Influencers are powerful marketing vehicles. And, make no mistake, it is a full-time profession. This is something 22-year-old Mihlali Ndamase knows only too well.
It was in December 2014 when Ndamase created her Instagram profile. Around the same time, she started a YouTube channel but didn’t update it with any content.
“My journey (really) started in 2016. My first-ever video was a L’Oréal foundation review and – probably three videos after that upload – I got an email from one of the brand managers and they asked to have a meeting.
"That’s when my career picked up and it just opened a whole bunch of other doors,” she said.
Today, the beauty and lifestyle vlogger has 752 000 followers on Instagram and 163 651 subscribers on YouTube.
And she recently cracked Instagram’s Rich List, which, beyond being another feather in her cap, validates her hard work.
On the hype around the news, she said: "Well, at first, I felt really uncomfortable because I’m not someone who discusses my finances or the business side of what I do with people. I’m not very public about it.
"At the same time, it was very heartwarming to see how many people actually supported me and how many people are so proud of me. It was a very rewarding feeling being the only South African influencer on the list and to know that your hard work is recognised and celebrated by others."
Getting down to the business of what she does, Ndamase said: “The most important thing is to understand how you want to position yourself and how you want to be perceived. It’s important to sell your brand because you can easily be exploited. You are a personality at the end of the day. You are not some big company.
“I think when you are starting out, you are obviously trying to build relationships and you are trying to put yourself out there. Just like any other business person, you have to make sacrifices. In the beginning, it’s not really exploitation, you are trying to build relationships. Sometimes, to be quite honest, some relationships are way more valuable than a pay cheque.
"You could spend a couple of months building a relationship with a brand that will benefit you in the long run, compared to a pay cheque you are being offered for a one-month campaign. You need to weigh your options.” In a nutshell, everything needs to be ‘mutually beneficial’.
During our chat, there were several things about Ndamase that impressed me. She is unassuming, candid, fearless and practical.
“Obviously, you don’t need a whole management team when you first start out but you get to a point where you might need a manager because you can’t always be at the forefront of that conversation. And, excuse my language, but sometimes you need someone else to be the a*****e for you, you know,” she said.
Carrying the torch of influencer isn’t without its challenges. She said: “It can get very burdensome, I won’t even lie. I was having a conversation with a friend yesterday. Besides the pressure from your clients, there’s a lot of pressure from the audience.
"And people often forget that, as much as you are in the public eye and in front of the camera (looking) happy, and you constantly look good in photos, you need recovery time for your emotional well-being. Sometimes you are having a bad day and you are out and about running errands and someone comes up to you and they want to take a picture but you don’t look your best…”
Ndamase has some sound advice to anyone wanting to make a name for themselves in this space.
“There is nothing wrong with being inspired by someone and drawing inspiration from them. But the moment you try being someone else, you are limiting yourself. No one is looking for another Bonang. They are looking for something new and something different.”
When asked about her thoughts on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, doing a trial run in seven countries where they are removing the number of likes users get on their posts or the views on their videos, she said: “When they remove the likes, you will still be able to see how many you have. But it could affect the relationships or opportunities with brands that are still trying to figure out your engagement before approaching you.
“But luckily there are apps now that allow people to search through someone’s profile and get feedback on their engagements. Yes, it will have a negative effect. But if people make use of platforms that allow them access to information, to analytics, it shouldn’t be much of an issue.”
This decision could be counterproductive for influencers, though. And Mihlali had mixed feelings on it. She explained: “I won’t disregard the fact that I understand what they are trying to do for the psychological well-being of youngsters on social media. I get where they are coming from. From a business perspective, it is unfortunate and unfair.”
At the end of the day, Ndamase’s success isn’t a secret – she simply sticks to her principles. She said: “Stay true to yourself. Be consistent. Never compromise yourself for a pay cheque. Nothing happens overnight. Very often, people will see someone blow up. But you don’t really know what went into it. Be willing to put in the hard work and your best foot forward.”