People who have been following me for a while will recognize a pattern to which my life has conformed. Something throws me off my game, I go through a period of travail, and then at some point the work pays off and I am rebooted. This has happened over and over, so much so that I started to feel self-conscious about it, wondering if I’m starting to sound like a broken record. Is there something wrong with me that my life has had this many ups and downs? My first fall was when I went through my first real breakup at age 31 at the same time I was branching out after moving on from working for Emily Henderson. After that I got a great job at a fun startup, was making lots of money, and got a new boyfriend. Everything was perfect! Then that new boyfriend dumped me at the same time that the startup started to go south, laying off all their higher ups (ie me and other members of the executive team). But then after that I wrote a book and got a TV show. All was well again! And then the pandemic happened and the show was cancelled. And all was not well again. Are you dizzy yet? All of this has happened in the past nine years.
In 2013 when I went through that first breakup, I shared the experience on my brand new Instagram account. At the time, not a lot of people were doing the vulnerability thing. Instagram was all big red balloons, terrible “retro” filters, and lattes. And you’d think in the subsequent nine years things would have changed. But largely, they haven’t. While I have been inspired to see friends and strangers share their life challenges along with their triumphs, I’ve been a little turned off by the fact that social media remains, predominantly, a space to advertise the perfection of you and your life. Contrasting the struggles many are feeling in the pandemic to the LOOK-AT-ME-I’M-PERFECT content shared by influencers and celebrities reveals the lack of generosity and realness that seems to be plaguing all social media platforms.
I’m of a few different minds here. Firstly, I think it’s a disservice to promote only the positive aspects of your life because it creates an environment where the people who follow you, who consciously or subconsciously will judge their own lives through the prism of the “reality” you’re presenting, will see your unencumbered joy, success, and perfection and feel they’ve somehow fallen short. Another side of me thinks, “What’s wrong with sharing life’s happy moments?” With my own content feed, I’ve tried to strike a kind of balance between the two, showing gratitude for the opportunities and privileges I feel lucky to enjoy while not glossing over the aspects of my life that have been not-so-perfect.
In my attempt to keep things light enough to avoid losing eyeballs, I’ve struggled to find that sweet spot between complaining (a pastime I admittedly love) and bragging (something I’ve never really been attracted to in myself or in others – I’d rather discover your awesomeness slowly over time rather than be constantly bonked over the head with it). So over the past two years I have made a number of vague references to challenges going on in the background while not fully addressing them publicly – I didn’t want to seem like I was being too “negative.” My goal today is to go over what exactly went wrong in the past two years, since the onslaught of covid and a number of personal and professional hiccups. I’m doing this as a means of expressing solidarity with other freelance creatives who may have hit a streak of bad luck as much as I’m doing it for myself to fully understand what went wrong and when as well as to own up to the mistakes I’ve made that landed me here (which are plentiful).
Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I understand my own privilege in this situation. I was lucky to have been in a financial spot in 2020 that allowed me to fulfill my life dream of buying a home. If I tried to buy this house now, it’s unlikely that my income would qualify me. The existence of my career is in and of itself kind of a fluke, a random opportunity that I was given based on some arbitrary, innate realities about who I am, how I act, and how I look (my design career began when I was cast to play a design assistant on a TV show). That isn’t to say I didn’t work for all of this since I was a child, ceaselessly toiling to get perfect grades, go to the “right” schools, and working my way up from the bottom in the world of production. But bottom line, I understand that I am part of a small group of known design influencers (yeah, I hate that word too but it’s the easiest way to describe the world I’m in) who are given opportunities based on superficial stats and how many followers we have.
So, let’s get started. Here is a summary of the past two years from my perspective, a collection of events that, in retrospect, seem like a continuing comedy of errors.
