Under the Influence

Last year, Ian Michael Crumm was a senior at Drexel. Now, he gets paid to travel and shill high-end products for brands like Lacoste, Sony and Donald J Pliner—all because he has 300,000 Instagram followers. Is this a great time to be alive or what?

Ian Michael Crumm. Photos | Jonathan Pushnik

Outside the Art Alliance on 18th Street, a paper airplane’s toss from Rittenhouse Square, it’s just another day at the virtual office for Ian Michael Crumm. Surely the architects of this 111-year-old Italian Renaissance palazzo-style mansion never imagined it would one day be used to this end. Crumm is handsome, but with his round baby face outlined by a delicate, carefully manicured beard, he’s not your typical chiseled male model. More important than his physique is his look: stretch denim by H&M, brown leather high tops by Andrew Marc, camo bomber jacket by Guess, wristwatch with camo strap by MVMT, camel-colored leather backpack by Pikolinos, and Crumm’s trademark John Varvatos sunglasses. He leans on a sandstone ledge with his left arm [click], then his right [click]. The bag rests on his shoulder [click]. The bag slides to his right hand [click], with his left leg up on a wall [click], then down to the ground [click]. Crumm moves to the stairs, where he sits, carefully arranges the backpack, and looks off into the distance at nothing in particular [click click click].

“Because when you sit down,” he says cheekily, “everything’s just perfectly positioned.” Crumm gives a quick Miley Cyrus flash of his tongue as his photographer/friend, Briana Sposato, laughs and snaps away.

Crumm is what’s known as a social media influencer, or, to some grandmothers in South Philadelphia, a kid who takes phone pictures for the Internets. This is his job, and no, he doesn’t live in his parents’ basement. He makes a living primarily through taking photographs of himself in different clothes and sometimes in locales of varying glamour, then posting them on his Instagram account, @ianmcrumm, and his blog, “Ian Michael Crumm — Life Connoisseur.” None of this makes Crumm unique; minutes earlier, a 20-something guy in a Yankees cap was mugging for a fancy camera a few blocks away, outside the restaurant Dandelion. I saw two young women in uncomfortably snug minidresses surrounded by a pack of photographers on the Schuylkill Trail the other day. If you’re under the age of 35 and don’t have a FOMO-inducing digital life, you might as well not exist.

What separates Crumm from everyone else in the Delaware Valley is that he has approximately 318,000 Instagram followers, which makes him, at just age 24, the most popular non-celebrity ’Grammer in Philadelphia. If this all sounds like some sort of millennial smoke-and-mirrors mumbo jumbo, consider that A-list influencers can earn as much as $100,000 for a single post that plugs a handbag or workout supplement or hotel. “The new celebrities are social influencers, and quite honestly some make more money than the people who get Emmy Awards,” John Demsey, executive group president for Estée Lauder Cos., Inc., told WWD recently. “If you can deliver an audience and prove that someone can buy your product, you can get paid.” Even if you’re not making that much bank, the C-list version — starting at $250 per post — has made digital influencing an appealing career choice for generations Y and Z, who’ve seen a handful of formerly average Janes and Joes sign six-figure promotional deals with top brands. At her firm, says public relations doyenne Nicole Cashman, “There’s not a single PR or marketing plan that doesn’t include an influencer marketing initiative.” (A marketing industry report noted that digital budgets, which include money for influencers, will surpass those for TV this year.)

Crumm isn’t in a league with the Kardashians, but his stats suggest he’s making somewhere between $1,000 and $5,000 per sponsored post. And he did take a selfie once with Kylie Jenner (95 million followers) at a VIP party at Coachella, where he took over Gotham magazine’s Instagram. He’s been hired by the King of Prussia mall as a personal shopper and has worked with scores of brands and retailers, including Lacoste and Century 21. He’s been paid to vacation in Palm Springs, was a blogger friend’s plus-one on a trip to Cabo and has plied his digital trade in Beijing. Within this virtual world, Crumm is legit: As a panelist at a University of Southern California conference on influencers, the East Coast kid had roughly 100,000 more followers than all but one of his peers.

