These days, influencer gossip spreads in the comments of Instagram posts and the corners of Reddit. But Ester, Spencer, and Wendy—hosts of the influencer tea podcast Swiping Up—first swapped stories about influencers in a more old-school location: a hair salon.

Wendy, a hair stylist in North Carolina, was giving Ester a trim when the normal small talk gave way to full-blown gossip. At that time, Ester, who had moved to the city from California, already ran a popular influencer meme account with a couple thousand followers. But their conversations in the salon inspired the August 2019 launch of Swiping Up, hosted by Wendy (@WendyBeingBasic), Ester, and Spencer (@SpencerSoBasic)—another of Wendy’s clients and a friend of Ester through a local Raleigh girls’ group. 

“It was rough in the beginning,” Ester tells me over a Zoom call with the three founders. “People had this perception that we’re a hate account that loved truly hatefully making fun of influencers.” (Shortly after this interview, Ester stepped away from the podcast to pursue other ventures.) 

In fact, some of their faves—like Jen Reed and Dress Up Buttercup—had them blocked on Instagram. It wasn’t until Swiping Up’s following had grown that they were able to launch a hashtag campaign to convince Reed to unblock them.

“Over the last year we've completely flipped the table,” Ester says. “And now we are a respected news source in the influencer industry.”

Quarantine helped. Stuck at home, people were thirsty for entertainment, and one year after its launch the Swiping Up Instagram page reached the coveted 10,000-follower count—the number needed to unlock the swipe-up feature that inspired the podcast’s name. Now, they’re at over 15,000 and responsible for breaking down some of the niche influencing world’s most buzzed-about stories, like the Kathleen Post copycat account and Lashify vs. Brittany Vasseur. 

As professional tea-pourers, the Swiping Up hosts talked to me about how influencers should handle their scandals, why macro-influencers are a thing of the past, and the one trend they hope dies in 2021.

How did each of you get involved in the world of influencers?

Spencer: Well, [Ester and Wendy] were my gateway. I followed a couple OGs, before Instagram influencing was a thing. I followed their blogs or followed them on Pinterest. And then these two, when they came to me with the podcast idea, I was like, “Okay, well then I need a list of like the big names that I need to pay attention to because I know my people, but outside of that, I don't really care about everybody else.” Now I do. 

Wendy: Now you're completely submerged.

Spencer: I am completely submerged underwater.

Ester: I honestly can't tell you the first influencer that I followed. Probably Katy Roach or Laura Beverlin.

Wendy: Mine was Laura Beverlin. When she was first starting out I remember buying almost everything [she talked about].

Ester: We evolved. At first we covered the big ones, all the big name people. And we're like, "Okay. We're getting sick of hearing ourselves talk about the same people over and over." So we started doing the micro-influencers and then we branched out into home decor, lifestyle, fitness, and we kind of incorporate everyone now. 

Spencer: We've branched out into different platforms, which is something that we talked a lot about in the beginning. We really stuck to just Instagram influencers initially. But now we talk more about some YouTubers here or there, some TikTokkers.

What research do you do to get all the tea? 

Spencer: On our personals, we follow who we want to follow personally and what interests us. On Swiping Up, we follow friends of the podcast or people that we're paying attention to in that moment, but those are always changing. I don't think we ever follow the same people all the way through. It's just kind of how we discover people on our own, in our own time. We're always looking for new names, which is really cool because it gives those people kind of a boost.

Wendy: Our Swipers are so good. Our listeners have been sending us so much tea. 

Ester: People create burner accounts to share tea with us. And then sometimes, even influencers will come with their regular accounts and share tea with us. And we also have a Facebook group and a lot of our Swipers will share things in there. And then we have a link where people can post anonymous tea, if it's really juicy.

Spencer: The bloggers and influencers themselves, so many come to us like, “Hey, I don't want my name put into this, but…” But it's taken a long time to build those relationships with them.

Wendy: And not break confidentiality too. They trust us because we've sat on information, too. We'd never release until the right time.

How do you decide what is and isn’t okay to cover?

Wendy: Somebody messaged me and they asked why we didn't talk about [an influencer] going through a divorce right now. And I told her, sometimes we just don't want to amplify certain situations. They do need to go through it privately because they're people.

Spencer: I think when it comes to things that are super divisive and controversial, we're very mindful about if we even talk about those things or how we approach them, but also we're not malicious. So tea is great. Gossip is fun and it can be salacious, but if it's going to be harmful to someone's well being, then that's where we draw a line.

How would you describe your listeners?