September 2019 to July 2020
I began working on the second season of my HGTV show in September 2019. While having a TV show may sound glamorous, my experience has been that they involve an extreme amount of work that makes having a social life impossible. My feelings about TV are complicated. Firstly, I am endlessly thankful that I was given the opportunity to share stories (mine and others) to a new audience. It is an honor to have your show idea funded by a network and to see it come to life. But it is a ton of gritty, dirty, physical work (one example: me ripping out then replanting an entire yard’s worth of vegetation, alone, under the beating full sun of Irvine, California in 95 degree heat from 9 am to 6 PM). A typical day shooting “Build Me Up” involved me waking up at 4:30 or 5 AM, driving myself 2-3 hours (each way) to our shooting location, filming until 5 or 6, then driving 2-3 hours home, rarely getting home before 8 or 9, where I’d eat my first meal of the day. I didn’t tend to eat during the day because A) I don’t like the feeling of food churning in my stomach while a microphone was strapped around my belly with a strap/girdle contraption that was very constraining and B) Our shooting locations didn’t consistently have private, clean bathrooms to use. So typically I’d be standing for 12-14 hour a day on no food. And because I didn’t have any help with hair, makeup, or wardrobe, it was up to me to stay as perfect looking as possible throughout the day while trying to find a place to change where there often weren’t any private places. Because we often shot multiple days, out of order, on any given day, I had to keep track of my wardrobe and continuity of what I’d be wearing at what point in the show (to make things seem like they’re moving along at a logical pace, HGTV shows often film scenes out of sequence to save time and money). I also had to constantly be on top of powdering my stupid oily face because I am sweaty and VERY shiny (on a positive note, I’m convinced having acne as a teen and oily skin now has kept me looking a lot younger than I should despite being the worst kind of human for aging, a white).
I plan on writing a whole, saucy post about what it’s actually like to be on an HGTV show so I’ll keep these descriptives to a minimum but the main takeaway here is that from September 2019 to July 2020 my life was fully taken over by shooting the show. It was wonderful, exhilarating, and absolutely worth it and I would do it again, but it was all-encompassing. So while many people were given a bit of room to privately process the beginning of covid, I worked continuously for the first few terrifying months of the pandemic with very little protection. While everyone else was isolating, my design team and I were going to every store possible before they closed down to get the furniture we needed in time for our show to meet its (immovable, even in the time of covid) deadline. It’s a miracle no one got covid because there weren’t any clear guidelines for safety. We just tried to wear masks and not stand too close to each other while we were shooting scenes.
One of the first things HGTV asked for when covid began was self-shot footage they could use to promote covid safety in a commercial. The irony of them asking us to tout how we were all so happy to be safe and sound at home while me and my entire crew risked getting covid every day with absolutely no network oversight was not lost on me. HGTV is a business and they needed content when they needed content, pandemic be damned. I haven’t chatted much about this stuff yet because I thought I’d get in trouble or burn professional bridges. But I’ve seen so many other HGTV hosts (seemingly feeling a similar sense of censorship) do posts about “what it’s actually like to have an HGTV show” that are all fluff and bullshit meant to keep them in good graces with the network. From my experience, and from my discussions with a number of HGTV’s on-air talent (we tend to meet each other) I think the rosy picture of the behind-the-scenes of these shows is a misrepresentation for almost all the network’s hosts, aside from the Property Brothers who have earned their right to be treated like legit celebrities by producing the most popular shows for the network and Christina on the Coast who has earned her right to be treated like an actual celebrity by getting married every year.
While I’m not painting the prettiest picture of the underworld of HGTV, I have to say that I have only positive things to say about everyone I came into contact with there, from the executive producers I’ve known for over ten years since working on Emily’s show “Secrets from a Stylist” to the marketing team and the coordinators in the office. I’m not quite sure who the “bad guy” (ie the person dictating that budgets for these shows be so unworkably small that they make life on set unsustainable for everyone from top to bottom) is in this situation but I’m guessing someone very high up. The CEO of Discovery (which owns HGTV) is one of the richest people in media. Meanwhile, for my ten months of work on the second season of my show, I made $5000 per episode, totaling $40,000. After taxes and my agent fees, my take home was $17,500. “Build Me Up” came from an original concept I created, based on my own life. Broken down, my pay was about $1750/month or $437.50/week (for those of you at home doing the math that’s $11/hour), which I’m pretty sure means I was the lowest paid person on set (the rest of the crew was paid weekly, not a per-episode rate like I was so as the show dragged months past its original shooting schedule, everyone else kept getting paid while I didn’t, leading me to begin dwindling down my savings even before the pandemic started). Someone made hundreds of thousands of dollars (millions?) off of my original idea and likeness but that someone was definitely not me. I know this because this show has aired in a ton of markets AROUND THE WORLD, I still get messages from followers in faraway countries constantly telling me they’re watching my show for the first time. And someone (again, not me) makes money each time the show is aired in a new market.
I know this sounds like a lot of sour grapes, but the reason I’m bringing it up is to build the story of the past two years. Also, in this time of rectifying problematic abuses of power in all industries, it felt weird to be in the receiving end of such an inequitable work situation and to keep my mouth shut while I happily smiled about my gratitude for the opportunities HGTV provided (which, make mistake, I am thankful for). One might wonder why, when I emerged from the isolation of shooting a show during covid, I didn’t just return to my regular day job of working with clients. The reason I didn’t is that it’s impossible to run a full private design practice while also working a more than full time on a show. And the years previous to shooting “Build Me Up” were filled with pitching and selling the show, writing and promoting my book, and restarting my career after being laid off a now defunct design startup. So that’s why I wasn’t immediately ready to hit the road running with design clients when the show ended and I emerged into stilted covid economy.