Yet his blog doesn’t offer much fashion advice, or even a strong editorial voice — it’s mostly a collection of photos of Crumm in various outfits with short captions, including sponsored “collaborations” with everyone from the Academy Ball to State Farm insurance to Louis Vuitton. To this untrained eye, it all seems pretty vacant — how is there a sizable audience for a photo set titled “Relaxed Pants in Rittenhouse”? “I think I’m experimental and collaborate with a lot of creatives,” Crumm says of what separates him from his digital competition. “I try to find new ways to bring content to the masses.”

After about 10 minutes at the Art Alliance — including a money shot on the steps as he pretends to tie his shoe — Crumm strolls around the corner with Sposato to Pine Street, where they find a staircase with moldy hues that match his outfit perfectly. It’s the “Golden Hour,” when the setting sun can famously give photos an otherworldly soft glow, but the evening’s overcast sky works just fine. “I got the shoe-bag shot,” Sposato says. “I like that staircase. Yaaaaas.” Two locations, scores of snaps, a few huddles to look at the results on Sposato’s Canon 5D Mark II — it’s over in half an hour. Now Crumm is craving dinner and drinks at an alfresco spot near the Square.

It all feels so perfectly, precariously 2017, as if we might look back in five years and chuckle at this moment when you could get paid to be an Instagram star. Thirty minutes of casually leaning against walls sounds like a dream job, a fantasy life that’s perhaps only possible if you live in Los Angeles or Sydney or the United Arab Emirates (#trustfundlife). As Crumm tells me he’s expanding his brand into Asian markets, I wonder how this is a real thing, and how a kid fresh out of college is running laps around his influencer counterparts, and whether life behind the lens is even remotely as glamorous as it seems.

A month earlier, Crumm is holding court in the presidential suite atop the Hotel Palomar, to discuss the business of influencing and his swift rise to digital stardom. He’s meeting with the hotel chain’s Northeast regional PR director, Jessica Bishop, to discuss the fourth year of their “Shop Like a Local” campaign, a partnership between Palomar and local retailers. Crumm is the creative director; last spring he recruited Philly fashion designer/it girl Bela Shehu to develop a clothing collection exclusively for Palomar guests. He also planned a social media “sleepover” so 10 influencers could preview Shehu’s designs and spend a night at the hotel; the Palomar saw its biggest spike in social media traffic as a result. “I love this project because it’s a way to expand my creative thoughts and vision beyond my own channels,” Crumm says matter-of-factly. The publicist is effusive in her praise of the campaign. “It helped us tap into the market,” she says, adding that a similar program has since been adapted in other cities. “It’s been amazing for us.” Crumm rarely refers to the Palomar when discussing the project, instead saying “Kimpton,” the national chain that owns the boutique hotel. Consciously or not, he’s aligning himself with the bigger brand.

After the meeting ends, Crumm is given the suite for our interview; take as much time as we need, we’re told. The relative absurdity of all this — Crumm’s VIP treatment, his occupation, this magazine interview — isn’t lost on him. “Every day, I’m like, is this really happening?” he says. “It has been a whirlwind. I graduated last March. It’s a little surreal sitting here.”

Growing up in York, Pennsylvania, with a family in the construction trades, Crumm was an anomaly from the start. As a kid, he watched so much Food Network that he’d cook for an imaginary camera, pretending he was Emeril Lagasse or Rachael Ray. On trips to the mall as an eight-year-old, he picked outfits for his mother and grandmother, whom he calls his “Glamie.” Crumm’s love of skin-care products led him to prep for med school and a dermatology career. (He scored a perfect 800 on his math SAT, #humblebrag.) But two National Arts Honor Society fashion shows he produced in high school rerouted the road ahead. “I still get flashbacks to it,” he says. “Like, that was so cool!” Crumm’s style-savvy mom helped him design a Lady Gaga-esque egg outfit for one of the models, and he retreated to his basement daily, learning to sew and plotting every detail of the events.

