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The Instahunks: Inside the Swelling Selfie-Industrial Complex


“I know I have body dysmorphia. I always compare myself to other people. I don’t know if this is a winnable thing."

Courtesy of Instagram.

Kyle Krieger's Herculean pectorals come at you from a block away. His silken black hair would make a mink blush. He has a bit of a daffy walk, speaks in a meandering tenor, and smiles often. In person he's a grainier version of the meticulously fine-tuned sexual god he plays online, like a photocopy of a photocopy, more rough in some places and less defined in others.

"Say I'm smoking crystal meth, and I take a hit and it feels really good," says Krieger, a recovering addict who's been sober for nine years. "It's similar to that feeling when you post a photo and you're getting all these 'likes.' You're like, Wow, this is great. Then your photo starts to lose engagement. Then, the next day, it's like a lull in your validation. And the lowest you will ever feel is right before you take that next hit. Right before you post that next photo."

Krieger, 33, an object of so much online lust and adoration, is taking a lunch break from his day job. He sits at a cafe table in a salon in New York's SoHo, where by day he cuts hair, scrolling dead-eyed through his endlessly buzzing smartphone. He joined Instagram five years ago and is now approaching 500,000 followers, or roughly the population of Atlanta. To subscribe to his account (with the handle @kylekriegerhair) is to buy into an airy fantasy of one man's body, accompanied by earnest attempts at humorous or self-deprecating captions. Today, his most recent selfie was taken on the beach, as he stood shirtless in knee-deep water looking toward the pastel heavens, the flesh canyons of his miraculous physique catching shadows in the waning light. It gets 29,000 "likes."

Related | Slideshow: Meet the Instahunks

The only thing covering my face today.. is airbrushing.

A photo posted by Kyle Krieger (@kylekriegerhair) on

"I like to joke that when I was using, I had no self-esteem. Now I have low self-esteem," he says. "People telling you online you're handsome or you have a great physique, yeah, that feels good for a moment in time. But it's empty, and it doesn't last."

He calls it "inauthentic validation," and yet he continues to post, each selfie generally taking one to two hours to compose, shoot, and edit.

Instagram, like all social media, has given rise to its own breed of pseudo-celebrity, in this case the so-called Instahunks, an amorphous battle charge of selfie factories fueled by posting daily, repetitive, half-naked photos to unanimous digital encouragement. These accounts often amass more followers than some cable news networks have viewers.

The social media site was launched in 2010 by two Stanford grads, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (no relation). In 2012, when Instagram had more than 27 million users, it was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion. Today it boasts 500 million accounts globally that upload 95 million photos a day. The company was valued at $35 billion at the end of 2014, and revenue for 2016 is estimated to reach $3.2 billion.

But there are signs that Instagram's popularity may have plateaued. Snapchat, which launched in 2011 and recently surpassed Twitter in number of daily users -- 150 million -- is quickly taking over and currently valued at $20 billion. Snapchat recently turned down an offer from Facebook to buy it for $3 billion, $2 billion more than Facebook paid for Instagram.

Jesse Fox, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, has studied men's use of and self-presentation on social media and found a strong correlation between selfie-taking and a not-too-pleasant cluster of personality traits known as the Dark Triad: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

"What we saw in terms of how many selfies men were posting was driven by narcissism and psychopathy," says Fox, who is not on Instagram. "Narcissism, it's important to note, is not just being an egomaniac. It's also being insecure. And psychopathy is really associated with impulsivity. They truly don't care what other people think, and they behave in very impulsive fashions."

According to Fox, self-objectification is the other major determiner associated with obsessive selfie-posting in men. This also predicts, along with narcissism, how likely a man is to edit and manipulate photos before posting.

"Self-objectification is the idea of yourself as an object," she says. "So, I don't see myself as a person. I'm not interested in many aspects of my personality. I only see myself as something to be looked at and my value is in my appearance." She adds, "The bottom line is, some of those people are so sad. They are truly mentally unhealthy people."

On social media, self-objectification quickly becomes a grim feedback loop. Often when Instagram models attempt to use their vast platform to dabble in the political or philosophical, they received immediate backlash and lose followers.