When “Build Me Up” aired in July 2020, it seemed to be going really well. We were getting better numbers than Martha Stewart’s show (which admittedly was at a less prominent time slot but still, it’s Martha!). I was visiting my parents at their Sonoma County home, where I was sleeping in the downstairs bedroom and only interacting with my parents outside at a distance of twelve or more feet because the virus was still confusing and terrifying, when I got the call that after three weeks of (honestly decent, not cancelable) ratings, the show was going to be moved to midnight. While the network said they were doing it in the hopes of finding a younger audience, I knew what it was. The show had essentially been canceled after three weeks. That time slot was a death sentence.
Why all this matters, aside from the fact that it was a huge blow to me and the crew after we literally risked our lives to make a TV show for a network that was simultaneously using me to peddle its alleged covid safety protocols, was that essentially the show not being on air meant the compensation I was anticipating, the whole reason I did the show (exposure, self-promotion, the ability to leverage my TV presence to acquire sponsorships) was null and void. According to my light research, LA county’s threshold for a “living wage” is $774/week for a single person with no kids. So my measly $437.50/week didn’t cut it. In order to supplement my income, I had to shoot sponsored content during weekends, taking on whatever work I could to supplement one of the most profitable networks on the planet. This was on top of working six plus days a week on the show. And you might think that being on HGTV even those few weeks raised my profile. In fact, the main indicator of my marketability, the number of followers I have on Instagram, only increased by about 3000 from two seasons of HGTV presence, a negligible difference that didn’t allow me to charge anything more for sponsored content.
When the controversy about the IATSE strike, the dangerously long hours (and long commutes on no sleep) came to the national forefront last year, it was particularly triggering for me and members of my crew. HGTV shows are not filmed on union sets. So while IATSE members were advocating for safer working conditions, my crew and I were looking at each other going “I wish we had even the rights and safety protocols IATSE doesn’t find sufficient.” The rights they were claiming were not good enough were far more than we had. I stand with IATSE and the idea that there needs to be a shift in entertainment (and corporate culture in general) where the people actually doing the work deserve a bigger piece of the pie. Sorry Discovery CEO David Zaslav, maybe you could distribute some of the $37.7 million dollars you make a year to pay the people appearing on your network a living wage. Just a thought.
With what I described above, you can imagine that emerging from working my ass off for a show that ended up having very little to no payoff, jumping into the deep end of covid shut downs and a halted economy, felt like a splash of cold water to the face. Again.
I don’t want to leave the conversation about my show on a bad note. The upside to the whole thing was that because I allowed myself to be vulnerable and talk about my own painful life experiences with homeowners on the show, I was given innumerable gifts from them. I am still friends with a lot of the people who agreed to appear on the show. While the stories shown were definitely “produced,” meaning they were set up so they could be captured by cameras, a lot of the hardships my on-air clients revealed to me created a bond between us that will be there forever. Their willingness to share their stories with me and with the audience at home – thus helping people feel less alone in their own struggles and grief – is an enormous gift I don’t take for granted. And one that I am still thankful for daily.
July 2020 to October 2020
A few things saved me in the first few months after the show’s disappointing cancellation. Number one, I had a particularly wonderful design client who was furnishing her beautiful (large) home which meant I made a decent amount of money on selling her furniture. This is the exact kind of client every designer wants. She’s humble, has great taste, and most importantly doesn’t try to steam roll you. She really trusted me and Kara (my associate designer for the project) to do our thing. And as a result her house turned out beautifully. I hadn’t been planning on taking design clients while shooting, but she came recommended from a previous client (who I also love) so I made it work by bringing on a project manager/lead designer. And I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t have survived without that income.
A positive light in the dark, tumultuous early days of the pandemic was that I did something I’ve wanted to do for years – I created an online shop. This was revolutionary for me in a few ways. Firstly, I’ve always had a desire to make and sell things. I see it as another form of communication. And for some reason, despite not being the most outgoing person out there, I’ve always had a desire to share ideas and talk to people. So the online shop, Storelando, became an extension of that. Selling my collection of art and limited edition objects got me through a few months of 2020, but the financial roller coaster was just getting started.
