The emergence of self-made “content creators” has easily been the most disruptive trend to confront the media industry in the last decade. Supplanting traditional journalism for increasingly personal and dynamic new ways of information sharing, a contingent of millennials have taken back the power of media and used it to create their own empires. It’s no secret that in 2017, bloggers and YouTubers can make a living out of an online persona, and that advertisers will pay serious fees to book sponsorship contracts with this new savvy generation of Internet “celebrities.” The social media landscape has ushered in a variety of questions and controversies, most relevantly: how can creators maintain the individuality and authenticity that the new media trend began with, while also focusing on building a viable, monetized brand?
In an industry saturated with competing online personas, Rachel Nguyen seems to have no problem maintaining an authentic, down to earth point of view. In contrast to Instagram feeds dotted with luxury hotel suites and airbrushed selfies, Rachel (a.k.a “That’s Chic” on YouTube) represents a return to what the social media ecosystem stood for during its genesis – self-expression and community-building. As a blogger and YouTuber primarily focused on fashion, Rachel’s creative and dynamic content (think retro moodboards and editorialized festival season guides, chalk full with 90s references) reaches more than 170,000 devoted followers. She has booked deals with AG Jeans, Glossier, and Urban Outfitters Beauty, and all the while, managed to remain “real” despite the trappings of a fast-paced 24/7 career. I had the opportunity to FaceTime with Rachel this winter to discuss how she views her job and the role that social media creators play in 2017.
You’ve described YouTube and blogging as your dream job – you get to be highly creative and have more flexibility in your projects. Likewise, being a blogger or social media influencer has become one of the most idealized careers out there right now, but not without some dissent and backlash. Where do you stand on this and have you ever felt apprehensive about making a career out of the Internet?
I started the blog (thatschic.net) so young – almost 10 years ago! At the time, I had no idea that there would be an industry around it; it was a phenomenon that all happened at once. I never saw it like I wanted to make a career online, it happened organically, and I don’t know where I would be without that. I never thought much about it that way because I grew up on the Internet, making friends on Neopets and Livejournal. I always lived life online and the blog was just part of it, so it never once shook me because it all existed so organically.
Can you talk about the transition when you decided to go full-time with “That’s Chic”? What point were you at in your life and how or why did you make that call? Did it feel like a risk?
I had the blog in school, but even after that I still delved into a career at various denim and shoe companies, which I loved and through which I was taught stability and organization. I thought that my blog didn’t feel that deep… it felt vapid to just take photos of myself, which is why I had jobs on the side. I loved working corporate – it was really fun, being around people. It was when I started the YouTube channel (2 years ago) that I decided to dive in head first and be a fulltime freelancer. The transition has been great, but I still lined up my ducks before going into it. I pitched AG Jeans a 6-month contract when I started, and they hadn’t done anything like it before. That way I knew going out that I had something to fall back on and that AG was supporting me. I’ve learned so much about how to hustle from the corporate world that I knew I was going to be ok.
What do you find most challenging about your job?
Constantly working on a schedule that is utterly your own can make it hard to disconnect or to find a regimen – like, deciding to online work these hours, and to take these off. Also constantly being creative. I love what I do but vlogging everyday can be intense and a lot of people don’t want to be on camera. It’s hard to constantly make videos and handle everything by yourself.
Even though that’s a challenge, do you prefer to work solo instead of through an agency or larger team?
I am really good at what I do, and so I want to work with someone who is better than me, but it’s hard to find a person who can bounce off ideas at the same level as me. It’s hard for someone else to come in and have the same amount of passion for what you do as you do.
What essential skills have you developed along your way?
Trying to be a people person, learning to be extremely proactive. One of the biggest things it that to be successful you don’t necessarily have to be the most talented, just on top of your game. You always have to think 2 steps ahead of anyone else to stay relevant and wanted. You always have to bring something to the table and remember that you were hired because you were of valued, so keep showing your value.
Since blogging is a really new field, and what you do is even more than just running a blog, I thought it would be interesting to know how you would try to describe your job to an alien or to a total outsider.
I don’t hang out with a lot of people who watch YouTube, so it seems like such a weird idea to them. I make videos and I love to document my life. A lot of younger girls watch and being able to influence a younger generation in a positive way of living outside of comparing their lives to a Kardashian or Instagram model is important to me. I post on YouTube, one of the most watched websites in the world, and a lot of humans are on there because we live in a very voyeuristic world right now.
I find it interesting how you’re really cognoscente of your influence on young girls, not just business-wise but in terms of feeling a responsibility. Can you speak more to what that means to you?
I remember being younger and had I gone through high school at the hype of social media… well, back then it was like, “Oh my god, I wasn’t on his top 8 on MySpace, are we even friends?” [laughs] But everything at this level is completely amplified and it’s easier to get lost in the noise of social media when you’re still finding yourself, and to compare yourself to others. I don’t want girls to compare their lives to mine. I’m much older than most of them I think, but I want to remind them that you don’t have to wear a lot of makeup to be likeable, or live a lavish life, not everything has to be polished and tied with a bow. A lot of influencers influence in a way that says they have everything at their fingertips and everything is very curated. Why I initially didn’t go fulltime when I started was because I didn’t feel a connection to that. I don’t want to get too preachy on my channel, I just would rather live by example – to show this one way of living and hopefully it affects you in a positive way. I have a pretty positive outlook – basically, you’re a badass bitch who can do whatever you want to do if you are two steps ahead of your game!
With that in mind, how do you balance your personal and public lives? Authenticity is such an overused buzz word right now, but you seriously seem to exude it. Is it ever challenge to feel like you are being really true to yourself, while also having to align with some kind of clear branding pattern and do these things every come into conflict with each other?
I love that question because it’s a very delicate balance. I want to explore and be creative but never be overly done. My balance is that I’m always exploring ways to express myself and I hope that it always ends up feeling very ‘Rachel.’ I’m often look to others for perspective on my brand or style, but the older I get the more I hone in on the things that I like. Being creative is part of my authentic being and as long as I’m not trying to be someone else or to mimic their aesthetic or personality, hopefully mine will always shine through.
How have you seen the industry change and how have you adapted to it?
Now that we have had social media for years and have gotten to a place where we really understand it, we have become a lot smarter at digesting content and can see through manufactured posts and want to see really, raw, real life, living things. It’s why the Kardashians are such a phenomenon, because while they’re super bougie and polished, they show a realness because they are a huge family with normal drama and it’s not all Gucci bags and lollipops. I also recently watched Caisey Neistat and PewtyDiePie talk about forced positivity on YouTube and they discussed this paradox where we [as creators] have the ability to edit our lives and show ourselves online in a way that makes sense to us. But it’s a paradox because people watch and think we all live a consistently happy life and at the same time, it's not like that, we may not want to share anything too personal. I hope my YouTube will never come off as overly curated or fake positive; I want people to know there are bad things too; showing a vulnerability keeps you authentic because you never feel like you’re playing yourself - but there are private moments that should stay private.
And finally, what is the best part of your job?
Being able to meet rad people! My blog has influenced my life in everyway or another. I wouldn’t have got a job at Paige if the creative director hadn’t read my blog and reached out. All my friends, in one way or another, I've met online or through someone I've met online. It's a strange time, but a great time.