Watch: The Great British Bake Off (Netflix). Kyle Chayka looks up the show’s old contestants on Instagram, where they have a strange kind of fame. (Spoilers ahead of who makes it through the seasons.)
Lately, my girlfriend and I have been going through the early seasons of The Great British Bake Off as a default entertainment option almost out of exhaustion: Anything more complicated is too hard to get into. I don’t want plot or conflict; I only want to learn about one more obscure format of butter and flour. What’s equally fascinating is checking back in on the various contestants four or five years after they were actually on the show. It’s easy to do because their names pop up instantly on Instagram, like good SEO — presumably because other people are looking for them, too.
If a contestant sticks around for enough of the Bake Off season, they seem to accrue a kind of de-facto fame. A personal Instagram account becomes an accrual mechanism for all the residual attention of those previous seasons that we’re all binging, like a marketing funnel. But different contestants do different things with their exposure. Season four’s Ruby Tandoh was a runner-up back in 2013, and has since written four books and counting, plus various pieces of prestige food journalism (we’re fellow New Yorker freelancers!) and intermittently updating her 90,000+ Instagram followers and 118,000 Twitter followers. She is a prominent food tastemaker and influencer. (She also happened to be a model, pre-Bake Off.)
Flora Shedden was on Bake Off originally in 2015, when she was 19 and fresh out of the Scottish countryside. She’s back there now, owner of a bakery and grocery store and author of two cookbooks. She has almost 50,000 followers on Instagram and her account has the most instantly recognizable Instagram look: All washed-out colors, white backdrops, tablescapes shot from above (very 2015). Her life looks like the movie version of being a professional baker, without all the messy stuff that doesn’t play as well on social media. It begs a Nancy Meyers biopic.
The only prize Bake Off gives to its winners is an engraved cake stand, but that trophy is more symbolic: You know millions of people around the world will see you in the beloved show and if you want a career in food, you’ve got it. Even Tamal Ray, an established doctor when he was on the show, became a part-time food columnist with 62,000 Insta followers, though lately he doesn’t post much. He still works for the National Health Service.
As a viewer, you could be cynical about the automatic fame: The show is supposed to be about amateurs, and then they get professionalized! But that would just be mean. Searching for Flora’s Insta and seeing that she’s turned her passion into an entire life is a pleasant surprise. It would be far worse to find nothing at all.
The show’s younger contestants are primed to embrace social-media fame, of course, but that doesn’t mean the older ones don’t manage to as well. Ian Cumming keeps his 11,000 Instagram followers updated on his passion for nature photography. He’s also running a virtual workshop soon to make his Bake Off-famous carrot cake.
Nadiya Hussain won Bake Off in 2015 and quickly became a BBC TV presence; at the moment she has 739,000 Insta followers. She had her own series, focusing on food travel, cooking, and baking, which were put on Netflix in April so you can go straight to them after her Bake Off season. Nadiya Bakes is the latest. Nadiya has become a major activist and public figure in the UK, even publishing a novel and an autobiography. But the shows on Netflix feel stiff and rote for the style of the current moment, when we’re primed to embrace messiness and personality.
Beyond the voyeurism into these people’s lives and aspirations, the Bake Off celebrity pipeline says something about the nature of internet fame now. It doesn’t matter where attention comes from; it matters where you collect it. You turn a viral moment or two on a popular TV show into 100,000 insta followers, which in turn become book deals and sponsorships and more TV shows. And as long as the original show stays available on streaming, it keeps new audiences coming in. The next Bake Off winners will be huge on TikTok or some cooking version of Twitch. — By Kyle Chayka