"When you objectify yourself and put yourself in this state where you are treating yourself like a piece of meat, people are then expecting you to behave like a piece of meat," Fox says. "When you try to humanize yourself, that's ruining the fantasy for them. It's like, 'Thanks for the Zen quote, dude. Now take your shirt off again.' " (A recent post from Krieger, in which he's sporting a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, received mixed reviews in the comments section, one user posting a snarky "all likes matter.")

Anton Antipov, a 32-year-old bodybuilder, is familiar with this sort of response. We're scheduled to meet at a health-food cafe in South Beach. He's an hour late. (Extreme tardiness is a theme with the Instahunks I meet over the next four days.)

6 weeks out - 196lbs - I've been on my own since I started this, still on my own today, win or lose I don't have 17 people to praise or blame when I walk out on stage in 6 weeks. When I was new to this, I wish I did, I couldn't afford a coach, so I taught myself. When the coaches did start coming around, they wanted to coach me for the wrong reasons, or wanted me to be on teams for the sake of being on the team and be just another name on their roster. If you do choose to work with someone, make sure they are genuine about trying to help you and don't just use you and your name for their own benefit. Another thing, try to ask questions and learn from them instead of just taking orders, you'll never learn if you just do something you're told without asking why. Have a great weekend everyone, may the gains be with you! #selfmade #stillnatty

A photo posted by Anton Antipov (@maiseu) on

Antipov (@maiseu, 185,000 followers), despite being among the most terrifyingly veiny brick shithouses on Instagram, surprises with his warmth and likability. He moved to the United States from his native Belarus in 1997 and will be competing for the fourth time this year in Mr. Olympia -- the crown jewel of bodybuilding. Previously, he was a fashion model and, though he's straight, worked in gay bars in New York.

"A picture of a cat gets so many likes," he says. "But if I post something meaningful, like about equal rights, nothing. But I understand that sex sells," he adds, a bit broken. "I like wrinkles, I like gray hair. I'm cool with all of that. I don't need friggin' Photoshop. It tells a better story. If you hide something, it means you don't accept yourself for who you are. If you can't even accept yourself, how are you going to send a good message to everyone else?"

Perhaps that's easier said than done on Instagram. Most famously, in 2015, Australian teenage model Essena O'Neill, who had 580,000 followers, deleted more than 2,000 photos and began manipulating captions of old posts to talk about her acne and how much makeup she had to wear. On one selfie, she edited the caption to read, "Happiness based on aesthetics will suffocate your potential here on earth." She lost countless followers and became the target of vicious online bullying. Soon after, she announced she was quitting social media.

"When people write to me, they write for the wrong reasons," says Antipov. "They want money, fame, followers. About 30 people a day tag me in photos of their salads."

Since Antipov started posting photos of himself online, originally on a forum for Russian-speaking Americans, gay men have been stealing them and pretending to be him on dating sites and hookup apps. At one point, it seemed so overwhelming that Antipov nearly had a breakdown. To this day, men will approach him in restaurants or on the street and and say, "We've been talking on Grindr."

"I have to explain to them, 'Listen, it happens all the time. It's not me. Somebody is using my pictures.' And they're like, 'Oh, right, sure,' " he says. "I'll be in some random city in Europe and some guy will give me this knowing look on the street, and I know he thinks he's been talking to me online."

After lunch Antipov heads off to rollerblade around South Beach (he's using rollerblading to raise money for a disabled-athletes nonprofit) and then off to get a new tattoo. His existing tattoos skew toward the sentimental -- a mandala, a quote that reminds him of a trip to Paris with his fiancee, a Keith Haring on his middle finger.

Across Miami Beach at another health food cafe, Max Emerson (@maxisms, 513,000 followers) is also an hour late. Had it not been for his pastel green hair, I wouldn't have recognized him; he admits his selfies are highly edited. Flamboyant hair color seems common with the Instahunks. It feels like a play from the Tyler Oakley handbook, perhaps a way to be more recognizable out in the flesh-and-blood world.

Related | Slideshow: Meet the Instahunks

Emerson never wanted to join social media. When his friends began to sell their souls for "likes," he scoffed.

"I was like, I want to kill these people. But then my agent called and said, 'You're in your 20s and you model -- be fucking relevant,' " he says.

