My friends have a running party joke which goes like: “If you and your boyfriend break up, will you announce it on Instagram?”
Owing to my modest following across platforms and content that centres around relationships, my partner sometimes makes his way into my social worlds. Every time this joke makes the rounds, the thought of posting a Notes app screenshot of our break-up announcement makes me queasy. Besides such announcements being extremely self-important and self-indulgent, though, I wonder: who cares?
Quickly, I realise that I, too, have cared.
I cared, for instance, when Komal Pandey, the leading fashion influencer, started appearing drastically different from her younger days on iDiva, the online lifestyle platform. While the audience speculated lip fillers, it was clear from Pandey’s deafening silence that although her content was diaristic, she would pick and choose what pages her audience got to read.
That changed recently when Pandey admitted to using lip fillers via an Instagram announcement which came on the heels of Aishwarya Rai receiving criticism for her modified facial appearance at Paris Fashion Week. Interestingly, while Rai was seemingly immune to the noise, and we have never felt she owes us answers. Pandey, however, who built an audience promoting self-love and body positivity, appears answerable.
When influencers first started gaining notoriety in India in the mid-2010s, the “OG” creators rose to fame owing to their relatability. Unlike celebrities, they were boys and girls next door; starting videos with “Hey guys!” like a friend would on a conference call and hugging us at meet & greets.
Now, the same influencers are starring in movies and embracing mainstream legitimacy. Consequently, the level of honesty they seem willing to divulge is similar to what we expect from celebrities. But it’s not what the audience signed up for from influencers.
As Jia Tolentino, a writer at the New Yorker, puts in her essay The I in the internet, “there’s essentially no backstage on the internet; where the off-line audience necessarily empties out and changes over, the online audience never has to leave.” Not only is it a permanent audience, it’s an inquisitive one, asking:
How can Kusha Kapila and Kritika Khurana make content with their partners but ghost us on their relationship status when the partners fade from the feed?
Ultimately, both Kapila and Khurana ‘came clean’. But when this honesty is a response to minimising bad-press gossip rather than actual authenticity backed by a desire to divulge, some former-fans like Vasvi Khanna, a 22-year-old business consultant from Bengaluru, can’t help but find it dishonest or merely performative.
“She [Pandey] was one of my favourite influencers because she always held her ground when people ridiculed her over her body,” Khanna says. “Now, her body positivity feels like a mirage. I can understand Kylie Jenner getting lip fillers, but I looked up to her [Pandey] like an elder sister.”
While influencers can’t help this performative honesty, it’s no longer authentic; it’s simply what sells.
In 2018, Sejal Kumar, a popular fashion creator, uploaded a YouTube video “The Truth About My Relationship” confessing her widely-shared-about relationship had ended. In a later interview with Zoom, she admits assuming people would forget. “Every time I would go out in public with my male friends, people would take photos. Some would even ask if I’m okay. My comments were filled with questions!”
But how could we forget? We were friends, weren’t we? Didn’t she owe us this information?
The eventual monetisation of platforms like YouTube and Instagram and the boom in influencer-marketing meant that influencers went from "friends” to personalised billboards selling us a lifestyle unattainable to most. In a 2023 study titled “Be constantly different! How to manage influencer authenticity” published by Electronic Commerce Research, the authors argue how in the “perception of an influencer”, authenticity is key in his/her ability to persuade others.”
And while the influencers’ hands are tied with this performative honesty being an unwritten clause in their job description, the audience, too, buys it despite its social cost.
While the term “parasocial relationships”— one-sided psychological attachments— was initially coined for relationships developed with TV personalities, the rise of the influencer has furthered the concern.
Ritul Madhukar, a 23-year-old former educator at a South Delhi government school, tells me how in young kids she noted such bonds filling in for real relationships. “Boys, affected by these hyper-masculine influencers like Andrew Tate, often came from homes with absent fathers and hence (had the need) for male role models elsewhere.”
While such relationships are a shoddy replacement to meaningful ones, their impact is palpable. In 2020, Santoshi Shetty launched a paid service akin to a therapy session, without ever being a qualified professional. Arva Kagzi, a 24-year-old freelance writer and photographer from Mumbai, tells me how this felt like “a personal betrayal.”
“Being invested in the influencer’s life created a bond of trust. When I realised they had been dishonest, it felt like a family member was lying,” Kagzi adds.
Shaurya Gahlawat, a psychotherapist and relationship expert from Gurugram, contextualises this with an example of a client “who defines her own relationships based on the influencer’s.” She tells me how, “when the influencer married their long-term partner, [she] felt a renewed sense of belief in romance. But when they divorced, the client spiralled.”
As social media platforms further democratise fame, the ability to influence and get influenced will only expand — widening the pool of parasocial relationships. On the part of influencers, it’s a big responsibility to shoulder. I, too, struggle with the idea of growing a social presence large enough that people feel entitled to private parts of my life. That’s where setting boundaries early comes handy; something I, as a smaller creator, can still choose to do. As audience, though, it is up to us to value such relationships when they add positively to our lives and discard them when they cause harm.
Luckily, though, detaching in parasocial relationships needs no awkward conversation. It’s only a click of an ‘Unfollow’ button away.
Delhi-based Nona Uppal writes on love and relationships. She is on Instagram @nonauppal