Dirt: Lifestyles of the Fake Famous

Fake Famous is a documentary about work.

Dirt is a daily email about entertainment.

Watch: Fake Famous (Netflix). A review by Daisy Alioto on documenting the influencer economy.

In 2016, conceptual artist Jill Magid turned Luis Barragan’s remains into a diamond ring, which she intended to trade in order for the public to finally have access to Barragan’s archive, held privately by an Italian art historian. Trading his body for his body of work, literally. Although done at the behest of Barragan’s heirs, the project touched off a national debate in Mexico over ownership and vulgarity; the public interest and artistic license. 

I am not going to weigh in on this debate today, only to point out that on social media Barragan’s body of work has been compressed, not into a diamond, but a pink wall. Scroll #luisbarragan and see for yourself how our world privileges architecture as backdrop. 

Nick Bilton’s HBO documentary Fake Famous begins with a different pink wall, the side of Paul Smith’s store on Melrose Avenue. Much like a certain view of the Manhattan Bridge in DUMBO, it’s a destination in service of a photograph for Instagram, a place where “placeness” depends on its popularity for photos.

Bilton cites a study that shows the majority of children today want to be “influencers,” as opposed to the doctors and astronauts of yore. But he also sets himself up for an overwhelming response when he puts out a casting call in Los Angeles (aka the City of Broken Dreams) looking for people who want to be famous. 

The documentary’s strawman influencer is someone who is famous for nothing, no special skill or talent, just social-media notoriety. However, most of the people at Bilton’s casting call have an idea of what they would like to be famous for: singing, acting, rollerblading, designing. Being famous for nothing is nobody’s first choice, however neat a narrative that would present.

Bilton chooses three people to make “fake famous” through a combination of deceptive photo shoots and strategic purchasing of bot followers. (One particularly memorable stunt involves using a toilet seat as a faux airplane window.) Chris left Tucson to pursue his dream of being a designer, Wylie works for a Miranda Priestly-esque real estate figure who is never shown on-screen, and Dom is a struggling actress with a job in leisurewear retail. They aren’t exactly blank slates. 

Throughout the course of the experiment, Chris and Wylie revolt. Chris has ethical qualms with becoming famous through deception and Wylie is embarrassed when an acquaintance slides into his DMs to call out the ruse. Chris sticks to his guns and the struggle — in one scene we see him at the gas pump, pulling out the nozzle when he hits his budget cap, not when his tank is full. Wylie waffles back into the experiment but leaves when he gets a new job. “I work in a place where I’m appreciated,” he explains. 

Fake Famous isn’t a documentary about influencers; it’s a documentary about work. If an entire generation is choosing tenuous “fame” over a 9-5 or, more realistically, gig work for a parent corporation, shouldn’t we be asking what makes “traditional” jobs so unappealing rather than mocking the alternative? You’d think it would be pretty hard to convince someone who feels valued by their work, salary, and benefits to walk away for some free clothes. And it is.

At one point, to underscore the difference between his participation in the experiment and Dom’s, Chris calls her “play-doh.” Bilson builds some narrative tension by suggesting that maybe Dom has fully drunk the Kool-Aid as she is bussed with a group of other women to Las Vegas, stopping in the middle of the desert and at an abandoned waterpark for a chilly photoshoot. (It’s worth noting that the prototypical villain influencer is usually female and seen outside the bounds of solidarity offered to other workers in the freelance economy.)

Dom is pretty, thin, and white — her genuine following eventually exceeds the expectations of the experiment. It’s not until her final interview that we learn the truth: she saw the experiment as a job all along. Not one of the subjects in Fake Famous has the moral high ground. Each adopts a different approach to navigating a flawed system. 

And isn’t bot dealing also a form of work? It’s not really a leap of the sociopolitical imagination to figure out why an Egyptian teen is scamming Nick Bilton for American coin and not, you know, doing homework. Bilton himself is busy turning our perceptions of the influencer economy into streaming entertainment for his own profit. Ultimately, Fake Famous is a fairly entertaining documentary that doesn’t make the point it thinks it’s making.

Bilton wants us to believe that the people are fake but the money is real in the influencer economy. But it’s the opposite, isn’t it? Most of what we term money is just a diamond made of ash. — By Daisy Alioto

The Dirt: Will influence for benefits.