Dishevelled hair, smeared make-up, wild eyes: when Kolkata-based banker Dolon Dutta Chowdhury posted this selfie on her Instagram account @poutpretty on May 10, her over 40,000 followers made it go viral. Chowdhury was participating in an online challenge to recreate looks by popular actors and this one was an homage to Manjulika, a character played by Vidya Balan in the 2007 Hindi film Bhool Bhulaiyaa. “People were sharing and saving the post probably because during the lockdown, we were all dishevelled and exhausted and could relate to that state of mind,” says the 40-year-old.
If the rise of social-media influencers was propelled by the consumerist aspirations of their audience, their popularity during the months of COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has been fuelled by their ability to address the anxieties of the current moment. “I think people turned towards influencers during the lockdown largely because they helped relieve stress by continuing to create content which was high on entertainment, too,” says Aparna Ganesh, 41, who runs the channel JoyGeeks on Instagram and YouTube.
Since their usual product-related posts wouldn’t resonate during a period of gloom and austerity, influencers have become more creative. Some, like 36-year-old Abhinav Mathur, have identified a demand for frugal, homemade hacks. Mathur, who goes by @_abix_ on Instagram, has been posting about how accessible ingredients like onion juice and rice water can be used for skin and hair care. “I noticed that people were willing to listen and try new things because they had the time,” he says. “Even men are asking for a complete skincare routine, including anti-ageing creams and eye roll-ons,” says Shakti Singh Yadav, 29, who is on Instagram as @thefebruaryboy.
Fashion influencers like Sumedha Sharma, 24, who goes by the handle @Sueme on Instagram, are showing viewers how to style the same item of clothing in different ways. In a recent video, she took a shirt from her father’s closet and styled it in nine different ways with a slip dress. “It’s not just about promoting a dress or a brand anymore. Even if they won’t try styling one garment in many ways in real life, they want to watch it because it’s visually appealing,” she says.
When they do promote brands, influencers are choosing more carefully. Sharma started exploring smaller, homegrown brands after the government’s ‘Vocal for Local’ call in May. Ganesh isn’t featuring any luxury brands as “no one will be buying those right now”, and is focusing on products that can be locally sourced. She also began addressing specific viewer concerns like how to look better in video calls, how to tweeze eyebrows and what affordable make-up to use.
“The (social-media) trend of wearing a new sari everyday and that too an expensive one was worrying me,” says Vijayalaxmi Chhabra, former director general of Doordarshan, 65, whose eponymous Instagram account has more than 37,000 followers. Lockdown or no lockdown, she wears a sari everyday and posts about it. “I thought young girls or beginners would be intimidated to see all of us in expensive saris. So, I consciously decided to post at least four of my old saris every week,” she says. Since she was cooking everyday, she started wearing affordable saris, which she would then write about online. “I also started posting with the hashtag #gharkisaree because that’s what sustainable sari-wearing is,” she says.
Ganesh says that we cannot ignore one very important reason why viewers have turned to influencer videos during the lockdown: their therapeutic value. In that sense, they’re akin to the “oddly satisfying” genre of internet videos, depicting repetitive, mundane or even slightly silly activities like cutting soap and popping bubblewrap. “No one would want to don a rainbow-themed eye shadow in real life, but they’d love to watch someone else do it. Throughout the lockdown, people kept asking me to continue making lipstick videos, as they found