Life

How Molly-Mae Set the Gold Standard for Influencing in 2020

This year, the ‘Love Island’ alumna became one of the UK’s most talked-about internet personalities. But how did she do it?
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
December 18, 2020, 8:30am
There's Something About Molly-Mae
Images via Molly-Mae on YouTube: Top left; top right; bottom left; bottom right

The most gripping film I saw this year was not Tenet or Rebecca, or anything on an actual big screen. It was an 18-and-a-half minute-long YouTube video depicting former Love Island star and UK über-influencer Molly-Mae Hague having a walk-in wardrobe installed in her home.

This clip has everything: suspense, visuals and an astonishing reveal about two-thirds of the way through, where Molly-Mae states completely offhandedly that she’s doing the renovation without her landlord’s knowledge. 

It is an amazing watch, in that it feels utterly divorced from my reality – I do not even own a real wardrobe, let alone a room to transform into one – and yet is still completely enthralling. Part of that comes from the fact that most of what I want from my entertainment is total escapism, and watching this video tickles the same bit of my brain as Real Housewives and the Instagram accounts of expensive dogs who have the word “official” in their handles. But the other part comes from the specific je ne sais quoi of Miss Molly-Mae, influencer extraordinaire.

Molly-Mae is everywhere. In a way that no other Love Island alumna has quite managed, she has become a social media behemoth in the UK aged only 21, having amassed 5 million Instagram followers, over a million YouTube subscribers, a boxer/reality star boyfriend, Tommy Fury, a clothing deal with PrettyLittleThing, another brand deal with EGO shoes, a partnership with hair extension brand BeautyWorks and her own fake tan business. Even in the face of a global pandemic, she’s managed to make internet headlines with what feels like her every move, from launching an Instagram giveaway for £8,000 worth of prizes, all of which she’d paid for herself, to calling Italian food “grim” on her Instagram story.

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But how does she do it? Why do fans and brands alike love her? Why can’t social media stop discussing her? And how has Molly-Mae’s specific blend of personal style, consistent aesthetic and almost-accessible aspirational content become the secret sauce that has kept her on top for over a year?

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To talk about Molly-Mae, we first have to talk about influencers in general. Born in their current form alongside Instagram itself in 2010, trust in influencers has basically declined steadily since then, as conversations about the relationships between social media and reality have become more prevalent, and – let’s be honest – people have got more and more sick of being sold shit when they just want to open Insta to look at memes. 

So, to be a success, an influencer has to be “authentic”. Their audience has to believe that their recommendations are genuine, for example, rather than motivated entirely by financial gain; and they have to let their followers into their lives a little too, to gain their trust. Molly-Mae is highly skilled at both. She constantly states across her content that she never endorses products or brands that she herself isn’t interested in (differentiating her from the typical “charcoal toothpaste and slimming tea” influencer grift), and posts fairly candidly about the details of her real life, most recently discussing a skin cancer scare on her YouTube account.

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Canadian fan Kylie tells me she appreciates the transparency: “She is super real and raw,” Kylie says, when I ask her why Molly-Mae appeals to her. “She isn’t afraid to say what’s on her mind and always keeps everyone updated, even when she’s going through struggles. It helps everyone feel a little more normal – it’s nice to see that even the people that may seem so put together do still struggle themselves, like us all.”

Molly-Mae gives fans a 360-degree view of her life via her multiple platforms, so that her offering is more than just glamorous Insta grid shots of her standing on golden beaches dripping in designer gear (though it certainly helps that she meets basically every Western beauty standard it’s possible to name). This, says Dr Sophie Bishop, a Lecturer in Digital Marketing and Communications at King’s College London’s Department of Digital Humanities, is an example of how the influencer as a type has evolved over the years, merging Instagram and YouTube into one big nebulous influencing space. 

“There’s a new group of influencers who are a bit more adept at being cross-platform – using stories, using IGTV, in addition to YouTube,” Dr Bishop says. “I think these young women do have an advantage. With [someone like] Zoella, when she was starting out, she genuinely didn’t know that this was a career or that it could blow up. It must have been 2011, 2012. It became apparent, but she didn’t know, whereas these new girls work with management much earlier on. They have a clearer understanding of what, if they are going to subscribe to this as a job, it’s going to entail.” 

