My first year on the social media app Instagram will probably go down as one of the best years of my life so far. I’m not kidding! After years of not having to use my brain a great deal in my current day job, it allowed my mind to go wild with creativity, both in photography, styling and the written word. I’ve “Insta-met” some of the loveliest people and I feel really at home. It’s like I’ve gone back to college again and I’m finding my feet amongst a talented group of people, who all have similar interests.
It isn’t all blossom and pumpkins though. There’s another side to “the gram”, which isn’t quite so sweet. I think it can play with your mind if you let it. If you’re not careful you can get obsessed with follower numbers and reach. Instagram’s famous algorithm can feel like it’s your enemy. You can see other accounts flying high, whilst yours stays in the shadows. It’s important to remember that every account started at the bottom and I do truly believe that tenacity and hard work can win out in the end.
You are bombarded daily with beautiful images that are carefully curated to be as perfect as possible. What if your life isn’t that perfect? How does that make you feel? Well, the answer to that is no one’s life is that perfect! People are showing the very best version of themselves, the perfect angle of their living room. A great example would be a shot I regularly take of my blue and white guest bedroom. I will always show the crisp white bedding against a white-washed shiplap wall with a simple white chair next to it and perfectly folded navy blue towels. I never show the nasty radiator that we haven’t had time to add a cover to yet, or the white painted floor that desperately needs to be re-painted.
I’m ok with that though. For the most part, what I show on my account is real and is the way we live. Yes, I leave out the imperfections, but, to me, my squares are meant to be inspirational, a snapshot that could act as the basis of an idea for someone else’s home. It’s nothing new really, interior magazines have been doing the same thing for decades. Who wants to see real life? A huge amount of people come to Instagram and Pinterest for ideas, but also as a form of entertainment and escapism. I certainly don’t want to see underwear drying on the radiator or the sink full of dirty dishes. You definitely wouldn’t buy a magazine if that’s what they portrayed, we’ve all got that at home already, we want to see house goals! Although, I am a fan of showing Insta-reality on my stories, just to balance things out and remind people of the person behind the squares.
Instagram is a very strange beast. It wasn’t at first. It was initially a photo sharing app designed purely for fun. Since Facebook bought it, it has morphed into something much greater than the sum of its parts. For some it is still just a bit of photo-sharing fun, for many, they believe it may be their key to a different life as an influencer. Businesses now use it to promote their brand. There is money to be made. It has become for many, a marketing platform, which often sits incongruously with its original purpose.
Do I know why I’m on it? Not completely. I know it gives me a huge amount of joy and excitement. I love the interaction with people and the beautiful creativity. It also takes up an enormous amount of my time. In fact, juggling life, work and Instagram is often a bit of a struggle. It’s currently still just a very time consuming fun hobby, which, if it remained just a hobby forever, I would seriously have to consider cutting down my time on it. Don’t get me wrong, I really love most of it, but I am hoping at some point that it may lead to a little part-time job one day, that would allow me to cut down a bit on my hairdressing job. There are opportunities for paid partnerships on the gram, which I would welcome, but actually I’m trying to think a little outside the box and maybe use our home as a location house or, if I had my dream, to be paid to be a stylist for photos, events or house sales. I’d love to write for other publications too.
In this article I hope to share with you my experiences over my first year on the platform and, hopefully, show you that, despite a lot of its downsides, there is still a lot of fun to be had and a great deal to gain from being part of the community.
Back in September 2018, a friend of mine (@amandacobbett) started talking to me about Instagram. She said it might be a great way for me to have some kind of online presence for my hairdressing business. I don’t advertise my little hair salon, its all word of mouth and has done just fine for fifteen years. However, with the possibility of things being a bit tough for a while after Brexit, she thought perhaps it might be a good idea to have at least one way of getting some new clients. I really wasn’t up for it at first. I already had an Instagram account which was sep up in 2011, but I never used it and there was only a photo of our sweet dog Missy on it.
