Three years ago, a 16-year-old Austyn Tester was filmed by director Liza Mandelup for her moving and insightful documentary Jawline, which premieres on Hulu today. Tester was, and still sort of is today, an aspiring social media star, via YouNow, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok—you name the platform, he was on it. During filming, Mandelup followed him to the mall for meet-and-greets and to appearances with fellow social media up-and-comers. She shot him at home, where he shared a bed with his brother, was nagged by his mom and sister, and cuddled with the family’s litter of kittens; she shot him at a run-down Plato’s Closet, where he sorted used clothes. In her footage, his seemed like a pretty average, pretty unremarkable life.
Tester is adorable, charismatic, and passionate about sharing his voice with the world. In Jawline, he discovers that the path toward internet stardom isn’t paved as smoothly for some as it is for others. You need weekly beauty routines, a wardrobe of nice clothes, seed money, and connections with brands in order to progress and maintain your viral success. That’s all hard to get if you’re stuck in a small town in Tennessee.
Tester is the underdog and star of Jawline. On the flip side, Mandelup also introduces us to Michael Weist. The CEO and president of Juice Krate Media Group, he’s the Chanel brooch-wearing den mother to a group of angelic-looking boys building up their Instagram followings. He instructs them sternly while they record daily videos for their fans and teaches them how to pose correctly for a photo. Weist also loves to take them to Rodeo Drive, where they shop for Saint Laurent and Gucci and stop to say hi to their crying fans. “Gucci is all the rage with influencers right now,” he says. “I’m not sure why. I think they just want to use it to flex their success or show off that they are able to make money to their friends. But this doesn’t apply to everyone.”
Tester, who is now 18 and preparing to start community college next week, says that he felt pressure to maintain that image when he was filming with Mandelup. “At times I felt like I had to look a certain way. I thought I had to look like Cameron Dallas or Justin Bieber.” He adds, “I look at myself in the movie now and I just cringe. Because it really shouldn’t be the case that people look at you based on materialism or what you have. They should love you for your personality.”
“There is a formula of some sorts,” Weist says of the path from influencer to star. “I think you have to follow fashion trends to help gain popularity, but then once you gain a following, you have to switch it up a bit.” He adds, “It’s important to begin to curate your own style to help elevate you and set you apart from the rest of the crowd. Fashion and personal style in the world of influencer business is essential, I think. It also helps cultivate an image that can later pay off with branded campaigns and collaborations.” This was perhaps one of the key components that Tester was missing three years ago. His style was pretty standard for that of a 16-year-old boy: skinny jeans, T-shirts, hoodies, sneakers. No big name brands, no logos.
At a time when social media influencers, and namely vloggers, are sitting front row at the shows during Paris Fashion Week, hosting designer livestreams and the red carpet at the Met Gala, and partnering with luxury fashion houses, the pressure to succeed and to do so with a sense of style is more intense than ever. But how do you balance being completely approachable with wearing head-to-toe Louis Vuitton and posing for the cover of a magazine? Tester, for one, has largely given up on the idea that he may indeed one day be as big and as accepted by the fashion world as idols like Cameron Dallas.
That’s the moral of Jawline: not everyone makes it in the influencer business. As for Tester, his is the social media story we rarely get to see, the one that shows a struggle for fame and not the sparkly after-effects of gaining a million-plus followers. Maybe more big fashion brands should take chances on these would-be online heroes who have loads of potential, even as they organize thrift clothes on a rack while two young girls giggle and whisper: “Oh, my God, is that AUSTYN?!”
Originally Appeared on Vogue