I closed on my house in October 2020. And just in the nick of time! My previous three years income (which lenders look at if you’re a freelancer) were strong, pre-covid years. 2020 and 2021 saw a huge dip in income, mostly because the expense of work, particularly the type of DIY projects and hiring photographers to get all the way to my cabin from LA, made working a lot more expensive while projects came in at erratic and unpredictable manner. The entire pandemic has been feast or famine for me. Either everything is happening at once or it’s radio silence. While it may seem like the house turned out to be a mistake – all the costs of maintaining a big house during a professional downturn – but I did it because I wasn’t sure when it would be a possibility again. I don’t regret it at all.
From the onset of covid in early 2020 to late 2020, the number of brand collaborations I had gotten used to doing over the past eight years dwindled to zero. From November 2020 to May 2021, I received almost no income. It was during that time that my savings dipped to their lowest point in years while my anxiety and depression shot to their highest. As someone who hasn’t had a safety net, who hasn’t received significant outside financial help, the worry about money was overwhelming. And I’ve had my fair share of scary financial situations. It’s not easy making it in the world I’m in without help. And you’d be hard pressed to find someone who does what I do that got to this position without help from family or a spouse. Ever thought about why there are so many Mormon mommy bloggers? It’s because their husbands all have jobs to support them while they build their brands. While I saw a number of my HGTV host colleagues getting big product and endorsement deals to fund their businesses, none came my way. I have a lot of theories about why this is but I think mostly it’s due to chance and the fact that as a single gay man I was a lot less marketable than the bread and butter of the network: straight couples who can remain relevant by having babies or getting married/divorced over and over. Culturally, America is obsessed with traditional archetypes. This is why we love franchises that celebrate the same binding gender dichotomy we also pretend to be moving past. Real Housewives is really just a bunch of straight ballgown cosplay, a bunch of ladies performing a High School Prom-inspired version of womanhood and wealth. We like to pretend we are moving towards gender equality, but we also are obsessed with extremely constraining concepts of performative gender and sexuality (“The Bachelor,” anyone?). So yeah, that might have had something to do with it.
In addition to the complete lack of income in late 2020, my new house proved to be a source of continued, unexpected costs. The heating needed repair, the septic had to be redone, the washer and dryer that came with the house stopped functioning after inspection, trees leaning over the deck had to be cleared, the well ran dry, and so on. While all of these expenses were a bummer, they were probably par for the course for a first-time home buyer of a relatively complicated, rural house. And every penny I’ve spent has been worth it. I love my house and am so thankful for it. And while I’m listing all the things that have gone wrong the past two years, I think it’s important that I acknowledge that owning a house has allowed me to enter into a privileged class of people who are able to own an asset that will hopefully accrue value over time. In fact, according to Zillow, the value of my house has gone from $590,000 (what I paid) to $733,500 in the year since I bought it. That’s $143,500 in one year (the California real estate market is kinda scary right now). So even though I have struggled to remain afloat the past two years, I understand that the foundation I’m laying now will lead to a more stable financial future. I’ve spent the past fourteen months fixing my house myself in the hopes that I can rent it out on Airbnb, further increasing my ability to support myself. I consider all of this an investment in a future that feels a lot more stable than the present. Everything I’m going through “growing pains.” Yes, it sucks to be penniless for months on end. But I also realize how fucking lucky I am that I got into this house when I did. Today’s stresses will (hopefully) lead to tomorrow’s successes…
November 2020 to May 2021
Winter 2020/2021 began to take an even darker turn as my income dried up and the physical and emotional stresses of living in a high-maintenance forest home started to take their toll. From November 2020 to May 2021, I received no income, aside from a random gig I got via a college friend that ended up being a nightmare because I’d just gotten a puppy, got the job last minute (day before), had to wake up at 3 AM to drive to LA with a puppy throwing up all over, and didn’t have time to learn my lines before showing up to a very intimidating, expensive, and professional set (pretty sure this one day shoot cost more than both seasons of my show). One good thing about me is that I am affable and self-deprecating, so I apologized profusely for not being able to learn my lines before showing up and did my best. It turned out well, it was a really cute spot for Pandora, the music streaming service.
Also in this time, there was an unprecedented wind storm that knocked down trees all over town directly followed by the biggest snowstorm the area has seen in fifty years. Over the course of the winter I went twenty days with no power. And because I’m on a well system and my heating system is started electronically, this meant I had no water or heat, either. The physical stress of trying to stay warm while ten feet of snow threatened to push through the windows added to my feeling of being overwhelmed by my new life. During the biggest of the storms, I ended up having to dig a tunnel out of my garage, hiking down to the highway, and getting picked up by an aunt who lives nearby.