Reluctantly I started to post. I had no clue what to do or why I was really doing it. I didn’t even know what a hashtag was! Even now, as I’m typing these words, I’m astonished I’m writing an article about a year on Instagram, let alone having my own blog website! It is testament to what you can do in one year if you put your heart and soul into it, finding time where you didn’t even know you had it.
Initially, I photographed the backs of ladies coiffed hair and talked about the colours and techniques I’d used. It wasn’t the most exciting of pages and it really didn’t thrill me. If there’s one thing I’ve e learned in all the creative careers I’ve had in my life so far, it’s that if what you are creating bores you to tears then everyone else will be bored too! Before becoming a hairdresser, I originally trained as an singer/actor for five years. I worked professionally around the world after that. I then hopped into public relations and worked my way up the corporate market, writing a fortnightly newspaper, selling in stories to the national tabloids, arranging press events and dealing with crisis management. My current job allows me quite a lot of freedom and is pretty stress free, but the toss up is it can be very mundane. It’s not that I don’t enjoy my job and, without being too forward, I am good at it. It just doesn’t light my fire, you know?
I took a photo of a vintage Chanel poster I have in my salon. It was against a dark blue wall. The gold leaf frame against Stiffkey Blue was quite dramatic. Now that excited me!
I started photographing more of our home, faffing about with throws and cushions, using pumpkins as table decorations and silver birch logs as footstools. I learned that my table-faffery was called “tablescaping” and that my love of birds-eye view styling for photos was called a “flat-lay” – who knew?
Within weeks I had discovered a whole new hobbie I never knew existed and I absolutely loved it! I very quickly changed my Instagram handle, removed all hair content and started posting what I really loved. I had spent the last fifteen years talking to my hair clients about interiors, gardening and lifestyle. They would go home with a colour swatch, a book recommendation or plant advice. I’d tell them which colour to place with what and which plant was good in dry shade. Perhaps it was time to let the world have access to the knowledge I’d gleaned over the years? As far as I was concerned, if my hair clients were interested in the things I enjoyed doing, then why the hell shouldn’t people out there on the interweb?
Within three days of changing my handle I lost just about all my followers, which I wasn’t best pleased about, but I was going to re-start as I meant to go on. So, late September 2018 after a little holiday in Marrakech, where I played with posts, I started my journey. A flame had been sparked from the embers of a man who had resigned himself to an endless stream of hot air and hair mousse. Perhaps there was more in store for this career chameleon?
I started playing @myhousethismonth , which is a daily interiors hashtag challenge, in October 2018. I loved it as it gave me a focus and inspiration for each day. I personally think its important in your first year to post every day. It gives you discipline in your craft, but it also gives consistency to your followers. In the end you may go to down to every other day or so, but consistency is key at all times. Don’t think for a second that it’s easy to post every day though, far from it. However, at least with a daily theme you already have a little inspirational help.
My learning curve over this period was steep! It was so exciting to be learning again. I read article after article about taking photos and how to edit them. I searched the internet for information on hashtags and how to write snappy captions. The biggest thing I learnt though was about being yourself. Take photographs that are true to you. Don’t try and copy a style or someone else’s look. Write a caption from the heart. Stop worrying what people will think, just be you, put it out there and let the rest look after itself.
I soon realised how incredible the community was who regularly play these hashtag challenges – real people behind the squares. The best thing that has come out of posting on Instagram has to be the friends I have made, such as my lovely friend Damon from @townhousefiftyseven , who started about the same time as me. I get messages from people if I haven’t posted in a few days, people that really care how I am. That’s special. It’s also wonderful to feel part of something, to have a group of people who love what you love. It gives you a sense of belonging. In fact, I can safely say that joining Instagram has allowed me, probably for the first time in my life to truly feel like I’m part of the gang, that I belong.
In December 2018 I was the runner up winner for @myhousethismonth and I have to say I was sorely disappointed. My lovely insta friend Sian at @restored_home was the overall winner. I was elated for her, of course, Ive never been a jealous type, but I was disappointed, I cant lie. I really had worked very hard on my Christmas photography, but so had many others and Sian deserved to win. Other than her beautiful photos, she had named her Christmas tree and it won the hearts of us all.
