Erika Bowes talks to Ellen Ormerod on her breakthrough as a teen tumblr sensation, life in the social media spotlight and reclaiming the Internet as a force for good.
Words by Ellen Ormerod
Many have speculated about what Erika Bowes would be like in real life; spoilt, self-obsessed and stuck-up are words often thrown about online, but the girl sat in this Soho nail salon is anything but.
“I think I just want something nude,” she says. “Maybe with a simple pattern on top?” she scrunches her face in indecision and looks around for approval. “I don’t get my nails done very often, so just something understated.”
Bowes sits with a slightly rounded back, as if she’s protecting herself, ready at any moment to curl into a ball and hide. She speaks quietly, in a soft Geordie accent that surprises you at first, before unwinding her hands from her sleeves and offering them gingerly to the nail technician.
When I was 16, I started to see the worst side of the Internet.
Her demeanour may be understated but her look is quite the opposite. The half-British, half-Japanese social media star wears a boxy orange jacket and a bright green turtleneck; gold necklaces are layered onto her chest and there are trinkets dripping from the multiple piercings in her ears. ‘Kanoelani’, one reads – the middle name she was given in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she was born and spent the first year of her life. Her skin is glowing and her make-up minimal, her short brown hair is pulled back and gold framed glasses reflect the lights of the salon around her.
Erika Bowes was an icon of her time at just 15. After starting her tumblr blog in 2008, aged 14, she became an online celebrity, years before the notion had embedded itself in popular discourse. Now 23, she’s a full-time influencer, stylist and photographer, using Instagram to document her work. But being one of the first to find Internet fame from such a formative age, meant that Bowes spent much of her life in unchartered territory; her story became a template for the wave of social media influencers to follow.
“People think I’m quite scary or unfriendly when they see my Instagram. Everyone thinks I’m from a really rich family,” she says. “But I’m from a working-class background in the North East. I don’t live lavishly, I eat the same thing every day and I don’t really leave my house often.”
From a young age, Bowes was an early adopter of technology and by the age of 15, she’d gained hundreds of thousands of followers from across the globe.
“I started using (tumblr) when it first came out, it was just me and my friends posting pictures of ourselves having fun, it wasn’t serious,” she says. “I only realised the extent of my following when I started getting hundreds of messages a day, asking me how I would style an outfit or for relationship advice. Obviously when you’re that age, you think it’s amazing because people are giving you all this attention, but I started having to be careful about what I was posting, I had to keep up a certain image.”
What started out as a hobby she could do from her bedroom in Newcastle, soon became a phenomenon, and her full-time job.
I never thought I could do something meaningful with social media, but Sukeban is one of the best things I’ve ever done.
“It just takes over your life, it becomes who you are,” she says. “I log out of my social media apps for two days every week now, just so I’m not checking them constantly. It’s such a habit, it’s like breathing, you don’t even realise what you’re doing.”
For Bowes, a self-confessed introvert, the arrival of social media sites such as tumblr and later, Instagram, became a way of finding a community. “I grew up in a predominantly white area and I didn’t feel confident about the way I looked, people would call me names and I felt like I was alone. Even now, Asian girls message me and say, ‘I’m so happy I found you on Instagram, you make me feel so much better about being myself’ and that’s pretty amazing.”
However, her relationship with the online world has been bittersweet, although she insists the good outweighs the bad, it’s clear that the challenges of an unexpected childhood in the spotlight have left marks that run deep. “When I was 16, I started to see the worst side of the Internet,” she says, hesitating, visibly debating with herself how much to disclose. “It was just constant, people were picking at the way my body looked and sending me the cruellest messages. I suffered with an eating disorder because of it; I didn’t have a period for 3 years. My relationship with food became obsessive, and it’s only because of tumblr that I became like that, I couldn’t separate their comments from real life.”
Her family grew increasingly concerned, and doctors warned that she may not be able to conceive children naturally if her weight didn’t improve. In 2012, tumblr announced plans to ban blogs promoting eating disorders, self-harm and suicide, but in the early years, ‘triggering’ content was rife. It was whilst starting her Fashion Communications degree at Northumbria University that Bowes began her recovery. “Part of me thinks I probably had to go through something like that,” she says. “I always just thought if I were slimmer that I would be accepted. Now, I’m passionate about trying to represent different kinds of women. Weirdly, I think it’s helped me become a more mature person.”
As our interview goes on, her voice becomes more audible and she relaxes into her chair. Now, Bowes uses her platform to combat these issues she sees within the industry. Her current project, Sukeban, is an online platform that supports up-and-coming creatives, particularly work by people of colour. “I never thought I could do something meaningful with social media, but Sukeban is one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she says, emphatically.
In many ways, Erika Bowes is the archetype of the iGeneration; her story is repeated time and time again as we wrestle with the omnipresence of social media and its many faces. Bowes is determined to craft it into a force for good, and that is admirable, whatever you think of her.