Micro Going Macro: The Instagram Influencers Defining 2021
The up-and-coming creators of 2021 aren’t influencers in the tired old sense of the word—a pastel-hued, filter-obsessed, slick-marketing Instagrammer showcasing a too-perfect life. You’d be hard pressed, for one, to find someone making a living on Instagram who doesn’t also have a YouTube, TikTok, podcast, or at the very least, a blog. To claim your space in the increasingly crowded world of social media, you need to broaden your presence across platforms. You also need to broaden your perspective outside the confines of a carefully curated personal brand.
We picked 15 micro-influencers—that is, creators with fewer than 100,000 Instagram followers—who we believe will go macro this year precisely because they’re so different from the creators who came before them. They’re Instagram-savvy, for sure, but aren’t in it just for the swipe-ups. One has a hit show on Instagram Live, a feature that came into its own with the pandemic; another made her mark with Reels, the much-maligned but rapidly maturing TikTok-style tool introduced last August.
Others are experimenting and monetizing beyond Instagram: There’s the marine biologist major using his scientific expertise in TikToks about skincare—and paying his way through college; and the YouTuber making videos exclusively from her van, who has gained over 370,000 subscribers since the beginning of the pandemic. There’s a roller skater-slash-lingerie model, ex-fashion editor pursuing racial justice, current hospital worker talking vaccines and beauty routines—even a traditional lifestyle influencer who’s beloved by the impossible-to-please Blogsnark community on Reddit.
For every internet niche, there’s an online creator at the helm. We break down how they got into the internet game, what they plan to do this year, and why you should be following their journey. We’ve also got expanded interviews with three of them, which you can read here.
WHO Danielle Prescod
Former fashion editor Danielle Prescod has traded the streets of NYC for New Orleans, where she’s putting the finishing touches on her first book, Token Black Girl, for the publisher Little A. She’ll be turning in the manuscript, which is a memoir about growing up in New York and her experiences in the fashion magazine industry, in March. But her followers already know her for her radical honesty on Instagram, especially when it comes to holding other influencers accountable on issues of racial justice and politics.
“I take my meditation practice really seriously and I set daily time limits on Instagram,” she tells me when asked how she detoxes from the demands of social media.
What’s your dream collaboration and why?
Profiling Sasha and Malia Obama. They remind me so much of my sister and I am fully calling dibs on telling their story however they want to do it.
What's the biggest difference between you and your "online persona"?
People might find me more reserved if they meet me in person but that's only because I am careful about how I dole out my energy. Because I feel safer online in some capacity, I am able to share more of my full energy.
Who's the most famous person who follows you?
WHO Olivia Muenter
WHAT Career, lifestyle, fashion
It’s not often that the members of r/Blogsnark, a Reddit space for airing petty (and not so petty) grievances about influencers, stumble upon a creator they have nothing but good things to say about. In fact, freelance writer Olivia Muenter might be the only one. The former fashion and beauty editor launched her influencing career in 2017 and teaches her 28,000 Instagram followers how to get their own freelancing dreams off the ground. But it was her tispy Christmas 2020 candle-review Story, done in quarantine with her fiance, that totally charmed the Blogsnarkers.
“She is truly a gem of a follow,” one redditor wrote. “I may own 8 bath and body works candles now because of her. Dammit.”
WHO Ella Snyder
WHAT Fashion, art, photography
Ella Snyder has been on YouTube since she was a tween, but now, at 21, she’s taking her biggest leap yet. After being shortlisted for the Dazed 100, she was awarded a grant to take what would have been her senior project at Parsons School of Design and turn it into a reality: A photo book documenting the trans community, which she hopes will be on shelves in November. Just like that, Snyder left school and moved from New York City to Los Angeles to start her new life, where she spoke to us about growing up on YouTube and her plans for this year—including a potential TV project.
“There's been talks about a TV show, but nothing is really solid or set in stone yet,” she says. “I'd love to explore music. I'd love to keep photographing—like, this is definitely not going to be my first and only photo book. I also don't think that this will be the first and only installment of this project. This could potentially continue lifelong and just be this ongoing series. I just want to keep living and making and following my dreams, as cliche as that is.”
