As we scroll through our Instagram feeds these days, liking photos of the cutest new fashion trends and commenting on videos of every person’s skincare routine, it’s hard to believe that 10 short years ago, the term ‘influencer’ barely existed.
Now, with more than a half a million influencers active today and enough “content” to last us a lifetime, the influencer space has become one of the most rapidly growing industries around, and it’s completely transformed the way we consume information. Despite its noble beginnings and good intentions, though, it can often seem like influencer culture is ultimately toxic and that most of its participants are simply pushing whatever product or lifestyle will earn them the biggest paycheck.
But Katie Sands, the 27-year-old behind HonestlyKate, has spent her career defying the influencer status quo, ensuring that each post she makes and every brand she collaborates with works towards a greater good and inspires her audience to act with kindness. With more than 284 thousand followers on Instagram, ongoing partnerships with some of the world’s most coveted brands, and a gig as an On-Air Style Host for Amazon Live, Sands has seen continued success with her do-good approach to influencing, and she’s only just begun. Read on to learn how she’s staying true to her mission even as the influencer arena has changed, why she thinks it’s so important to give back, and what she sees as the future of influencing.
Gabby Shacknai: How did you first get your start as an influencer?
Katie Sands: It was during the end of the first year of my two-year acting conservatory at William Esper when I came to the realization that I could monetize my passion project, HonestlyKate, and shift the focus of my career. Originally, I wanted to pursue a career in theater production and had studied production and communications at the University of Richmond before moving back to the city. But once HonestlyKate launched and started to gain a lot of traction, a few brands began reaching out for content creation. It was then that I realized I could make a living doing this. So I went full force and decided that 100 percent of my free time and energy would go into growing HonestlyKate and partnering with brands that I really loved. And what’s better than making a living doing something that brings joy and meaning to your life?
Shacknai: What was the landscape of social media like when you started?
Sands: When I first created the HonestlyKate account, Instagram was at its peak and Facebook was starting to slowly decline, especially among younger generations. I had just graduated from Richmond and knew that it was time to get my foot in the door as an influencer before the space became oversaturated. I do want to make it clear though, that although the space is flooded with influencers, each influencer has something unique to offer and appeals to a different target audience. The world is large, and there’s so much room for more connectivity and spaces to inspire, especially now. I believe there is always room for more—more passion, more growth, and more platforms for positivity and philanthropy. The social media landscape is something that I’m constantly exploring and adapting with. It’s all really fascinating to me, and I think we should be using it to lift each other up.
Shacknai: What would you say was your first big break as an influencer?
Sands: When I was asked to host a styling segment on denim for NBC. I thought it was such a great opportunity that my following on social media had led me towards. This was especially exciting for me because it combined my love for fashion and theater into one. I found that putting myself out there and being authentic on another platform that was not social media-related really helped to grow my audience and to discover what I wanted to do as a large portion of my career, which is to host.
Shacknai: Many influencers have one major focus—be it fashion, beauty, fitness, cooking, or something else—but you notably cover many of these bases. Did that happen organically, or was it always your intention to speak to all sorts of subjects?
Sands: I created HonestlyKate out of my love for costume design, so I went into it thinking I would only post fashion and beauty related content. As the platform quickly grew, I realized that a lot of what people really care about is the behind-the-brand content, what I was actually doing, and not just the curated photo in full glam. Like so many women out there, I too am figuring out what workouts are best for my body type, how to cook easy meals, mental health practices, and how to deal with the dating scene that is New York. So, I decided to put it all out onto my platform and see what the reaction would be from everyone. It was from there that my business started to skyrocket into what it is today. Being open and honest about my many insecurities and navigating the world is what brought me a newfound following and a much deeper appreciation for the digital space. I don’t shy away from showing when I’m having a breakout or bloating in my belly, cooking escapades that have gone wrong, or even deeper discussions that I have with my own therapist. It’s really beautiful if you think about it, to be unapologetically authentic.
Shacknai: What efforts have you taken to ensure that your content is applicable to all and not just those with money or access?
Sands: My content is really geared towards women curating their own futures, regardless of their financial circumstances. It’s a platform that’s made to enhance authenticity and give women the confidence to curate a life they’ve always wanted to lead. When it comes to fashion and trends that I share, access and money can’t buy you style, so I like to showcase roundups of my favorite shackets under $100, accessories under $20, and my best drugstore beauty finds. Yes, I mix in contemporary designer pieces here and there, but I always note when I buy something on eBay or if I’m borrowing something designer from Vivrelle. I’m also open about borrowing items for big events, like fashion week or panels I’m speaking on. In this space, it’s important for me to be as transparent as humanly possible and not give off any vibe that I own more than I do or live larger than I can afford to. Transparency is one of my biggest values as a brand, and I think the influencer industry needs to do a better job at promoting that.
Shacknai: There seems to always be a very fine line for influencers when it comes to sharing “content” versus sharing bits of your personal life. How do you handle this balance?
Sands: Balance is something I definitely struggle with. As much as I would love to share more of life with my audience, I need boundaries for my own mental health, and I’ve made it a point to continue my work as if it were a 9-5. I turn off my social channels when I’m with family or my boyfriend, and I really try to be present, as hard as that is these days. When it comes to fitness, fashion, and food, I go completely rogue. I really just get in there with my iPhone and take the content I need in real-time. And if someone else is photographing of videographing, I never make them do a second take. I find the more authentic I am and the less curated my stories are, the more my audience has a chance to take in and appreciate the real me. It promotes a more genuine connectivity.
