over you and protect you @makeupbysamuel. Everyone takes a moment to say a prayer for Sam who got into an accident this past weekend. And swipe up to visit his families [sic] go fund me.” Jenner proceeded to donate $5000 to the site. Within hours of the post gracing our social media feeds, numerous comments, intense backlash, and acute criticism ensued as the reality star found herself at the heart of yet another online controversy.
But why were so many users compelled to take to their keyboards and publicly shame the 23-year old self-made billionaire? Keep in mind that billionaire is the operative word here. Forbes named Jenner the highest-earning celebrity of 2020, and her net worth has been estimated to stand at $900 million. The beauty mogul makes a staggering $19,000 each hour. People weren’t necessarily angry that Jenner had used her platform to highlight Rauda’s situation. They were angry that she hadn’t done more to help and instead had asked her fans, people who most likely hadn’t accumulated anywhere near Jenner’s level of wealth and were coping with the financial hardships brought on by the pandemic, to contribute. The fact that only half of the $10,000 target was gifted by Jenner and that she had called upon ordinary people— the non-billionaire type— to dig out of their pockets sparked outrage among many of her followers. In one tweet that has gone on to reach 38,000 retweets, Charlotte Clymer claimed that “Folks are defending Kylie Jenner by pointing out she donated $5,000 to her makeup artist’s medical GoFundMe. Her net worth is $900M. So, that’s 0.000006% of her net worth.”
Jenner hasn’t been the first influencer to face criticism, and she certainly won’t be the last. If anything, that’s what being an influencer is all about. These individuals have chosen to live under constant scrutiny, perhaps in exchange for the multitude of benefits this attention appears to bring them. Their high-flying, fast-paced, and excessively lavish lifestyles often reflect an idealized version of the lives many of us wish we had. I make a living by working at my university. They make a living by harnessing the power of the Internet. I go into town to run errands or window shop. They go into town for a book signing, a makeup line launch or to make a public appearance. I go on holiday to an AirBnb in Wales. They travel in a private plane and spend two weeks at a five-star island resort. Indeed, every aspect of their lives can be seen as an exaggeration, an upgrade even, of our own. However, the fact is, these celebrities begin as “normal people”; the point at which they become different to us, better than us perhaps, is the point at which we start holding them to separate and notably higher moral standards. As their success, their wealth, and their platform grows, our expectations of them rise accordingly. We expect influencers to use their positions responsibly. We expect influencers to act as role models to the young boys and the teenage girls aspiring to be like them. We expect influencers to do good, whether that is through speaking out on important issues, becoming involved in charitable causes or urging their fans to do the same. These expectations have of course been heightened by the pandemic, as we have all been encouraged to show consideration and empathy for others like never before.
It follows, then, that what we don’t necessarily expect is for Kylie Jenner, someone who enjoys a life of extreme privilege, to ask her followers to finance a fundraising campaign. Similarly, we don’t expect influencers, during this unprecedented time, to be flying across the world and relaxing in luxury destinations. Love Island UK’s Molly Mae and fitness influencer Sheridan Mordew are among those who have been condemned for enjoying extravagant vacations abroad while key workers have fought to combat the virus, economies have collapsed, and countless lives have been lost. Actions like this not only depict influencers as worryingly oblivious to the real world around them; they also suggest that these stars place themselves on a pedestal, one that is above and exempt from the standards to which everyone else is held.
Of course, we will take to social media, we will compose tweets that bluntly expose their behavior, and we will even put pressure on them to make public apologies. But, at the end of the day, we’ll also carry on with liking their posts, subscribing to their channels, and buying their products. In other words, we’ll play a part in building that pedestal. The problem isn’t simply that we give them a free moral pass or that we continue to sustain their fame. It’s that somehow, we equate their higher status with higher moral standards. We assume that because they have more of everything that we don’t, they will, by default, do the right thing. Indeed, we assume that Jenner would have donated the full amount because she has the means to do so. We assume that influencers would have postponed their holidays to Dubai because it wouldn’t be their only holiday this year. We assume that their seemingly perfect lives also make them perfect people in every sense of the word. However, people need to realize that being an influencer doesn’t make you any bit more a model citizen than the next person nor does it excuse your actions from being questioned or challenged. They are just people who, like the rest of us, are capable of making moral blunders but also capable of achieving truly amazing things and in turn inspiring others. With this in mind, maybe we should all look closer to home for a role model, one that might be a better, more valuable, and indeed more realistic one.
Tiah Shepherd can be reached at email@example.com.