That was my first real lesson though. You cant be on Instagram to win, you cant be on it for recognition or for self-validation. The chances are you will end up unhappy. It must be about the sharing, the creativity, the chat, the friendships. If anything else ever comes from it then that is a bonus.
In January 2019 I started thinking about a fun hashtag idea called @postitandsmile – it came about after realising that the purpose of Instagram was to have fun. I saw so many people getting caught up with worrying about their number of followers, not feeling free to post what they wanted because they were told they should curate their feed and keep it to a small palette of colours. I remember worrying whether I would ever get to 1000 followers. Instagram seemed to be against me and it was hard not to take it personally.
Then I slapped myself in the face and thought: “hang on, I’m 47 years old, what the hell am I doing? This is just a computer programme, an algorithm, its not personal, its a game. I should be using it to my advantage. I choose to be on the platform. It doesn’t make me. I choose how I use it. I choose what I post. I choose to be affected by the amount of likes a post receives or how many followers I have.”
So, In February 2019, my little fun hashtag was born. I wanted to bring back the fun and bring back control over my feed and my mental health. I was going to post whatever I wanted, whatever made me smile and I was going to encourage other people to do the same. People loved it and to date there are over 18k posts on the hashtag. In June of 2019 the lovely Sally from @sissinghurstlocationhouse joined me as cohost and she has added such a fun vibe and I absolutely adore her.
Around the same time, I stumbled across an account called @gettingstuffdoneinheels – The lady that runs this fabulous account is called Sally.
We started chatting on the gram and it became clear we both had something in common. Her husband Gav has Lymphoma and so do I (breath everyone it’s fine!). She asked me whether I would like to write my story for her Thicker Than Water Blog series that she runs on her website, promoting the cause and educating people about blood cancers such as Lymphoma and Leukaemia. I said yes. It’s been over nine years since I was diagnosed, just before my wedding to Mr C and it was time that I told my story and tried to help other people in the same situation. I had hardly ever talked about it and it would be the first time publicly. I really hoped that it would help to get the knowledge out there and educate people.
The day that she published it was crazy. I remember she messaged me just beforehand and said brace yourself! It was a Sunday morning. Within minutes I started to get direct messages from people as well as new people following me. My phone was “pinging” every two seconds. I had never experienced anything like it. I ended up spending the entire day on my phone, apart from half an hour, where I just had to take a break and breath. I spoke, via direct message, to hundreds of people who had been affected by the disease. The stories were heart-wrenching and emotionally draining. I experienced a huge outpouring of love and support too and gained almost a thousand followers that day alone. It truly was one of the most wonderful, yet humbling experiences of my life. I felt so privileged to be able to hear so many peoples stories of triumph and sorrow.
So Instagram can be utilised for good causes too, for getting important messages across. If you fancy reading my story, or even if you just want a few glimpses of the elusive Mr C, my hubby, then please visit the link: www.gettingstuffdoneinheels.com
Over the last few months I had become quite good friends with Lucy and Amy, the cohosts of @myhousethismonth – In April they asked me whether I would be interested in being a guest host on their new monthly hashtag challenge @mygardenthismonth – hello? Would I be interested? You’re damn right I would! It couldn’t have been more up my street as I’m a huge gardening lover. It would be launched in May, followed in June by its sister challenge @mywardrobethismonth .
I cannot tell you how excited I was. I felt truly privileged to be even asked and I was determined to make a success of it and hopefully prove that they didn’t need another guest host! My god I worked my socks off that month! If you think running a hashtag is easy then think again! Up to 31 daily themes need to be carefully curated. The artwork to show those themes to players needs to be designed. Sponsors for future months need to be found for the prizes, brands need to be brought on board for flash giveaways and thats all before you even start on the daily duties of scrolling through all the players posts, commenting and liking and eventually choosing the best of the day to share in a full grid post. There can hundreds of direct messages every day that all need to be seen. It can be gruelling work and its all for free, none of us are paid to run these hashtags.
