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The Influencer Effect 

Why do so many people care what these social-media titans think?

click to enlarge Catherine Pfab and Rebecca Ott created the fashion blog the Crystal Press, with an Instagram following of more than 42,000.

Scott Elmquist

Catherine Pfab and Rebecca Ott created the fashion blog the Crystal Press, with an Instagram following of more than 42,000.

You can barely track a social media trend before another is on the way. Seems like yesterday when Facebook was available only to students with .edu email addresses. Now it's "for old people," even with the addition of comment graphics and stickers. AOL's instant messenger officially went dark just a few weeks ago. And are the kids still using Snapchat?

However the landscape evolves, people continue to harness the power and reach of social media to benefit them, their readers, and whomever else they team up with. But this isn't simply a fame game. Social-media influencers can spin followers into gold.

Some people are quitting their day jobs to manage their accounts and partnerships. Others keep it as a side gig. But they all rack up tens of thousands of fans who flock to their accounts, shower them with comments and flood their inboxes with direct messages. 

We sat down with a few of Richmond's biggest social influencers, and find that despite the diversity in backgrounds and content, they all have one thing in common: When they started out, they had no idea that posting photos on the internet would make them remotely famous.

 

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Catherine Pfab and Rebecca Ott

The Crystal Press

One is the dreamer and the other is the doer. They've been friends since middle school and obsessed with all things fashion for as long as they can remember.

So when Catherine Pfab and Rebecca Ott found themselves back in Richmond after college and itching for a creative outlet — despite not identifying as writers or knowing much about the blogging world — the idea of a fashion blog made sense.

With little guidance and only a desire to share their passion with anyone who would listen, they raided their closets one weekend, compiling a collection of outfits that showcased their personalities and traipsed around Richmond with a camera.

But they didn't introduce their collaborative blog, the Crystal Press, to the internet right away. Ott says they spent about four months creating content before going live. The first post, featuring the title "Sars and Bars, Minus the Bars" and five photos of Pfab posing on a sidewalk and in front of shrubbery, introduced the world to the Crystal Press on Nov. 17, 2014.

click to enlarge By sharing their tastes in fashion and more, Catherine Pfab and Rebecca Ott have created an Instagram that sizzles with more than 42,000 followers.
  • By sharing their tastes in fashion and more, Catherine Pfab and Rebecca Ott have created an Instagram that sizzles with more than 42,000 followers.

Today they try to post at least once or twice a week, and @thecrystalpress on Instagram has more than 42,000 followers. About 80 percent of their content includes at least some sponsored content, which can mean featuring multiple products in a roundup of sorts, or putting the spotlight on one specific brand to "to try to bring awareness to whatever they're trying to do," Pfab says. Posts also may incentivize readers to buy products from that sponsor, offering special sales and discount codes.

Since its inception in 2014, the blog has also evolved to encompass more than fashion. They put it all out there, whether it's pretty or not.

"If people are going to get to know us, that's the way it has to be done," Ott says, noting that their most personalized posts are the ones that generate the most traffic and comments.

 "I have to talk about my insecurities, my obsessive planning," she says. "Catherine likes to talk about meditation. We kind of realized that in order to make it work, we have to be vulnerable and put ourselves out there."

For now, the Crystal Press remains a hobby — albeit a lucrative one — for Pfab and Ott. Both women work full time when they aren't creating content or communicating with sponsors.

But the flexibility of their day jobs allows them to devote time to the blog and even jet off to New York, Paris and Milan for fashion weeks. And while they hesitate to use the term "business" to describe what they do, they maintain that it's definitely work, and the goal is to eventually go full-time with the blog.

"When we first started," Pfab says, "blogging was big, but it wasn't transparent. No one was really saying how to do it."

Ott finishes her friend's thought: "It was just people that we assumed had a bunch of money and bought a bunch of nice clothes, and then those brands started to work with them because they had nice stuff. And that's not how it works," she says. "It's changed a lot and it's a legitimate way to make money now. It's out there. You may think it's oversaturated, but really it's just legitimized it."

 

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Kelli Lemon

Like the Fruit

Kelli Lemon will talk to just about anybody. And even when her family's move from the Tidewater area to Hanover meant she was the "only little black girl in school," she says, she floated from one social circle to another, befriending anyone she could have a conversation with.

"I was always vocal," Lemon says. "I just felt like I could talk to anybody. And I was probably saying some things that were really inappropriate and embarrassing for my mom, because whatever I saw would come out of my mouth."

Lemon graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor's degree in sociology and at 22 took a job at Virginia Commonwealth University as the assistant director of women's basketball operations. She's also made a name for herself in Richmond. More than 12,000 people follow her @likethefruit account on Instagram, and she proudly refers to herself as a "social entrepreneur." Her jobs, gigs and projects have included VCU basketball sideline broadcaster, which she still does for home games, radio personality and restaurant business manager. She's 88 episodes into her podcast, "Coffee With Strangers RVA," which is exactly what it sounds like — a sit-down, fast-paced, get-to-know-you conversation over coffee with local movers and shakers. Interviewees have included business owners, event planners, artists and Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

"It was just a passion hobby, but it's really growing to be something that is totally different," she says. "It gives you a good perspective of the people in this city, where they eat, where they work out, where they live, why they live there, what they go do."