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Molly-Mae, it seems, has had an exceptionally good grasp of what being a successful influencer involves since the moment she first became known to the British public. After all, there are plenty of influencers like her, who have used various platforms to build a brand – but the difference is that, in 2019, Molly-Mae had a Love Island-sized leg-up, and her career went into overdrive from there. In May of this year, she filmed a YouTube video where she noted that she had entered Love Island as a “business move”. It’s easily the savviest thing she could have done.

Love Island is the UK’s biggest reality show, and the villa is notorious for being an influencer factory, with air hostesses and personal trainers groomed for Insta stardom over the course of eight sweltering weeks. When Molly-Mae entered the villa, she was already a smaller-scale influencer who was under management, and seemed to know the importance of a consistent personal style, even employing a signature hairstyle (she filmed a tutorial for her famous bun while in the villa, and then another once she left). As such, while she was ultimately less well-liked than other contestants, she was a step ahead when it came to laying the foundation for a successful fashion and beauty influencing career. As Heat magazine’s digital entertainment editor Carl Smith puts it, she had “an automatic illusion of grandeur over her peers”.

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When Molly-Mae entered the Love Island villa, she had around 100,000 Instagram followers, and, according to Dr Bishop, about 10,000 YouTube subscribers (“Which is not many, comparatively – I would imagine at the time that there were probably a couple of hundred young women who had up to 10,000 subscribers on YouTube,” she says). By the time she left, however, she had amassed over 2 million followers on Instagram, the most of any of the contestants on her series of the show. 

This new large following presented a new challenge, but one that Molly-Mae already seemed prepared for. As Olivia Yallop – Creative Director of digital agency The Digital Fairy, and the author of the upcoming book Break The Internet, which explores the online creator economy – tells me: “Essentially, once you’ve passed the million-follower mark, you’re not really a person, you’re a personal brand. In order to get there, you need to have a clear brand strategy, consistent posting schedule, tone of voice, understanding of your audience and positioning, and be prepared to graft.”

The crux of Molly-Mae’s brand has always lain somewhere between inspiration and relatability. Partly, her fans come to her to learn: “It’s a pedagogical thing,” says Dr Bishop. “She’s teaching her audience how to do curl wrap, or a smokey eye, or whatever she’s teaching them how to do. They come to her for that as well. Because she did have that level of expertise before Love Island, it gives a legacy of trustworthiness.”

But they also come to her to engage with a normal girl with normal interests, like clothes and makeup, who just happens to have an extraordinary life. Dr Bishop explains how Molly-Mae achieves this in practice, on a day-to-day level, building a relationship with her followers: “There’s something about relatability – being willing to showcase aspects of your life that are a bit mundane, but also being able to toe that line with that aspirational side,” she says. “You can show your gorgeous rental in Manchester, but you can also show that it’s a mess. I think it really takes a special skill to sell that.”

Chloe, aged 20, is from Preston. Like Kylie and millions of others, she’s a fan of Molly-Mae, and agrees that her appeal lies in her relatability: “I first heard of her on Love Island and followed her from there,” Chloe tells me. “I thought she was really down to earth and seemed like a normal girl around my own age that I’d love to be friends with. I also enjoy seeing her and Tommy’s relationship, as it seems very real.”

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As a Gen Z woman who is into keeping fit, and who watches YouTube and Netflix to wind down when she’s not studying to pass her accountancy exams, Chloe fits the bill of someone who falls typically into Molly-Mae’s fan demographic, and she enjoys following other influencers too (though she does caveat, “I try not to get wrapped up in all of that, as a lot of what you see isn’t always as it seems”). But in 2020, Molly-Mae has made the news beyond her social media following, straddling women’s magazines and tabloids, too. This isn’t all that different to many other highly-followed influencers, though Rhiannon Evans, Features and Special Projects Director at Grazia UK, tells me that Molly-Mae is a bit of a special case.

“Molly-Mae is pretty popular with our readers – I think there are some who are interested on a simple ‘showbiz’ level, and there’s also a group who are fascinated at more of an ‘intellectual’ level, almost as a case study of peak influencing, or what can be achieved by appearing on a reality show these days,” Evans explains. “I think our readers are so savvy now about the deals, Instagram followers and endorsements Love Island contestants can expect that they’re always interested in something deeper than just those showbiz updates – how it’s all working, what’s going on behind the scenes.”

