Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Chattanooga-based social media influencer Ayesha Ophelia is photgraphed at Common House.

From teenagers with dance moves to fashion or fitness enthusiasts with a knack for video editing, social media has ushered in a new kind of celebrity: the influencer.

Sometimes called thought leaders or content creators, influencers are people who have successfully cultivated a personal, online brand, attracting a sizeable, loyal audience through their photos, videos and posts on such platforms as Instagram, TikTok, Facebook or YouTube. Social media users may follow influencers for their expertise on a particular subject or simply for entertainment — like those TikTok dances.

And it can be a lucrative job.

While movie and TV stars have long been recruited to pitch products in advertising campaigns, influencers now have big appeal to many marketers, allowing them to earn money from product placement or endorsements.

Of course, capturing the attention of others requires an influencer to create content beyond the products they're paid to market. To remain relevant, they must be relatable to their audience — which involves the right blend of branding and personality.

"The term influencer isn't one I would give myself," says Ayesha Ophelia, a Chattanoogan with 79,000 followers on Instagram. "I would say I'm a creator first and foremost. I'm a free spirit. I'm a philosopher type. I'm a person who is speaking up about the things I care about and that has resonated with people. If anything I'm leading people home to themselves."

Recently, we talked to Ophelia and a few other Chattanooga-based influencers about what it's like to live their lives and earn a living with tens or hundreds of thousands of people watching.

*The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Kyle House, left, and Kyle Miller practice dance moves at Kyle House Fitness.

Kyle Miller and Kyle House


- 49.1K followers on Instagram

- 67.3K followers on TikTok

- Age? 36 (Kyle Miller) and 38 (Kyle House)

- What's your niche? LGBT relationships, fitness, dancing

"A big thing for us is LGBT relationships. We've been together for 17 years. We're engaged and own a business together, and we like to highlight that. Being from Tennessee, that gets a lot of attention — that we're so open and out in public in an area that's not really well known nationally for being the most welcoming for LGBT individuals."

Which social media platform do you use most? We use TikTok and Instagram pretty evenly, just in different ways. What we've found is that what people want to see on TikTok is not usually what people want to see on Instagram ... On TikTok, we found that people, of course, love any type of dancing. Kyle [House] is a cheerleader, and I went to Center for Creative Arts here in Chattanooga and took a lot of dance. It's something that we always loved, and we kind of found an outlet for it. We do fun little dances and fitness challenges and things like that.

TikTok is definitely more time-consuming — with Instagram you can do an abundance of still photography, and it's super easy to generate content. With TikTok you really have to be on top of every single trend ... There's a lot of choreography, and there's definitely a lot larger entertainment value to TikTok than there is to Instagram.

- How would you describe your audience? What we found very interesting is that our TikTok is about 70% female followers, and our Instagram is about 80% male. So it's a complete flip of audience — what they're looking for, what they enjoy seeing and then the demographics as well. There's not a huge amount of overlap between followers on the two platforms, which is nice because we get to talk with two audiences.

I would say Instagram is set up for building relationships more than TikTok is. TikTok is one and done; people will comment, but there's not a lot of back and forth. There are no direct messages. But on Instagram, we get about 500 messages a day, and we respond to every single one of them.

- How did you build a following? I think the education that we both received and experiences that we have in our careers have been a huge help for us. My [Kyle Miller] degree is in entertainment marketing and management, and with my degree and my experience helping people really get their stories out there and their face out there, it just made sense that we started doing it ourselves.

- Do you get paid to post? The most we've been paid for a single post — a video for IGTV — was almost $1,000. A lot of times [we get paid in] free products and things like that. Or, like with [wearable fitness tracker company] WHOOP, we have a partnership where we get paid when people purchase something using our links. Some of it's instant money, and some of it's residual where it comes and goes throughout the month depending on how much promotion we do for certain things.

- Do you have another job? We own Kyle House Fitness on the Southside, and it's been around since 2016. And I [Kyle Miller] do national public relations and local public relations, marketing and communications as a consultant.

- What is it like to stage photos? We try to stay as organic as we possibly can, not doing things that are too overly staged and things like that. But of course, whenever you do brand partnerships they have specific rules you have to follow, so you do have to stage stuff like that. About 60% of the stuff we do isn't really as planned on Instagram, it's really just our life. TikTok, we plan out a lot of the time because you have to learn dances, and it's kind of like scripting a little 15- to 30-second script.

- Have you ever been recognized in public by someone you don't know? Wherever we go, when we go to big cities, a lot of people — especially the gay male population — either know us or follow us, and and we've either met them out in public or met them through Instagram. Since we've got onto TikTok, that's when we started being yelled at on the street by people we didn't know and haven't met.