It was during this time that my health really started to suffer. Getting further and further into debt, in the dark months of winter, while also dealing with an absolutely crazy winter alone in a big house, the only thing that brought me joy was alcohol. I’ve thought about it a lot and I do think I’ve had a troubling relationship with alcohol since covid started. I don’t think I’m an alcoholic though. If there’s something called “Situational Alcoholism” I think I had that. When the sun went down up here at my house in the woods, when the windows reflected only black back to me, alcohol was something to do. It was partially due to boredom and loneliness but also due to the unbridled anxiety I was feeling about money and the future. Who did I think I was buying this house with all these expensive and necessary repairs? Country houses were for rich people and I certainly wasn’t one. I definitely didn’t want to be back in LA, where everything felt oddly disjointed, some friends, like me, became full hermits, while others went to covid molly sex parties (sounds fun, right?). No one seemed to be living normally, so being in a city where I couldn’t run out to my car without a mask on felt claustrophobic.
Naturally, as with happens with over consumption of any sort, I gained weight during this first covid winter. To date, I’ve gained fifty pounds, going from 180 while I was shooting the show to 230. As someone who has dealt with eating issues and my weight since childhood, this has felt like an abject failure, one that made me too embarrassed to see people I haven’t seen in a while for fear of being judged for my weight gain. I’ve avoided parties, I’ve avoided one on one meet ups with friends, I have avoided seeing anyone I haven’t seen since before the pandemic. While intellectually I believe in and support body positivity for other people, I haven’t been able to find the grace within myself for not conforming to the strict body standards I normally do. Having the fear of being seen that I currently have has made doing sponsored content, usually reliant on me being in front of the camera, painful, overwhelming, and embarrassing.
But in order to understand exactly why I’ve let my weight and health get out of hand, you kind of have to understand what my history is. I’m, genetically, an overweight person. My body has always wanted to be heavy. What I have looked like for most of the time I’ve been visible on social media and TV has always felt like a put-on, like not who I really am but just me posing as a thin person. While I say that, I also understand I have enjoyed thin privilege, free (for the most part, outside gay pool parties) from being shamed for my body’s size. But it’s come at the cost of not being able to eat normally and having to be constantly vigilant since childhood about burning calories. The first time I started worrying about being fat was when I was seven. And pretty much since then I’ve been on a diet. Remember, while I was shooting my show I was eating one meal a day (a salad from Whole Foods, back when they had a salad bar that people were allowed to cough all over). And somewhere, somehow in the midst of covid, I lost my ability to give enough of a shit to starve myself so I wouldn’t be fat. My pre-covid life in LA consisted of eating salads and working out 2-3 hours a day. But after doing that for my entire adult life, I just stopped giving a shit. Somehow, the dumb thing that continues to stay top of mind at all hours of the day, my hatred of my own body, has failed to motivate me enough to do anything about it. When there is no joy, no end in sight to the problems you face, maintaining motivation is a challenge.
On a high note, I’ve stopped drinking for the new year and don’t really miss it. It feels like I got everything out of alcohol that I need for a while: distraction, comfort, numbing. I’m ready to move past the easy Band-Aid alcohol can bring in dark times. The theme of this year is healing.
May 2021 to September 2021
Things really started looking up in May 2021. I finally received payment for a few projects which got me, briefly, out of debt (aside from my graduate student loans, which I’ve accepted are likely never going away). In the month of May, I booked over $250,000 of brand partnerships, complete with contracts including deadlines of when these payments would be received (all before the end of summer). To me, this felt like the end of the pandemic. After over a year of brand partnerships moving at a glacial pace, all of the sudden it seemed like WE WERE BACK, BABY!
And this is where I got into even more trouble. While I’d spent the last year and a half mourning the lack of hope in my life, I let hope get the best of me once it arrived. I don’t know why I thought this, but once I got vaccinated and it seemed like everything was getting back to normal, I just kinda thought everything ws over. I don’t see myself as an optimistic person, but I’ve noticed over the past two years I kind of am. Like when the pandemic started, I was (like everyone else) thinking, “hey, two weeks isolation wont be bad, this will be over by summer!” Over and over I keep getting duped into thinking things were getting good. Yet that hasn’t been the case just yet. See? I said “yet.” I still have some optimism left in me.
I let hope get the best of me and thinking I should get back into the now-cheaper LA rental market before prices adjusted back to their pre-covid levels, I decided to get a place in LA again. I also thought at the time my place would be ready for vacation rental sooner than it was. In order to prep my place for renters, I would have had to hire help (which I’d found) to finish painting, installing fixtures, and furnishing the place so it would be presentable for guests. But what ended up happening is that I couldn’t afford to hire anyone because, despite booking quite a bit of well-paid work, I entered into a bad pattern with sponsors. Some projects kept getting delayed over and over because of supply chain issues (one project that was supposed to happen summer 2021 is now going to take place summer 2022, meaning a huge sum of money I was counting on and contractually entitled to was pushed a full year). Other brands I worked with decided to take their sweet time with payment, most taking six to nine months to pay me AFTER all content had been shared (which was often months after I’d shot it to give you an idea of how long I was waiting for payment). Could you wait nine months for your next paycheck for work you did months ago?
