deep dives

The Mysteries of Cheerleader Instagram

Photo: Dennis Hallinan/Getty Images

Here is the difference between Good Instagram and Great Instagram:

I first noticed cheer Instagram as a big-haired anomaly in my Explore tab. I’ve been following for over three years, and here is what I know for sure about its members — they are mostly white, mostly blonde, and always ripped.

The protagonists of cheer Instagram get their start at the Plano, Texas, location of the chain all-star cheerleading gym Cheer Athletics. Cheer Athletics teams are named after real cats (e.g., Pumas, Panthers), imaginary cats (QueenCats, SavageCats), and cat-related words (Prowlers). Tuition is $349/month, not including practicewear ($250), uniforms (~$300), performance makeup kits (~$40), USASF fees ($30), and travel expenses during competition. The Cheer Athletics club has won almost twice as many World Championship medals as the next leading club, California All Stars (boooooo).

The Cheetahs — Cheer Athletics’ coed, level-5 team — seem to produce the most Instagram celebrities. Since I started following in 2013, my initial Cheetahs cohort has graduated high school and moved on to college. Jamie Andries (565,000 followers) now cheers for the University of Oklahoma. Her best friend, Peyton Mabry (533,000 followers), goes to Texas Christian University. This pair is the center of a vast cheer constellation that goes deep proportional to how much time you have to spend exploring it. Follow their friends, their gym, and their protégés, plus this random guy who photographs it all. Compared to other online universes of equal flash and magnitude, the cast of characters has enjoyed scant coverage in mainstream media. Interviews tend to focus on the athletes as social-media prodigies, revealing little about the hair-teasing, weight-lifting, spit-swapping, carbo-loading, and drama I imagine behind the scenes.

Cheer Instagram posts exist in three primary configurations: the in-uniform team photo, the in-uniform bestie photo, and the casual-dress solo pic. These posts, despite their profusion, reveal almost nothing about the lives of the women who populate them. Once the initial shock of hair, muscles, and similarity wears off, the driving force behind fandom becomes figuring out what’s not in the frame. How do they train? What do they eat? Do they party? Do they date? (Men appear only in the context of lifting women up.)

Compared to my own social-media presence and the profiles of most other young women I know, the members of cheer Instagram display superhuman restraint. Unlike the rest of us, they never seem to backslide into late-night thirsty selfies or shameful, self-gratifying rants. Tagged photos reveal no drunken antics. Rivalries exist at the team level only. If I were imbued with such hotness and reach, I like to think I’d exploit it for the purpose of partying with C-list rappers or finding my way onto yachts. But cheer Instagram never overflows its bounds — it’s a closed universe. If its members participate in any of the ordinary antics that seem tailor-made for the sexy and young, we’ll never know. Follow the chain of tagged profiles and all you’ll ever find is more cheerleading. It’s a test to unearth even a single non-cheerleader friend.

I like to imagine there’s conspiracy at play. Nothing too sinister, just an annual meeting of the top cheer celebrities. (Like Davos, but everyone has more followers.) How else could the boundaries of their collective presence stay so pristine for so long, if not for some mutual agreement over where the camera’s purview ends? Individual corporations with paid social-strategy teams can’t even come close to this level of spotless image maintenance, and they don’t have to spend any time on a rowdy party-school campus. Then again, maybe it makes sense that cheer Instagram should set the precedent. A single cheerleader like Andries has more Instagram followers than Papa John’s Pizza, Walmart, Walgreens, and Heinz — combined.

The likeliest answer, though, is that there simply isn’t that much dirt to unearth. Two years ago, 2014 saw an alleged boyfriend-stealing scandal, but in the end, it was mostly made-up in the imagination of fans. Between school, cheer, and running their online empires, it’s possible that cheer Instagram celebrities have time for little else. I’ll never know. Cheer Instagram is Great Instagram, and wondering is the whole appeal.