Over the years, Lemon has found that she can strike up a conversation with a total stranger, even someone who on the surface appears to share no similarities with her, about at least one of four things: food, sports, arts and education. Her message, no matter who she's interviewing, is simple: If we would all just talk to each other, we wouldn't be strangers anymore.

click to enlarge She’s a people person: Kelli Lemon shares her get-togethers with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, DJ Lonnie B and members of the VCU basketball team.
  • She’s a people person: Kelli Lemon shares her get-togethers with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, DJ Lonnie B and members of the VCU basketball team.

"I just want people in Richmond to talk," Lemon says. "I've really found out that we're not as divided when we do something as simple as talk to somebody."

While she doesn't necessarily consider herself a local celebrity, she acknowledges the influence that she has in Richmond, especially among women in their early 20s who may look up to her. In today's political and social climate, she says she feels pressure to address current events on any number of her platforms. She shies away from that, but it's not for a lack of opinions.

"There may be young girls who are following me on social media, looking up to me, and I feel like I have to say something," she says. 

But she's also building a brand. She wants to be careful when it comes to expressing opinions. She's "not stopping anyone" from sharing their own thoughts on controversial topics, but Lemon says she makes an effort to hang back in those discussions and "let the other person do the talking."

"With media, sometimes it's just about putting the question out there," she says. "I don't want anybody not wanting to jump into the conversation because they already know how I feel. And that's a challenge for me."

Lemon also has another project up her sleeve. In the spring, she plans to open a social cafe downtown at 304 E. Broad St. It'll be a grab-and-go-style cafe in the front, and in the back, an open space for working, reading, networking or just hanging out.

"It'll be where people connect, almost like a day lounge," she says. "I'm excited about the connections it will bring."

 

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Natalie Reddell

Commander in Chic

When Natalie Reddell went off to Emory University as an 18-year-old freshman, she had visions of long white coats and a career in medical psychology. She'd always been fascinated by people and drawn to the field of psychology. But as a child who redecorated her dollhouse at least a dozen times by the time she was 5, she also had a knack for creative design.

One day during her first semester in college, she was perusing an antique store and wishing she could spend all day among the armoires and credenzas rather than returning to her dorm to study for another exam. And she found herself asking the same question that a lot of young adults grapple with in school: What the heck am I doing?

She admitted to herself that she would rather be surrounded by home furnishings than research papers, and with that she packed her bags, moved home to Florida, and enrolled in Florida State University's department of interior architecture and design.

"Once I decided on interior design, it was like I never went back from that point," she says. "School stopped being school, and it just started being a means to an end to do that. Once I made that switch, I don't think anybody could have stopped me if they'd tried, and I'd never really felt that way about anything else."

Now 41, Reddell was in her late 30s when she showed up to the social media party. She and a friend were on a southbound train from Richmond, where she's lived with her husband and son for about six years, heading toward Reddell's happy place — North Carolina for the High Point Market, the largest home furnishings trade show in the world.

Her friend talked her through the process of creating an Instagram account. Reddell says she didn't know what she was doing, and often feels like she still doesn't. But the more she posted photos of her work and her favorite pieces — and her son, whose affectionate nickname for her inspired her oft-used hashtag #smothermother — the more followers she gained.

"After I'd been on Instagram for a little bit, people kind of started to follow, which blew my mind a little bit," she says. "Like, why would you follow this Crazyville?"

click to enlarge A gold bathtub that makes her swoon and a fresh coconut cake become stars on Natalie Reddell’s Instagram, which also shares personal moments in her life.
  • A gold bathtub that makes her swoon and a fresh coconut cake become stars on Natalie Reddell’s Instagram, which also shares personal moments in her life.

Her posts under the moniker Commander in Chic, inspired by a nail polish color she stumbled upon years ago, are peppered with that kind of lighthearted, sometimes self-deprecating humor. Her followers, who number nearly 23,000, seem to adore it. She also started a blog in February 2015, which she says she loves but hasn't been as active on in recent months. And her crowning social media glory? The golden hashtag.

Shortly before a trip to Orlando for the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show in 2016 (the invitation to which she found herself asking "Wait, me? Are you sure?") she found a rusty old number sign about the size of a spiral notebook in a thrift shop.

Despite the pragmatic voice in her head telling her no, she shouldn't buy that, paint it black, and be the crazy lady at the conference carrying around a giant hashtag, she did precisely that. It fit perfectly in her tote bag and her fellow bloggers on the tour couldn't get enough when she took it out for photos. She has replaced the original with a smaller, bedazzled version, and the golden hashtag makes its way into Reddell's posts on a regular basis, especially when she's promoting a showroom or collection of pieces that she loves. 

Among the shots of tiled staircases, custom kitchen cabinetry, and her Cavalier King Charles spaniel sprawled across a new hide rug, are posts about what used to be Reddell's deepest source of shame: her journey as a recovering alcoholic.