His book smarts and bootstrapping hard work led Crumm to Drexel University, where he developed an essential skill that came naturally: networking. Crumm admits that then, as now, he talked about his teenage fashion shows with embarrassing frequency. But that self-promotion led him to work with an Old City fashion show, which segued to an internship with Phashion Phest founder Sharon Phillips Waxman. His résumé got a glitzy boost from a Drexel co-op at Prada in New York — a gold-mine gig for any aspiring fashionista. “I really enjoyed seeing how a luxury brand stays a luxury brand,” he says. “I also realized that I don’t want to work in a corporate setting. I’m a small operation. I can change, morph, adjust as it makes sense, whereas in a corporation, there’s a lot of other things to consider.”

Meanwhile, Crumm had a blog he’d started in high school, more as an online portfolio than a future career. He started making “connects,” as the kids say, while still in York: A boutique owner introduced him to a photographer, and Crumm realized the benefits of shooting with a professional; at Drexel, he teamed up with a classmate who’d later shoot his first Kimpton project. Crumm submitted his blog — shots of him around town, befitting his yearbook superlative “Most Likely to Rock Any Look” — to Details and was invited to join its style-blogger network. (“I loved Details,” he says. “I read it as a kid.”)

From there, the opportunities — and Crumm’s audience — multiplied. Vox Media’s fashion portal, Racked, featured him as an up-and-coming blogger, then signed him on as its Philadelphia contributor. He used “syndication tools,” like GQ’s Insider program, to link with brands and build cachet, and wrote fashion columns for Philly.com, scoring A-list interviews with designer Zac Posen and Ken Downing, fashion director for Neiman Marcus. Now, in addition to his own blog, he’s a partner in a travel blog, Wear We Went, and has launched Grooming Messenger, a how-to guide for men that he runs with a photographer friend. Crumm’s business model, at its core: A conversation at a product launch or party leads to a lunch that leads to a business opportunity, and every step of the way is another chance to direct traffic to his website or social media accounts — which means higher rates, more ads he can sell, and more projects to help pay the bills.

What’s striking about Crumm in the flesh is that his personality stands in sharp contrast to his online persona. For a guy with such a narcissistic, showy online life, he’s friendly, polite to a fault, and all business — a boy from York in a diva’s world. If the Life Connoisseur is a triple scoop of super-fudge-chunk ice cream with rainbow jimmies in a waffle cone, Crumm himself is a cup of vanilla with a Beadazzled cherry on top.

Crumm’s humility and relatively low-maintenance attitude work to his advantage. As complex as the digital game may seem, the real key to Crumm’s growth is old-fashioned Philadelphia glad-handing. “He’s a very caring, nice guy,” says Philly Chit Chat’s HughE Dillon (20.4K followers), who met him at a fund-raiser when Crumm was just 19 years old. “He’s built a team for himself and helps them advance. But it’s hard work.”

The business of social media influencing is both simple and a little shady, like dealing pot but with far less risk of jail time. If you have fewer than 10,000 Instagram followers and aren’t on Snapchat, let’s face it, honey — you’re just taking pics of your quinoa waffles at brunch for fun. As your audience grows, you’ll get free product from brands in the hope that you’ll wear it and share it, or trips to hotels in exchange for coverage. What’s more important than followers is engagement: How many likes are your photos earning? Are people commenting? Are those comments turning into a conversation, like a digital salon with you as the host? The goal is to turn trade into paid and make up-front money from each post, or to earn a percentage of sales when you plug a product.

Only a handful of local influencers are successful enough to make a living at this full-time. One is Sabir Peele, a business-savvy 31-year-old whose Men’s Style Pro digital network grew large enough (55.8K Instagram followers) that he left his job in admissions at the University of the Sciences to work as a style consultant and influencer. Like Crumm’s, Peele’s big break came courtesy of dead-tree media — in 2010, when Esquire named him a finalist in its “Best Dressed Real Man in America” competition. “I wanted to run my site as a true how-to blog,” Peele tells me in his office on Locust Street, where he displays a monk-strap dress shoe whose design he consulted on for West Norriton-based Cobble and Hyde. “I didn’t want to do that ‘Look at me’ outfit-of-the-day-type stuff. I want to give you copy that says ‘This is why this [outfit] works.’”