WHO Mikaela Loach
WHAT Sustainability, activism
An Edinburgh-based medical student, Mikaela Loach has somehow found the time to also advocate for sustainability and anti-racism for her 97,000 Instagram followers. In 2020, Loach launched the Yikes podcast, a place where she and cohost Jo Becker discuss climate change, human rights, and other overwhelming topics in digestible and inspiring ways. Most recently, Loach was a panelist on “Why Black Lives Matter in the Climate Movement: An Introduction To Environmental Racism” by shado magazine.
“A lot of the things that have been appropriated by very wealthy, privileged, and usually white individuals are things that people of color and marginalized communities have been doing for a long time,” Loach has told Elle. “I do think that's problematic because I know a lot of people who feel they can't get involved in climate activism, or they can't live sustainably, because they aren't a middle class white woman and that's the image they're seeing constantly online.”
WHO Cameron Rogers
WHAT Food, lifestyle
Cameron Rogers traded in five years working on Wall Street for her true passion: food. Through Freckled Foodie, the 29-year-old provides meal planning, health coaching, recipes, and more for clients. Her foray into TikTok at the beginning of quarantine last year kicked her career into high gear. Proving just how multifaceted an influencer can be in 2021, she’s also been lauded as one of the few online creators using her platform to branch out beyond her brand, sharing her thoughts on politics and experience with anxiety.
What’s unique about your followers?
They are super engaged and are the best combination of being supportive and also holding me accountable. I'm extremely grateful for their continued ability to hype me up and desire to hold me to high standards while encouraging me to talk about the important topics happening in our world. They also know that there is zero agenda or aesthetic when it comes to Freckled Foodie and they are here for the sporadic rants and wide array of topics covered.
What’s one super-specific career goal you have for this year? I am really trying to grow my podcast, Freckled Foodie and Friends, and would love to hit 1,000,000 downloads in 2021.
Who's the most famous person who follows you?
Mindy Kaling and I will never understand how or why but I am absolutely here for it because I love her so much!
WHO Polly Vadasz
WHAT Illustration, food, small business
Those familiar with “small business TikTok” might like to know that Polly Vadasz’s Instagram is a 24/7 BTS companion to her UK-based stationary and decor brand, Sighh by Polly. Vadasz, who recently partnered with the Insecure Girls Club, an organization founded by influencer Live Purvis, has been steadily gaining followers since the summer thanks to her quarantine-friendly WFH content. When Vadasz is not detailing her meetings, designs, and packing, she’s cooking up a storm, using 2021’s hottest new kitchen accessory: the air fryer.
WHO Sydney Blaylock
WHAT Rollerskating, fashion
TikTok may have brought rollerskating back into the limelight, but Syd Blaylock has always used the sport to express her creativity—when she’s not modeling lingerie or designing jewelry, that is. She recently partnered with MusicBreaker to feature independent artists in her skate videos.
“99.9% percent of my partnerships have been with Black-owned brands,” she tells Sesali Bowen in this new nofilter interview. “I’m really not trying to be an influencer, it’s just happening. But if it’s going to give me opportunities to do all the things that are kind of in my head and get paid for it, and put my culture on, why not?”
WHO Hannah Lee Duggan
YouTuber and Instagrammer Hannah Lee Duggan was making videos on the road from her van long before the pandemic hit, but as soon as viewers found themselves quarantined in apartments or with family, Duggan’s YouTube subscriber count began growing exponentially. She’s still gaining tens of thousands of followers a month, according to Social Blade, and announced in a recent video that influencing has become her full time job, thanks to brand deals with companies like Organic Basics. While she took a “break” the past few months to buy and renovate her own cabin, she recently jetted back out onto the road for even more followers to live vicariously through her wanderlust.
WHO Yessica Hernandez-Cruz
WHAT Producer, activist
Many of Yessica Hernandez-Cruz’s followers know her face from her video work for BuzzFeed and SourceFed, but her most recent work has been behind the camera. Or rather, behind the iPhone. She’s the producer responsible for the viral footage of Kamala Harris that TikTok turned into fancams, is now starting her own production company focused on uplifting women of color.
“I'm very real on my internet. I don't wear makeup. I act a fool,” Hernandez-Cruz tells me over the phone. “It's exciting that people are still down to follow that journey.”
