How Amalia Ulman Became an Instagram Celebrity

Amalia Ulman. Credit: @amaliaulman/Instagram. Photo: via Amalia Ulman’s instagram @amaliaulman

“Find a rich man, marry his father.” “I only accept apologies in cash.” These status updates could pass as slogans for our generation of millennial microcelebrities: the girls (as they tend to be) who wholeheartedly embrace internet notoriety in lieu of actual stardom. The artist Amalia Ulman was so fascinated by pop culture’s obsession with Instagram celebrities that, earlier this year, she decided to become one.

In April, she began studying the profiles of the most popular “sugar babies” and “ghetto girls” on the internet to learn their language, hashtags, and selfie styles. Then, between May and August, Ulman enacted her own persona and amassed close to 65,000 followers on Instagram. Her fictional self followed this breakneck narrative arc:

The provincial girl moves to the big city, wants to be a model, wants money, splits up with her high-school boyfriend, wants to change her lifestyle, enjoys singledom, runs out of money because she doesn’t have a job, because she is too self-absorbed in her narcissism, she starts going on seeking-arrangement dates, gets a sugar daddy, gets depressed, starts doing more drugs, gets a boob job because her sugar daddy makes her feel insecure about her body, and also he pays for it, she goes through a breakdown, redemption takes place, the crazy bitch apologizes, the dumb blonde turns brunette and goes back home. Probably goes to rehab, then she is grounded at her family house.

We spoke with the Argentine-born, Spanish-bred artist about the project and what she’s working on next.

What kind of research did you do to develop your character?
I began by researching the cosmetic gaze and the beauty myth, then I prepared a script and timeline that followed the rhythm of social media. I identified three popular trends: the Tumblr girl (an Urban Outfitters type); the sugar-baby ghetto girl; and the girl next door, someone like Miranda Kerr, who’s healthy and into yoga. Part of the project was about how photography can be a signifier of class, and how cultural capital is reflected in selfies. Another aspect consisted of undermining the pretension that social media is a place striving for authenticity, by playing with fiction online. The idea was to play with storytelling and social media, but I didn’t want it to be too obvious. So it started organically, and the first photos are modified extensions of myself. Others are found and appropriated images.

Where were you during the course of the performance?
I was in Los Angeles but basically isolated.

Did anyone else know about it?
A few very close friends knew, but that’s it.

You’ve said before that Amanda Bynes was an inspiration for this project. How did the actress’s very public mental breakdown, and the national schadenfreude it inspired, factor into your project?
It wasn’t her, it was the way people reacted to her behavior. It was a collective trolling experience. Seeing someone cry brings people together; it’s not about the object itself but about the feeling of closeness among the trolls. Other people’s tragedy as a nexus for camaraderie.

Which responses surprised you the most?
The reaction that surprised me the most was how certain people, even though they had been told it was fiction, kept on believing it was true. I found this dichotomy between what they wanted to believe and what was actually happening very interesting.

What were some of the differences in the ways men and women responded?
Women enjoyed it more. They saw all the work that went into the images: Women know how long it takes to get hair, makeup, lighting, and all that just right. Instagram is all about spontaneity, but all these women take time to fabricate their pictures, there’s so much labor behind these images. Men were usually just like, “You look hot,” without seeing the hours of effort behind it, taking everything for granted.

How did you get so many “likes” and followers in such a short period of time?
It is easy to increase the likes by using shortcuts to popularity, like following the trending topics. If you are using the Photoshopped image of a woman and a bunch of popular hashtags, the likes are going to go up. On the other hand, the followers did go up, but the absurd explosion is due to another project by another artist, Constant Dullart, who bought fake followers for a handful of artists.

What are your personal views on plastic surgery?
I’m fine with it. I really like body modification, I think it is fascinating. The problem is that it’s very gendered. If men were getting fillers and fat transfers and implants as much as women, it wouldn’t be such an issue, but they’re not. And that’s problematic.

Did you ever engage with your followers?
Not really because I found it difficult not being able to respond to certain comments, so I’d just try to ignore or be very ambiguous.

Why did you choose to end the performance with a sequence of hyperromantic shots, including ones of a sleepy boyfriend and black-and-white roses?
I chose to criticize romantic comedies for perpetuating heteronormative stereotypes in which the man saves the woman in the end. They suggest that being a single woman is pitiful, which I think is very damaging. Like, when I got to my hotel in Miami last week [for Art Basel], the guy at the front desk asked me, “How many keys?” I said, “One,” and he was like, “Aw, too bad.” Like, what is that? He wouldn’t say that to a businessman.

What did your family think of the project?
They just laugh at it. My dad is a tattoo artist and my mom is a Gen X–er, they always let me do whatever I wanted to — with all the benefits and disadvantages that entails.

What are you working on now?
I have a solo show at James Fuentes in mid-January. It’s my first show in New York. It is an exhibition about confinement, empathy, and torture; at a war level, but also on a one-on-one basis. It’s a little influenced by my own experience in hospitals, and with pain and solitude. The show will include a series of large-scale sculptures based on smaller ones I made with wire when I was in the hospital and had no access to materials. They are similar to the objects that Latino immigrants sell in the streets of Spain: tiny handmade wire motorcycles, wire roses.

Will you do any more performances?
I’m working on a series of videos that will require role-playing, but in this case, they play with the rhythm of CCTV cameras instead of social media, [making] the gaze much less participatory.

How Amalia Ulman Became an Instagram Celebrity