The life of an influencer looks glamorous through an Instagram post, perfectly filtering life into a wrinkle-free world of beauty, travel and out-of-office selfies. But that world is mysteriously free of reality. How do influencers manage to pay for that so-called glamorous life? And how much work goes into creating that seemingly perfect-looking image? Is it really the high-paying gig we all assume it is?
We spoke to seven influencers from six different accounts, with followers ranging from a seemingly attainable 12,000 to six figures, about how much money they’re making and where it all comes from.
Mallory Cornelison, @mallory__cornelison
27.2k Instagram followers, 109k YouTube subscribers
Average annual income from social media: $12,000
YouTube AdSense: $5,000
Sponsorships: $5,000 to $7,000
When Mallory Cornelison was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called Behcet’s, she thought her dream of going to cosmetology school to become a hair and makeup artist was over. But now, 10 years later, she’s been on Kim Kardashian’s “Glam Masters” (where she got to work with Mario Dedivanovic, Kandee Johnson, Zanna Roberts Rassi and Laverne Cox), won second place in the 2014 Allure Beauty Blogger Awards and amassed a large Instagram and YouTube following.
For the past five years, she’s earned income from social media, though she admits that the salary makes the work feel “a little bit thankless.” She spends 8-plus hours a day creating content, editing (“editing, editing and MORE EDITING!”) and doing administrative work like responding to comments and answering emails. But even if the pay is low, the opportunity to do work she loves is worth it. “It isn’t all about the money, because I love creating content, but I don’t know anyone else who would work eight-plus hours six to seven days a week that would accept pennies on the hour,” Cornelison told HuffPost.
While her income from social media is supplemented by her online store, where she sells handmade items and merch, her husband provides the majority of their earnings.
Cornelison says that making money this way is harder than it used to be ― not only because of all the financial requirements needed to keep up (cameras, lighting, etc.), but also because of the changes in things like YouTube algorithms. “It used to be much more lucrative, but that’s just the name of the game,” she added.
Valeria Hinojosa, @waterthruskin
134k Instagram followers
Average annual income from social media: $150,000 to $200,000 (all of which comes via Instagram sponsored content)
Scrolling through Valeria Hinojosa’s Instagram photos now, featuring pictures of lush green forests and messages of positivity, it’s hard to believe that she used to work as a banker in private wealth management. “I did this for five years only to realize, on year four, that my soul had been completely consumed by ego and greed, and I had disconnected from my essence entirely,” Hinojosa said.
For the past four years, she’s been earning money through Instagram. Hinojosa works with sustainable and conscious brands, making anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 per post. With that income, she has not only been able to help her family with money whenever they need it but also to help nonprofits. Most recently, in just 30 days, she helped raise over $200,000 toward fighting wildfires in Bolivia, which was used to buy new uniforms for firefighters, rent tank trucks and transportation for volunteers, and provide medical aid.
Off Instagram, Hinojosa also earns money through her sustainable jewelry line and the book she recently published. “Besides using social media to build a career, I believe that its true power lays in how we get to use this tool to unravel a positive ripple effect,” she said.
An Nguyen, @phithegoldenskin
16.6k Instagram followers
Average annual income from social media: $6,200 (past three months only)
Instagram sponsored content: $3,600 (past three months only)
Content creation: $2,600 (past three months only)
An Nguyen spent eight years as a middle school math teacher, and though she loved teaching, she made the difficult decision to stay home with her son. She wanted to have something for herself outside the day-to-day activities of raising a toddler, and that’s when she created her Instagram account. “When I was younger, I would watch Michelle Phan and all those YouTubers. I actually wanted to start a YouTube channel when I was younger but I never did. So, I decided to start an Instagram account a year ago,” Nguyen told HuffPost.
After Nguyen quit her teaching job, her husband became the sole income contributor, but now that her Instagram is gaining attention she’s able to contribute again. She started to see an income about three months ago, making about $1,000 to $4,000 per month, depending on how many ads and photos she takes for brands (sponsored posts usually earn about $300 to $600 each). She was also recently hired to be a content creator for several beauty brands.
Nguyen says that business has picked up significantly over the past three months. “Ads are rolling in too, however, I am very careful about what brands I work with. I really have to like the products in order for me to accept an ad offer,” she said.
Sarah and Safiyah Mahamadeen, @the.top.shelf.edit
12.1k Instagram followers
Average annual income from social media: $2,500
Instagram sponsored content: $500
Affiliate links: $200
When looking for skin care recommendations, why not get advice from two bio students? Sarah Mahamadeen, who recently graduated with a biomedical sciences degree from the University of Central Florida (and is applying to medical school) and Safiyah Mahamadeen, who is studying biology in college, created The Top Shelf Edit Instagram account in January 2019. Three months later, they were already making money.
“We’ve always had a love for the sciences, but once we began to struggle with acne, we were able to put that interest to work by applying our knowledge gained in school to identify the ingredients and specific products that worked best for our skin,” shared the sisters. They decided to create their account to share everything they’d learned.
Sarah and Safiyah split the income they earn from the account evenly, and most often it goes right back into the page through new props, products, cameras and equipment. They currently live with their parents, and in addition to going to school and running their Instagram account, they each have part-time jobs. “We also freelance as product photographers for cosmetic brands that we have met through The Top Shelf Edit,” they said.
Alexa Johnson, @glowopedia
19.4k Instagram followers
Average annual income from social media: $3,000 (past 6 months only)
Instagram sponsored content: $3,000 (past 6 months only)
Alexa Johnson grew up surrounded by skin care thanks to her mom, an esthetician and salon owner. After having a child of her own and developing postpartum depression, Johnson realized she needed to reconnect with herself outside of being a mom and make time for self-care. She decided to tap into the Instagram beauty community and created @glowopedia, an account with nearly 20,000 followers where she posts photos of products and writes reviews.
Her husband provides most of the family of four’s support through his job as a structural engineer, but Johnson also earns money working part time at her family’s self-storage facility,
For Johnson, though, the job isn’t just about earning an income, and she turns down most paid partnership opportunities. “I don’t want my page to be an ad. The brands that I have decided to work with are brands that align with my values,” Johnson said. “For me, it’s really important to remain true to why I started my account. I’m not here to sell toothpaste or other random things. I’m here to talk about skin care and connect with people about their experiences.”
Ava Lee, @glowwithava
30.2k Instagram Followers
New York City
Average annual income from social media: N/A (Average monthly this year bumped up from $1,000 to $2,000 at publish date)
Ava Lee hasn’t been running her Instagram account for long, but she’s already seeing exponential income growth each month. She began @glowwithava in April 2018 as an outlet from her mundane and stressful job in a male-dominated field and found that she was finally enjoying what she was doing ― and it was growing more quickly than she imagined. “I finally took a leap of faith, and quit my finance job a couple months ago to devote myself to this full time, and while it has been tough (I find myself much busier and working longer than my demanding finance job), I have loved every minute of the journey,” Lee told HuffPost.
While Lee declined to give her exact yearly income (she has only been earning money for less than a year, and the numbers widely vary), she earns about 75% of it from Instagram sponsored content, which nets about $200-$500 per post. Lee has also been looking to grow her revenue from YouTube, which has earned about $60 over the past two months. As she builds her income and her career as a beauty influencer, her fiancé has supported the couple.
“I always get asked how I was able to grow my following base so quickly (over 25,000 followers in less than a year), and more than anything, I would say that it was due to me just being genuine,” Lee said. “More than anything, I would love to be able to do this full time, but I will never sacrifice my values over any amount of money a brand is offering if I don’t truly believe in that brand or product. Learn to be true to yourself and your followers and brands will appreciate that.”