Alex Casey spends a night at the New Zealand Social Media Awards, and meets both the influencers at the top of the food chain, and those trying desperately to climb the ladder. Joel Thomas took the photos.
A sales rep for Mitsubishi Electric specialising in heat pumps and refrigeration, Tama was proudly sporting a t-shirt embroidered with his own YouTube channel, ‘Tama Singh Vlogs’. He’s had several made at Logoland in New Lynn and wears them everywhere he goes. “It’s the only way,” he told me, “I’m like a walking billboard now.” The hustle was thick in the air, as his vlogging compadres also revealed their own custom shirts and showered me with business cards. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard someone sincerely say “Make sure you like, comment, subscribe” in real life.
I was in a sea of self-promotion at the New Zealand Social Media Awards at Shed 10 on the Viaduct, and online influencer giants from parenting powerhouse Happy Mum Happy Child to beauty tycoon Shaaanxo were gathering in small clusters. The GoPros were out, the iPhones had their own intricate lighting systems, and everyone was filming everyone to the point where I thought the whole place might open up a portal into another dimension and we’d all be trapped in there forever, taking endless selfies to appease our new digital overlord, the mighty Snapchat ghost.
It’s not often that New Zealand’s social media elite gather together on the derelict platform known as “real life”. Make no mistake: these people are a tremendously big deal to a tremendous number of people. Beauty vlogger Shannon Harris, Shaaanxo, boasts over three million subscribers. Jordan Watson, How to Dad, has over a million fans on Facebook. Jamie Curry at Jamie’s World is nearing 10 million. By comparison, Jacinda Ardern rakes in a piffling 84,000, and Bill English at 104,000 is hardly worth an invite. When not getting paid thousands for a single sponsored Instagram post, they are making TV shows, releasing their own clothing lines, and writing books. I would know, I helped Jamie Curry write hers.
I got chatting to a group of aspiring vloggers: Vasilios, James and Tama, the walking billboard. They’d been in the YouTube game since the start of the year, and had big hopes to climb to the top of New Zealand’s social media ladder. Tama, who was wearing sunglasses inside, explained to me that vlogging is a craft that requires just as much study as it does talent. He gave me his top tips. 1. Keep on top of your analytics. 2. Funnel your audience. 3. Timing. 4. Captions. 5. Hashtags. 6. Collabs. 7. Plugs. “You want to make viral content,” explained James, self-professed Peter Jackson in the making, “It just takes one video.”
So how does one forcibly go viral? “Destruction of our own property is a big yes,” said Tama, “The more embarrassing and difficult it is, chances are that’s the thing that will get you viral.” Some of his recent vlogging efforts include dropping 500 water balloons on himself, and asking strangers at Sylvia Park to pick a lock for $100. “The next vlog I’m planning to do is pretty big and viral.” I asked if he could tell me what he’s got in store. “It involves Queen Street.” Let that be a warning to all in Auckland’s CBD.
As the crowd began to fill with more and more familiar faces – Erin Simpson from The Erin Simpson Show and Dani from The Bachelor S1 – I was on the lookout for some of the heavy hitters. Maria aka Happy Mum, Happy Child, whose parenting Snapchats I have watched inexplicably for about a year now – despite my having no children – caught my eye. Does she feel weird that people like me come up to her and know so much about her life? “I always feel bad that I don’t know them as much as they know me.” I resisted telling her that, because I watch her snaps so often, I’ve started having dreams set inside her lounge.
The VIPs were told to take their seats at their allocated tables, boasting Instagrammable rosé and copious amounts of vegan snacks assembled by a man wearing a t-shirt that said #eatpussynotanimals on it, one of the longer hashtags of the night. I would later find out he was Masterchef 2012 winner Aaron Brunet. Kim Crossman, another fossil of the primitive media that our ancestors knew as “television”, took to the stage to begin the awards. On the screen, some ominous opening titles about controlling the media zoomed past, before we were thrust into the midst of ancient Roman ruins. The camera pulled back and there it was. Bathed in god’s light atop a mighty plinth, stood one mighty hashtag to rule them all.
“It’s going to be lit – I was told to say that,” says Kim, explaining that her sparkly disco dress was her impression of Duraseal in the ‘90s. She might as well have been talking about Palaeolithic tools. With a lot of Lil Jon being played extremely loudly, Kim also advised us to fold our earlobes inside our ears if we wanted to hear better. I can only assume she picked that medical tip up from her time in Ferndale. I kept my ears untucked for the moment, because it was time for the awards. Brands! Social integration! Synergy! Virality!
“And the first winner is… Edmonds Cake in a Cup.” “TURN DOWN FOR WHAT???” Lil Jon screamed, as both my ears immediately retreated deep within my head like the scared eyes of a snail. A model emerged out of the darkness to award the first silver hashtag to the small microwavable cake. From there, we were off. Happy Mum, Happy Child won a shared award for Best Parenting Influencer with How to Dad, and How to Dad did an extreme amount of celebratory breakdancing. Brooke Howard Smith accepted an award, before barking “use this platform for good” into the abyss.
