Baits And Bites Of A Popular Deception

The spat last month between an Instagrammer who is identified as a “public figure” and a fledgling jewellery brand sadly reflects the deceitfulness and bottom-heading standards of the quickly expanding local KOL community


A sentiment that is shared by many influencers. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Instagram, the bluff! For all its appeal and draw, and constant role as marketing tool to selves and brands, IG is ultimately a trickster—the great deceiver of the social-media age. Rarely do you get to see the truths behind the posts. Unless you were present during those times the photographs were shot, or when the selfies were snapped, or if you knew the subject personally. Otherwise it’s hard to wipe off the rosy patina.

Most IG posts suppose the subject to be presenting his/her true self. In these days, true, as you know, is subjective and variable, especially when ‘fake’ is tagged to all manner of news. Instagram could possibly be the mother of much of the faking, more so when the app was equipped with truth-blurring filters. These, the Instagrammer tends not to skip—they remove or down-play the less attractive aspects of their posts by using digital lenses with such fancy names as Clarendon and Mayfair. The photos are dramatically enhanced.

Or, elevated. We want so many things in our life to go the next level, why not our photos. Through filters—and and other adjustable settings—Instagrammers-as-influencers hook for positive impressions the way socialites fish for compliments at a charity gala by wearing outlandish clothes. Influencers or key opinion leaders (KOLs), as many preferred to be called (or, media shorthand to distinguish the starlets and stars), including what we’re told is now trending, “the influential influencer”, bait and we bite.

EJHLike all the way. Photo: xelainejasmine/Instagram. Collage: Just So

Sure, we know the real world is not so ideally filtered, not so perfectly cropped, and definitely not so obsessively photographed, yet the reality hasn’t stopped followers of IG accounts to believe the beauties, and also the beasts, that they follow, even buying into their perfect lives or buying what they hawk, both good and bad.

Yet, the positive front does not always hold up. When charges of improper conduct surface, the liable’s anterior peels away, unmasking his/her true self, especially when in hasty self-defence or, worse, with total indifference. The recent rather public trouble of influencer Elaine Heng (aka Elaine Jasmine) with jewellery label By Invitation Only (BIO) is a case in point. It is understandable why many stood with BIO’s owner Trixie Khong when she prefaced her telling of what happened on Facebook with, “The sad truth about why influencers get a bad reputation.”

We’ll try to keep it short, just in case you have just returned from the International Space Station. By Invite Only had identified Elaine Heng, also a part-time actress/Toggle starlet, as an influencer who could influence the 83.7K influenced on her IG account. A deal, as Donald Trump would have called it, was struck. BIO’s Ms Khong arranged for some jewellery to be sent to Ms Heng, as well as for payment for the agreed service to be made. All seemed business as usual until the influencer’s influence went, as Ms Khong described it, MIA. The business owner reached out to the blog-for-a-living Instagrammer, but was not successful. A digital cat and mouse chase ensued.

EH on IGPhotos: xelainejasmine/Instagram. Collage: Just So

According to Ms Heng—who not only refuted Ms Khong’s FB post on FB, but also posted a shockingly sloppy, “actually”-filled video on Instagram Live to negate the former’s charges—when she received the said jewellery, she found that “the products were very poor quality (sic)”. At this point, many members of the jewellery design community were quite taken aback by Ms Heng’s daring claim: it was hard to believe that Ms Khong, herself an ardent Instagrammer—KOL-style, would send inferior merchandise to an influencer that she had considered influential. By Invite Only was, after all, among the winners of the Top 3 Most Popular Brand at last year’s Singapore Fashion Award. It would not have been living up to the accolade and too soon after the honour to go rogue if they had indeed shipped products of questionable make.

The recipient of “poor quality” jewellery went on: “Of course I didn’t want to promote such a product, right?” In case her followers doubted her honour and her dependability, she explained: “Because you all know I value the trust that you guys have for (sic) me and my reviews, so why would I promote something that I don’t like, something that is of such a bad quality?” Ms Heng, who pronounced post as pose (“I’ll pose only when I like the product”, in which case she isn’t wrong) and stressed that she “is not those (sic) kind of bloggers that just want everything to be sponsored just because you pay me over hundred dollars”, was clearly in defence mode even when it escaped her that a sponsorship involving products is possibly not accompanied by payment. She was, as many understood it, not sponsored; she was paid to do a job.

She continued to explain why she did not refund the payment as a consequence of no posts, and was emphatic that she was not avoiding the client’s justifiable pursuit of her. “I was rushing for my Australia trip—because you guys know that before my Bali trip, right, I flew to Australia, and things were very busy that period. So, it’s my fault that I didn’t manage to transfer her (sic) the money before I flew overseas.”

Trixie Khong at SFA 2017By Invite Only’s Trixie Khong holding the award for Top 3 Most Popular Brands at the Singapore Fashion Award 2017. Photo Zhao Xiangji

What followed was a series of why-I-didn’t and why-I-couldn’t: she did not have her ibanking token with her, she was overseas and was unable to transfer the money, she returned but “forgot to pay”, flew off to Bali (reminding her viewers that they knew she “went to Komodo Island”), WiFi was not available on the boat to her “for three days” (when she had “disappeared”), and more because-I-forgots, intermittently swaying the audience with the admission that it was her fault (“I’m not going to say it’s completely her fault”). And, in a moment of unpersuasive frailty, conceded that she is human—“we all make mistakes”.

