As well as making the world go round, money—specifically how much you have—is one thing that social media can wildly distort. Here WWW’s editor Katherine Ormerod offers a frank account of her financial life and why her salary often hasn’t exactly reflected her social media lifestyle.

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It’s  About Money

While we might like to sing about cash—Abba’s grabilicious track, Money, Money, Money is high up there, right next to Donna Summer’s She Works Hard For The Money—we certainly don’t like to talk about it. Indeed most of us would prefer to share graphic details about our sex life than reveal our monthly bank balance. What you really have and what you really earn is perhaps the ultimate taboo—and while that’s nothing new, there’s no doubt that adding social media into the mix has distorted the perception of how many disposable dollars we’re all apparently sitting on. 

We’ve seen the Rich Kids of Instagram shows and then exposés of others who try and keep up with them by projecting a lifestyle far away from their financial reality. You only have to ask any high-end hotel manager and they’ll tell you how many people come in, take a picture, post on social media and promptly leave. But it’s not just slightly delusional teens who have Insta-feeds that don’t tally with their paycheck. Indeed, a vast number of women in fashion and social media are doing the same thing—and to an extent I’m one of them.

If you can’t bear a frank discussion around money this is the time to look away—but I promise I do have a (several) point(s). As well as money, this is a discussion about privilege with class connotations which might seem uniquely British, but have parallels around the world. It’s also something as feminists we need to start getting used to talking about. Sharing information about salary compensation has become a major issue—if we’re so secretive about what we earn, how can we ever expect to bridge the gender pay-gap and get the wage we deserve?  The only way we’re going to overcome gendered financial inequality in this lifetime is to stop being polite and start opening up about our earnings.

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Financial Stumbling Blocks

I come from a resolutely modest background. Both of my parents grew up in council houses and my grandparents were working class to the core. Financial insecurity was a huge part of my upbringing and we often struggled for money. Like many baby boomers, my parents managed to climb a rung and buy their own home, but when they split, dad was out of work for a year and mum had to leave my months old brother to hustle for a job. We managed and we weren’t on the breadline—but money was always tight. But what really changed my perception of money was enrolling in a selective private girls’ school when I was 11. My dad’s company (he found a job back in Germany where my brother and I were both born, but even with child maintenance payments and mum’s secretarial salary, we were far from balling) had offered financial aid for education and he stretched his means to cover the shortfall to send me to a school my parents believed would give me the best chance in life.

It was there that I first really felt ‘poor’ and started to understand what ‘rich’ and ‘privilege’ meant. Coming from a background where no-one really understands the education system means you are constantly on the back foot. As the first person in my family to go to private school or go to University, it was unchartered waters for us all and at that age being so completely out of your depth can make you immediately feel like a second class citizen. I remember nonchalantly telling a classmate about using washing up liquid as shampoo and the searing shame of realizing that wasn’t normal when she asked, ‘how impoverished are you?’ I can also still feel the embarrassment of hearing 12-year old girls talking about the shabby carpets and small rooms of our two-up-two-down semi on the wrong side of the tracks.

Being poorer when everyone else is richer is crappy. It can make you feel like an outsider who will never be able to compete, so you might as well give up. But it can also motivate you and drive deep ambition. Over time things changed and inevitably I changed too. After my seven years at private school then four years at Edinburgh, a University populated seemingly exclusively with smart kids from major public schools, I gained a cloak of privilege too. That came with a whole new wardrobe funded by a weekend job at Harvey Nichols. Jeans from 7ForAllMankind, bejewelled camisoles in fuchsia and turquoise silk and so much jangly jewellery you could hear me coming at 20 paces—basically the posh kid uniform circa 2002, just without the posh inside.

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Breaking Into Fashion

The wafer thinness of that veneer of privilege however, became immediately evident when it was time to get a proper job. For starters, I had to intern for free for two years to get my first position in fashion. It is at this point the industry gains its elitist attitude and reputation—basically, at square one. Coming from a lower middle class background, you have no-one to ask about anything which might help you get a job in fashion. The jobs which my family had experience in were either factory-based or clerical, though mum had a stint working as PA to the Head of Creative then in TV casting and voice overs in advertising which gave me some initial insight. But there wasn’t an auntie or a friend I could call on a news desk, or an old-school mate of my dad’s that edited a magazine. You start completely from scratch.

