Follow Me is a weeklong series about personal brands, for better or for worse.
A few weeks ago, the Cut’s social media editor, Nana Agyemang, sent me a link to an Instagram profile. “I’m obsessed with this couple,” she wrote in all caps. “I think they live in Paris? Maybe Spain? I can’t tell.”
The account was only three months old and had a one-word bio, “Samsara,” spelled out in a cool Gothic script. It featured candid-style photos of an attractive couple wearing impeccably coordinated outfits and eating fast food that matched their clothing. In one, they’re walking through a parking lot in head-to-toe mauve, looking sleepy or possibly hungover; he’s stuffing his face with a pink-frosted donut that’s the same color as the lighter she’s just used for her cigarette. They look at once tacky and glamorous, posed and awkward, solemn and ridiculous. I loved it. And so did their 26,200 followers, who — like me — couldn’t figure out who they were.
“Are you guys actors, models — what do you do to be so perfect?” demanded one commenter. Another: “Who takes these photos and who are you people?” Samsara replied coyly with “thank u” and heart emojis, respectively.
Nana and I did some stalking of our own, but came up empty. A friend of mine thought she recognized the woman from Love & Hip Hop, but it was a false lead. Another colleague was briefly certain that the guy was a Formula 1 racer. I speculated that the whole thing was some photographer’s weird art project, a Cindy Sherman-esque riff on fame and social media.
As it turns out, they’re two Italian fashion students, Sara Morsillo and Samuel Batista, who met a year ago at the Sapienza University of Rome. (Their bio — Samsara — is a combination of their names.) When I reached them via WhatsApp video chat, they explained they were in the middle of moving to Milan, where they will continue their studies. Sam, 21, also works full-time at a bar; Sara, 22, manages the account. They conceptualize and style the images together, and take the photos themselves using a tripod.
“On social media, it doesn’t matter who you really are,” said Sam. “People comment on our profile, ‘Who are you?’ But actually, I think they don’t want to know. They prefer the idea that you are someone. And this gives us many possibilities.”
The couple came up with the idea for the account last summer. “Our concept is to show the three top things that people like to show on social media: love, fashion, and food,” said Sara. When I asked if the idea was to parody an aspirational lifestyle, she nodded vigorously. “In Italian, it is aspirazionale — you would like to be this way.” On Instagram, they look like rich, well-dressed, in-love celebrities captured in the midst of their day-to-day lives; in reality, they are regular students in $20 pants from Asos, painstakingly composing each outfit and photo. “It is meant to be — satirico?” Sam paused, bending over his phone to look up the word. “Satire.”
“I’m sure that if, tomorrow, I started to put my real life on social media, people would stop following me,” he continued. And that’s part of the point: “Outside of social media, this reality does not exist.” Even for actual famous people, added Sara. Their Instagram handle, @zoomthashit, was inspired by the common urge to zoom in on photos of celebrities and search for flaws. “Like cellulite,” she said gleefully, miming a pincerlike zooming motion with her thumb and forefinger.
Both are astonished by their newfound influencer status. “We started it as sort of a joke. But now it is getting serious,” said Sam. As for what’s next, they expressed interest in figuring out how to make this project their full-time job. The irony is, of course, that they might turn into the authentic version of what they originally meant to parody. In showing that you don’t have to be rich or famous to look rich and famous online, perhaps they’ll become both.
In fact, the crossover has already begun. Brands have started reaching out, and the couple now accept free merchandise, which they tag in their photos. In a recent post, they’re dressed in sharp, futuristic black-and-white outfits from the unisex brand Biskit, walking next to what appears to be a traffic circle and clutching bananas. They look like models beamed down from space, especially compared to the genuinely normal-looking person in jeans and a T-shirt who just happened to wander into the frame behind them.