What Ms Heng offered, if seen in most transactional arrangements, would be mere excuses (upon excuses), and could be considered as avoiding the problem of her own making. It is, of course, possible that she was procrastinating, in view of the fact that she was to be travelling (for what purpose, she did not state, but one could assume to show via Instagram that she has a blessed life). She said, towards the end of the video, that it was a “simple matter” and that she “didn’t expect her to take it so seriously and blow it up.”

Was it really so simple? And was By Invite Only’s Trixie Khong blowing it up? Should she not have taken the episode seriously? Most people saw this as a case of not honouring one’s commitment that deserves censure, and members of the media who reported on the dispute did not appear to be sympathetic towards the defiant Instagrammer. Some of her supporters thought that she was being bullied, with one gung-ho individual, in a display of maiden-to-the-rescue machismo, asking, “What brand? Tell me. I will make them regret.” The xiao yuan zhi hua (校园之花, campus beauty) card always comes in handy. We were inclined to see Elaine Heng’s behaviour as lacking professional discipline, but when we saw that 11-minute-40-second video she posted on Instagram Live, we could not ignore the juvenile outpouring too.

Screen grab Elaine Heng on Instagram LiveScreen grab of Elaine Heng appearing on Instagram Live to explain away. Photo: Elaine Heng/Instagram

And it quickly dawned on us that that was exactly where you can see her appeal and draw. Ms Heng’s behaviour is representative of the girls (and boys) of her generation, and this generation of social media followers understands that her video feed is basically a platform on which she is talking to her fans directly, as if chatting with her BFFs in a kopi tiam. This is how many of them speak and conduct themselves, mostly inured to niceness, its allure and advantages. This is what you hear in the MRT train when a petulant schoolgirl complains about another petulant schoolgirl. This is totally unscripted, as girl talk tends to be; this is not quite serious, flippant even; this is not a show of remorse; this is no apology and, if so, not directed at the person angered by her.

Her spontaneity is her stroke of genius. Her by-the-way approach has an immediate intimacy and her while-I-eat posturing has a non-threatening casualness that people even find cute. She interrupted the video session by talking to her sister (“can you don’t [sic] watch my IG story in front of me like that?”, “I eating [sic] half-way”) and her maid, and then dismissed them (“go, go, go!”); she rocked back and forth as she tried to read the real-time comments appearing on her side of the screen; and—charming to her fans, unbecoming to her haters—she slurped noodles as she banters (“wait ah, I eat first”, “wah, it’s very spicy, leh!”), with the handle of the soup spoon taking up a quarter of the screen; and she concluded her session because “my noodles is getting fat”.

This girl is entertaining!

You would not have known that just by looking at her Instagram photos. By those photos alone, you’d never guess she’s this amusing, this loquacious, and this hungry! Nor, that fashionable, to the point she could sell clothes, let alone earrings. Those posts left you with no clue that while she was having a whale of a time in Komodo Island, a business owner was hunting her down for a commitment she allegedly did not keep. Neither will you think she expects people to “chase” her for the money owed to them. You would not be able to imagine that while she was eager to monitise her follower base, she was unable to see the exigency of returning what she had to pay back. Or, that she would have the gumption to exhort that “all brands should know this: when you engage an influencer, you don’t expect them to write an amazing post about your product unless you are sure that your product is something that they like!”

18-05-19-10-36-05-715_deco.jpgWherever you turn to, there’s a good chance someone is looking at Instagram. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Perhaps, what Ms Heng, once identified as a “hot bod” in The Straits Times, did not foresee was BIO’s Trixie Khong stealing her spotlight. She did not expect Ms Khong to use the very same platforms to out her (when the dispute went online, she repeatedly called it “childish”). She thought she could have it her way until she came face to Facebook with what was untenable: avoid the situation at hand. She thought the mess could be cleaned up privately via one-to-one WhatsApp messages; she did not realise that she had waited too long. She thought replying with LOLs could defuse any situation, but, since texting acronyms are no cure-all and may be seen as a digital slap-in-the-face, they only exacerbated the situation. Ms Heng has a very specific so-cute-it’s-sexy appeal that makes army boys’ knees go weak. Likely, she thought her chio-ness could continue to front her brand (“You are so pretty” is a common textual reaction to her posts) only to clash with those who believe rectitude counts more.

Regrettably, in the world of #mefirst social media, prettiness can take the place of propriety, cuteness can forgo decorum, ignorance can supplant knowledge. The influencer-sphere is peopled with face/body-worthy pococurantes, cavaliers, and would-be fashion designers. On top of the unceasing, this-is-my-life-but-you’ll-never-really-know appeal, Instagram encourages influencers to comport with vainglory and condense their lives into neat stamps of perfection. The grid of photos is a story board of endless fun and enjoyment. That’s the one thing about many KOLs, and quite a cliché too: they want to give you the impression that they attend the best parties, the most gainful product launches; that they rock in the coolest dress and shine in the most stunning jewellery; that they eat in the hippest hipster cafes, cavort in the most photogenic locales, and are always on the move—overseas!

When more of the veneer cracks or wears off, will we see further decay inside?

Some of those fretful of social media’s compelling force to affect behaviour and action miss pre-digital innocence, if it existed. The past does not always inform the future. And the present is so reliably unpredictable and changeable that what comes next is anybody’s guess. Yet, the comeliest faces are preserved in the cloud as reminder that the visual selves of these influencers have a triumvirate presence: somewhere out there, in the bloggers’ reality, and in our very own. If what the digital world has to offer up till now, including the attendant apps, is habit-forming, would the bad behaviour we see online with numbing regularity become a habit for many too?