Tully Smyth on being an Instagram influencer: "Nothing in life comes for free."

The term “influencer” is a funny one. It’s polarising and in 2019 seems to come with a pretty hefty negative connotation.

It’s a term I’ve struggled with ever since I was given the label back in early 2014, just as the wonderful world of Instagram was about to explode.

Whether I’m at a party, on a first date or filling out an immigration card at the airport, the age-old question of “what do you do for a living?” always makes me cringe. I scrunch up my face and recoil in avoidance. Take a big breath and quickly search for another job title. Something that kind of sums up what I do, but is instantly more recognisable. Respected. Understood.

Nine times out of 10, however, I end up answering a million questions caused by my vague explanation for what I do for a buck and throw my hands up in surrender.

“I’m an influencer. I work with brands on social media, mainly Instagram. I get paid to promote their products or services or venues.”

Cue the “Oooh’s” and “Ahhh’s” about how cool my job is, how much fun it must be, how easy it sounds and how jealous they all are, stuck at their 9-5 desk jobs.

And don’t get me wrong; a lot of that is true. Influencers DO lead a very blessed life. We are very lucky to be able to do what we do for a living, getting paid to basically live our best lives and rub it in your faces via our feeds.

But it’s not all gifts and movie premieres. We’re not always eating for free or holidaying in the Maldives. It’s work. It’s our job.

Watch the trailer for Social Squad – Mamamia’s new podcast with Tully Smyth. Post continues after video.


Put simply, “influencers” are just businessmen and women – digital entrepreneurs if you will – who work for themselves, using their platform as a form of advertising and marketing.

Once upon a time, teenage girls would gaggle together and pour over a shared copy of Girlfriend Magazine to pick out which bikini they wanted that summer.

Today, they trawl their favourite influencer’s Instagram account.

The only difference is that bikini brand is now paying the influencer, rather than the model, hair and makeup artist, stylist, photographer, graphic designer and the magazine itself for the full-page advertorial.

So, why do we cop so much flack? Why do we struggle to be taken seriously? And what really goes on behind the perfectly curated feeds and highlight reels of Instagram influencers?

You’ll have to wait for the launch of Mamamia’s NEW podcast, Social Squad, hosted by me, dropping this Wednesday, August 28.

Till then, here are the 6 biggest misconceptions about influencers.


Influencing is easy.

This is generally the initial reaction when somebody finds out what I do.

“Oh, so you just take selfies for a living?”

No, Susan. I don’t just do anything.

Being an influencer or blogger or content creator, whatever term you prefer to use, takes an incredible amount of time and dedication. Sure, it’s fun. And not rocket science.

But it’s also important not to undermine the hard work that is required to grow an audience in the first place. Then, we have to keep them engaged and interested by offering value, entertainment or inspiration and perhaps most importantly: get them to stick around.

Influencers don’t actually work or have a “real job”.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard this one… well, I wouldn’t be pushing ingestible collagen for hair, skin and nails on my ‘Gram, let me tell you!

Too often people underestimate the amount of time and skill it takes for influencers to deliver polished work that will meet a brand’s requirements and deadlines.

There is strategy and skill behind what we do, a method to the madness. We’re not just making it up as we go along!


From signing contracts to following brand guidelines, shooting the content, editing the content, submitting drafts, creating captions and final products, influencers have to communicate clearly with clients plus have the photography and editing skills to create high-quality content. It’s not child’s play. Not everyone has the ability to deliver something a big client such as Uniqlo are going to be willing to pay good money for. These are huge, international, multimillion-dollar businesses we’re having to make happy here!

On top of that, being an influencer is a 24/7 job. Apart from my manager, who deals with the brokering of my jobs, I don’t have a “team”. I do everything myself. I don’t have opening and closing hours, I work around the clock. No, we’re not in the ER performing brain surgery but please don’t assume that means we’re not working hard. I can tell you now, I work harder and longer hours than I did as a journalist.

Influencers live ‘perfect’ lives.

One thing that really upsets me on a personal level is when younger followers, generally young women, message or comment me saying something like “Oh my god I wish I was as ______ as you.”