The whole thing was a surreal Mr Krabs meme, where advertising agency giants sat alongside people in their early twenties who had built staggering online empires from their bedrooms. It was the chaotic upheaval of everything, mirrored in the shambles of the event itself. Some winners had a stronger community message than others, including disability advocate and model Jessica Quinn and the team from Attitude, who won for their exceptional documentaries following “ordinary people living extraordinary lives”. Bafflingly, there was no ramp to the stage, forcing wheelchair users to accept their awards on the floor.
At around halftime, I checked back in with Tama Singh Vlogs, who was buzzing after getting How to Dad’s email address. “He typed it into my phone and everything.” He and his mates were planning a haka for their idol and sometime-collaborator Jimi Jackson in the event that he won the People’s Choice Award. In the toilet, I shared a malfunctioning hand dryer with beauty vlogger and former X Factor NZ online host Caito Potatoe. It was like the ‘suggested videos’ section come to life, except this time I wasn’t lying in bed eating chocolate chips straight from the jar. The people who I’ve watched make smoothies, draw on eyebrows and cry into their cameras were all around me.
The latter part of the awards flew by faster than a chimpanzee riding on a segway. Alice Brine won Post of the Year for her Facebook status about consent and accepted the award from her bathroom in London. How to Dad raked in more and responded with more suitably exquisite breakdancing. Shaaanxo thanked the crowd for the only award she’s ever won. Jimi Jackson took out the People’s Choice Award and got his haka, filmed from at least three angles. Kim Crossman wrapped things up, and the dinged-up polystyrene hashtag onstage was carried ceremonially through the crowd like an ancient Roman dignitary.
As people spilled onto the stage and towards the bar, the seas parted to reveal an online archangel, dressed from head to toe in white and literally radiating with #nofilter. It was travel Instagrammer Logan Dodds, aka the hot tradie, who seems to be in a new corner of the Earth, either underwater or atop a mountain, every day. I asked him why he does what he does. “I get a lot out of it for myself,” he said, earnestly swigging a beer. “I lost my dad at a young age. He never got to travel, so that’s a big part of my motivation to see as much as I can… People don’t see that side of it, they just see the photos and the videos.”
I found my new mate Tama Singh Vlogs again and asked him what he thought the point of all this malarkey was. “It’s freedom. It’s doing whatever you want, whenever you want and getting paid for it.” The boys quoted the famous mantra of another New Zealand social media star, Snapchatter William Waiirua. “If you are doing the mahi and getting the treats, those are words to live by.” They nodded sagely, before Jimi Jackson ran over excitedly shrieking that he’d just been verified on Instagram. “It means you’re like a real person,” Vasilios explained to me.
After spitting out some humiliating drivel to Shaaanxo about how relaxing I’ve found her eyeshadow tutorials – and her looking at me like I had just suggested dark brown lip liner and frosted lip gloss was due a comeback – I headed over to introduce myself to the big Jimi J himself. I have, after all, made a friendly cameo in one of his friendly videos. We’ve basically collaborated. I was channeling the strength of my favourite social media star Militant Rooster, almost certainly on a noble death march through the carpark of hell.
Having amassed a Facebook following that’s nearly three times as big as the official page for delicious Tim Tams, there was no denying that Jimi had tonnes of charisma and was a lot more considered than his cavalier online persona would let on. He was willing to chat to me off the record, but the pleasantries weren’t to last very long. When I brought up his controversy from earlier this year, I got what those in the social media business might call a tremendous ‘thumbs down’. Sheesh, it’s like nobody wants to talk about their blackface scandals at parties anymore!
Several minutes later, a irate member from his management at Johnson and Laird stormed over, alleging that I had been recording the talent without their permission. I hadn’t, but she still felt the need to check my phone to find these imaginary teapot tapes. It’s worth pointing out that the very same thing happened when Madeleine Chapman attended the Max Key VIP experience earlier this year. The irony of this frothing paranoia in a room full of people who were recording and broadcasting every second of their night – without a moment’s consideration for consent or release – was seemingly lost.
I felt the acute spidey sense all the way down my spine and deep into my shallow grave that I was no longer welcome, and left past the deflating balloons into the bracing night. Standing outside in the wind was cheery old Kimberley Crossman, waiting to get picked up by her mum. Across the road, Supreme Award influencer of the night How to Dad comically chased an Uber down the street in his jandals and stubbies. It was a beautiful scene to finish the evening – if only someone had been there to record it.
Johnson and Laird responds: The incident to which you’ve referred was due to the action of a valued team member who, in the heat of the moment, made an ill-informed decision. We thoroughly respect Alex Casey and we unreservedly apologise to her for any offence caused.
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