Appearing wealthy on social media has become its own industry

Wannabes looking to ’flex’ on Instagram and TikTok are using Photoshop, renting luxury goods—and in rare cases, committing criminal fraud
Influencers like @joellefriend use the company, Sky Helicopters for their social media sites (Sky Helicopters)
influencers like @joellefriend use the company, Sky Helicopters for their social media sites (Sky Helicopters)

“Hey yo, rich boy check,” says a male voice.

A violin plays the first few notes of Luigi Boccherini’s Minuetto as a well-dressed, well-coiffed teenager flashes images from his lavish lifestyle: crystal chandeliers, Lamborghinis, indoor pools.

Welcome to the #richboycheck hashtag on TikTok, a social media platform popular with teenagers, where the apparently wealthy “flex”—slang for showing off your wealth—while others mercilessly mock them. On display are wads of cash, Rolexes and closets stacked with designer sneakers. (Also on trend: satirically writing “GUCCI” onto a piece of paper and sticking it to your hoodie.)

Whether they are being gawked at, idolized or made fun of, there is a clear fascination with the hyper-connected nouveau riche—the often-youthful Instagrammers who let you see inside their mansions; the YouTubers who let you peer inside their closets.

READ: Has social media become a full-time job for teen girls?

But if Instagram is your lens on the world outside your bedroom or neighbourhood, you are viewing a warped reality. A project called Inequaligram, run by the City University of New York, looked at 7.5 million Instagram posts shared in Manhattan in 2014 and concluded that wealthy neighbourhoods were dramatically over-represented in posts, including those from people who lived in poorer parts of the city.

At a time of soaring income inequality in North America, as more and more wealth is concentrated in the hands of very few, the hive mind seems to have reconfirmed that affluence, however elusive, is the ideal. That it is better to filter out poverty. That the “vagabond shoes” and “little town blues” are easily swapped out for “king of the hill, top of the list,” to channel Frank Sinatra.

Multi-billion-dollar industries are built around the “influence” peddled by popular online figures whose followers have never laid eyes upon them in real life and who almost always appear independently wealthy. Some are explicitly, openly fake: an uncanny-valley “robot” called Lil Miquela has 1.9 million Instagram followers, to whom she recently recommended the Samsung Galaxy S20.

Instagram post from @lilmiquela, promoting Samsung Galaxy (@lilmiquela/instagram)
Instagram post from @lilmiquela, promoting Samsung Galaxy (@lilmiquela/instagram)

It’s hardly surprising that people will go to lengths for a slice of that pie. So what does the modern wannabe do? It isn’t hard to imagine the rationale. If everybody who is online broadcasts the best version of themselves, why not go a step further and look like the person you wish you were? Why not drop a few hundred bucks and feel like a Kardashian for half an hour? If you take a picture, it’ll last even longer.

For people who want to take a shortcut, the concept of “fake it ’til you make it” leads to heavy-handed Photoshopping at one end of the spectrum, the temporary rental of luxury goods, services and venues somewhere in the middle and—driven by insecurity, narcissism or gullibility—pyramid schemes and criminal fraud at the other.

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But a dive into flex culture suggests something deeper is going on. No matter their motives, people are selling some version of themselves. Their brands, put on the altar of a fickle internet, are a reflection of their innermost desires—or at the very least their perceptions of success.

Social media is a hall of funhouse mirrors, an endless glittering Midtown Manhattan. People stretch and distort themselves. They exaggerate and inflate. If they’re not careful, they can have a hard time finding the exit.

“The logic behind it, bro? This faking it until you make it thing? It’s a serious thing, bro. It works, bro, for some reason.”

That’s what YouTuber ChristianAdamG concluded after a social experiment last spring. He tried faking wealth on Instagram by using Photoshop—putting himself in a private jet, driving an exotic car, standing next to celebrities—and, at the end of a week of twists and turns, landed a couple of thousand new followers. His video documenting that experience has more than 5.6 million views.