You’d get a headache trying to keep track of Peele’s web of connections; he’s like a LinkedIn page made sentient that’s taken the form of a fit, dapper African-American male. In short: An email from a GQ editor about a Philly stop on the mag’s Dockers promo circuit begat work for Bloomingdale’s, a Glamour mall tour, and his mug on a Johnston & Murphy display on Madison Avenue. “Networking is the most crucial thing,” Peele says. “You also need to know how to bide your time. Everyone sees being an influencer and a blogger as instant success. For people who started early in the game, we built it as a true business, not overnight.” (It’s worth noting that “early in the game” means roughly five years ago, which is a century in Silicon Valley Standard Time.) Peele says he now makes at least double his $40,000 higher-ed salary.

Peele and Crumm are the exceptions, not only as full-time influencers, but also as men; other than them, the fashion/lifestyle landscape is dominated by women, and the few Philly-area bloggers with significant audiences — 10,000 Instagram followers, at minimum — are female. Still, there are enough wannabes, upstarts and emerging talents that Cashman’s agency has a three-person team devoted to connecting digital content creators with businesses and brands. “Each influencer has their own network,” says Michelle Conron, Cashman’s public relations director and influencer marketing strategist. “In some ways, they’re their own media outlet.” For a campaign for the Sonesta hotel in Philadelphia, Conron assembled a catalog made up of photos from a panel of 13 local influencers, including @ThreeSistersOneCloset (15.2K followers), @BelleByLaurelle (65.4K) and @BlondeOnEarth (37.4K). For a comped night at the hotel and travel credit for use at other properties, according to one source, Sonesta got free content and positioned itself as a destination for the young, hip and connected. It’s an omnipresent trend — retailers like Banana Republic use social media stars in their catalogs, and L’Oréal reportedly paid 23-year-old Swiss influencer Kristina Bazan seven figures to promote its beauty products. Our city’s tourism office, Visit Philly, recently held a daylong conference for social media practitioners.

But behind the perceived gold rush of gratis hotel suites and haute couture is a reality that’s far less sexy than what shows up through a Clarendon filter. Peele describes the day before we met: He left home at 6:30 a.m. for a train ride to New York, a string of consecutive meetings, and a bus ride that put him back home in Collegeville at 9:30 p.m. for a few minutes with his wife and infant son before they all went to sleep. One of the Sonesta influencers is Carly Landolt, whose Carly & Sloan blog and Instagram (11.6K) chronicles the fashion adventures of her and her two-year-old daughter. It’s the definition of cute overload (Carly’s overalls! Sloan’s watermelon swim top!), sure to spark Main Line mommy jealousy. Backstage, though, Landolt is no Real Housewife of Radnor; the single mom moved home with her parents in West Chester to get her career as a photographer off the ground. “I really don’t like the word ‘influencer,’” she says. “I say ‘blogger.’ Sometimes I say ‘content creator.’ It’s hard. … I don’t want to sound like a fraud.”

“Influencer” has officially replaced “blogger” as a cringe-inducing job-description-slash-insult for the online set. No one interviewed for this story embraced the term; Crumm says, “I hate the word.” That’s largely due to viral news that’s placed influencers in the public crosshairs: Microsoft phone spokeswoman Jessica Alba spotted in the front row of New York Fashion Week with her iPhone; Kardashian impregnator/hanger-on Scott Disick accidentally posting the instructions for what he was told to say in a paid protein-shake promo (“Here you go, at 4pm est, write the below … ”).

