Katie Stauffer posted a photo of her daughter Mila standing next to a Marilyn Monroe statue to Instagram on Sunday, the location tagged as the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. The 3-year-old mimics Marilyn by holding her dress up and giving a side-eye. Within 30 minutes, the photo had over 75,000 likes and 500 comments.
“Can you guys come to LA the first week of March?” someone wrote. “I’ll be there then and I’d love to meet you guys!”
“Mila you are way sexier,” another comment, from a woman, read. “You nailed it baby.”
Mila and her twin sister, Emma, have grown up on their mom’s Instagram account. “Welcome to the world sweet nameless girls,” the caption on a photo from 2014 reads — the babies’ faces are new and puffy, their eyes closed. Their C-sections were posted to Katie’s YouTube account the following year.
These days, Katie makes content for more than 3.7 million fans on Instagram — along with substantial followings on YouTube and Facebook, all filled with people devoted to Mila. (Emma is also featured, but is more camera-shy.) The toddler is best known for her sassy, relatable videos, which Katie makes with her husband, Charley, and 15-year-old daughter, Kaitlin. In the scripts, Mila portrays a precocious toddler with opinions on everything from Santa ("this guy has no life") to working out (a bore).
Mila's fame online has real-life implications. People stop her and ask for photos with her so frequently that now she approaches people before they have to approach her.
“Whenever we’re at the store, sometimes she’ll go up to someone and say, ‘Do you want to take a picture with me?’” Kaitlin told BuzzFeed News.
Mila has fans all over the world — people in India, China, Brazil, and elsewhere clamor for her attention on a daily basis, with comments like “I love Mila.” Katie said a man once stopped her on the street and kissed Mila on the cheek, without asking.
Mila's brand — and the sponsored content she can sell — has been so successful that Katie quit her full-time job as an escrow officer in September and now does Instagram full time.
Katie is just one of the many moms who have been able to turn their families into businesses (but with 3.7 million followers, she is one of the most popular). Take Katie Ryan, whose daughter Ava has been entertaining the masses since she exploded on Vine and now makes ads for Walmart. Manhattan mom of three Naomi Davis, who is known to her roughly half a million followers as “Taza,” has worked with companies like Lego and Apple. Mom of two Amber Fillerup Clark, the only one of these Instagrammers who comes close to Katie with 1.3 million Instagram fans, has advertised for Old Navy and Amazon.
Instagram advertising has been a juggernaut for both influencers and companies, but in many ways, it is still the Wild West. Federal Trade Commission guidelines are weakly enforced on Instagram and other social media platforms, and it can often be difficult for viewers to parse what is a genuine post and what is sponsored.
Kristen Strader, a campaign coordinator for advocacy group Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert, told BuzzFeed News that “it can be impossible for consumers to determine what is an ad and what is an influencer sharing a genuine moment from their life.” “It gets even more complicated when influencers are using their children to promote paid content,” she added.
When I asked Katie Stauffer how much companies pay her on average for a sponsored Instagram post, she declined to answer. Although Katie receives a salary for her work, Charley said that they’re in the process of setting up a trust for the kids.
Evan Asano, the founder and CEO of influencer marketing agency Mediakix, told BuzzFeed News that companies can pay thousands for posts on accounts like Katie’s.
“Instagrammers of her size can get paid anywhere from $10,000–$20,000 per post, depending on the brand and campaign/partnership,” Asano said in an email. “For video posts, the rate is higher, but ranges vary more for video based on the brand requirements.”
“Top Instagrammers with millions of followers can make $500,000 or more in annual income from brand sponsorships,” he added.
In November, Katie told a local Fox outlet that she earns more money than her husband, who is a doctor. She also went through her home, pointing out the gifts that had been sent to the family, like rugs, a couch, a table, and a TV.
Last month, I met the Stauffer family at their home on a quiet street in Arizona, hoping to see what it is actually like to run an Instagram business empire centered around a toddler. When I arrived, both Mila and her twin sister, Emma, were wearing white sweaters and jeans, their hair done in their signature hairdos — Emma’s in one bun, Mila’s in two.
Prior to the publication of this article, Katie posted an Instagram Story to her millions of followers, tagging my Instagram handle, saying that I conducted the interview under false pretenses. I made no promises about this piece.
I spoke to Katie and Kaitlin while sitting on their couch in their family room. Charley, Katie's husband, sat across the room from us. The twins rummaged through my purse, to their parents’ protest, sat on their dad’s lap, and roamed around the room as we spoke.
Katie said that on an average day, she usually has a certain number of photos she has to take to fulfill obligations to her sponsors. She also needs to take “normal” pictures to ensure her feed isn’t all ads.
Photo shoots never take longer than 15 minutes, and they can take as little as five. “It just depends on if [the twins] are cooperating,” she said.
Sometimes the photo shoots have to be incentivized. “There’s definitely been times when like, ‘Please, if we do this, we could just go get ice cream,’” Katie said. “Cause Emma just is a little bit difficult, when it comes to pictures and stuff. She just doesn’t want to do it.”
Instagram fame may seem glamorous, but Katie said it comes with a lot of stress. She gets a little leeway because her stars are toddlers. “I have two photos due today that I have to get to [advertisers],” she said. “I haven’t taken them and they’re due by the end of the day today and it’s totally stressing me out.”
Mila’s videos are easily the most profitable. After the first few of them went viral, the Stauffers’ fame and follower count skyrocketed, and Katie says they bring a lot of happiness to people. One woman told her that she discussed the videos with her therapist, and a stranger messaged Katie on Facebook, saying that footage of Mila stopped them from writing a suicide note.