YouTuber ChristianAdamG posting a before and after of how he faked wealth on his social channel (ChristianAdamG/YouTube)
YouTuber ChristianAdamG posting a before and after of how he faked wealth on his social channel (ChristianAdamG/YouTube)

There’s a cottage industry of how-to guides that share tips for looking rich on the ’gram, like a video titled “10 Ways to Look Expensive on a Budget” (1.5 million views) from a YouTube account called the School of Affluence. Most of the advice doesn’t require you to be a gifted photo editor. Just to be bold. For example, visit open houses to look like you live in a swanky place. When rapper Lil Tay emerged as an internet star at the age of nine, she was branded as a Louis Vuitton-wearing L.A. rich kid. But really, her mother was a Vancouver realtor with access to a penthouse.

Some advice is off-the-wall—take a toilet seat and make it look like you’re sitting by an airplane window. But some of it makes sense. Want to seem like you can afford a Hermes bag? Try one on at the store and take a picture. Just don’t buy it. Want to seem like you dine at high-end restaurants? Post Yelp reviews, with a #richkidsofinstagram hashtag on your posts for good measure.

Those willing to spend can pull off the appearance of luxury without owning a Rolls Royce. In Vancouver a Porsche Convertible will put you back more than $600 for a 24-hour rental. But won’t you feel like a million bucks? There are penthouses on Airbnb. Designer outfits from Rent the Runway. Private jet companies that will let you pose on the leather seats, even if the plane doesn’t take off.

With your foot in the door as a perceived influencer—it helps, by the way, to be beautiful—it is possible to join a strange ecosystem of social media users who collaborate with each other, and with businesses, offline. Influencers attend real events as special celebrity guests, basking in each other’s influential glow, putting on a show for thousands of gawkers whose susceptibility to their glowy influence is almost impossible to measure.

Justin Plosz, 36, hosted an infamous party at a sprawling mansion last June in Anmore, B.C., in the hills above Coquitlam. It was billed as a launch for his public relations business and a birthday party for his friend.

Neighbours and local politicians were incensed after sports cars and helicopters disrupted the town. One of the helicopter pilots was a convicted drug dealer, the Vancouver Sun reported, and an ambulance was called to the party after a suspected drug overdose occurred.

Plosz, a former used-car salesman from Saskatchewan, has no regrets. He got some new clients, and besides, the party paid for itself. “The expenses never really came from me. A lot of the companies were just happy to be there. They showed up, they put up promo tents, they brought beautiful girls, backdrops, everything. So there was not a lot of overhead,” he says.

Another “crazy” mansion party is in the works for Toronto this June. Plosz is branding it the “Exclusive Mansion Helicopter Show 2020” and is inviting Instagram influencers to sell sponsorship space on posts that advertise their attendance. His dreams of bigger and better stunts include “a military tank blowing something up” or “arriving at a crazy boat party in a military submarine.”

Like anyone on Instagram, Plosz, who has the requisite photos with yachts and sports cars, is projecting a highly curated version of himself. “It’s a character. It’s what people want to see, so then that’s what you show them,” he says. “People want to be entertained; they don’t want to be educated.”

Instagram post from @liltay (@liltay/instagram)
Instagram post from @liltay (@liltay/instagram)

If your “character” brings you success, it’s easy to feel positive, Jennifer Shapka says when I tell her about how Plosz sees his own schtick. “I wonder though, had things not worked out, whether he would be feeling so positive, and able to separate himself so comfortably from his online persona.”

Shapka, who teaches developmental psychology at the University of British Columbia, says there’s no academic research yet on why people take pains to flex online. But she thinks it’s a combination of exposure to celebrity lifestyles and the knowledge that ordinary people, like never before, can use online personas as a vehicle for success.

“There are so many YouTube-famous, Instagram-famous people now who were just regular kids who somehow made it. So anyone can do it,” says Shapka. “It’s really infiltrated, this idea that fame and fortune is just a few clicks away.”

It’s also perfectly normal for kids to try out different identities as they grow up, she notes. “But when we add in the technology and we add in social media, you can try out idealized identities of yourself, ones that you think are going to draw friends and enhance your popularity. It is really just sharing what you think people want to see.”

People who lean into inauthentic online identities when they’re young may start to “feel fake all the time,” Shapka adds, “so I would worry about their development in terms of being able to form relationships. All your relationships would feel false. Your sense of self would feel false.”