- What are some brands you've been paid to promote?

> Hims, men's telehealth service

> Jed North, workout clothes company

> WHOOP, wearable fitness tracker

> Bellhop, moving company

> Activ Eyewear

> Bermies Swimwear

>Goodr Sunglasses

> True Notions, underwear brand

> Moxy Hotels Chicago


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Photo contributed by Jourdan Gandy / Chattanoogan Jourdan Gandy is a social media book influencer with more than 30,000 followers on Instagram.

Jourdan Gandy


- 30.7K followers on Instagram

- Age? 31

- What's your niche? Books

- How would you describe your audience? They're all readers, for sure. Most of them, about 90%, are 20- to mid-30-year-old females from all over the globe. My main audience is in the United States, but 30% of my audience is in the U.K. and 20% is in Asia. So I have followers from all over the world, which is nice because I get to interact with them and learn about their cultures.

- How did you build a following? A lot of people tell me that the reason they follow me is they really like my stories and they feel like I'm very down-to-earth and don't come off as fake. I'm very genuine, and that's reflected in my captions as well. I don't know how people found me, but that's why they stick around I guess.

- Do you have another job? No.

I probably spend a few hours a day either working on content or on my account, posting or interacting with people. So it's not 40 hours a week, but definitely 20 hours a week. And on weeks where I batch-create content, it's going to be 25-30 hours a week, probably.

- How do you get paid? I am paid by publishers, and then I do a lot of work with independent authors who self publish their own books or who work with smaller imprints.

Usually, the way it works with traditional publishers is they will send out the books that are coming out that quarter, and you get to choose which ones you like. You rank them, like "I really want this, and I don't want this book." ... Not all of the books they send you will be ones they'll pay you to post about, but some of them are.

When you request the books, you don't know which ones are going to be paid and which ones you aren't going to be paid for, which is how books really differ from lifestyle blogging, where people will be paid a few hundred dollars for a picture of lip gloss — whereas some people in the book community want you to do hours of work for $20. I'm not going to do that because I'd rather read another book or post another book that I like.

Now I do two to three sponsored posts per week, which is great. It pays for my kids to go to preschool.


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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Chattanooga-based social media influencer Ayesha Ophelia is photgraphed at Common House.

Ayesha Ophelia


- 79K followers on Instagram

- Age: 42

- What's your niche? Wild hearts, spiritually minded, curious folks

- How would you describe your audience? Open, questioning, empathetic people who want to continue their unique path of growth. The audience is mostly women who want to learn how to listen to their heart and be fully expressed in life.

- How did you build a following? Through diligence, creativity and almost daily devotion over the course of the last seven years.

- What is it like to stage photos? My background is in photography, graphic design and multimedia, so I feel right at home creating content. It's not so much staging as it is being intuitive, creative and open to what comes through me and what the brand represents.

- Have you ever been recognized in public by someone you don't know? Yes, and the crazy part is this happens all over the world...even internationally. The internet has made the world so much smaller. We are all so connected.

- What are some brands you've been paid to promote?

> Hara The Label, organic bamboo women's clothing company

> Foria CBD products

> Gaia TV, streaming media company

> Anima Mundi, herbal medicine store

> Girl Gaze, online business platform for female and nonbinary creators


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Photo by Christan Cooper / In addition to hair and makeup tips, Cortney Swann says she also posts about being a mom.

Cortney Swann


- 151K followers on Instagram

- Age? 32

- What's your niche? Hair and makeup tips

- How would you describe your audience? Wonderful! Loyal! Fun! Real! Mostly women, who are juggling life and trying to do their best.

- How did you build a following? I started with makeup and hair tutorials on Facebook, and it grew to people who would want to watch and follow along with my everyday life.

- Do you have another job? No.

- How much are you paid to post? Each collaboration is different, but it's based on the brand and what type of content they request. Like, only posting Instagram/Facebook stories would be a different rate than a post, three stories and a LIVE video.

- What is it like to stage photos? I was a photographer for eight years, so it's fun to still get to do the creative side of sharing products. [My staff and I] also have photographers who edit and photograph a lot of our content.

- Have you ever had a post go viral? Hair videos go viral all the time, and it's so fun to connect to new people. But most of my posts that go viral are on body positivity. I know how hard it can be to love your ever-changing body and keep up with the world's standards, so if I can help anyone feel more empowered and know that they are strong, beautiful and have purpose — that's a good day.

What are some brands you've been paid to promote?

> Walmart


> L'ange Hair, beauty product company

> Seint, makeup company

> HSN, formerly Home Shopping Network

> Goli Nutrition, vitamin and wellness company

> Like to Know It, shopping discovery app