First published in Renegade Collective October 2015
When we talk about those who’ve reached the dizzying heights of social media stardom, we forget that mastering a platform isn’t so different from mastering an art form. Composing a poetic one-liner in 140 characters or taking an Instagram shot that awakens a long-buried fantasy might be technically simpler than writing a novel or making a movie but the ability to spark an emotional connection with an audience takes the same kind of creativity, passion and skill.
But scroll through the Instagram accounts of Jay Alvarrez and Alexis Ren and you’re likely to have the uncharitable thought that some people lucked into a charmed life. Whether they’re frolicking on a postcard-perfect Thai beach, jumping out of an azure sky or kissing passionately in front of a palatial Santorini villa, the couple – who have 4.5 million followers between them – are a living, breathing advertisement of the alternate reality that awaits if you’re young, in love, and unafraid to chase down your dreams.
“Instagram is Instagram and real life is real life,” laughs 20-year-old Jay, an extreme sports obsessive who’s been shooting photos and making videos since he was a teenager in Hawaii. “Our approach is half inspiration, half organic. People say that my videos are staged but how can you stage jumping off a plane? You know how people look up to TV and movie stars? I’ve always looked up to random, niche people on Tumblr. I think people like us because a lot of people do what we do but not in the way that we do it. I like to be distinct.”
We’re chatting on a deck overlooking the infinity pool at the Byron on Byron, a Byron Bay resort that feels custom-made for L.A Instagram stars but Alexis and Jay – in town to star in Cotton On Body’s summer campaign – are refreshingly unassuming in the flesh. Sure, they boast the type of sun-kissed good looks and tanned, toned bodies that have hooked a generation on almond butter and green juice but they punctuate their California drawls with loving in-jokes and easy laughter. It’s not until a teenage girl asks for a photo, trembling with excitement, that it strikes me that young people idolise them the same way my friends and I once looked up to rock stars. Alexis gives her a warm hug and flashes a megawatt smile and the girl walks away, shaking her head in disbelief.
“You know that photo that couples use as an example of the perfect photo they want to take of themselves? We want to BE that photo,” says Alexis, a former ballerina who has been modelling for the likes of Calvin Klein, Nasty Gal, Forever 21 and Surfing magazine since the age of 13. “I met Jay a year ago at a friend’s place in Malibu and although I had a boyfriend at the time I’d found his Instagram nearly a year before and always wondered ‘who is this kid?’ We basically went from not seeing each other, to seeing each other for a week to living together. The first time I decided I would fly out to Hawaii to see him, I would never in a million years think that I’d jump out of plane. I’m so scared of heights that even driving around Malibu Canyon is terrifying. But I feel like with him by my side, I’m much more capable of things. He pushes me to my limits.”
This focus on pushing limits has been a defining theme in their relationship since its earliest days. A few months in, the pair shot a Youtube film documenting their adventures in California. The montage, which splices together skydiving shots with an aerial sequence that flits between Alexis plummeting into a swimming pool and Lamborghinis hurtling down coastal highways set to a catchy deep house soundtrack, might have sunk into obscurity but the combination of Jay’s breakneck editing and Alexis’s on-screen magnetism was a winning formula. The video went instantly viral.
“I didn’t really go to school but always took photos for fun and made Youtube videos,” say Jay who combines photography and filmmaking with modelling and has featured in campaigns for Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. “Alexis came to see me in Hawaii and I returned to California to stay with her. We made a video of us hanging out and driving sports cars and we got two million views which was crazy and a lot of the Instagram stuff filtered through that. I’ve always loved shooting girls and portraying the idea of love and started posting pictures of Alexis and I was like wow, people love this! We went from 100,000 followers to millions very quickly. Everything I do is self-taught.”
But although this following has seen the couple inundated with offers and endorsement requests from companies, they’re focused on using their platform to fund their creative ventures and working with brands whose values align with their own. And while their fame attracts both frenzied fans who dream about copying their trajectory and commentators speculating about everything from the size of their bank balance to the strength of their relationship, the pair are wise to social media’s power and pitfalls. They know that the world that they’re depicting is partly rooted in fantasy.
“Because Instagram is the biggest market for youth we get offers to go places and everything gets paid for and they just want us to take photos and advertise – that stuff is fun,” says Jay. “There’s more money in Instagram than in modelling – you can make 10 to 20,000 dollars a post compared to a job where you might make 5 to 10,000 dollars but personally I prefer to do jobs. The more followers you have, the more money you can charge. We only work with companies who represent a really cool product or brand or support something that is important to us. We also try to help friends who might not have our following but have the creativity and ideas. But people look at our lives and say it’s it’s perfect and write “goals” on our photos all day when that’s not the case. Whatever you see on Instagram is an idea, it’s constructed. That’s what designing is.”
“If you accept every single offer, it lowers your value,” explains Alexis, adding that the pair’s Instagram following is her biggest source of work. “It’s like a business and we change it up all the time. But we’ve been on so many so many trips and with every trip there’s an up and down. It’s like another life where we travel to a place and live there but every trip also has its low points. And when things go wrong, you take it out on your significant other because they’re like your family. You trust them the most.”
Jay, who says that friends such as New York bikini designer Rocky Coulbourne are his biggest inspiration, believes that the couple have managed to build a life of travel and creative freedom because they resolved to leave fear at the door.
“We don’t just have a plan B, we also have plans C,D and E. But you can’t be insecure about your creativity and if you have an idea, you have to go after it even if 99% of people shut you down and society tells you not to do it. Even if you make the worst thing in the world and one person likes it then who the hell cares?”