The frustrating thing about “influencer” culture you don’t see from the outside is that we are essentially self-producing commercials for huge brands. And to do that you need to hire photographers, videographers, assistants, etc. Those people expect to be paid pretty much immediately while the brands paying you to produce content seem to have no urgency whatsoever as to when they’ll pay you (this has changed in the pandemic, it’s not normally like this). They will, however, reach out with requests like “hey this bed is arriving tomorrow can you shoot it the next day and have us content in two days?” Working in influencer marketing has been thoroughly frustrating for that reason. You have brands forcing you to do an incredible amount of physical and intellectual labor at the drop of a hat while also not giving a shit and and when you and your people are paid.
My work began being a detriment to my health when, after spending a ton of time bashing my knees on the ground to remove all the carpet in my 3000 sq/ft house myself because I couldn’t afford to hire help. I ended up getting bursitis (an enflamed knee sac), which led to a bacterial infection of the knee caused by repetitive movement. My knee got incredibly inflamed due to the infection, making movement nearly impossible. Eventually, because I couldn’t find a doctor in my rural surroundings, my knee exploded (literally, it was gross). Meanwhile, a brand who had ghosted me for five months emailed to say a piece of furniture was arriving the next day and had to be shot immediately to meet their deadline. So I spent the next few days by myself at my cabin, moving furniture up and down stairs, my knee gushing blood and pus the whole time (yum!). This was September 2021. I’ve not yet been paid for that project.
In addition to my design work and other income, I booked about $300,000 of projects in 2021. So far, I’ve been paid about $50,000-$60,000 of that. Which is a decent income for sure, but not enough to fund the life I budgeted for when I booked $250,000 of work in one month. Was it stupid to rent an apartment in LA under those circumstances? Absolutely. I would not do it again. But hope blinded me. I thought things were getting better after a few hard years. I thought the economy was coming back. That was dumb assumption and I own that. In my defense, I had booked a ton of work, all of which came with contracts and timelines describing how and when I would be paid.
There’s not really a lot I can do about my LA apartment right now. I’ve committed to it and I plan to honor that commitment. Making things more complicated is that I secured just enough sponsorships based on my new LA place that giving the apartment up wouldn’t make financial sense, especially when you factor in how expensive moving is and that I need a place to stay when I begin renting out my cabin. But I can’t tell you how frustrating it’s been the past six months, every one a cliff hanger as to whether my rent check is going to bounce when I know that at any given time brands and my agency owe me anywhere from $60,000 to $150,000 for projects already executed. I don’t know what the solution is here but my feeling is that I am done with sponsored content. It’s not fully aligned with my value set anyway and if I’m gonna be using my platform to sell someone’s shit, I’d rather sell my own. I’d rather make and sell art. I’d rather market my design services. If a giant company is gonna take six months to pay me, I’d rather promote something I care about more – me (yes, I know that sounds like a Carrie Bradshaw line but I do in fact care more about myself than a giant multinational corporation).
At the urging of a friend, I called my mortgage company and asked for a three month forbearance, which thank god was granted. I have tried to stay on top of my rent and other expenses, which has been emotionally draining. In order to get the apartment, I had to share my income with the landlord, which I estimated to be about $250,000, lower than the amount I knew I was brining in and based on income confirmed by my existing contracts (this was in June, so I was assuming more opportunities would arrive before the year’s end). But since, I have had to write to my landlord multiple times asking for an extension. This has made me feel like a complete fraud, as if I’d lied to get the apartment. The landlord has been understanding but not necessarily lenient. And the whole experience has left me with an even bigger case of imposter syndrome than I already had and made me feel like a derelict tenant and a liar.