Emerson got into modeling at 18 years old. A year later, when he came out as gay, his father cut him off financially. "Because I model, I already know what you're buying isn't what is being sold," he says.

Does he think people understand this, or are they still striving to achieve these impossible standards of beauty?

"Kids are killing themselves because they can't take the perfect frickin' selfie," he says. "That's why I used drag queen Trixie Mattel to do a Facetune tutorial, to show everyone how ridiculously fake we all are."

Adults are also killing themselves in pursuit of the perfect selfie. Several governments have begun to treat the selfie, which only became a word in 2013, as a public-safety hazard. Across the globe, people have fallen off mountains, tripped onto train tracks, and shot themselves in the face, all in mid-selfie pose. Russian authorities launched a "safe selfie" campaign last year in response to scores of picture-takers who had died trying to capture the perfect shot. Russia also has a support group for selfie addicts.

After lunch, Emerson dashes back to the Dream Hotel. "I owe them another post. I'll probably wear these underwear, too. Kill two birds with one stone," he says, referring to his corporate sponsors. Most of the Instahunks I met with have brand sponsors. Using a modest, common online metric called the CPM, or Cost Per Thousand, a user in the range of half a million followers, like Emerson, could charge between $2,500 and $3,500 to promote a brand in a post. Companies usually give Instagram models creative control over the content of these posts. Instagram doesn't make money directly from users' content, in the way YouTube might, but instead earns revenue by embedding other ads in newsfeeds. After a brief experiment in licensing users' photos to advertisers received a large backlash, the company now claims that users own the rights to all their photos.

"I think we are becoming a culture of narcissists," Emerson says. "But have we always been like that, and do we now just have an outlet? I don't know."

In West Hollywood, Calif., I meet with Murray Swanby (@murrayswanbyla, 378,000 followers, purple hair) who's out with an entourage on Santa Monica Boulevard on a Sunday afternoon. He's a nightlife promoter, and his Instagram tells the story of a Mr. Party Boy through selfies.

The key to getting lots of followers, most agree, is to have a simple, pared-down message and post with extreme regularity.

"It's Sunday fun day!" Swanby's friend Shirleen shouts through the legs of a go-go boy at the Abbey while raising her vodka tonic. The two snap a selfie.

Swanby fled to Tinseltown seven years ago from Montana. He estimates that in the five blocks between his home and the Abbey (the bar where he spends about five nights a week), he's stopped a dozen times on the street by people who recognize him. He's also starring in the upcoming E! reality show The Abbey Diaries, set at the bar.

We go bar-hopping around West Hollywood, where the entourage grows larger with each stop. Swanby would appear to stand proud, but his voice quivers when he speaks, and there's a skittishness to him.

"I know I have body dysmorphia. I always compare myself to other people. I don't know if this is a winnable thing," he says. "I see myself as, I need to work on my stomach, I need to work on my arms, my chest, my abs. I don't think it's healthy, but most of my friends who are underwear models have the same complex. They're never happy."

"I'll just be at the gym for the rest of my life," he says, laughing nervously.

I'm struck by how bland and retro the Instahunk universe seems. Even the fashion industry today scoffs at such a tired aesthetic. There was a time, in the early 2000s, when the gay community by and large began to embrace nontraditional standards of sexiness, most prominently with the rise of BUTT magazine and its countless echoes. This young, overwhelmingly white, hairless, and svelte muscularity feels very 1990s.

Women, on the other hand, have long been under the heel of fantastical standards of beauty but in the past decade have made astounding strides in changing the narrative, by calling out Photoshopping in magazines and embracing celebrities like Gabourey Sidibe, Lena Dunham, and Broad City stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson.

I ask Swanby's agent if she has any other hunks to send my way, and she points me to Billy Reilich, who she says is Ellen DeGeneres's gardener.

I suggest meeting him at Huntington Gardens in Pasadena. The agent reluctantly confesses that Reilich doesn't know anything about plants. He's been on Ellen's show about 30 times playing the fictional role of her gardener. He's just a hunk. A hunk in Hollywood chasing a dream.