Ester: The first thing that anyone says to us when they listen to the show is, “Oh my God, I feel like I'm sitting in a room chatting with my girlfriends.” So they are our online, BFF, all-over-the-world girlfriends. And they're here for the tea. They love sending us messages and just chit chatting. 

Spencer: We're really mindful of cultivating those relationships. So it doesn't matter if it is, you know, a mom of four who stays at home and is messaging us or somebody with a million followers who's messaging us. We respond to every single DM. And I think that has played a huge role in building the community around the podcast and creating that brand loyalty and making people want to engage and want to trust us and give us information.

What changes have you noticed in the influencer industry?

Spencer: I think a lot of the influencers realized that with the different hardships that people have been going through and experiencing over the last year, things couldn't be status quo. They couldn't keep sharing the same stuff over and over and shoving product down everyone's throats. And so they looked for different ways to be influential. And so you see a lot more things like recipe shares and things that give them exposure, like—we call a loop giveaways circle jerks—we're seeing circle jerks, but in a different way. They're sharing skills or projects or things that don't necessarily involve buying something from them. So they're still getting their names out there. 

Wendy: Home decor got huge. Like some of the bigger girls started sharing home decor. It's like every influencer decided to buy or renovate and build a house.

Ester: Not to toot our own horn but for real, we have influenced things and shifted things a little bit in the influencer industry. We have influencers who message us and say, “I listened to your podcast” about this or that, “And wow, I didn't realize how you felt and other people felt.” So not in huge waves or anything, but I would say that we influence things a little bit.

What is best practice for an influencer going through a scandal? 

Spencer: I think what everyone is really looking for from influencers is transparency. If you have that kind of relationship with your audience where they know they can trust you and they care about you and your wellbeing, you don't have to give every single detail to your audience, but let them know when something's going on. Everyone can tell. The influencer that we were talking about before that's going through the divorce, everybody already knew. She announced it like she was giving people news—she wasn't giving anybody news. We knew. So I think it's a fine balance between giving yourself the room and the grace to experience things real time in your life, but take a break from social media then. Otherwise that's when everybody starts talking and [the influencer] feels isolated and they feel like they're being attacked by the internet.

Wendy: No one can speculate on what you're [experiencing] if you go ahead and set the story straight. Just go ahead and put it out there and let it be. And that way people can't really speculate. You've already said what it is—the truth.

Ester: I don't think there is one specific way that influencers can handle something aside from taking a break, but real life things—affairs, divorce, illnesses, losing a job, losing a child—you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't. If you share and you're transparent, people will attack you and say, “You're not grieving the right way. You're sharing too much.” And then if you don't share, if you try and keep it personal, “Oh, they're being coy. They're toying with us. They're trying to get sympathy.”

Wendy: You have to share in the way that gives you peace, if that is just putting it out there, or if that is completely shutting off your social media. The more you tell someone that comes from your mouth, there's less that they can say about it because you've already said what it is. Because people are going to find out.

Do you have any predictions for the industry this year? 

Ester: I'm hoping that loop giveaways die off. If I can have anything leave, it would be loop giveaways. I feel like maybe with quarantine, with not being able to go places, they feel like they're limited with their creativity. So I'm hoping that when things open up again, when blogger trips start happening, when people can go out and about, the loop stuff dies down and they go out and try new and fresh things.

I think people are so sick and tired of just seeing commercials on their feeds. They want to be able to truly engage with that influencer. And when they have a million followers, they can't respond to every single DM.

Spencer: People are losing interest in the big names. There's like this race to a million right now, all the girls that have been in it for a few years and they're go, go, go. They're doing the loop giveaways. They're doing everything right. And people aren't interested. They want to see the girl that has 7,000 and is doing all these creative things because she wants to get to that 10K to get the swipe-up. And they want to see the micro-influencers who have 70,000 so they still have a big reach, but they're still responding to all the DMs.

Do you have any influencers you’d recommend? 

Spencer: Bonnie Wyrick is one who she was on Instagram and then moved to TikTok, got huge on TikTok. And now her Instagram's exploded. 

Ester: Kathleen Post. 100 percent. She is so underrated. She offers so much: fitness, home decor. I feel like from like a business standpoint in growing her brand, she is so incredibly relatable. 

Spencer: I think all three of us will say that we are obsessed with LivingWithMB. Someone had actually sent her to us because of this scandal, this drama—it was internet drama. And ever since then, we have been obsessed. She is absolutely brilliant. She's so funny. She's engaging. She has a cult following.