WHO Michelle Choi
WHAT Lifestyle, fashion, design
Michelle Choi documented almost all of her college journey on YouTube through videos about studying, productivity, and coffee. In 2020, she graduated, moved to Los Angeles, and got a full-time job all in the middle of a pandemic. She’s taking her followers along with her for this next chapter, working with Squarespace and HelloFresh to continue vlogging her daily routines and productive working hacks for fellow newly-grads.
WHO Amber J. Phillips
WHAT Black art, culture, and activism
Phillips is a multi-hyphenate Black creator—podcaster, content strategist, and “reproductive justice activist”—who puts Black women front and center in her creative works. She combines years of political organizing, a natural curiosity, and a love for aesthetics to explore the nooks and crannies of Blackness, queerness, and culture. She can have a good laugh about it all, too. In her Stories, she recently called out the phenomenon of non-Black artists painting and profiting off Black subjects, prompting a necessary conversation about cultural appropriation, the struggles of Black artists, and the value of Blackness itself. If you want a better take on pop culture and politics, she’s one to follow. —Sesali Bowen
What’s unique about your followers?
They are almost entirely non-cis men. I love that for me! I’m clear about who I’m sharing my life and art with and it ain’t cis heterosexual men. I’d rather talk to the real leaders of culture and we all know that’s Black women, femmes, and the queers! Everyone else is more than welcome to sit in the back, watch, and touch nothing but the directions to deposit coins into my bank account.
WHO Camli Kobros
WHAT Skincare, fashion
Working in a hospital in Texas, Camli Kobros has been in the thick of the pandemic since it began, using her platform to share information about Covid vaccines—plus skincare. She also kicked off her influencing career last year, partnering with well-known brands like Supergoop and Mejuri, and keeps rising in the influencer space alongside pals Noore Elkhaldi and Maria Alia.
WHO Serena Kerrigan
WHAT Lifestyle, entertainment
Serena Kerrigan was a digital face at Refinery29 for four years, but it wasn’t until she went solo as an influencer that she tripled her Instagram following. As the self-proclaimed “queen of confidence,” Kerrigan isn’t surprised by any of her fame. And thanks to her Instagram Live dating show Let’s Fucking Date, which recently wrapped its second season, that audience keeps growing.
“I knew that I was going to be a star,” Kerrigan told us last month. “I always knew this since I was a little girl, and I was willing to do the fucking work.”
WHO Kai Wes
WHAT Art, activism
Kai West burst into the public eye on season eight of MTV’s Are You The One, but earned their spot on the Logo30 list in 2020 thanks to their use of social media to amplify organizations like Trans Lifeline, share their own experiences with top surgery and identity more broadly, and partner with brands like Calvin Klein and Abercrombie.
“I’m a big advocate for the fact that nonbinary identities don’t have to look any one way,” Wes told Logo. “I might be androgynous, but that does not mean I am the epitome of nonbinary. I’m just Kai. This is how I feel comfy.”
WHO JC Dombrowski
WHAT Skincare, marine biology
JC Dombrowski won’t be boxed into any one niche—his rapidly growing TikTok includes skincare and, yes, facts about marine biology. Over on Instagram, he’s living out his “influencer model fantasy” partnering with brands like Byroe and Biossance to put himself through school at Cornell, where he’s currently a junior.
“TikTok is how I'm putting myself through school,” he tells us. “I've been basically financially independent since I was a teen. I'm paying for Cornell all myself. If it wasn't for TikTok I I would have to drop out, honestly. So my goal with TikTok is to grow as much as possible and to make as much money as ethically as possible—only ethical brand deals and doing the right thing.”
Tags: YouTube Beauty Instagram TikTok Tips Feature Interviews Lifestyle Fashion Food Sesali Bowen Kate Lindsay Reels Recommended Serena Fucking Kerrigan Yessica Hernandez-Cruz Micro Going Macro Sydney Blaylock JC Dombrowski Ella Snyder Danielle Prescod Olivia Muenter Mikaela Loach Cameron Rogers Polly Vadasz Hannah Lee Duggan Michelle Choi Amber J. Phillips Camli Kobros Kai Wes