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‘I’d Rather Die Hot Than Live Ugly’

The lucrative secrets of Instagram’s body modification economy

Kylie Jenner with Travis Scott at Netflix’s “Travis Scott: Look Mom I Can Fly” premiere event on August 27, 2019.
Kylie Jenner with Travis Scott at Netflix’s “Travis Scott: Look Mom I Can Fly” premiere event on August 27, 2019. Photo: Rich Fury/Getty

HHear me out: 6ix9ine, the rainbow-haired Brooklyn rapper who has the sex number “69” tattooed all over his face and body, and Kylie Jenner, the youngest of the Kardashian brood, who got career-defining lip fillers well before her 18th birthday, became famous for basically the same reason.

Also known as Tekashi69, 6ix9ine grew up poor in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, dropped out of school at 13, and eventually achieved online infamy for his appearance before he even decided he wanted to become a rapper. “I didn’t really want to be a rapper or whatever,” he said in a podcast interview. “I just thought of making music because everybody was like: ‘You look mad cool.’” Now in federal prison for gang-related crimes, which he has said he committed largely to cultivate his tough guy persona, Tekashi69 reached the Billboard charts because he was so committed to looking insane on the internet that the world was forced to notice. Speaking about the charges he faced for using a child in a sexual performance — he posted a video on his Instagram wherein other men had sex with a 13-year-old girl while the rapper touched her and paraded in front of the camera — he admitted, “I was doing it for my image.”

Meanwhile, Kylie Jenner was born into a famous family, and began appearing on Keeping Up With the Kardashians before she hit puberty. There was never any doubt that she was going to live a comfortable life of public notoriety and, like 6ix9ine, she was highly adept at doing things for her image. Naturally thin-lipped, Jenner garnered nonstop attention when she plumped herself up with lip fillers in 2015, a procedure she initially denied getting. Before she came clean, she was able to see how to use her chemically-enlarged lips to her advantage, launching Kylie Lip Kits, a product she eventually spun into a billion-dollar beauty empire. Her sexy online persona has earned almost as many Instagram followers as her older sister, Kim Kardashian, and Jenner now receives an average of $1.2 million per sponsored post.

Young social media stars, from Tekashi69 and his SoundCloud rapper ilk to the astounding number of Kardashian/Jenners, have found that in the attention economy, body modification can make or break your social media career. If the success of 6ix9ine and even less popular musicians like Arnoldisdead, aka Xan Frank, who made a minor dent into the public consciousness thanks to his face tattoo of Anne Frank (!!!!), have taught the next generation of aspiring young musicians anything, it is the following: “If you look outrageous enough, you can be as cool and rich and popular as I am.”

These swollen faces are doll-like and uncanny, stiff, unable to betray any real emotion thanks to an excess of injections.

After all, an Instagram post from a cyberstar is never just a simple picture. Our culture is eternally fueled by the pursuit of capital, meaning that every form of media is trying to sell you something in a thousand different overt and tacit ways. While the aspiring musicians of the internet age, usually boys, gravitate more toward altering their appearance via face tattoos, for the ladies, it’s all about reconstructing yourself to fit the 21st-century ideal — something I have previously described as “a sexy baby meets Jessica Rabbit.” These swollen faces are doll-like and uncanny, stiff, unable to betray any real emotion thanks to an excess of injections. Getting Botox above your eyes is an increasingly popular procedure among the Instagram elite, which gives these young women heavily-lidded, sultry bedroom eyes. Their bodies are cartoonishly reconstructed by plastic surgeons, transforming them into these fantastical big-assed, real-life Barbies who cavort around various tropical islands, half naked, soaking up a highly enviable life of leisure. They appeal to young girls and horny men, and they are not just selling their followers laxative tea. They are whispering and also kind of screaming: “Cut yourself open and pump yourself up with chemicals, and you can be rich and hot and popular just like me.”

“When Kylie Jenner did her whole face, I was like, holy shit, why am I missing out on that?” Ava Louise, an aspiring influencer with over 100,000 followers on Instagram, told me over the phone. Jenner’s ascent to stardom inspired the 21-year-old Rutgers student to get lip and cheek fillers, and CoolSculpting, which freezes off fat. “Every single procedure I’ve done I found [out] about through Instagram,” she said. She has yet to go under the knife, but dreams of one day getting a Brazilian butt lift and breast implants.

“Why do you want to look like all the other Instagram influencers?” I asked her.

“When Kylie Jenner did her whole face, I was like, holy shit, why am I missing out on that?”

“You don’t realize until you are on the platform and growing, but the better looking you are, the more money you make, and you get treated differently when you look like a Bratz doll,” she said. “I’m hyper-aware of social media and what these celebrities have done cosmetically and I just have this need to look better.”

Earlier this year, Louise — who ultimately aspires to be a reality television star — made a bombastic appearance on Dr. Phil, wherein she played a cartoon of herself, proclaiming herself a “skinny legend,” and remarking, “I’d rather die hot than live ugly.” She’s earned over 70,000 followers since her TV appearance, and now claims to earn around $3,000 per month hawking products like Flat Tummy Tea.

“I could say that social media puts a lot of pressure on me, but I’m thankful for that. I wonder if Instagram didn’t exist, what I would look like at this point?” she mused. Ultimately, she’s in it for the money. “Back when I had, like, 200 followers, I was still on the app all day looking at people,” she explained. So why not capitalize on that?

SoundCloud rappers are less forthcoming about their reasons for marking up their faces. “I did it because I wanted a face tattoo,” the baby-faced rapper Lil Xan explained in an interview. The popular musician Post Malone, on the other hand, said he graffitied up his mug because “I got a face for radio anyways, so why not” and “anything to piss my mom off.”

Following in the footsteps of 6ix9ine, in an effort to take advantage of her newfound Dr. Phil fame, Louise released her first single, titled “Skinny Legend Anthem.” In a vexing caricature of a Valley girl voice, the Instagram star begins the song by noting, “All these haters need to drink some laxative tea and shit all their jealousy out before we drop this beat.” She subsequently does her darnedest to rap lyrics such as, “Dr. Phil can suck a dick / He’s just mad I’m hot as shit / All these girls are fat like bitch / I think y’all could use some tits.” She told me that she did the song because after her television appearance, she was hungry for more virality. “I created a song in order to try and stay relevant,” she said. She soon felt embarrassed by the song and wiped it from the internet, but decided to re-upload it before filming her second appearance on his show, which will supposedly air sometime this month.

In the era of the attention economy, the medium is not just the machines that power the spread of information — it’s the human body itself. And per Marshall McLuhan’s iconic essay, the body is, without a doubt, the message as well. But where does this story end? As SoundCloud rappers continue to rule the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the lady influencers cash in on their cosmetically enhanced bodies by creating their own makeup empires, some of these stars are starting to experience what happens when mugging for social media fucks with your actual life. Perhaps it’ll be a couple decades before Kylie Jenner’s face begins to sag and contort due to the sheer number of cosmetic procedures she has undergone, but 6ix9ine already knows the downside. He’s sitting in federal prison for potentially dozens of years because he wanted to look like a gangster for Instagram — and accidentally became one in real life.

Columnist for GEN • Have also written for: the New York Times, NYMag, Vice, et al. • Subscribe to my newsletter:

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