Cover Story

Weird lives of San Diego influencers

The original feature story was published in the print edition of the San Diego Reader on October 30, 2019.

By Mike Madriaga

Many San Diegans are taking to their devices in hopes of becoming the next big social media influencer. Although it’s unlikely that someone from our neighborhoods will outperform 21-year-old Kylie Jenner’s $1 billion marketing game, it is feasible that San Diegans proficient in posting, liking, sharing, hashtagging, and following will make over $100,000 per year in the near future.

But as the demand broadens for the new type of influencer marketing that’s being implemented into local operations ranging from mom-and-pop businesses to Fortune 500 companies, there’s a big learning curve ahead for aspiring San Diego County social media influencers. If they aren’t careful around that curve, they might crash and burn out.

A curse or a blessing

Recently, when I was notified that a story of mine would run soon, I posted some photos and video to my Instagram page. I have 1076 followers, and I use the app to promote my new stories, and as a place to contact sources. And I’m not going to lie — I use it as some type of validation tool to gauge whether people give a crap about me or not. So my initial post was of me cooking corn and stating that my stories are at times “corny.” This post garnered 12 likes in four hours. Had this been posted a year ago, I would’ve garnered 50 likes. I asked myself, “Why don’t people care about my posts?” At times, I contemplate deleting the account out of fear that my magazine editors might see my low IG numbers and consequently stop assigning me stories.

I’m only human, and I tell myself that I am not the only influencer feeling inadequate in the dopamine-happy “like” lifestyle.

On May 6, San Diego-based influencers were shocked (and some relieved) to hear celebrity chef and influencer Ayesha Curry’s Red Table Talk interview. “Something that really bothers me, and honestly has given me a sense of a little bit of an insecurity, is the fact that…there are all these women, like, throwing themselves” at her husband, basketball star Stephen Curry. She said in part, “like, the past ten years, I don’t have any of that [attention]. I have zero.”

Hours after Curry made that controversial statement, trolls came out of the cyber-woodwork and bashed the Food Network TV host and restaurateur, who partially owns the International Smoke restaurant in Del Mar.

“I’ve been hurt”

John P. from Chula Vista heard Curry’s rant. “Ayesha shouldn’t worry about the cyber world (where she has 6.4 million followers on Instagram),” he said, “she should worry about the real world and just impress the people in her actual everyday life, like her NBA basketball player husband (who has 25.2 million followers on Instagram) — and their kids.”

John is a vintage fashion model and toy collector who deleted his social media accounts in 2017 because there was “too much drama” when he pursued his dream as a social media influencer. “Some of my girlfriends were saying: ‘Why are you modeling and photographing with the younger girls?’ They got jealous and weird on me,” he said.

John’s male buddies were worse. They would tease him and mimic his model-posing movements. “They were sarcastic and condescending,” he said. “At times, I’d get depressed when I saw my friends’ [activities] online. Especially the one year I couldn’t attend the Comic-Con.”

John, 55, has been on the negative side of the social media spectrum ever since MySpace upped its “top 8” to “top 16” because of the envy factor. “I would blog like four-to-five paragraphs about my swap meet finds or a photo shoot, and they (followers) would just write an emoticon or an automated sentence and that didn’t seem human — or one-liners like ‘lol’ or ‘cool’ or ‘smh.’ [I realized] it became a waste of my time, and asked myself: ‘Why am I even typing this crap?’”

John paused for about 20 seconds during our interview. “This affected me several times, and I’ve been hurt.”

After he quit social media, he said, he was “a much happier man.”

“What am I doing wrong?”

Isabel Fruzyna has been photographed in vintage clothing with me and John before. “I have suffered from depression and anxiety, some of which was caused by social media,” admitted the former model. “We’ve all compared ourselves with someone, pretty models, and successful people — no matter what industry we’re in. Seeing all the likes and followers, I always thought, ‘What am I doing wrong?’”

Fruzyna is a 25-year-old North County resident and currently a hairstylist, makeup artist, and content creator/influencer. On her Instagram page, she has over 3000 followers and has been published in print magazines.