I tried to think of how I could give added value and decided on video stories, where I would talk about plants in my garden, giving tours and advice. My lovely Insta friend Kat from @kat_at_croft_corner had said to me that I should do more face to face videos and so I followed her advice. Listening to people on the gram with a higher following than you and more experience is really important. They’ve been there and done it already. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel!
Starting my little story videos changed my account forever. People absolutely love tutorials, they love finding out how to do something. People also love being let in to your world, your home, your garden. If you can have the courage to do it face to camera then even better. By making yourself vulnerable on camera, people connect with you, they feel they know you that little bit better. It allows them to trust you because you have allowed yourself to show that you are far from perfect. Letting people to see me first thing in the morning walking the dog with nasty hair and eye bags deep enough to do my Tesco shop in is actually quite liberating after a while. My first few tries on camera I made myself cringe beyond belief. I had to do about fifty takes to get it right. However, practice makes perfect and the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Pretend you are talking to an old friend, it will calm you and then you will come across more naturally.
I absolutely love doing the face to camera stories now and it feels like my daily chat with a group of friends. I still make myself cringe every now and again and I still hate looking at myself, but its the fastest way of getting a message across and connecting with your followers.
At the end of May 2019 I was told I would be permanent cohost on @mygardenthismonth and a few months after that I was asked whether I would become a permanent cohost on all three hashtag challenges. It’s such and enormous honour to have been asked and to be trusted that much. I cant thank Amy from @littlehouseinlondon and Lucy from @__itslucy__ enough.
In July I attended my first Instagram press events in London. They were both called: “Christmas in July” and were held on the hottest day of the year! I met up with two Insta-pals: Mags from @glorygirl and Anna from @feather_and_faff_interiors – they were both so lovely and calmed me down as I was just a tad nervous! One of the events was for Cox and Cox, one of my favourite brands of all time. I cannot tell you how excited and scared I was at the same time. Just about every big-shot influencer/creator was there and then little old me! It was in a huge ballroom sized space in Soho, which had been split into room sets to showcase their autumn/winter collection. Near the end of the room was a shiny red Mini Cooper surrounded by a Christmas tree forest with another Christmas tree strapped to the roof-rack of the car. It was truly magical. A photograph was being arranged by the PR team and somehow I got caught up in it. Before I knew it I was lying on the floor, Burt Reynolds centrefold stylee, with seven fabulous ladies behind me! That turned out to be my favourite photograph of 2019. The wonderful women in the photograph from left to right are: @lauracoxhome, @theresagromski, @the_wooden_hill, @jackie.hoyte, @the_indigo_house, @thehousethatjenbuilt_and @melaniejadedesign
August saw the launch of this very blog – My Gay Best Friend. Such a huge amount of work had gone into the launch as I couldn’t afford to pay a company to create my website, so I had to learn how to do it from scratch. The idea for the website actually came about in 2009 and I created a basic website for it then, but somehow I never found the time to do anything with it. I was yearning to be able to write more and create something that was mine and not owned by Instagram. The launch went incredibly well and had a great response. I was absolutely shattered though, after spending many a night writing until the early hours to get everything perfect.
Recently, a few brands have been circling me, who knows what might happen with that. I can’t ever see it being a huge money earner, but it might pay for a few lovely things on the side one day and I’m a huge believer in following a path even though you may not know where it could lead. Many of the things I have done in my life have led to other exciting opportunities. One of the reasons I started my own blog website was to have something that was mine outside of Instagram, something that I could build upon. I hugely enjoy writing and so, who knows what might come of it all one day. I just wish I had more time!
And so here I am in November 2019 with over 17k followers and what a wonderful, friendly bunch of people they are too! There are so many people that make me laugh on a daily basis and the endless inspiration is quite jaw-dropping. The kindness shown each and every day is often beyond the kindness you see in real life. It’s a very special place and I’m so happy to be part of it. That friend of mine did me a huge favour last year telling me to give it a go. I’m so glad she did.