SINGAPORE (ANN): Authenticity is in vogue - and Singaporean social media personality Saffron Sharpe, 22, knows it.
The full-time fashion influencer, who has amassed more than 167,000 followers on Instagram and more than 19,000 subscribers on YouTube, makes a living by producing sponsored content for brands.
Her online personality is a brand unto itself - the sum total of more than a thousand vibrant but not-too-perfect Instagram photos of herself in various outfits, and candid, relatable confessions on YouTube.
"The whole core of what I do is to show that I am your friend online," says Sharpe, whose clients include fashion label Marc Jacobs, beauty company Sephora and Bangkok-based retailer Pomelo Fashion.
"Some people have the impression that it has to be super glamorous, but in reality, people don't really relate to that."
She says she tries to keep it real. But who is the real Saffron Sharpe? What goes on behind the scenes? Last Monday, I spent a day with Sharpe herself to find out.
My colleagues and I were supposed to meet her at her flat in Toa Payoh at about 10am. But she was running late - her legs had broken out in hives from a diving session the day before, she lamented in a WhatsApp message - and she had to go buy antihistamine cream. (A short clip of the bumpy rashes later surfaces on Instagram).
Sharpe appears 45 minutes later, holding a cup of iced coffee from McDonald's while dressed in a T-shirt and mini-shorts: a picture of nonchalance.
She created her Instagram account when she was 15, and started posting photos of herself and her friends. She also launched a blog where she wrote about her fitness routine and diet.
As time went by, her popularity grew, she became a finalist in The New Paper New Face modelling contest in 2013, and, in junior college, had an Instagram following in the thousands.
When I meet Sharpe, I am struck by how normal she seems.
"I try to be as authentic as possible when I am online," she says when I ask her why she thinks people like her.
"I really don't like it when people have an online persona and an off-line personality... I guess that's why. Also I'm beautiful, like my mum."
Sharpe's mother Serene Chiu, who lives with her daughter, is an agent and producer for photography and commercials.
Chiu - a single mother - loves to cook, although this is not why she named her daughter Saffron, she says.
Sharpe, back in her bedroom, spends about 15 minutes putting on mascara, light foundation, concealer and curling her eyelashes.
"If I have a choice, I don't usually wear make-up unless I'm going out to meet people," she adds.
"Otherwise I just wear sunblock and skincare. I hate wearing make-up every day because (then) my skin feels so dry and it can't breathe properly."
Like many influencers, she often receives free packages of cosmetics, clothes and other products in the post.
When the boxes begin to build up, she takes videos of herself unboxing them and uploads them onto Instagram.
Sitting on the floor, she speaks into her iPhone in hushed tones as she films herself unwrapping the products. The clips make their way into an Instagram Story - a fun slideshow of photos and text that appear on Instagram and disappear 24 hours later.
In between boxes, Sharpe tells me her wish is to have an "unlimited bank account" so she can buy more clothes - she now spends "about $2,000 (RM6,082) a month" on shopping and food, she says.
At the moment, she charges $1,500 (RM4, 561) for every sponsored Instagram post (she says that in March she posted six of these).
She commands $500 (RM1, 520) for every sponsored Instagram Story, and has a manager who handles package rates for clients.
"Some months, I don't earn anything. But busy months are very good. I earn approximately $80,000 (RM243, 299) to $90,000 (RM273, 712) a year," says Sharpe, who joined Singapore Management University's school of business in 2017 but dropped out after a year.
She is nothing if not straight-talking, savvy and self-aware.
"The thought of posting pictures of yourself every day is kind of vapid," she says.
"This day and age, everyone is doing it, but I am monetising what I am doing. If I am able to garner an audience who appreciates what I post, and I think of them when I post stuff, it's a mutually beneficial relationship."
Everything she says adds another line to her portrait of authenticity.
"I'm super-vain," she admits.
"I have a really bad phone addiction. It's like a disease."
"I'm quite 'chin chye' (Hokkien for 'not concerned about the details') when it comes to IG stories," she adds.
By the time she has finished the unboxing session, it is well past noon.
What's for lunch?
"We're not going to have lunch. Skinny bi***** don't eat!" she says.
"But honey, they need to eat," says her mother.
After taking the bus and MRT to Somerset to buy headbands and wristbands for a photoshoot, we hop into a Grab car and head to a fashion and lifestyle photography studio in Geylang.
You would be forgiven for thinking she is just a regular girl. She arrives at the bus stop only to realise she has forgotten her wallet. She tries to get through MRT turnstiles without having enough money in her EZ-link card.
"I try to lead a lifestyle that is different from the nine to five grind, but also show that I am just an ordinary Singaporean," she says.