My darling, let me tell you, nothing is as shiny as it appears on Instagram. You are seeing the very best version of everyone’s lives. Instagram’s “Highlight Reel” was created for a reason: you’re only getting our highlights.

As a brand, we have to ensure our feeds portray the best version of ourselves. The version that is brand-friendly, that will help us secure the job. F45 doesn’t want to see me crying into a tub of Ben & Jerry’s on a Sunday night, a dollop of chocolate ice-cream drying on my left boob.

That’s not going to fly back at head office.

Listen to the teaser for Tully Smyth’s new podcast, Social Squad. Post continues after audio.

Us influencers need things to look enticing and aspirational and this means curating our feeds. We pick the best of the best, and if it’s not the best? You don’t see it.

In saying that, this is where Instagram stories and even my blog have allowed me to be more open and honest with my followers.

I really enjoy taking more candid Instagram stories or writing pieces on my blog because I can get real and discuss everyday stuff that we all deal with.

Stuff like anxiety and grief, self-doubt and the fear of ending up alone. This is the stuff that makes us human because remember, we ARE all human. So never compare your real life to someone’s highlight reel.


Influencers don’t pay for anything. Like, ever.

Firstly, let me just say that we still have rent, groceries, car loans, bills, doctor appointments etc to pay for. Just because we have a following on Instagram does not suddenly make us exempt from life’s necessities. I wish I could just chuck up a photo for my landlord and she say “Sweet, don’t worry about next month. Loved that interior shot.” That’s not how this works.

Yes, there are definitely perks. We are very lucky to be sent a lot of products to try out or shoot with, and we’re asked to help promote new venues with a free lunch.


But I did not pay for my SodaStream, I’ll be real.

NOTHING in life comes for free. I eat at that cafe in return for visiting, shooting content, editing it, uploading it and advertising the name and location so that other people will go check it out. There is always a swapping of services, a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” so to speak.

We also have to pay for a lot of aspects people assume are covered. For example: the trip to Byron might be free but the $125 Uber to the airport isn’t.

There are magical tricks to growing your following and we’re all cheating the system.

Man, I wish this were true. I wish there was some easy, magical way to increase my followers because I am losing them by the day. They’re jumping ship faster than the men, women and children of the Titanic.

And getting your engagement (i.e. the number of comments and likes on a post) up? Forget about it.

Unless you’re paying for it – which I have always steadfastly refused to do – or you are part of the Kardashian/Jenner family, there is no magic solution.

Simply maintaining your following is hard f*cking work. All we can do is continue to put out authentic, consistent, high-quality content and engage with our followers. Align ourselves with brands that make sense, so that our audience believes in us and therefore, the brand.

Then we cross our fingers and hope that Instagram doesn’t go down tomorrow.

Influencers are all millionaires.

Speaking of Kylie Jenner, it’s truly hilarious how many people seem to think influencers are just at home, rolling around in their $100 notes.


My high school friends from back home truly think I’m some sort of rockstar when the truth of the matter is, if I didn’t get half of the stuff I did for free, I probably couldn’t afford it.

Firstly, it’s not easy to make money as an influencer. You don’t just wake up one day, decide that’s what you want to do and start watching the dollars roll in. I have been doing this for over six years and it can STILL be a struggle. Influencing is not a guaranteed paycheck and it can be very inconsistent, season to season, even week to week. I could earn $5k this week and then nothing for the next month. On top of that, every brand has their own payment terms and some don’t pay for up to 90 days, making it near impossible to plan your finances.

Secondly, just because I’m wearing Gucci, doesn’t mean I own it. A lot of what we wear and post about is borrowed or loaned for the job. I’m often having to let girlfriends down by explaining that they can’t just pop over to my place and borrow an outfit they saw on my ‘Gram. I don’t even own it!

And finally, nearly all influencers I know have another business or side hustle. They are hard-working girl bosses sometimes working two or three jobs just to make ends meet or because they want to and some don’t even make money off their feeds, they’re simply doing it because they love it.

And that’s the truth.

To find out other juicy secrets about what goes on #BTS, subscribe to Social Squad the podcast, launching August 28th.