The popular girls in school aren't just famous in the cafeteria anymore — they're idolized by strangers across the Internet, fueled by Instagram's "Explore" tab. Alongside what you would expect to be Instagram's most popular posts — what Kim Kardashian had for dinner usually makes it onto the page, selfies from a member of One Direction — are filtered masterpieces from otherwise anonymous teen girls. Tap on a photo of a high schooler in her cheerleading uniform and a sky-high ponytail, and you'll discover an entire world of "cheerlebrities" — underage girls with hundreds of thousands of fans. They post photos of themselves hanging out at the gym, the pool, and goofing off in chemistry class, all of which get thousands of "likes." Gabi Butler, a "cheer-famous" 10th grader from California, tells me she's been posting to Instagram for about a year. As of this writing, she has 215,137 followers.
With more and more teens commanding smartphones, Instagram has become a reflection of one's social status. Just like in high school, cheerleaders rise to the top. But it's not just high school students following them — being popular on the Internet unfortunately means being popular with some of the creeps who populate it.
Instagram is a window into the private lives of cheerlebrities: their massive following knows who they're dating, what tumbling moves they can do, and what Bible verses are their favorites. Even Victoria's Secret models have been sucked into the cheerlebrity world:
Just had to pull myself out of this weird Instagram rabbit hole of competition cheerleaders and their boyfriends and oversexed groupies— christine teigen (@chrissyteigen) November 19, 2013
"I didn't expect to get so many, I just kind of did my own thing and posted whatever I was doing, like a lot of cheer stuff," Gabi told The Wire. She already had a lot of followers on Facebook, "so when Instagram came out, everybody was like 'oh, all the cheer-famous people must have Instagram.' ... It kind of just got bigger and bigger."
She posts a mix of cheer photos featuring her competitive squad, Cali Smoed, selfies, and silly shots with friends.
Most of the comments she gets are from strangers, fellow young girls who say Gabi inspires them. And then there are comments like these:
While Instagram has been a great place for high-schoolers to share photos with friends (and maybe get famous in the process), it is also now a place for men to find photos of 15-year-olds wearing sports bras.
Gabi's parents seem to know what she's up to online, however. Her mom and dad stayed on the line during our interview, sometimes interjecting their own comments about Gabi's cheerlebrity status. Still Gabi insists, "They let me do my thing." Sometimes her dad "will [help] if I'm having trouble answering messages on Facebook, 'cause it's to the point of, like, a hundred messages a day."
Gabi says she doesn't focus on her looks when posting photos, although some of the other cheerlebrities do. "I know some of them, like Jamie Andries and Carly Manning on Cheer Athletics. What they're known for is kind of like the hair and makeup and abs," she says, giggling. "I'm kind of like the opposite. Like, I post a lot of videos of me tumbling, hard work stuff, and motivating things."
When asked if she thinks girls feel pressure to post pretty photos of themselves, she says yes. "They realize, 'oh, if I post pictures of my makeup and hair, everybody will start to notice me.' Because that's what a lot of girls are known for on Instagram — how pretty they look or their makeup. A lot of them get a lot of followers 'cause of how they dress themselves." But she tries not to be vain: "I sometimes put the most embarrassing photos on Instagram." She adds later, "I don't really care how I look when I'm" cheerleading.
Carly Manning, who didn't respond to an interview request, is perhaps the most famous cheerlebrity, if Internet cheer forums are to be believed. Even her boyfriend, Matt, is Instagram-famous. He recently tweeted a photo of two younger kids who dressed up like Carly and Matt for Halloween.
JT and his gf are me and Carly for Halloween how freaking cute 😊 pic.twitter.com/jcMXHYq3Ad— Matt Smith (@CAmatty13) October 31, 2013
In the smartphone age, it's not enough to be the hottest couple at prom anymore. Teens who Carly and Matt have never met in real life are jealous of their "perfect relationship." Fans make Youtube videos with photos of the couple set to romantic country songs. (Carly and Matt live in Texas.)
Gabi has similarly obsessed fans. One created a portrait of her, which Gabi posted to her Facebook.
But Gabi says people IRL don't make a big deal about her Insta-fame. "Nobody's ever really been like 'Oh, you're Gabi Butler' ... I mainly have like, cheer followers. I'm sure there's a handful of school people [who follow me]."
And while cheerlebrities and cheer-wannabes must feel pressure to increase their following, Gabi doesn't get too worked up about it. According to her, life's not about Insta-fame, anyway. Last week she tweeted,
Followers, likes, RT... These things have no meaning. Help someone you just met be better or befriend someone without friends. #TrueMeaning— Gabi Butler (@GabiButlerCheer) December 11, 2013
She got 25 retweets and 88 favorites. Her 52,608 Twitter followers approved.
This article caused quite a stir in Cheer World. Read the follow-up here.