Eleftherios Soleas, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., who is researching motivation, has studied the phenomenon of graduate students using social media to flex—at least, to boast about their success, if not their Chanel outfits. On social media, academic peers see the glass of Prosecco a successful graduate student raises in celebration, not the late nights they spent rewriting articles. And because those onlookers are comparing themselves to someone else’s highly curated best moments, it makes them feel inadequate. “They’re drinking pulpless orange juice,” Soleas says of social media users. “All of the sugar and none of the fibre.”

Trying to appear successful on social media could be a way for people to feel better about themselves, Soleas says. “If you look like you’re doing it, you feel like you’re doing it.” Or they may simply enjoy the rush of positive feelings that can come from likes or comments.

Before launching into guidance on how to find designer look-alike fabrics, YouTuber Mirella Derungs, wearing flawless makeup and a glittering choker, gets right to the heart of it in a video titled “How to Look Rich AF!” (“AF” being web slang for “as f–k”).

“I notice people like to follow people who look rich, who look as if they have their sh– together, who look as if they know what they’re doing in life,” she says earnestly, “who have goals and are working on something. People just like to follow successful people. Because it makes them feel inspired.”

Where’s the blurry line between paying to enjoy a luxurious trip and paying to brand yourself as the type of person who can afford to hang out in hangars and pose in the wilderness with a chopper in the background? Either way, you’re probably taking selfies.

For people aspiring to build careers on the strength of their Instagram popularity in an influencer industry worth some $13 billion annually, that line doesn’t necessarily exist. Plenty of businesses are ready to cash in on the advertising potential.

Over the last three or four years, Sky Helicopters, a heli-adventure and tour company in Vancouver, has partnered with influencers, sometimes offering discounts or freebies in exchange for public recommendations to followers. “It’s hard to put a monetary number to the business that you get from that,” says George Lacny, the company’s marketing director. “It’s just one of many different avenues that any business today has to understand.”

Figuring out who is legitimate (and not just looking for a free vacation) comes down to “good detective work,” says Lacny, like checking for suspicious patterns in likes and comments. That’s important because some aspiring influencers cross into actual fraud.

People can buy fake audiences for their accounts in the range of US$10-15 per 1,000 followers. A 2019 study from CHEQ AI and the University of Baltimore predicted that influencers who bought followers or engagements from bot farms would swindle advertisers out of US$1.5 billion this year.

Fellow internet users do a good job outing and shaming people who are fabricating their wealth. The New York Times reported last fall that Instagram account @BallerBusters was finding and revealing fraudulent influencers, or “#FlexOffenders,” for a large audience. Instagram and TikTok comments are rife with accusations of fakery.

Anna Sorokin returns from a recess during her trial at New York State Supreme Court, in New York, Monday, April 22, 2019. Sorokin, who claimed to be a German heiress, is on trial on grand larceny and theft of services charges. (Richard Drew/CP)
Anna Sorokin returns from a recess during her trial at New York State Supreme Court, in New York, April 22, 2019. (Richard Drew/CP)

But sometimes it becomes a police matter. Anna Sorokin, a.k.a. Anna Delvey, was convicted in New York last year of theft and grand larceny for manipulating banks, hotels, a jet operator, restaurants and individuals out of more than US$200,000 using a fake identity she created online. In one case, she emptied out a hotel minibar, consuming $6 Diet Cokes and asking that the fridge be refilled. In another, she dined-and-dashed on four glasses of wine, two smoked salmon sandwiches and a fruit salad. The Russian immigrant, who was posing as a German heiress, was sentenced to at least four years in prison.

During his opening statement, Sorokin’s lawyer Todd Spodek said there’s a bit of Anna in everyone. “Through her sheer ingenuity, she created the life that she wanted for herself,” he said. “Anna was not content with being a spectator, but wanted to be a participant. Anna didn’t wait for opportunities, Anna created opportunities. Now we can all relate to that.”

Spodek invoked Frank Sinatra and the dream of climbing to the top of the heap: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere!”

This article appears in print in the April 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Flex culture for rent.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.