Understandably my family really didn’t understand my career choice. With all that money invested into my education, why the hell was I working for free? For two years? My parents had hoped for a lawyer as a daughter, instead I decided to make my way in an industry which pretty much shuts its doors to anyone who can’t front their rent for a couple of years. I managed by getting a place on a Master’s degree and using the subsidy from my dad’s company (they supported my education until I was 26) for my flat then got a part-time job at Monsoon so I had some money to live. It was a whirlwind time of three jobs—interning during the week, studying for my Master’s and working in a shop. I also moved out to the countryside—which meant a four hour-round commute—so I could afford to work for free at Instyle, Sunday Times Style and The Independent. I was pig-headed, young and tenacious as hell so I made it. Countless other women who might have been more talented than me didn’t—simply because they couldn’t afford it.

I got my first paid job in London at 24 which came with a salary of £15,000. After tax I had just under £1,000 to live on a month. My rent was cheap in the countryside (£350), but the train in was expensive (£200+). After bills, debts and everything else, I lived on about £80 a week. Whenever people who work in fashion talk about investment buys and how a £300 dress is accessible (hands up, I have definitely done this) I always try and remember back to my mid 20s and how much of a fucking struggle it was. It would have helped if everyone was in the same boat. While I was saving to afford a Topshop coat, other first-jobers were coming in wearing Chanel bags and Gucci shoes—you can’t be bitter because income disparity is no-one’s fault, but it can be very hard not to notice the situation. In saying that, there were enough girls in my gang of grafters making it on their own to feel you weren’t entirely alone.

My next job increased my salary to £19,000 and I didn’t get a raise for the next three years. By this point I was on a national magazine working 60 hour weeks. While it was dodgy re: paying rent, it was also when the free clothes thing started. The glamorous lives of women working in fashion that you see on Instagram and Facebook are all created around this booty. The holidays, the flights, the shoes, the bags, the make-up, you name it—they probably got it for free or at least at a hefty discount.  At the beginning, it was a swanky breakfast here and there and a dress from River Island. Over the course of my career it’s become designer bags, business class flights and hotel suites in Tokyo, Sao Paolo and New York. But the key is that this wasn’t a lifestyle which I had access to through my own bank account. It was only as Katherine from Grazia or Style or wherever I was working at the time.

Taking Control Of Your Finances

Yes, the perks are bloody fantastic, but the reality is that you’re still actually earning pennies. Slowly over my twenties my salaries crept up–not because you ever get a wage increase on a magazine (not one in 10 years), but because I changed jobs fairly regularly and negotiated as hard as I could. By 27 I was earning £30,000 and when I left my last staffer role on a magazine aged 31 I was up to £36k. On that salary I lived a more secure life, but I was by this point in my 30s, single again and really wanted to buy a home for myself. In London. And maybe set up and ISA. The numbers just didn’t add up, so I left a job I loved—exclusively because of money̦—and decided to set up my own agency.

I immediately lost a lot of the perks which come with a magazine job. I’m not going to say it didn’t chafe to get my flight status demoted (we’re really at the sharp end of first world problems here) and I definitely missed the shoes. But I couldn’t afford to go to the dentist or even consider getting a mortgage anywhere in Greater London on my magazine salary and now I was older, those were things I really cared about. Living on accessories is fine when you’re young, but to be a fully independent woman who isn’t waiting for Prince Charming to rescue her means making financially responsible decisions. And living a life for the perks had started to feel irresponsible.

I’ll go into detail elsewhere on what it was like setting up my business (take away = hard, but ultimately great), but suffice it to say that within a year I was earning more than double my magazine salary. After that year, I moved on to an in-house editorial role in fashion tech, which I think will probably my last ‘job’, with a competitive salary comparable to my business earnings and eighteen months later I bought a flat. While my dad—yet again—helped and my boyfriend chipped in (we have a joint mortgage), the majority of the deposit was all mine and the mortgage was based mainly on my earnings. Now I’m back working for myself again, life isn’t straightforward and I feel a huge amount of angst about money that a secure salary would mitigate. The first few months of waiting for invoices to be paid are brutal—you’re basically living on savings and credit cards. But ultimately I know I can make a good salary on my own and live a life of comfort far beyond what my parents ever had.