October 2021 to January 2022
The last few months of 2021 were draining, mostly consisting of every brand I was working with at once demanding content immediately while also not paying me. I have had a day or two of relief the first few days of the month when my rent check clears, but the rest of the month has been occupied mostly by working non-stop while worrying about whether I’ll be able to make rent the next month. I’m in a bad position where I’m constantly playing catch up, putting financial band aids on whatever seems to need the most attention. My health insurance got cancelled because the card linked to it was maxed out. Same with car insurance and a number of different monthly autopay accounts. I have kind of given up on a “magical moment” where a bunch of money comes in at once, helping me pay down debt and get ahead of things. Payments from brands seem to trickle in at a too little, too late pace. I currently have roughly $120,000 due and no idea when it’ll be here. I’m adding in all these figures not to brag or complain about my income, I think it’s more than enough. But I think I’m in a unique position to chat about something that many people are too ashamed to bring up: not having enough to get by. And yes, I realize it’s completely ridiculous to be complaining that I don’t have enough money when I technically have two places to live. But I’m in an easier position than many to chat about financial anxiety because I do make a good income – it’s harder for lower income people to openly discuss their financial needs without fear of employer retaliation. That I haven’t been paid in a respectful manner is another issue altogether. It is my belief that people with a lot of money are no better or more interesting than people with little to no money. One of the blessings of my life is that I grew up and was educated amongst people from a diversity of different income levels. I grew up in a small town where there weren’t enough kids for class stratification to be a thing. I knew executives kids and kids that lived in a trailer park. And the friends I made at the Ivy League schools I attended ranged from very poor to very wealthy. I’m comfortable in most situations because I’ve known rich and poor people my whole life. You can take me to the Mariposa Dump (where I often take my trash) sorting recycling with hillbillies and I’m fine. You can also take me to a private party at MoMA and I’ll be fine. I do not idealize wealth, while I also understand that money often helps solve problems a lot faster.
The emotional turmoil of the past few years exploded a month or so ago when my parents were arriving for a holiday party up at my cabin. An issue arose with one of my brand partners and my manager called to chat about it. Basically, after radio silence for months, the brand came to me in mid-November with a proposal that we finish the project by December 9th so we could shoot it December 20th (they were asking this in the third week of November). When I came back to them and told them their timeline was unrealistic due to the same covid backups that have delayed other projects, they responded by saying the project needed to be done by December 9th. I knew what this meant. Firstly, it would mean flying to the east coast for a project knowing full well the furniture would not be on site in time. Second, it meant I was going to work through Christmas after a super shitty year of being broke because of brands’ negligence. There was a lot of back and forth about it and they stood their ground, saying that despite the impossibility of getting furniture there on time we still needed to finish by the end of the year. The reason? The agency coordinating the project wouldn’t get paid until 2022 if we didn’t finish before then. So all of the sudden it’s an emergency because THEY wont get paid? When was it an emergency for ME to get paid?
During the call with my manager, he kept pushing me to finish the project by any means possible. I feel bad for him, because he had to be the middle man between me and the brand, who were not being reasonable. But at the time of the phone call, I hadn’t been paid since May 2021. And you really lose motivation for work after you haven’t been paid for six months for ANYTHING whatsoever. So I basically stood my ground and said I wasn’t doing anything, for any client, until someone paid me. You can’t just keep doing your job for months and months without getting paid. And it’s my manager and agents job to get me paid. I haven’t ever screamed at anyone in a professional setting, but the combination of months of stress, of waiting and begging constantly to be paid for work I had ALREADY done months before, just sent me over the edge and I lost it. It is always my responsibility to meet everyone else’s deadlines. Where was their responsibility to hold up their end of the bargain?
When you get dragged through the mud of being overworked and unpaid for months on end, it gives you a sense of fearlessness. What are you going to lose? The money you’re NOT being paid? So I just basically said fuck it. I refused to do the work in the timeframe dictated by the brand and told them they could keep the rest of their payment (that they’d probably pay me six months late anyway). I absolutely do not regret it. It’s time for big companies that make millions every year to stop treating the people who help them to do so like shit.
This is what burnout looks like.
Like everyone else in these covid times, the past two years have triggered a lot of reflection on whether I am satisfied with what I’m doing. I’m not. I never set out to be an influencer. It’s absolutely a stupid job. And a constant punchline. No one respects it, rather than being seen a people producing the kind of content that used to be reserved for magazines, you’re seen as a some sort of tacky douchebag who takes pictures of themselves acting like a dumb idiot while raking in the dollars. It seems so easy from the outside because it is an influencer’s job to make it look easy. The past nine years have been tumultuous, from breakups to book writing to TV show filming, and I haven’t had the space to be strategic about what I was doing with myself. When you’re just struggling to get by, to get ahead, it’s hard to say no to corporations offering you tens of thousands of dollars to do what you love doing, making pretty pictures, sharing ideas, and helping everyday people figure out how to make their lives more beautiful. But the landscape of brand partnerships has changed and I know of a lot of other content creators who are getting burned out by the lack of respect and the untenable payment delays.
