Gay men who operate joint Instagram accounts with their boyfriends are reaping money in branded content deals, but some feel their aspirational messages have consequences for the gay community.
Photo via Justinickpgh's Instagram
Before Instagram decided to become Snapchat, gay men used the photo-sharing app as a tamer version of Grindr. They posted shirtless photos, brunch selfies, and portraits of themselves on swan floaties in luxe pools, all in an attempt to get laid. Loath to be left out of a branding opportunity, gay couples started posting much of the same thing, but together, and sugarcoating the imagery with the aspirational caption "#relationshipgoals." Several couples have started joining their accounts to maximize followers and brand potential.
John Tuite and Carlos Santolalla were among the first perpetrators of the trend when they created a joint Instagram account called Jarlos420 for fun. They attracted 22,000 followers without trying; the Wall Street Journal published a profile of the couple in 2014, and Fusion modeling agency signed them as a team.
When they broke up last year, they deleted their account. While the internet has since moved on, the pair spawned a flood of couples with joint accounts, tasteful aesthetics, and DSLRs. The wave of Instacouples have branded themselves on purpose, hoping to make cash in the process.
Justin Moore and Nick Grant, a.k.a. @Justinickpgh, became popular on gay and straight news sites when they started posting aspirational gym selfies together. The couple, who have amassed more than 350,000 followers, met at CrossFit and have been referred to in the media as "swolemates." "I was questioning about whether he was gay, but then I saw he was wearing a Lululemon tank top," Moore says. "We just started talking, and hit it off from there."
Once they coupled, they started posting as a joint Instagram account in February 14, 2015—a Valentine's selfie. By March, they had shot their first shirtless selfie. The photos that followed propelled them into internet fame.
But, after a while, something didn't settle right with them.
"It had initially started as just a way to share with family and friends, but there was this middle phase where I felt like we were sort of devolving into this cisgendered, white gay male stereotype," Moore says. "When we were getting more popular, we took a step back to see what we were putting out there."
When they realized they had done a lot of sexy gym selfies, they decided to make a dramatic shift in what they choose to post. Take for example, this recent photo of the pair grocery shopping for ice cream. In another, they might be at Starbucks with Justin's mom, or more often, in bed with their cat. "Our relationship doesn't revolve around being at the gym and being shirtless. It's us lying in bed, playing with the cat, watching Netflix," Grant says. "We live pretty normal lives."
Although their Instagram has toned down the shirtless photos, the account still generates anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 likes per post. The growing appreciation make the couple worry about how their Instagram presence could affect others' self-esteem.
"Now [our Instagram] plays into this 1990s, Disney-movie feel," says Moore. "With Instagram, there's already this disconnect between reality. We're not necessarily trying to capitalize on our relationship, but we're already showing a glossed over version of it."
Matthew Dempsey, a psychotherapist who specializes in the lives and relationships of gay men, is the first person to point out what we're all thinking when it comes to Instagram couples. "There's always going to be a bit of ego that's involved," he says. "There's always going to be a part of it that's presentational. I think what's important is what percent of it is about presentation versus something that could be a little more meaningful."
Some gay Instacouples seek an aesthetic that errs on the less serious side. The account Yummertime is owned by Brock Williams and Chris Lin, a couple who have made a business out of wearing pastel clothes, grabbing each other's butts, and eating pizza. They've been together for five years, and are emphatic proclaimers of their love and best friendship on Instagram. Their pictures have gathered around 98,500 followers, with an average engagement of about 4,000-5,000 likes per post.
"What it's become has been very organic," Williams says. "We just started having fun, posting photos of each other's outfits, what we're eating—we had no expectations about what it could become, as a brand and a company."
The couple come from marketing backgrounds—Williams as an account executive at an ad agency and Lin a performance marketing manager at a Tokyo-based provider of mobile and online games, among other services. They met in 2011 online. Williams was trying to become a model, and his best friend put him in touch with Lin, who was signed to the Ford modeling agency at the time. He gave Williams advice. A year later, they met in person. Since then, they estimate they haven't been apart for more than ten days.
In June 2014, they started their joint Instagram to capture their daily life. Early posts were a bit broodier, showing off outfits with the occasional goofy selfie. Now there are much brighter photos of the pair eating pizza on the floor, or wearing face masks while one cups the other's chest.
"Sometimes it's difficult to make it seem so happy all the time, because nothing's perfect and every relationship has its own things going on," Lin says.
"I wouldn't say we're putting anything out there that isn't true," Williams says.
Last year, Williams and Lin both quit their day jobs to run their Instagram full-time. They trademarked and incorporated Yummertime and have made partnerships with brands Nordstrom and Coach. Most recently, Yummertime partnered with the Cheesecake Factory; the photos showcase the couple sitting in a plush booth with over a dozen slices of cake in front of them. In a partnership with Hallmark, Yummertime published the transcript of an anniversary card Lin wrote to Williams, styled with chocolates and pink ranunculus.
We're not necessarily trying to capitalize on our relationship, but we're already showing a glossed over version of it.
"If we were to talk about our brand now, the word couple might not even fall into it," Lin says. "Going on adventures all the time, eating a lot, hating working out, loving Katy Perry—these things may be surface level, but we actually talk about them on an everyday basis. That's what we'd see as our brand."
Other food-obsessed gay couple accounts have emerged following Yummertime's success. Probably This, a food blog by Matt Armato and Beau Ciolino, is starting to gain traction; after only a year, nearly 15,000 people have followed their account. Some high-engagement posts receive over 2,000 likes.
"At the very beginning, we were struggling to make it more than just a food blog. Now, where food was very much the focus, I think it's become, especially recently, more about us making the food," Armato says.
They aspired for the brand to look natural. "I don't want anyone to look at our blog and feel bad about how they're living their life, because I've definitely felt that in the past," Ciolino says. "You get lost in this depiction being put out there with these captions that are so elegant, and I'm like, 'Fuck, I've had McDonald's twice this week—like, that sucks.'" Both Armato and Ciolino go back and forth on whether their photos are either "too formulaic," or "off brand," but they also struggle with the idea of turning their relationship into an uplifting brand at all. They criticize one photo of themselves in New Orleans' French Quarter; Armato smiles, and Ciolino looks at the camera with a blank stare. The photo, they admit, feels too posed.
"I have put some thought into the people who are consuming our brand, but I don't know at what line the blog stops being us—our relationship—and starts being its own thing," Ciolino says. "I've never really considered it 'selling our relationship.' I've always thought about it, like, we're going to document our lives. Because I have a background in photography and Matt has a background in writing, we're gonna do it really well."
All the Instagram couples reported trolls of some kind, like anyone who works online. Because the couples put themselves in the position they're in, the price of likes is an invitation to criticism. Dempsey says he believes anyone putting themselves into public limelight involves "a little ego" as it's very "presentational."
"Whenever you take something that is very private and make it public, you're welcoming people into that, with opportunity to comment and chime in. That can be challenging," he says. "We can never make anybody feel anything, so if other people are looking at it and they're feeling bad about their lives or they're feeling jealous, that's not on the person who's putting that out there."
There are more uncomfortably personal problems as well: If an Instagram couple breaks up, they also lose their business. All the couples interviewed here say that if they break up, they would probably discontinue the brand, though they would consider still working together on it as a business.
"What are we gonna do with the blog handle?" Ciolino says. "Fuck! What are we gonna do with our fucking puppy, or our house we have together? Where are we gonna put our families that love each other? If we break up, there are so many more important things on my mind than losing my Instagram handle. If we break up, I'm losing the most important person in my life."