Shacknai: When it comes to sponsorships and collaborations, you’re more discerning than many influencers are. Tell me a little bit about your approach to partnerships and what you look for in a brand.
Sands: I’m trying to stop this sponsored stigma throughout the digital space, or at least, I’m trying to bring awareness to it. Creators should only be working with brands that they actually love and use themselves. I hate the idea that some influencers don’t even use the products they promote. When I see people write, “this is not sponsored I just love this product,” it makes me believe that the products that are sponsored they don’t actually love, when in reality it should be the complete opposite.
Personally, I look to work with brands whose missions align with my own values. When I’m communicating with brands on potential collaborations, I always give examples of why we should partner together and what values we share, especially when it comes to supporting important causes. Recently, I’ve been trying to work with brands that have a give-back mission or support a philanthropy in some sort of way. I think that now more than ever, it’s important to give back to communities and people who need support. This was the reasoning behind donating 10 percent of all proceeds from my collection with Phat Buddha to the Jed Foundation for Mental Health Awareness. The collection stems from the idea that moving can help your mental health (the mind and body are very connected), and I wanted to make sure proceeds could support a foundation that stood for those same values.
Shacknai: Giving back has been a thread throughout much of your content. How did this come to be, and why is it so important to you?
Sands: I’ve discovered that in order for me to feel good, I have to be doing good and giving back in some way. It’s my passion. It’s something that I think stemmed from constantly working on philanthropy projects growing up. I felt like I was actually doing something important and productive when I was helping others. As I got into the real world and realized philanthropy wasn’t a strong component of my career, I had to make a change. So, I started looking up organizations whose missions sounded interesting and in line with my values and then googled where and when I could volunteer. I think if more of the world operated with the mindset that helping others is what actually fuels us, we’d be in a much better place. I always ask myself, ‘What brings me meaning?’ And I try to get there.
Shacknai: While many influencers worry that expressing political views will isolate followers, you notably have not held back in this regard. Was this a decision that you had to really think over, or was it something that just felt natural? Why has it been so important to you to share these views, especially in light of recent happenings?
Sands: I used to shy away from sharing anything personal, in hopes of keeping my family, my friends, and my love life out of other people’s business. To the five thousand followers and counting that have unfollowed me for posting what I felt was my responsibility to promote over the past few months, I am sad to see them go. But I will not shy away from promoting a more peaceful, collaborative, and just society. I only hope that they can understand that throughout this election, more than ever before, I felt it was my duty to use my platform to bring awareness to the fundamental rights that humans deserve, for the fight against hate, and for unity, freedom, and acceptance in this country.
The past few weeks, the city has been filled with so much joy, unity, and connection. It’s like nothing I’ve ever witnessed before, and it’s a testament for what is to come. I hope that the energy felt these past weeks can be used to bring us together even closer and unite us as one. And if you’re lucky enough to have a platform to speak on, I hope you choose to use it for good, for the betterment of humanity. We all have the power to influence, and it’s time to start promoting what is right.
Shacknai: The Covid-19 pandemic has upended the way we live in every way. How has it affected you and the way that you work as an influencer?
Sands: I used to pride myself on being the girl-on-the-go, thriving through chaos, back-to-back meetings, and numerous photoshoots and video segments. But the pandemic has changed me into a girl-with-nowhere-to-go. And although I’ve technically always “worked from home,” I was never actually home for this long of a period of time, unless I was sick. Now my one-bedroom apartment is the space that I shoot, work, stream, Zoom, sleep, eat, and repeat. It’s really wild how quickly we’ve adapted to this dominantly-digital age, how we’ve persevered and resorted to creativity to make things happen. And although I can’t wait to get back to in-person work, I will never take for granted going into my own bathroom in-between takes to touch up my shiny t-zone ever again. Again, it’s the little things.
Shacknai: The pandemic has also brought a lot of criticism to the world of influencers, who have been accused of being ‘tone deaf’ or ‘not reading the room’ in the midst of so much death and tragedy. How have you avoided falling into this trap in recent months?
Sands: Being aware and conscious of my surroundings and always being informed of what is going on in the world are things my parents instilled in me at a very young age, and Covid is no exception. As the world ultimately felt like it was collapsing around me, like it felt for many, I made a conscious effort to only work with the brands and revise content that was meaningful and relatable to what was actually happening in the world. The world’s climate motivated me to promote small-owned brands and businesses and to become more aware of who I was surrounding myself with in the industry. For me, it’s all about awareness and the curiosity to learn and make better choices. It frustrates me when people don’t want to admit they have room to grow.
Shacknai: What do you think the future of being an influencer looks like, as the space becomes increasingly saturated and we (hopefully) head towards a post-pandemic world?
Sands: The world of influencers is changing daily, as everyone’s technically an influencer in their own right. It’s important to realize this—that we all have access to platforms that enable us to promote our voices. I think in the near future, as it’s starting to happen now, we’ll see more partnerships and capsule collaborations with influencers and brands. As someone who has tried and is exposed to almost every product on the market, I know what I like (and my audience knows what products I use and love), so it would make sense for me to sit on the board of a brand that I use daily and create a product together. I think the entire industry is going to change into this: influencer collaborations with brands they use religiously and align with their values.