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Coronavirus has made flaunting wealth taboo. What’s an influencer to do?

When Arielle Charnas developed symptoms of the novel coronavirus in mid-March, she found herself in the same boat as many New Yorkers: Sick, and scared.

What happened next was less common. While the city’s medical system was even then stretched thin and tests for the virus were — as they remain — hard to come by, within a few days Charnas had finagled her way into a test and learned it was positive. After several days of recovering in her four-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, she sought more spacious quarantine quarters, relocating, along with her husband, nanny, and two daughters, to a rental home in the Hamptons.

Many wealthy New Yorkers have, in recent months, done similarly. But Charnas is different: She’s an influencer accustomed to publicizing every detail of her life, and she documented every step of her coronavirus saga — from calling on a semi-famous doctor friend for help with testing to taking her first strolls in the Hamptons — for her 1.3 million Instagram followers. Each step of the way, fans could see exactly how her wealth mitigated the fear, uncertainty, and physical danger that have become the norm for many Americans in the era of coronavirus.

And they were not pleased.

Influencers accrue followings on social media platforms like Instagram by presenting curated, aspirational versions of their daily lives for public consumption. Many profess expertise in fields from skincare to motherhood, which they use to market products to their followers, often receiving lucrative sponsorships or free products from companies in exchange. But the coronavirus pandemic has made the practice of flaunting a certain amount of wealth, previously essential for influencers, newly verboten. And, at least in Charnas’ case, audiences who previously welcomed a steady diet of high-fashion mirror selfies have are now infuriated by the stark difference between their pandemic experiences and those of the wealthy.

Charnas initially ignored negative comments, continuing to post about the loungewear brands she favored while social distancing. But as disapproval mounted, she stopped posting for several days, before resurfacing with a lengthy Notes apology in which she expressed remorse for her actions, but also explained how she saw each of them as justified. More than anything else, the apology reflected Charnas’ genuine confusion at the backlash she was experiencing.

She’s not alone in that confusion. A spin through the Instagrams of several Jewish influencers reveals a variety of approaches to handling the new influencer normal, in which the old rulebook — convey authenticity while providing a window into a world that, for most people, doesn’t mirror any kind of authentic experience — has abruptly been thrown out. That change poses a fundamental threat to the influencer lifestyle: If they aren’t better attired, better organized and better connected than the rest of us, who will want to buy the stuff they’re selling?

Some have seriously toned down their online presence. Actress Jenny Mollen’s Instagram, normally a montage of snapshots from fancy dress events, has featured only a few photographs in the past weeks. Instead, her feed is filled with typed quips about the challenges of quarantining with kids, to which all — OK, some — parents can relate: “Remember when the biggest threat to our daily lives were non-organic strawberries?”

In contrast, fashion blogger and perennial gala attendee Elizabeth Savetsky’s Instagram is just as styled as ever. (Disclaimer: the Forward has previously interviewed Savetsky for our newsletter Our Time.) But in her captions, the influencer is opting for a more reflective, restrained tone. She’s posted about drawing inspiration from observing Shabbat HaGadol, the last Shabbat before Passover. She live-streamed a conversation with her rabbi on coping with coronavirus. And after he suggested that she and her family journal through this period, she posed with her daughter, pens in hand, in their spacious sunroom. (If that doesn’t seem particularly restrained, consider that one post from late February featured the Valentino-clad influencer reclining in a sports car.)

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#ALetterToMe ?? This moment we’re in has distanced us all from our normal lives. We no longer have the ability to run away and hide behind work, school, errands, sports, social engagements, and entertainment events. Maybe this pause has forced you to look inward and take stock of how you spend your time and energy. Maybe you’re reaching out to loved ones you rarely speak to on the phone. Maybe you find yourself reading, painting, singing, praying, or even meditating. I am certain we all have a newfound awareness of how we fill our days. How can we hold onto this clarity in a post-quarantined world? How can we continue to feel gratitude for the simple pleasures we once took for granted? Rav Gav suggested we each write a letter to ourselves. We should describe our current state of mind and the feelings we hope to sustain for the future for a meaningful life. We should seal the letter in an envelope and put it somewhere visible, like the refrigerator or the bedside table. It should serve as a reminder for us to keep our promises to ourselves and live deliberately. After life resumes, we should open the letter. The hope is that this note will keep us accountable to ourselves. Are we living the best life we are capable of? Are we truly fulfilled? Are we taking the time to evaluate, reflect, and improve? My whole family is practicing this exercise and I encourage you all to do so as well! Tag your stories and photos of this exercise with #ALetterToMe ? Let us know how it goes!! | my dress: @l.cuppini earrings: @lele_sadoughi, Stella’s dress: @kidichicusa | #stayhome #meaning #love #mommymoments #family #inspo

A post shared by Elizabeth Savetsky (@elizabethsavetsky) on

Meanwhile, parenting blogger Ilana Wiles, who in recent weeks had all the symptoms of coronavirus but was never tested, has offered a tutorial in chronicling a case of likely coronavirus without incurring backlash. Wiles, who runs the blog Mommy Shorts and whose social media presence has generally been more informative than overtly envy-producing, announced her family’s evacuation to their Long Island summer house in a blog post, forestalling criticism with a detailed explanation of their safety precautions and an acknowledgment of the privilege inherent in her decision. “We feel incredibly lucky to have the house as an option,” she said, stressing that it was isolated even from neighbors.

