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How one boy grew a popular Instagram feed into a social media empire

Caitlin McGarry | Jan. 21, 2015
How to win followers and influence teenage girls...with the help of some star-making companies and their algorithms, of course.

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Tanner Zagarino is a typical 16-year-old boy. He goes to public high school on Long Island, where he competes for the school wrestling team. He likes clothes and posting selfies with his friends. He jokes around with his mom, who gets roped into those selfies sometimes. He's typical in every way but one: Zagarino rakes in more than $10,000 a month from social media.

His Instagram photos have attracted 439,000 fans. His tweets have drawn more than 93,000 followers. Judging from the comments on his posts, most of his fans are teen and tween girls. Advertisers consider him an "influencer," a guy who can get people to buy stuff. Zagarino already has a fashion blog and is establishing a YouTube presence. He just started a year-long stint as a "Hot Guy" panelist for Seventeen magazine. He can pull in up to $35,000 a month from all this work, says manager Kyle Santillo.

Are you suddenly questioning your career path? You're not alone.

The hustle

This is the current state of celebrity: democratized, personality-driven, and fleeting, where anyone anywhere can be a star. Just look at Alex from Target, whose photo spread like wildfire among teen girls a few months ago. A glance at his Twitter account shows he's already capitalizing on his instant fame. (Though as of December, he still worked at Target.)

Like Alex from Target, Zagarino is an attractive kid, still a bit baby-faced with tousled light brown hair and a preppy style. He's taking more cues from Kanye West now, he says, aging out of the mall and into high fashion.

The road to social media stardom is a little different for everyone, and for some it happens overnight. For others, a lot of hustle, a little good luck, and a gift--good looks, photography, comedy, even the ability to style clothes in interesting ways--leads to online celebrity, however long that lasts. You may not have heard of Tanner Zagarino yet, but ask your little sister, your daughter, or your niece. She probably liked his photo on Instagram.

I met Zagarino on a freezing December afternoon at The Bitter End, a tiny venue on Manhattan's Bleecker Street. He was doing an appearance at Jingle Jam, the kind of concert where adults buy cheap parent passes to accompany their kids. The place was packed with teen girls, and Zagarino was hanging out in the back, admiring handmade signs his fans brought him.

Zagarino doesn't perform at these appearances. He doesn't sing or dance. He's not a comedian. He signs merchandise and hypes up the crowd alongside other social media stars. And when he promotes these appearances on Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, the girls turn out in droves. One flew in from France, another from Colombia, to meet him. Girls have tracked him down on the streets of New York for a chance to take a selfie with him and share it to their own social networks. It's a strange and sudden turn of events for a kid who barely had an Instagram presence a year and a half ago.


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