Reilich (@billreilich, 56,000 followers) is also straight and a bodybuilder, and he also works at the Abbey and will appear on the forthcoming E! reality show. He takes me on a hike in Griffith Park on a blazing afternoon. He's 25 and from Ohio and has seven meals a day, beginning at 5:30 a.m., when he wakes up, eats, and goes back to bed before meal two, at 8:30. He is gargantuan, with a face straight from Central Casting. He looks like a cornfed Midwestern football hero.

His Instagram account is an orgy of frightening muscularity, and, immediately following a workout, his face appears to age by 20 years.

"I get a lot of comments that are like, 'Why are you wearing clothes?' he says. "I like the idea that people follow me because of my physique. But when people treat you like a piece of meat, it doesn't make you feel great. It makes you feel like a piece of shit."

He cringes when he looks back at those first times on Ellen, two years ago.

"I just look underdeveloped," he says.

He continues, "Having gay followers is awesome, but a lot of the time I have to restrict what I post because I don't want to come off as a gay guy. A lot of the fitness guys will shy away from following me. So, no more underwear selfies."

We pause just below Griffith Observatory to take in the view. The L.A. basin is cast gray through the marine-layer haze that crept in overnight, and the city looks cold and abandoned.

"I'm doing the grind. I'm trying to make it in fitness, in acting," he says. "I drive a $4,000 car," he adds with a sigh. "You see these guys around town who have a $400,000 car, all because of Instagram."

He spots some of those other Insta-celebs at his job at the Abbey. "It's not even close to how they look online. But people will follow them because they think it's reality. It's anything but."

Reilich's quest for fame is uphill, but he sees Instagram as the perfect place to start. He returned recently from New York, where he met with modeling agents.

"They all told me to lose 50 pounds and call them back," he says. "But my size is all I have -- it's who I am. If I lose 50 pounds, I'm just another skinny-whatever guy."

W. Keith Campbell, author of The Narcissism Epidemic and a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, has studied narcissism for the past 30 years. He says the personality trait appears in two forms -- one more grandiose and outgoing, the other marked by vulnerability and self-consciousness. Only in cases, when self-obsession leads to severe negative effects on one's life, would it be classified as an actual mental disorder: narcissistic personality disorder.

"It's fascinating the way people regulate themselves," he says. "Showing a selfie is a good example of that, how people use their social world to change how they see themselves," he says.

From a biological perspective, scoring high in narcissism is good for mating behavior.

"People who are narcissistic can have more sexual partners. They're very likable when you first meet them," he says. "But that goes away. You have these shallow relationships, but you're not so good at commitment or caring. And you're willing to exploit people to get ahead. You can be manipulative, uncaring, and callous. If you're good at it, if you're charming enough, you can make it work. But if you're narcissistic and kind of ugly, it's going to be much harder."

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. scores very high in narcissism, and those numbers appear to be on the rise. Still, Campbell is optimistic about the future.

"The Internet was built on porn. Virtual reality will be built on porn," he says. "But then it's going to turn into really cool stuff. For me, that's the more positive spin. These Instagram models are trailblazers in this new world, and hopefully something good will come out of it."

Back in New York, I comb through a flurry of Instahunk profiles. On one, a white dude who looks like he's carved from marble posts a selfie taken fresh from the shower, sticking his tongue out at the camera.

"Still trying to get back in shape after a period of eating too much chocolate LOL," the caption reads.

On another, a hunk with 12,000 followers writes an unusually involved caption to accompany his most recent selfie: "Social media has bred a society of selective listeners. People follow you for showing your tits and ass and unfollow you for showing your heart and mind. I've decided to use my internet presence for LGBT activism [...] because silence equals death."

These words accompany a completely nude selfie. He's crouching in a hallway with his arms raised and his flexed physique angled so that his abs catch the right shadows. His flowing hair is tousled meticulously over come-hither eyes as he stares directly into the camera. His left leg is positioned just so to cover his genitals while showcasing a neat tuft of pubic hair. The photo has 907 "likes."

In this case, an ambition to change the world appears to have been only a passing blip.

"Listening to Florence and the Machine!" reads a caption accompanying the next selfie. It's a shot of a perfect chest, perfect abs, perfect hair, on what we can assume was another perfect afternoon.

Related | Slideshow: Meet the Instahunks

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