As she prepared to leave New York, Wiles also posted candidly about stalled brand partnerships and the virus’ toll on her own livelihood. As the economy slows, many brands are at least temporarily stepping back spending on sponsored content. While some influencers are independently wealthy, many depend upon that revenue to maintain their enviable lifestyles. “Financially, this is a scary time for me too. Not as scary as for some people, but still scary,” she wrote.

When Wiles developed coronavirus symptoms, shortly after decamping to Long Island, her doctor advised her to isolate from her family in her room, informing her she wasn’t a candidate for testing. With particular emphasis on her adherence to those instructions, she shared much of her ensuing experience on Instagram, posting reflections on the unenviable task of homeschooling a seven-year-old from behind a closed door. She marked the end of her quarantine with a funny TikTok in which she emerged from her bedroom, surveyed the mess that had accumulated in her absence, and retreated back to bed.

Her dispatches from quarantine remained as chic as her normal posts. Even in confinement, she maintained an impressive blowout; her children studied at small Scandanavian-style desks, and I had to watch the TikTok multiple times to get the joke because the “messy” living room looked, by my standards, fairly tidy. But by focusing on widespread features of the pandemic, from the unavailability of tests to the reality of confinement in a small space, she successfully characterized her experience as similar to that of her followers. “Thank you for the dose of ‘real,’” wrote one commenter.

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HELLLOOOO!!! This is me on Day 7 of my solo-quarantine, which is Day 10 of experiencing COVID-19 symptoms (I went to the doctor after 3 days of feeling sick) and 17 days after I was exposed to the virus. I AM FEELING GOOD. Not 100%, but good enough that I feel safe telling you guys that I believe the worst is behind me. My only lingering symptoms are occasional bouts of dizziness and indigestion. I’ve been belching up a storm for the past three days (it feels like there is a huge air bubble in my throat that won’t go away), which a few people have told me they are experiencing as well. WEIRD. My sense of smell is not gone, just out of whack. Mike brought me scrambled eggs today and I couldn’t eat them (or even have them in my room) because they smelled HIDEOUS. This morning, I showered and cleaned my room, which felt awesome. I’ve been getting so many nice messages about how following my experience is lessening people’s anxiety. I am so happy to do that for all of you. When I started to feel sick, all I was seeing in the news was worst case scenarios. It felt like I had been given a death sentence. I kept searching for people sharing happy stories of recovery. I hesitated saying that’s what my story was at first, but now I am pretty certain all is well. If you know someone anxious about getting COVID-19, tell them to follow me. I put each day of my quarantine as its own story highlight. For what it’s worth, the fear I felt at the beginning was the worst part. I stopped watching the news after I went to the doctor. For the last seven days, I have just been paying attention to my body and making tiktoks ? Its been great for my mental health. Please know that most healthy people under 65 will be FINE. Also keep in mind that the death rate being reported is likely skewed high, since most people in the US are not getting tested unless they require medical attention. I do not want to downplay what’s going on. What’s happening at the hospitals is very serious, but this is mainly because COVID-19 is so contagious and SO MANY people have it at once. If we all follow instructions and #stayhome, we increase the odds for EVERYONE.

A post shared by Ilana Wiles (@mommyshorts) on

Some have suggested that the coronavirus will permanently curb our collective appetite to participate vicariously in more privileged lives. It’s easier than ever for influencers to appear “detached or tone deaf,” Flora Tsapovsky wrote in Wired: photos of plush quarantine pads hint at a level of comfort and security impossible to approximate by buying a scented candle or a pair of shoes. And in a time of massive unemployment and financial uncertainty, it’s hard to argue that broadcasting that comfort constitutes a meaningful service to followers. In Vanity Fair, Kenzie Bryant argued that the current moment has exposed a longstanding truth about influencers: “Their world is not set up to serve anyone else.”

But while Charnas, whose Instagram apologies met with mingled skepticism and heart emojis in the comments section, will have to keep her head down for a few more weeks, and some influencers may be modulating their posts, others have shown that even in the era of coronavirus, it’s possible to proceed with business as usual.

Danielle Bernstein, founder of the fashion blog We Wore What, recently posted a photo of herself taking a work call in front of the Westhampton Beach home where she is waiting out the pandemic. It’s unlikely that many of her followers have modernist mansions at their disposal during this pandemic, or can afford the Chanel bag or designer eyewear she sported in the post. But, Bernstein noted in the caption, she was wearing trousers from the fast fashion retailer Zara. By buying them, followers could approximate her quarantine lifestyle — if only very loosely.

With over 20,000 likes, the post was a success. Commenters evinced admiration for Bernstein’s vacation house and interest in purchasing the one widely accessible item pictured. “Obsessed with this look and this house!” one commenter wrote.

“I need those pants from Zara,” another said.

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected].


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