“She was popular,” John recalled. “She received like 400 likes when we posted our photos taken at Old Town.”

Fruzyna’s August 30 post received 79 likes: a night shot of her wearing makeup that was blacklight activated.

“Maybe I’m not posting enough or I’m not good enough, because my work isn’t getting noticed,” she used to say to herself, “or maybe I should try something else.”

Like John, she said, “I was just putting myself deeper and deeper in a hole and losing my motivation to do anything and losing my so-called ‘friends.’”

But unlike John, Fruzyna kept her social media accounts active. “One day I snapped out of it,” she said. “You don’t need to be ‘Insta/YouTube famous’ to be successful, as long as you can live and be happy doing whatever it is you do. I also realized I have everything I need and the support from those who helped me start.”

Many don’t realize that some of the highly followed social media influencers that they compare themselves to probably purchased followers, likes, and comments to bolster their social media numbers.

“You don’t buy bots to like, comment, and follow you,” John said in disbelief after I showed him a “100 likes for $2.97” Buzzoid service. “That’s digitally cheating; you’re not earning your followers, and it’s like buying friends in real life. They (the bots) don’t really like you.”

I met with Isabel Bravo and her buddy Paulina at Lestat’s on Adams Avenue. Bravo was one of 20 San Diego County-based social media influencers to whom I reached out. Most didn’t respond, and one blocked me.

“To see if the influencers are legit, I go directly to see how many comments they have,” explained Bravo, “and check if the people commenting are putting legit comments, or saying [canned comments] like: ‘Ohh you’re beautiful!’ or ‘Ohh that’s a great picture’ — but not asking details about the location or something more realistic.”

Bravo is a 27-year-old Mission Valley resident who works in the finance department for a local staffing company; she’s a travel influencer and video blogger.

On September 14, she posted a photo of herself in Valle De Guadalupe holding up a glass of wine, and on Earth Day, she posted a photo of herself in the waters of the coral island Phuket in Thailand. Her two posts garnered over 200 likes.

“I’ve asked myself: ‘What am I doing wrong? I’m not getting enough followers, and what can I change?’ But at the end of the day, I just wanna be myself, and if someone’s gonna follow me, it’s because they are going to like what I am putting out there and what my content is.”

Bravo’s buddy Paulina was filming our interview for an Instagram Live post.

When I initially direct-messaged Bravo in December, she was at the Forbidden City in Beijing. She then returned to San Diego in time to drive up to Big Bear Lake for Christmas with her family.

“Having my family so close to me helps,” she said. “They tell me: ‘Hey don’t worry, it’s fine, people are going to love you for who you are.’”

Since 2019 started, Bravo’s traveled to San Francisco, Costa Rica, New York City, Las Vegas, and Yucatan, Mexico. “The engagement with my followers is everything, and not so much of how many followers I have,” she said. “I want those honest real deal followers.”

In April, around the time that I first met with Bravo and Paulina, Instagram began to roll out changes in the way users were found on the app. The search algorithms were reportedly changed so that people and businesses were now discovered based on (in no particular order): the time a post was published; the interests of the user; the user’s relationship with the original poster; the frequency of logging into the app; and a number of accounts the user follows on Instagram.

Across the board, locals are saying the numbers of likes and comments per post have dropped since April.

I analyzed the numbers of a local fashion blogger/influencer with over 7000 Instagram followers who have been uploading about one post per day for the last year. A year ago, she was averaging about 1472 likes and 86 comments on her outfits and makeup posts. In April, those numbers dropped more than 50 percent compared to October 2018. In late September 2019, her averages dropped to 458 likes and 54 comments.

“What’s the difference between a blogger and an influencer?” I asked Bravo.

“A blogger has their website where you can read their articles,” she responded. “And an influencer is… for example, if I post a picture on social media that I’m here at this place, people are going to want to know: ‘Hey how is that place? Did you like it? Did you like the food or coffee?’ I would respond (via comments or direct message) to anything that they would like to know, so I feel like I am influencing them when I respond.”

“But, what if the place totally sucks?” I asked.

