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‘Fake Famous’ review: Nick Bilton’s HBO documentary spotlights the darker side of how ‘influencers’ get made

Written, produced and directed by journalist Nick Bilton, “Fake Famous” charts the evolving currency surrounding fame, which once rewarded those renowned for a skill — think actors and athletes — before reality-TV stars became famous for being famous, and finally social-media “stars” celebrated “simply for a number” — that is, their collection of followers.

Bilton begins by interviewing candidates — mostly aspiring actors and models — choosing three to travel the road to fame. The tricks of the trade include buying followers (7,500 for the cool price of $119.60), renting a mansion to stage glamorous photo shoots and style makeovers in order to look like the cool kids.

If that all sounds a bit cynical, that’s really the whole point, given the fraud and fakery built into the “follower” model. Those totals regularly get padded by bots, Bilton explains, “making people appear more popular than they really are.”

As Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier notes, the whole premise behind influencers hinges on “presenting a lifestyle that people want to mimic.” It’s a marketing approach built on envy, emphasizing perks associated with that to pitch products while allowing the “stars” to cash in on those relationships.

The way people bend that formula to their advantage is an inevitable byproduct of social media, where, as cultural critic Baratunde Thurston puts it, “We’re all making our own movies, and we’re trying to be the star.”

Influencers, however, can elevate those vaguely narcissistic impulses to a different level. Despite the often misleading nature of the images, Bilton points out that it’s in “no one’s best interest” — certainly not those reaping the benefits, including the companies involved — to acknowledge how much of that is manufactured and fabricated.

The main takeaways aren’t just the deception baked into the whole process, but the consumerism at its core — designed not to make people feel better, Bilton suggests, but rather to “make you feel worse” about what you don’t have.

Tellingly, the making of the film overlapped with the outbreak of coronavirus, which actually bolstered the influencer game, creating a ready audience of people with extra time at their fingertips to spent ogling the lives of others.

At a time when the inability to separate fact from fiction has become a dangerous problem for democracy, “Fake Famous” illustrates just how easily those lines are blurred — less for power, in this case, than for fun and profit.

“Fake Famous” premieres Feb. 2 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.

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