And full disclosure, I don’t promote things I don’t like. Everything I promote is stuff I’d actually use. I’ve turned down Chlorox, Walmart, and bunch of companies I don’t find ethical because I am lucky enough to be choosy about what I share. I feel good about the brands I have promoted, but my three year plan is to get out of making money by encouraging consumption. Growing up, it was never my dream to someday grow a platform and use it to promote endless consumption. And it was certainly not my dream to have a job where I am not paid in a consistent, timely, and respectful manner.
I know all of this sounds incredibly bleak, but I don’t feel bad about it. As a creative who graduated into the 2008 recession, I’ve seen my share of ups and downs. The millennial generation seems to get pushed down the stairs every time we make a few steps towards professional and financial progress – we’re used to it at this point. It’s taking us longer to grow up because our adulthood has been peppered with financial and cultural setbacks. But what I’ve seen in my own life is I always come out better on the other side of a personal/professional slump. There are periods of building that can be painful and overwhelming. But they lead to a richer appreciation of what comes next. It was a stretch for me to buy this house without help. Props to all the single people out there who bought a house without help from parents or a spouse! It’s been a challenge, but ultimately it will help move me forward.
I have experienced an incredible amount of financial instability in my life. When I was 27, I got so stressed and overwhelmed by it that I got shingles (something you normally get after age 60). I didn’t have health insurance at the time so I just laid in bed for days and nights wondering how it was possible that I had been jumping through hoops like a trained circus seal since I was a kid only to end up a grown up that couldn’t take care of himself. I have felt shame about my financial status and my career ups and downs. But I’m kind of done with that now. Not because I think I’m so great or that I’m somehow inherently faultless. But because when I look around at all the people who have not had the privileges I’ve had – a supportive family, an incredible education, connections to people in high places, even my ability to pass for white – I have seen so many people even more qualified than me who haven’t reached my level of success. I will not feel shame about where I am because to do so is a sign of disrespect to those who are aspiring to do what I do.
While the past two years have been stressful, overwhelming, and filled with anxiety and depression, they’ve provided me with a sense of strength I didn’t have before. When you are treated as though you don’t matter, you believe it for a while. And then you get angry and start to rebel against that notion. I know exactly who I am and I know what my accomplishments are – I have worked hard for both. And I don’t care enough about money to let financial instability be a defining factor of what’s happened over the past two years. Money is made up, we agree to abide by it so that society isn’t chaos. But it’s still a fabrication. A fabrication meant to perpetuate, more and more over time, the idea that some people are more valuable than others. That idea is stupid to me so I don’t follow it. So I will not be ashamed or shamed for hitting a financial rough spot.
I had dinner with a close friend recently. He’s a writer and performer who I discovered on YouTube when I first moved to LA. He had a hilarious TV show, has written books, and is just generally one of the most talented, brilliant people I know. However, the past few years have been slow for him professionally. When we met for dinner I was happy to hear that not only was his career on an upswing, he was thriving. We hadn’t seen each other in months, so the dinner was like a quick game of catch up on everything that happened. And when he started telling me how well he was doing, a strange feeling came over me. It wasn’t jealousy, it was something else. I guess I just felt kind of self-conscious that he was doing so well while I wasn’t. But I quickly adjusted my thoughts, remembering two years before when my career was flourishing while he was in the dregs of a building period, a foundational period of setting himself up for future creative success. And at that moment my self-pity and embarrassment for not being in a good place dissolved into pure joy. He deserves it, we’ve been friends for so long and I’ve always wanted more for him. At the time I remember thinking how wonderful it would be if we could all be experiencing the same career highs at the same time. But we don’t. Which is why it’s so important to tell friends who are going through those lows that you believe wholeheartedly in their future success. People need to hear that. We all need to be lifted up from time to time.
I’m sharing my experiences here for a few reasons. Firstly, I’ve been alluding to “dark things” happening in Instagram captions and wanted to stop with the vague allusions. Second, I needed to write down what has happened in order to process and catalogue these thoughts for the future. The past two years feel like a chaotic blur, nearly impossible to process. And third, I know from the outside that sometimes the life I am presenting can be aspirational, something that makes people feel they don’t have enough – I am so lucky to have everything I do. I don’t want to contribute to the same kind of social media fakery that is toxifying the the world we live in. And I’ve been thinking to myself, “If it’s this hard for me with all the opportunities I’ve been given, how are people with less surviving?” So if you’re going through a similar set of career and financial woes, just know someone who might seem “successful” because of his TV show and social media presence, someone who has experienced a vast amount of privilege and opportunity, is also floundering, gasping for air, trying to stay above the surface of the water.