“If I don’t like the place at all,” Bravo responded, “I won’t post a picture, because I don’t want to give a place bad credibility, just in case it was done only to me and not to everyone else.”

Harsh Yelp

Not all bloggers and influencers are as nice as Bravo, specially seasoned Yelp reviewers, who are now considered the old-school version of social media influencers.

“I haven’t stepped foot in this [Fashion Nova] actual storefront,” commented RaShonne D., “but if it’s anything like their online experience — stay away.”

RaShonne, 37, is a senior product manager who lives in Carmel Valley. She purchased a couple of pairs of women’s jeans from the Fashion Nova website in February and she left a 1-star Yelp review on the women’s clothing, accessories and lingerie shop, which is based out of Los Angeles. “I contacted Fashion Nova as well as PayPal to complain about not receiving the package that was allegedly delivered to my home while I was there, and was given the runaround,” she commented in part. “I’m grateful that I didn’t spend much with this company, and hope both they and OnTrac appreciate the $44 profit.”

She then left a similar 1-star review on the Yelp page for OnTrac, a courier and delivery service business based out of Miramar. It read in part: “They allegedly delivered a package to my home, and guess what wasn’t outside of my door — my package.”

One-star Yelp reviews can ruin the reputation of a business, especially if the business fails to address the negative posts and the reviewer is an Elite 2019 Yelp reviewer like RaShonne. Of her 43 reviews, 24 were 5-star ratings (highest) and two were 1-star ratings.

In April, RaShonne changed her 1-star Fashion Nova rating to a 4-star review. “I’m updating my review because of the awesome customer service I received online here from Kethlene,” she said to me in a direct message interview. “After researching the issue, she not only ensured that my money was refunded for the missing order but gave me a $40 gift card to try them again. I did end up ordering again on a Saturday and got my items by Monday. I only ordered a pair of high waist jeans and two pairs of leggings. The high waist jeans are pretty thin denim, but they have a lot of stretch, which I like, and the leggings were fleece-lined and pretty cute since it’s been a little chilly here in San Diego lately.”

“How were you influenced to purchase Fashion Nova’s merchandise?” I asked.

“On social media, especially Instagram,” she explained. “You see a lot of people posting about their inexpensive clothing, especially their jeans. From what I could see, their jeans are made for curvier women, unlike the traditional brands that cater to women that are thinner without as many curves. I would say it was 100-percent influenced by social media; I had never heard of the brand prior to that.”

Social media runway

The fashion site offers hundreds of dresses of all styles, from a $24.95 cutout mini dress for clubbing in the Gaslamp to a $39.99 floral-and-flowy maxi dress for the Del Mar Racetrack.

“What’s the negative side to this type of influencer marketing?” some ask.

“The concept is that the runways are dying,” said Fashion Nova’s CEO and founder Richard Saghian in a BuzzFeed News interview. “If you think about it, why did they have runways before? Because there was no internet [to show off the new line of clothing]. People are now looking at their [social media] feed for fashion inspiration more than they are the runways.”

Fashion Nova is a company that relies heavily on Instagram feeds to promote their business; they have over 15 million followers, many of whom are influencers.

Teenagers and adults worldwide post Instagram photos of themselves wearing Fashion Nova articles, and then caption the photos with #NovaBabe, #FashionNovaCurve, and #FashionNova. They hope to be noticed by the fashion brand and then have their image reshared to millions of Fashion Nova IG-ers so that they may ultimately become “instafamous” influencers.

But it’s not all fun and games for many of these influencers posting photos and videos of their life highlights. “I see some of my favorite influencers going through hard times and documenting it on YouTube or Instagram stories,” Joyce explained. “A lot of them express the same feeling of being depressed when certain [posts] don’t get the reactions or views they wanted, and some get so caught up in the statistics. They ride that constant roller coaster of emotions as their views and AdSense fluctuate.”

Joyce is a 24-year-old cannabis consultant and fashion student who resides in southeast San Diego; she started wearing Fashion Nova shortly after she clicked on rapper-Cardi B’s 2018 video speaking about the brand’s ‘Bootylicious’ jeans.