Evans says that one of Grazia’s most successful Molly-Mae deep dives centred on her infamous £8,000 giveaway – which saw her spend £8,000 of her own money on Apple and Louis Vuitton prizes for fans, to celebrate reaching 1 million YouTube subscribers – as interested readers clamoured for the inside story. To be in with a chance of winning, Molly-Mae invited followers to follow her own Instagram account, and the account belonging to her fake tan brand, subscribe to her YouTube channel, tag a friend and share the post announcing the competition to their Instagram story for an extra entry.

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Giveaways are ten-a-penny on Instagram, but the winnings here made for higher stakes than your garden variety lipstick or pair of earrings. Plus, the stunt also cemented many aspects of Molly-Mae’s brand, including authenticity – in that she bought the prizes herself, rather than partnering with yet another brand – and a sense of accessible luxury, as it seemed that she was sharing parts of her own lifestyle with fans.

Most importantly, however, as Smith notes, the giveaway “transcended Molly-Mae’s usual demographic and 4.8 million followers, garnering interest from publications beyond your typical celebrity gossip magazines”, adding that “one image of her, surrounded by Louis V luggage, was almost inescapable. That seeding strategy introduced Molly-Mae – the finished product, the Love Island star offering luxe from the off – to people who may never have heard of her.” 

I asked Yallop, an expert in influencer marketing, to break down the numbers accumulated by Molly Mae’s giveaway – which, she says “made many marketers who had previously scoffed at the efficacy of influencers sit up”.

“Her competition went viral, with 1,182,730 likes on her original post – spawning Twitter fights, memes and eventually causing Molly to retreat from Twitter – but the real winner was Molly herself,” she explains. “For an £8,000 outlay, she generated over 1 million followers across her social media accounts, including for her fake tan brand, which is a return on investment of less than 1p per follower.” 

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Of course, when you crack the screen of the internet, as Molly-Mae did with her giveaway (and has done multiple times throughout her 18 months in the public eye, most recently by slagging off critically acclaimed A24 movies, as well as after her aforementioned condemnation of the almost universally beloved, revered and respected cuisine of Italy), it’s inevitable that you will receive backlash. But she seems to anticipate that this is all part of the job.

Discussing the giveaway, Yallop says, “It passed the ultimate litmus test for internet popularity: becoming a meme. When someone tweeted ‘£5 to any lass who's not put the molly mae giveaway thing on their instagram story,’ she subtweeted him back: ‘£10 to any boy that’s not tweeted “£10 to any girl thats not entered Molly-Mae’s giveaway”..... terms and conditions apply x.’ She leans into her own mythology, and isn’t afraid to engage in internet discourse either.”

Molly-Mae tends to engage with, rather than shy away from, online discussion about her, whether that’s regarding silly things like her notoriously bad cooking, or more serious accusations, such as charges of racial insensitivity last year, after she used a foundation much darker than her actual skin tone in a YouTube video (in a subsequent video, she stated that she had changed her foundation shade following the response, though did so without really addressing the actual issue at hand). In her willingness to approach the discussion around her, she’s a deeply contemporary celebrity: put simply, she really knows how to use the internet. 

Molly-Mae engages with the discourse to stay ahead of it, often – as Smith notes – opting to tell her own stories via her YouTube channel, so “she can override whatever agenda the media might want to set by doing it herself”. She knows that her life is newsworthy, so she reserves it for her own platforms rather than traditional media. Over the next decade, this will probably be what the most pervasive type of fame looks like, and Molly-Mae, for better or worse, has already mastered it.

Molly-Mae tends to engage with, rather than shy away from, online discussion about her, whether that’s regarding silly things like her notoriously bad cooking, or more serious accusations, such as charges of racial insensitivity last year, after she used a foundation much darker than her actual skin tone in a YouTube video (in a subsequent video, she stated that she had changed her foundation shade following the response, though did so without really addressing the actual issue at hand). In her willingness to approach the discussion around her, she’s a deeply contemporary celebrity: put simply, she really knows how to use the internet. 

Molly-Mae engages with the discourse to stay ahead of it, often – as Smith notes – opting to tell her own stories via her YouTube channel, so “she can override whatever agenda the media might want to set by doing it herself”. She knows that her life is newsworthy, so she reserves it for her own platforms rather than traditional media. Over the next decade, this will probably be what the most pervasive type of fame looks like, and Molly-Mae, for better or worse, has already mastered it.

Indeed, as Yallop puts it: “It’s Molly Mae’s internet, and we’re just scrolling it!”