After we arrive at the studio, we order-in Vietnamese food. She takes a few mouthfuls and then, for the next three hours, she and her part-time assistant Muhammad Afifi Zaidin, 23, shoot catalogue and campaign photos for a new collection she designed with home-grown sportswear brand Kydra.
Sharpe, who orchestrates these photo shoots, checks the images and gives them her nod of approval: "It's dope."
On other days, she shoots with a camera before editing the images on her phone using photo editing apps such as Adobe Lightroom and Snapseed.
Afifi helps with photography and photoshopping. On weekends, Sharpe's boyfriend, 27-year-old investment banker Shannon Sin, takes photos of her while she directs him.
Later, Sharpe and Afifi experiment with some shots in the carpark. Sharpe, dressed in an olive green top and white bottom, strikes a pose in front of a large potted plant as Afifi videos her, his phone askew and zooming in and out of focus.
He sings a tune and she joins in, sashaying merrily to the beat. It all seems spontaneous and natural. Or is it? After half a day with the influencer, I still don't know. Is hers a studied carelessness, an art that conceals its own art?
The rise of the influencer was fuelled in part by the idea that these social media personalities - who have a captive audience in the coveted 18 to 34 age bracket - might be a way for brands to attract more millennial consumers.
Social media can be a seemingly open window into the lives of the beautiful, but there is also a dark side to the sunny uplands of Instagram fame.
Some influencers are known to have photoshopped themselves into stunning pictures of places they had never visited, or buy fake "followers" and "likes" to inflate their perceived reach and attract potential advertisers.
When I run Sharpe's profile through HypeAuditor, an online platform that tells you if an Instagram influencer has fake followers, I notice that the line graph charting her numbers has a near-vertical spike in early February 2017 - an increase of more than 10,000 new followers, edging her existing following past the 100,000 followers milestone.
She tells me she did not buy any followers.
"I don't know why I had a spike, but I think it was because I had an influx of followers from Thailand," she says. "I got featured on some Facebook page, and the photos went viral."
Some people have described influencers as walking billboards. Sharpe, in an offhand way, gives me bra recommendations and talks about a fitness gym she goes to.
I realise later that she has tie-ins with them, but, surprisingly, I don't find her remarks less genuine.
On the topic of Instagram advertisements, she says: "It's about blending the ad with my life. As people use Instagram and social media more, they become more and more aware of what is real and what is fake.
"People get very cynical if you keep posting so many ads."
Later, I spot Kylie Jenner's face on a sticker on the back of Sharpe's iPhone. The American reality TV star, who has more than 130 million Instagram followers and is thought to earn as much as US$1 million for every sponsored post, has been criticised for being "famous for being famous".
"I love Kylie Jenner... She's 21 and a billionaire. I think that speaks for itself," adds Sharpe, who also admires Singapore fashion influencers Yoyo Cao and Andrea Chong.
What are her goals for the future?
"Do you know (Italian fashion influencer) Chiara Ferragni? I would say she's the most successful blogger in the world, because she managed to grow her blog into a business that is more than herself. Her brand has evolved from fast fashion into luxury.
"I admire her work ethic and how she is able to manipulate the media into loving her. Hopefully one day that will be me, and I can laugh at all the haters and f****** losers."
Sharpe is clear about what she does not want: "I don't want to be some irrelevant blogger still trying to make it when I'm in my late 20s."
She has her share of naysayers - in 2016, netizens criticised her for "mean-spirited" remarks she made about the dress sense of passers-by in Orchard Road in a video posted on Toggle, MediaCorp's online TV service.
She apologised afterwards and said some of her comments had been scripted by the director.
In September (2019), she will head to Goldsmiths, University of London to begin a degree in media and communications. Her mother will pay for tuition fees, and Sharpe will take care of her own allowance. She plans to continue being an influencer while in London, flying back to Singapore for launches and shoots.
As the evening descends, it is time for an intimate wine and food tasting at a restaurant near the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
On our way there, Sharpe confesses that today is an exceptionally hectic day - she isn't usually half as busy as this.
"On slow days, I'm usually at home editing videos," she says. "I'll have one or two meetings, then I'll come home and chill.
"On more hectic days, it will be one meeting in the afternoon, then shooting some stuff, then an event at night."
At the tasting, Sharpe samples natural wines, films them for her Instastory, and for the next two hours, talks shop with the PR people who have seated themselves opposite us.
The conversation veers from chit-chat about influencers to talk of hair removal and vulva masks.
Finally, it's time to head home.
Sharpe's boyfriend is sleeping over - they take turns to spend the night at each other's homes - and they spend the night chilling in front of a television show starring American drag queen RuPaul.
Before we hug and say bye, I use the word "cool", and check myself as I say it - the word hasn't been cool for the past decade.
"It's okay," Sharpe says. "Just be yourself. That's the coolest." – The Straits Times/Asia News Network