“At that point, I was like ‘Okay I need to see what everyone is talking about,’” she said. “Also, most of their jeans are high-waisted, and it’s hard to find that in San Diego stores.”

Cardi B doesn’t trip on views, comments, and likes. She has over 44 million followers on Instagram and is one of the most influential influencers for the Fashion Nova brand.

On May 11, outlets reported that the Grammy-award-winning rapper’s second Fashion Nova collection made $1 million within 24 hours after its launch, more than in November when she and Fashion Nova initially collabed.

“You’re going to see a lot of skin,” Cardi B said of the line in an interview with Elle magazine. “A lot of cleavage. But yet it’s so pretty and so elegant. I made sure it was sexy but also beautiful.”

For the ’gram

North County local Lindsey Zarate listens to Cardi B. The last time I saw Zarate, she was on her way to Coachella to work as a brand ambassador for Pandora. She wore vintage clothing provided by a San Diego business so that she could take photos and tag the company on her IG and Facebook feeds.

“Some people suffer from depression because of the internet,” Zarate said, “and because of their current economic status. Maybe they are not getting the positive comments and outcome from the internet and they thought they would, and it can have a negative effect on their view of life.”

Miguel, a former automotive lifestyle influencer, agrees with Zarate. “I was caught up in that for a bit, but not anymore,” he said. “Some of my homies, all of a sudden, now eat at classy restaurants on the regular just ‘for the Gram’. They never liked ceviche, then all of a sudden they [are] eating caviar and crackers. GTFOH [get the fuck outta here] with that bullshit. Then I ask them: ‘Where would you be without your Instagrams?’”

Miguel lives near downtown and requested that I change his name for the article. He added that his buddies are now in major credit card debt because of trying to keep up with the likes of the “Kardashians and Jenners. Then when the creditors come a-knockin’, are any of those followers or bots gonna kick down some money?” he asked. “What [are] they gonna do next, set up a GoFundMe for their debt?”

“For me, what can be depressing about being a model [and influencer] is the pressure,” says Shaynie Rhoads. “You have to maintain a certain image, which is just a nice way of saying that you have to constantly think about the way you look. That means watching what you eat, spending hours in the gym every week, and making sacrifices.”

I talked to Rhoads, 26, while she was on the way to the gym. She’s a North County resident who plays and teaches guitar for a living. She models and posts for lifestyle clothing companies and skates vert in her free time.

“Modeling and influencing can have an impact on your social life, too,” she explained. “And you can’t get hurt; no one wants to work with a model that’s scuffed up.”

In April, Rhoads ate it badly on her skateboard and had to get stitches in her knee, which caused her to push back several paid gigs. “I take chances every time I skate,” she says, “which I really shouldn’t be doing in the first place, but skating vert keeps me sane.”

On September 30, Rhoads posted an Instagram photo of herself wearing a Deathbed Inc. Clothing top. A few months ago, she posted a photo of herself lying on her side with her Gibson guitar in hand. Her long brown hair is in the foreground, and she’s staring into the camera. Both images garnered more than 900 likes and 50 comments.

“I don’t pay attention to the amount of likes that I get on a photo,” she said. “I was never popular in high school and I’ve always known what’s truly important to me: music and skating, and I know it sounds cliché, but [also] spending time with the people that I care about.”

Rhoads understands the business side of influencing: most of her recent Instagram posts are photographed by professionals, and she’s on the “80 percent business-and-20 percent personal” posts-ratio suggested by entrepreneur-focused publications such as Forbes magazine.

“Are you influencing for the Gibson guitars that you play?” I asked.

“I wish, not yet. Maybe in the future. But clothing companies will contact me to wear their products in photos and tag them to help spread the word about their brands,” she explained, “or photographers will reach out and ask for me to be the subject for a project or a vision that they have in mind. In turn, this helps me reach more potential listeners [for my music], which is the most important thing. I was signed by a modeling agency when I was really young, and it was exhausting. ‘Modeling’ as we know it has changed so much, and I’m much happier now than when I was a child model. I get to be myself.”


