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HBO's Instagram influencer doc 'Fake Famous' isn't as profound as it wants to be

What this "experiment" mostly shows is that when you have a lot of resources and expertise, your path to success is easier. But we already knew that.
Photographer Ashley Wilhardt, Director Nick Bilton, Dominique Druckman and Producer Annabelle Dunne staging a fake photo shoot, in \"Fake Famous\" on HBO.
Photographer Ashley Wilhardt, director Nick Bilton, Dominique Druckman and producer Annabelle Dunne stage a fake photo shoot in "Fake Famous" on HBO.HBO

HBO's new documentary "Fake Famous" is supposed to expose the ersatz shallowness of social media influencers. As with most moral panic narratives, though, the doc is as titillated by its subject as it is outraged. First-time director Nick Bilton, a tech journalist, is obsessed with authenticity. But for all its interest in being real, the project is not very honest with its viewers.

Director Nick Bilton is obsessed with authenticity. But for all its interest in being real, the project is not very honest with its viewers.

Bilton's big-picture concept was to try to manipulate Instagram to see whether he could transform three people with meager social media followings into viral sensations. The result is a kind of meta-reality show, which picks up a lot of the tropes of shows like "American Idol" or "Project Runway" even as it disavows them. There's a big casting call (4,000 people respond), individual interviews in which contestants discuss their backgrounds and dreams and a dangled promise of fame and fortune. Finally three thin, attractive, Instagram-ready Los Angeles residents are chosen: Dominique Druckman, a white Miami native pursuing an acting career; Chris Bailey, a Black fashion designer from Tucson, Arizona; and Wylie Heiner, a white gay man from Atlanta, who just thinks being famous would be cool.

With the contestants selected, Bilton sets about making them famous. He gets them hair stylists and professional photographers. He rents mansions so they can pretend to be on luxurious vacations. He buys a toilet seat and rips off the top so he can shoot pictures of his subjects against the porcelain circle and make it look like they're gazing out a plane window on their way to an exotic locale.

And, first, last and continuously, he buys them bots. Bots are software programs that imitate people and can follow, like and comment on accounts. Thanks to the bots, Bilton's guinea pigs soon look like they have thousands, then tens of thousands, of followers. They have the illusion of influence and a mirage of fame.

All the effort Bilton and his team put into boosting the three participants is supposed to show that Instagram fame isn't organic. But what it mostly shows is that when you have a lot of resources and expertise, your path to success is easier than if you don't have those things.

Dom, Chris and Wylie, like most people on Instagram, didn't have the wherewithal or know-how to launch Instagram brands. Chris doesn't even appear to really know what bots are at the start of the experiment. But with a team of professional consultants and a bunch of someone else's money to invest, they suddenly have a huge leg up. Instagram fame isn't "fake," except in the sense that class is fake — which is to say, the game is rigged in favor of those who have the cash to play it.

Just having money and know-how isn’t enough in itself. You also need to have some luck, a specific aesthetic and be a good fit for the opportunities that come your way.

Just having money and know-how isn't enough in itself. You also need to have some luck and a specific aesthetic, and you must be a good fit for the opportunities that come your way. Instagram exacerbates Wylie's self-doubts and anxiety, especially when he starts getting unpleasant comments from a troll. He ends up turning off his account not long into the experiment. Chris doesn't like what he sees as the inauthenticity of the bots; he wants to be famous for being himself. He spends a lot of time deleting bot comments that he sees as corny or fake.

Only Dom truly takes off. This makes sense. An actor and an extrovert, she clearly enjoys playing the part of luxurious trendsetter. She also is able, and willing, to put in the hours and hours of work needed to create a constant stream of content. Brands start sending her shoes, jewelry and clothes, which she promotes on her Instagram; brands see lots of engagement from the bots, and they send her more stuff. Soon, she's getting lots of audition callbacks, too, because directors see how big her Instagram is. Sometimes, those directors even follow her account themselves — which suggests that she's started to rack up actual fans somewhere amidst the bots.

Dom's whirlwind success is fun in the way any rags-to-riches story is fun. But the movie also seems to want the audience to root against her. Chris calls Dom "a piece of Play-Doh," suggesting that she has no tough inner core, and then refers to her using a misogynist slur. Director Bilton just nods along with the idea that Chris really is more true to himself. Dom, who is just doing what all three participants agreed to from the start, is portrayed as shallow and vain. The movie paints her as a sexist stereotype — one of those no-good, materialist women interested only in money and celebrity.

At the end of "Fake Famous," in another inevitable reality show trope, Dom confesses to her supposed sins. She talks about how fake all the Instagram influencers look in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. With everything shut down, they're still taking pictures of themselves in bikinis on the beach, pretending to be traveling and luxuriating.

But surely the fact that Instagram influencers keep pretending even when the pretense is blown indicates that much of their audience is aware that it was all a show in the first place. In the middle of a year of misery and deprivation, people want a bit of fantasy. Complaining that Instagram celebrities aren't real is like saying movies are deceiving their audiences because Iron Man can't really fly.

The patina of luxury, sex and fame around Instagram celebrities will also drive viewers to "Fake Famous" itself. The exposé — the promise to strip influencers of their secrets — only makes the spectacle more exciting. Who doesn't love to gossip about the famous? We fantasize about being them while not so secretly celebrating their mistakes and flaws.

Bilton is aware of this dynamic; the movie is advertised on Dom's Instagram for cross-promotional synergy. "Fake Famous" wants you to think it's telling you the real, authentic truth. But by the end of the documentary, the finger-wagging is so earnestly smug that you feel like rushing to look at Instagram makeup tips for a bracing dash of honesty.