When her son, who's now in college, originally pushed her to include details about her recovery on social media, she responded with a laugh and a resounding, "No thank you." But if her son is proud of her for staying sober for nearly a decade, she figured, why wouldn't she be proud of herself? Inspired by her son's simplified view of her accomplishment, she wrote a blog post called "Sober Is the New Black" in 2015, and since then she's threaded her story of recovery into both her blog and Instagram posts. 

"I didn't set out with that intention, but I just try to be honest about who I am," she says. "What I really think is it's important to be able to share stories of help, and I feel blessed to be able to share one. And seriously if it helps one person, it's worth doing."

 

click to enlarge feat01_lex.jpg

Lex Daddio

Restoring Radiance

Five years ago, Lex Daddio's Instagram account was private and entirely for the purpose of recording her meals and workouts. A college student with a severe but well-disguised eating disorder, Daddio used social media to hold herself accountable to the dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, alcohol-free, joy-free diet she'd adapted in an attempt to control her binge impulses and lose weight.

After she inadvertently linked the account to her Facebook page, it went public, leading to an influx of followers. She calls it the best mistake of her life. Eventually she shamelessly and joyfully posted photos of homemade buffalo wings and chocolate-chip banana bread for a following of 117,000 fans.

"I truly didn't know what enjoying food was anymore because it wasn't about the food," says Daddio, who grew up in Midlothian and now lives in the city with her husband. "It was about the perfect nutrition."

Daddio's account at @restoring_radiance describes her recovery and the 180-degree turnaround she made in her relationship with food as going "from darkness to light." Around the time she hit 10,000 followers, she says, brands started contacting her, offering to send products and pay her to promote them on her account. 

"From that time, I truly have only worked with companies I really enjoy and like," Daddio says. "I always try their products first before I commit to any contracts or anything, and I'm at the point today where I can be very picky and choosy. Now I work with brands that I dreamed of working with then. It makes it really easy to share because it's stuff I eat and use every day." 

Tagged products in recent posts include Nuzest USA vanilla protein powder, Malk Organics almond milk, Butcher Box chicken wings, and Rao's Homemade marinara sauce. Daddio doesn't often work with local brands, but she says she'd love to make that more of a priority.

She says she was an Instagrammer "before it was even a thing." Now that it is a thing, she uses the platform as more than just a vehicle for photos of avocado toast, green smoothies and the occasional batch of freshly baked cookies.

"I really can understand what other girls are going through, and I'm thankful for that because of how many girls are struggling," she says. "I truly believe my role in this world and in this life is to decrease the amount of girls with eating disorders, to expose them to freedom, and let them know that they don't have to live the way they're living. If I can get through it, they can get through it."

There's more to Instagramming than styling the perfect shot. Most of her posts feature clean lines, simple dishware and vibrant, colorful food — and she says it truly is a full-time job.

click to enlarge With more than 117,000 followers, Lex Daddio puts healthy and stunning food on a pedestal.
  • With more than 117,000 followers, Lex Daddio puts healthy and stunning food on a pedestal.

She tries to respond to every comment, and her inbox often is flooded with direct messages, many from girls as young as 13 or 14 seeking advice on how to navigate their own eating disorders and body image insecurities.

While followers eat up the recipes and meticulously styled photos of chicken BLTs and yogurt parfaits, it's the authentic, vulnerable posts illustrating the seven years she survived with a binge-eating disorder that captivates her audience and garners the most engagement. 

Daddio decided a long time ago that if she was going to share her life on social media, she might as well put it all out there and use her own trauma and recovery to inspire others.

She's come a long way since her days of sustaining herself on almond butter and handfuls of walnuts. Instead of eliminating food groups from her diet, she eats what she wants in moderation. And now, rather than agonizing over every bite and falling into the downward spiral of guilt and shame after eating something that wasn't healthy enough, Daddio says she listens to her body and what tastes good and feels good.

"Now I enjoy gluten, dairy, soy, everything. I'm not afraid of sugar, I'm not afraid of anything," she says. "Sometimes I wake up and just want some good avocado toast, and sometimes that bread has gluten in it and sometimes it doesn't. But it doesn't really matter to me anymore, whereas that used to be the biggest decision of my day, 'What am I going to eat for breakfast that's going to make me healthy?'"

Daddio credits her husband with teaching her how to eat intuitively and with more balance, and the recently married, and expecting, couple spends a lot of time together in the kitchen. Her Instagram stories are often composed of shot-by-shot sequences or videos detailing recipes — which, she notes, are not always new or particularly elaborate. Shortly before Christmas they prepared a simple 30-minute stir-fry and she reminded her followers that food doesn't have to be gourmet to be satisfying.

"I just think as a culture in general and especially women, we just focus on the food too much. It's not about the food, it's really about the people you're with," she says. "Food was meant to be enjoyed at the table with people, it wasn't meant to be enjoyed in your car on the way to work. And it's not about every ingredient that goes into it. It's truly just about enjoying it and learning to not obsess over it."

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