That’s where this high-gloss, Technicolor business veers into gray areas. The Federal Trade Commission’s Endorsement Guides require that any paid posts be labeled as “sponsored content” or hashtagged accordingly (#ad, #sponsored). In April, the FTC sent letters to 45 celebs (among them Allen Iverson, Jennifer Lopez, Heidi Klum and Sofia Vergara) and brands (ranging from Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent to Cabela’s) warning that any “material connection” between the endorser and the product marketer should be disclosed in a “clear” and “conspicuous” manner. Of course, this defeats the very purpose of digital influencing, which requires a very precise alchemy: Veer too far toward the fake and you’re a poser; look average and you’re exposed as a mom-jeans-wearing everywoman not worth following.

The influencers I spoke with insist they’re careful to disclose their business dealings. But when I ask Crumm for specifics about his partnerships, he very politely repeats the same line: “Any client agreements are confidential.” (Peele, Landolt and others have media kits available upon request, with clearly outlined rates; Crumm does not.) Then there’s the matter of bot services that, for a fee, will add shell followers to your account, or a service like Instagress, which auto-populated sites with comments and likes. (Instagram recently pushed back on these businesses, leading Instagress and others to shut down, but similar services still exist.)

What Crumm won’t admit but is smart enough to know is that if the FTC can’t keep J.Lo in line, it’s not coming after a guy who lives with a roommate in a two-bedroom apartment in Fairmount and doesn’t make it clear he’s been paid to hang in Palm Springs. A number of his posts are marked #ad, but there’s something disingenuous about calling what he does “editorial,” which he somewhat vaguely defines as “anything outside an official agreement with a brand.” For Crumm and his ilk, there’s no true separation of church and state; he’s simultaneously the editorial director, chief marketing officer and ad sales rep for Ian Michael Crumm — Life Connoisseur.

Crumm’s curated realness (“I view myself as editing what I love about my life”) is blurred a bit by the parts of him that are less hardwired. Fashion comes easy, but unlike that of Peele, who minored in business in college, Crumm’s inner CEO is less practiced. (“I pay my own bills, let’s say that,” he says of his income. “I find it impolite to discuss what I’m making. But for your article, you can say seven figures. I’m kidding!”) Crumm insists he’s not promoting any product he doesn’t swoon over or that would make him seem less than authentic — or at least, what passes for authentic online. Nodding to the Kardashians’ favorite detox drink, Crumm says, with his off-brand staccato laugh, “I’m not holding up a bag of Fit Tea, okay?”

On the sidewalk at Bar Bombón after his Rittenhouse photo shoot, Crumm and friendographer Sposato sip cocktails as their tortilla soup and sweet plantains arrive. Ever the professional, Crumm knows not to touch his plate until Sposato gets a few snaps for her own blog, In Between Rivers. “The camera eats first,” he says. The sky darkens, and what was a light Beyoncé-hair-in-the-wind breeze is now a chilly bluster that the bar’s heat lamps can’t overcome. Crumm admits his mind is on the five emails he needs to write when he gets home. Given that Facebook was everything a few years ago until Instagram replaced it as the hot platform, I wonder how you craft a long-term plan in this business. Peele wants to create a multimedia network that rides the tides of ever-changing technology. I ask Crumm about his long view.

“The big picture is so big,” he says. “When I started doing this, I never thought there would be two offshoot sites, or content partners. As much as I think of the future, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll know what feels right. I’m not going to be consumed by it. I’m living in the now.”

A few days later, I check his blog. He’s posted shots from his Palm Springs fling before Coachella, in the backyard of what looks like a private villa but is actually, as he notes, an Airbnb. He’s wearing a cream Krammer & Stoudt suit and a tee from Naadam Cashmere. In one photo, his friend Ana Prodanovich (13.4K followers), a blogger he met at Drexel, wears a red Flynn Skye maxi dress and rests her head adoringly on his shoulder. In another, Crumm sits barefoot, toes in the grass, looking up and away, perhaps thinking of his next branding opportunity, or an email he needs to send, or the rent check that’s due, or of nothing at all.

Published as “Under the Influence” in the July 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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