Have you ever felt like that you are not as happy as you should be feeling? I don’t know. It is a weird feeling. Almost, like I always thought this is what happiness should feel like but it really doesn’t feel like it. Let me step back a little. Do you remember how obsessed I was with getting free things from PR companies? All I could dream about was getting invited to fancy events and being sponsored for posts. I used to sit in a taxi for ages dreaming about the life I am meant to have as a blogger. The big pay check. Travel adventures. For my dreams, the sky was the limit. I look back at my life back home in Nelspruit… I was so satisfied and content with my boring life going to the library every Saturday and to town once a month. I was happy. I was also happy when I was married and staying in Lenasia. I mean I was by no means happily married but within myself I was happy. And since then, my life has become a hustle for survival. It became about making it to the end of the month without having to eat my reserve of two minute noodles. It was about working and envisaging my next chapter.
Today I am at my next chapter. I have R200 000 in my bank account and in a few hours I am going to be picked up for MY party launching ME as the new face of Edge- the store I worked at as a retail assistant until very recently. So that was my first dilemma. Do I own up to that? Do I tell people that I was a meagre sales assistant at the store I now am the face off? It could be framed as a rags to riches story… perhaps one of hope even. It could be a lesson to never give up on your dreams no matter how far you are away from them. But some part of me rubbishes that as pathetic. It is easier to keep up the façade- especially now in the peak of my life as an influencer. Do people really have to know my journey and how I got here? There could be an allure of not revealing too much of my past. Like Beyonce. Although Beyonce has a real talent and does not earn a living from sharing snapshots of her made-up life everyday on social media!
Getting to this point required long, sleepless nights and copious amounts of grovelling. From the first meeting I had with Edge until this point, I probably broke down in tears five times. Edge loved my work and they had research to support that their online sales spiked every time I posted links to items I wore in blog posts but didn’t want to formally support a full campaign with me as their face of the company. I too had no idea that’s what I really wanted until Nabeela started helping me through the negotiations. Although she worked in PR, she was not my manager but agreed to assist me for my first big deal discussion. Basically Edge wanted to give me free clothes and wanted some publicity in return- an average influencer brand ambassador. I knew I wanted some money out of the deal but did not know what my value was. I was earning R8000 and was okay. So when they offered me R10 000 and free clothes for six months I was ready to walk away. But Nabs explained how brands want you to make yourself valuable to them and be creative in marketing yourself.
When she took the wheel in the talks, the project moved from being something small scale to endless opportunity. First Nabeela explained to them the value of having me be the face of the brand instead of just someone who collaborates with Edge for posts. After some persuasion the company agreed. That meant that they would start a whole campaign trying to promote their online store to millennials- an age group the brand has not been able to crack. They also launched a few ranges that were averagely priced that enticed younger people to their ‘fast fashion’ while still positioning themselves as a high end brand. Is that too much industry babble? Okay. I will stop. Once that was ironed out the real work began. What would the terms of our agreement be? Would I be an employee of Edge? Would I be just any other model they would use in an advertising campaign? The lines were so blurred and I didn’t even have the answers myself.
In the end, we decided that as the face of Edge and the brand ambassador, I would participate in a multi-platform advertising campaign which meant me shooting hundreds of pictures which Edge would use for a magazine and their social media campaign. Then I shot a number of video adverts which would be used across social media with an emphasis on Youtube ads. The in-store campaign was the most intimidating to do. I had to pose for pictures that was blown up and stuck on the windows of Edge stores countrywide. For being part of that campaign, I was paid R200 000. Then, for my part of the deal, I would be sent the newest clothing and trendy accessories to be featured in at least two posts a week for six months. It would be more native advertising on my blog and social media and not an extension of the campaign. By the way, I learnt from Nabeela that influencers bleed followers when they constantly advertise a brand that just endorsed them. That’s why on my end, it had to be part of my ordinary posts- natural almost.
When the contract was signed I could not believe how much money I made. I would have never made it without Nabeela and she, rightly, reminded me that very, very few influencers make such big deals so quickly. Many work with a brand for ages before they even get paid for their work. “It helps that you got model features. Nobody wants an ugly duckling in their window displays,” Nabeela joked. She also very kindly but firmly reminded be that this time she assisted for free but next time, she will charge a managers fee. And honestly, I wouldn’t mind paying her because she is really good at what she does. I think there are hundreds of influencers and bloggers that are actually really good but don’t make any real money because they don’t have proper representation. It is very, very easy to be bullied by brands.