The Real Rich of Instagram

So why go into this all in such exhaustive detail? Basically because I’m pretty certain that if Instagram had existed when I’d started out I’d have concluded that everyone was too rich and privileged for me to even try to break in. When you work in a fashion office, you see women wearing nice clothes and handbags. But you can recognize their clothes and handbags. When you look on Instagram, people in fashion now seem to have new clothes and handbags every single day. Or even twice a day. They are not just wealthy; they are seemingly fricking millionaires. I make real effort to really wear my clothes—even at fashion week. I wore a skirt in Copenhagen last month which got its fashion week debut in 2015 and has been worn every season since. If I buy a pair of shoes, I’ll wear them in circa 50 Instagram posts before they get a rest. I try to keep things real. But now I run my website and have built a fair Instagram following, I do get lent things for fashion week and get sent gifts by brands most weeks. So my wardrobe has been inflated far, far beyond what I could ever afford. A lot of my travel is self-funded and my friends and I—all in our 30s—most often stay in each other’s flats around the world rather than spending money we don’t have on hotels. But I do also get flown and hosted abroad. Not everything in my life or on Instagram is a free-dinner, but a lot of it is. This so exponentially misrepresents the true picture of my financial situation.

Until last year I lived with two other people in a two bedroom flat. We shared a tiny, mould edged bathroom and you couldn’t properly close the windows. Let’s just say it looked great in candlelight. Recently a magazine wanted to take my picture in my new flat and in the brief the editor had called for shots to be taken in at least three rooms. Unless one of the rooms was going to be the loo there was going to be a problem. I’ve been in my flat for seven months and I can still only afford three dining chairs (ok, they are Eames and not Ikea, but it can seem like people snap their fingers and magically their home is furnished, when the truth is that shit costs a lot of money). It is SO easy to presume from social media that people have vast sums of cash, that they have always had money and that they never struggle financially.

When you come from a poorer background, social media can make success—be it in fashion, beauty, design, home, fitness—you name it—seem so completely remote from your reality. It can also drive really dangerous and irresponsible financial behaviour.  Why not put that Zara haul on the credit card when everyone else seems to have a new Chloe bag every week? But so much of it—at least from the fashion/influencer perspective—isn’t real and I hope this account helps to convey that. I wasn’t raised with money, I didn’t have enough for most of my 20s and I made a career in fashion without a single industry contact. A lot of my friends and colleagues are in the same position and are making ends meet in crazily expensive cities (NYC and London in particular) and most usually living in the red. While they might have brand new bags which keep them up with the Instagram Jones’, they are struggling just as hard to get on the property ladder. ‘Two thousand dollar bag with no cash in your purse,’ may be Kanye’s most eloquent depiction of contemporary materialism and it certainly applies here.

Make no mistake, hundreds of young bloggers are making bank and the new social media economy has definitely broadened the ability for women from all backgrounds to earn a more than respectable living from fashion. But plenty of them aren’t anywhere near as wealthy as you might think and certainly those ritzy magazine jobs you might have coveted, are still as low paid and impenetrable as they ever were.  Ultimately the message is to take everything on social media with a pinch of salt and remember that you have no idea if all that ‘gram swag is ‘real’ or not. From the scores of friends I’ve made in the industry only very few are seriously rolling in it. Some do come from privilege, some earn a ton and whittle it away, but the vast majority are ‘normal’ and certainly don’t have salaries that could cover their digital life. If you’re a young girl in your 20s working in fashion for peanuts, just know that you are NOT alone—indeed plenty of the people you follow on social media are going through the exact same thing.  

So, in short these jetset lifestyles which are so beautifully curated across social media can make the industry seem a) impossible to break into if you don’t come from privilege and b) a gravy train if you can. Neither are entirely true, though there is a seed in both. I do want to say it is possible to find both financial security and success in fashion even if you don’t know how to pronounce Gstaad and in hindsight, every step of my career has been worth it. I love what I do, I’ve had incredible opportunities and I do have a nice stiletto collection as well as a house to call my own. But I’m a long way from being a millionaire, so if that’s really what you want might I suggest a career in law?

Cover Image: Daniela Cadore