“Being yourself” with physical and emotional scars is trending upwards in the world of influencing, more so now that mega-influencers like Cardi B are doing things like responding to alleged beefs with other rappers and squashing rumors about their love life.

Ayesha Curry is sticking by her “little bit of an insecurity” statement despite many (mostly men) bashing her online via memes that have gone viral.

Alpine resident Yolie Stover relates to how Curry feels when it comes to getting trolled by men. “The bullying that I experience is from photographers that get upset at me,” she said, “because I take pictures and videos and share them on my social media accounts, and I don’t charge anything.”

Stover is a lifestyle and travel influencer who founded and manages Offroad Girl Loves Baja — a binational and bilingual fan page dedicated to the sport.

In the last year, she’s trekked to and covered the Baja 500 and 1000 in Ensenada, the Parker 425 in Arizona, the Baja 250 in San Felipe, the Nevada Desert Challenge in San Felipe, Off-Road Nights at Perris California, the Tijuana Desert Challenge, the Off-Road Expo in Pomona, the Mint 400 in Las Vegas, and the National Off-Road Racing Association races in Ensenada.

Some of the “mid-life-trolls” say “she’s just a blogger and vlogger,” because she gives up-to-the-minute updates, even when her close racing buddies have crashed on the courses. But she is also a devoted social media marketing influencer who will transmit live from on-site locations and advise where people should or shouldn’t stay the night, eat, camp out, and park and watch the races.

Last year, Stover was at the 2018 Baja 250 races in San Felipe. She was blowing her whistle and telling spectators to stand back and pick up their trash; she also went onto Facebook Live to remind her viewers, “The spectators need to stay back at least 50 feet,” she says. “It’s the spectators’ responsibility to stay safe, keep back, and stay alert.”

Later that day, two spectators standing close to the course were killed by a trophy truck. “The two people killed by the Herbst truck was an accident,” she said. “If the police would have said they intentionally hit them, they would have not have finished the race and I guarantee that they would have gone to jail.”

In March, Stover co-piloted a VW Bug to second place at the Racing For Boobs cancer-awareness event in Mexicali.

Unlike the revealing Nova Babes’ slinky dresses and strappy heels that might garner front-of-the-line privies at Gaslamp, Stover’s clothing protects her from the dirt and mud slung at her in the trenches and shields her from the searing desert sun. Her ensemble is composed of a pair of jeans, checkered Vans, a tee-or-hoodie with her and her sponsors’ logos, an Off Road Girl Loves Baja baseball cap, and sunglasses, all topped off with a mud-caked lanyard attached to an all-access media badge.

Stover’s Facebook fan page has over 10,000 followers; her Instagram page over 1500.

“My followers are organic,” she said. “I don’t pay Facebook to sponsor my posts to gain new likes.” Stover’s accounts have been vetted by the offroad community, and since starting her campaign in October 2017, she’s gained four sponsors: Auto City Windshields in San Diego; Bobby’s by the Sea in Rosarito; QARS in Chula Vista; and Baja Mex Insurance.

Creep factor

Mode, a tattoo lifestyle influencer, was wearing jeans and Vans, like Stover, when I met her at a tattoo convention at Golden Hall downtown. She was inking a client while we chopped it up, and I took photos of her for Tattoo magazine.

Mode, who is covered head-to-toe in tattoo art, has almost 10,000 followers and over 4800 Facebook friends.

“Followers and publicity aren’t really what I strive for,” Mode said. “Asking for more attention just peaks my anxiety.”

Back in April, she posted a screenshot of a direct message she just received on Facebook. “I think people assume that because I’m a confident woman who’s also a tattooer,” Mode said, “that I must be a cookie cut from a common shape. It’s like: ‘Yeah I post selfies because I love the woman I have become’ — but that should never be mistaken as an invitation to try and send me pics of your dick, just because you feel some type of way about it.

“[This] actually happens all the time. The one I posted on Facebook was one I got a couple nights ago, amongst like five more, and then Instagram is another nightmare in itself. All of these interactions are on social networks that I use as a work-related tool.”