Apart from the Edge deal, Nabeela advised me to draw up a rate card based on innovative ideas I had. So for example every Thursday was a ‘Wear Local’ feature on my blog and Instagram and I had discounted rates for small business willing to pay me to have their items featured in my posts. I am one of the few bloggers that post every single day on my blog in addition to content I post on social media as well as a Youtube video every Friday afternoon. In South Africa that is pretty much unheard of because very few people treat blogging as a serious business. That’s why when TimesLive featured me as “the influencer that brands take seriously” it was the cherry on top. I believe in a work ethic and thankfully, I still have a great relationship with Dyllan so the content we create is always on point. He gets so much more from shooting my content because he is literally fully booked a whole month in advance. Everyone from bloggers to small brands want him to shoot for them and he also offers a very competitive rate. Thankfully, he only charges me for paid work and everything else is his payback for opening so many doors for him.
The unglamorous side of being an influencer is the part where you are forced to do things you don’t agree with. When the agency Edge used started coming up with ideas, a lot of the videos involved me popping champagne and some shots included me wearing bikinis. This was a huge stumbling block in the negotiations and they even threatened to back out if I refused to listen to their creative mandate. It was horrible. I may not be the best Muslim in the world but alcohol was a serious no-no for me. Actually, aside from my religion I am deeply uncomfortable with alcohol and I have seen so many people I went to school with losing everything they had because of alcohol. And yes poppin’ champers is fun and not anywhere near alcohol abuse, but I was so uncomfortable doing it. I won that fight but lost the fight of not wearing swimsuits. They needed me in beachwear and there was nothing I could do about it. I remember feeling so awful shooting in bikinis. I guess even though I am by no means a modest dresser, I have a little bit of religious consciousness that speaks out ever so often. When I shot the beach wear I felt like a bad Muslim!
We finished all the shooting two weeks ago and today is the launch party where Edge ‘unveils’ me as their brand ambassador. Planning this event was so, so draining. We fought about a day and time for hours until we decided on a brunch event. If it happened on a Friday night it would have had to be in a club where people invited would have been able to dance afterwards. I was dead set against it. To be honest, it doesn’t suite my brand. MeanMaria has become a larger than life, lavishly girly space and a top-notch brunch seemed the best fit. I couldn’t help that there would be champagne served but I made sure that there was non-alcoholic drinks too. Its weird how no matter how spiritually low you feel, there are some moral and religious values that don’t escape you.
The launch was planned for SummerScape in Hyde Park- a stunning rooftop venue with décor similar to café’s in the South of France. It’s my first time even going to that place because apparently it’s so exclusive its booked out for weeks at a time. The event is due to start today at 10.30 am with canapés while everyone network and chat. Then there would be a formal 20 minute programme launching the campaign to about 50 bloggers, journalists and socialites and then brunch would be served. To make the event one to remember, we are offering pedicures to everyone, a braiding station if you want to braid you hair and a station where we will be doing personalised t-shirts (bloggers love this stuff). Having a next level selfie station was so important to me and the party planners came up with a super cool fresh roses frame. The food, for me ought to be the highlight, and we went for super trendy instgrammable food.
I have come a long way from being the girl that bought R3.50 ice cream cones as a once a week treat but on the way to the event I was anything but happy. I call my mother while I sit in the back of a Mercedes Benz to update her about the event and she is incredibly encouraging and supportive. I don’t think she really knows what the job of an influencer is because all she knows is that her neighbour’s children tell her they see me on the internet. More than anything I think she is so grateful that I am able to send home R1500 a month especially since Riaz took ill. I am planning to surprise her with a holiday to Dubai now that the Edge money came through. Dubai would be perfect for content for my blog and I think my mother would love to come with. It’s weird. I should be excited about the prospects of travelling to Dubai but somehow I feel dull and removed. I feel indifferent and cold to developments in my life.
That feeling persists when I arrive at SummerScape, as a photographer takes my picture and all the executives of Edge clap when they see me. Literally soft music plays as I walk to the mini stage and everyone has their eyes on me. I wonder whether it feels like this to walk a runway. I am wearing the most gorgeous floral designer dress from Edge’s Sindi range, with bright cobalt blue heels and soft curls. My outfit screams ‘rich wife from Beverly Hills’ and seems to be a show stopper. It is almost surreal that all these people came out for MY event to see ME. Be happy, Maria! Why the heck am I not happy? These are my dreams right before me. Actually scratch that. This is better than my dreams. It is the first chapter in big things to come and I am sitting in front of the most fabulous people I ever met feeling sad and numb. This was supposed to be my light at the end of the dark, dark tunnel. Its not and I don’t know why.