'I cannot be silent': exposing the racial pay gap among influencers

Lauren Cochrane
·6-min read

At the start of the pandemic, Vanity Fair asked whether the influencer era was over because people were tired of glossy, edited lives on social media and wanted something more “real”. Instead, it seems the world of influencers is adapting to reflect changes in the rest of the world. In recent weeks, the focus has been the shocking pay disparity between white influencers and influencers of colour.

In June, a group of influencers of colour shared an open letter on Instagram that called out Fohr, a marketing agency that work as a middleman between brands and influencers. Women including Valerie Eguavoen spoke out. “I cannot be silent when I see clear evidence of pay disparities between Black women and other creatives who work with you,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “I cannot be silent when you refuse to address racism form [sic] individuals on your team adequately. Enough is enough.” (Fohr replied on Instagram, apologising for its conduct, writing: “We HAVE to do a better job listening to, promoting and working with black influencers.”)

Lydia Okello, who uses they/them pronouns, spoke to the New York Times about how they felt mistreated by large fashion companies including Anthropologie. They told the paper that in exchange for Instagram content and the use of images for a Pride month social media campaign, the clothing company would give Okello a free outfit.

“I’ve worked as a Black creative all my adult life and I’ve noticed that there’s often an assumption that you should feel flattered that this large company is reaching out to you, that it has noticed you,” they said, “and that reflects a greater cultural narrative that the creative work of marginalised groups is less valuable. It’s like: ‘Just shut up and take it or we’ll find someone else.’” (Anthropologie responded on Instagram with a post that said: “In our business practices with outside parties, we compensate all partners with whom we contract services. In the cast of influencers our methods of compensation include product, financial payment or a combination of both … We are listening, learning, and reflecting on how we, as a brand, can improve diversity and combat racism.”)

This follows the emergence of the Influencer Pay Gap, an Instagram account created by the agent Adesuwa Ajayi that allows influencers to post what they are paid, how they are treated and – crucially – to compare with their peers. She says: “I created the page out of frustration, seeing the ways black influencers were being low-balled and knowing their white counterparts, or non-black counterparts, were earning a lot more – even if they had significantly fewer followers.”

The account has more than 34,000 followers – and has shared some startling stories. While the rhetoric of the influencer world is all about democracy – anyone can set up an Instagram account, after all – the reality is that it exhibits all-too-familiar inequalities.

Ajayi relays a story about L’Oreal. “A white influencer was meant to replace a celebrity on the day and be paid £5,000. The celebrity turned up, so they no longer needed her services, but she was still paid. Someone who actually participated in that campaign, who was a black influencer, got paid £1,700. Can you imagine that? She’s actually in that campaign and she got paid significantly less than someone who didn’t take part.” (The Guardian reached out to L’Oreal for comment.)

LGBTQ+ and disabled influencers have similar stories. “Some have even said that, because they are disabled, they wouldn’t expect any form of payment,” says Ajayi. “It’s very, very shocking and very sad.”

The transparency provided by the Influencer Pay Gap gives these groups power. “Whenever a brand approaches them, they can come back with a rebuttal that has a lot more confidence, that says: ‘I see you paid this person the following’ … they can no longer say: ‘I have no budget,’ when you have had budget,” says Ajayi. “People often forget the emotional impact of gaslighting. These brands and agencies can gaslight influencers and it affects them on a psychological level, because it completely ruins confidence.”

The UK-based influencers Nicole Ocran and Kat Molesworth took a different tack to fight such exploitation – they are unionising. The Creator Union will launch later this year. More than 400 influencers have signed up to be part of the body, which aims to ensure influencers are paid, with consistent fees across demographics, and that members have a representative to support with disputes.

Ocran, a plus-size, biracial influencer, has spoken out about racism in the industry before and says the stories on the Influencer Pay Gap are “layered with the same kind of racism and discrimination you see in other areas”. This includes the idea of the “token” – when only one person of colour is allowed a seat at the table or, in this case, access to lucrative deals. “The people who are black – I’m using that as my example, because that is me – those are the Patricia Brights of the world. There’s only one [prominent black British YouTuber] Patricia Bright in the UK.”

Ocran says part of the problem – even beyond race – is how influencers were not initially taken seriously by the wider fashion industry. “There’s an element [that thinks]: ‘This is just social media, it’s just posting pictures and it’s a bit of fun,’” she says. “There’s also the added layer of fashion as elitist; there’s this whole element that I should be so grateful and deferential that they’re even speaking to me about sending me something.”

Ocran and Ajayi are clear that their actions are part of a long process, but one that is important in regulating an industry that has been, as Ocran says, “a bit like the wild west”. While the Creator Union won’t launch until the autumn, Ocran says they will work to “uplift BAME creators, Muslim creators, LGBTQIA+ creators, disabled creators – all the people who essentially don’t get a look in at all or get wheeled out at times like Pride, for example, or who people did the little black square for Black Lives Matter.”

Ajayi, meanwhile, says “the long-term goal is, of course, to solve the issues”, but at least there is now somewhere voices can be heard: “As long as people feel like they have a space where they can speak and be open about things and get the help that they need, I’m good.”