The videos can take as long as three days to make, with Kaitlin feeding Mila lines to repeat. The family stops filming when Mila makes it clear she is over it, and Katie explained she is careful not to push Mila to do videos when she doesn’t want to.
“Because at this point she’ll do it, and likes it,” she said.
In one video, Mila agonizes over a “date” she had with a boy named Sawyer, who was more interested in football than in her.
“Hair and nails...for nothing,” she groans.
“What are these people doing?” she asks, in another video about the gym. “People running and not getting anywhere!”
In another, she calls her birthday “a bust” because she got a toothbrush. (The video was sponsored by the toothbrush company and included “#ad.”)
“I wish this puppy was a magic wand,” she says of the toothbrush. “That would be lit.”
However, in person, Mila is a very normal toddler. She didn’t have any sassy one-liners when she spoke to me. In fact, she only (barely) makes sense in the delightfully incoherent way toddlers do.
“You’re a good girl,” Mila told me, earnest and effusive, with a huge smile. “Good to meet you.”
“Good to meet you,” I whispered back to her. It did make me feel special. She is, after all, a star. And cute as hell.
Even though the words in the videos aren’t Mila's, Katie said they have changed the way the toddler speaks (Katie insists the sassy personality is how her daughter naturally is) and that Mila repeats lines from the videos “all the time.”
Katie described the attention her kids receive as “fun” and not overwhelming, and said she has never gotten a comment that made her alarmed.
People have commented about stealing Mila, but Katie said she has said the same thing to people, like to her friend who just had a baby.
“Even the comments that we get on my pages from men, like ‘I love Mila,’ like, in other cultures, I think that’s just how, as maybe weird as that sounds, that’s normal to them,” she said. “I don’t know. I can’t explain it without even sounding weird myself.”
She offered a similar explanation for the man who, in New York City, stopped them and, without permission, kissed Mila on the cheek. “I would never do that to a little kid. But they were from, like, France, where that’s normal. Like, that’s how they greet people or whatever,” she said.
In November, Katie held a meet-and-greet with the twins at a small cafe in Beverly Hills. They had security present, she added.
“It was super awesome. I mean, I guess we could have had some mass murderer come, I don’t know, but we got lucky,” she said.
Nothing made Katie uncomfortable at the event, which she said was filled with “mothers and daughters” and “girlfriends and boyfriends.”
“People were like, ‘Oh, I find it weird that there’s men that wanted to take a picture with her.’ Well, pretty much 99% of the men that wanted to take a picture with her — one, had a girlfriend, and two, were from, like, another country where it’s just like, that’s how that is. That’s how their culture is,” she said.
Katie does take some safety precautions, though, like waiting until she and her family leave a place before tagging the location on Instagram. She also said she wants to make it so her address isn’t easy to find online.
The mom has been profiting off Instagram for years. About six years ago she began to share photos of her three older children, Kaitlin, Finn, and Charles. Her photos of Finn became popular, and companies began to send her free gifts and swag, which she would, in turn, post on her account. (Now “they want to be just as big as Mila,” Katie said of her other kids, with a laugh.)
Eventually, other Instagram influencers told her she was “ruining it” for them by not charging companies for ads. So she did, working with brands like Duracell, the Honest Company, and Volvo.
Katie said she is probably going to stop doing branded videos, like the Duracell one, “because it just ruins the Mila video.”
“We don’t want it to be so ad-sy,” she said. “Honestly, if we could do a normal Mila video with a company and she just had to have the product in her hand and never say anything, maybe we’d do it.”
That said, in mid-January, Mila was in another video ad, this one for Kidfresh foods.
Sometimes the ads can be intimate. Take one for the Honest Company, in which Katie discusses potty training Emma and Mila alongside a photo of the twins in training pants.
When asked if she’s worried that the twins may be embarrassed by ads like this when they are older, Katie said she didn’t think they will care.
“I didn’t post them, like, naked,” she said. “I’ve tried to never post, like, naked pictures. They have clothes on. They have a diaper that has unicorns on it.”
Katie used to also accept gifted merchandise, but her manager advised her against posting a product on her feed without payment.
“Target has sent me PR packages. Well, I love Target. I’d love to work with them. So, [my manager’s] like, don’t post too much free stuff, like what they send you, because that’s what they’re trying to do,” she explained. By FTC guidelines, influencers’ posts featuring gifted merchandise are equivalent to ads, and must be disclosed as such.
Katie is a fan of the free gifts. “It’s a fun family thing we do. Honestly, the money and stuff is fun,” the mom said. “But for me, the fun part is like — my manager makes fun of me all the time — because, the free stuff.”
But as her business grows, so does the backlash. People have accused her of unfairly profiting off of her children and of forcing Mila to do videos. Charley mentioned that Mila frequently asks to do videos when he returns from work.
Katie said she thinks it’s unfair that people judge her for profiting off her Instagram. She says she only began to get harsh comments once her following became massive.
“Most people have jobs — this just happens to be mine. And it’s like it’s not acceptable [to some people] and it just kind of sucks,” she said.
She also said that people assume she and her husband are “making this money off of [their] children.”
“But it's for them,” she said. In her mind, Mila is just like a child actor.
“Kids act and get money for it, so what’s different?” she said. “They just think that Charley and I are like, you know, buying mansions and boats and all this stuff with all this money.”
Anne Henry, cofounder of the BizParentz Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for kids in the entertainment industry, told BuzzFeed News that the parents of young influencers are operating in an industry that is effectively lawless.
“They’re not being governed by any of that stuff,” she said, after listing protections provided to child actors in California, like restrictions on work hours, and the amount of money that must go to them. “Therefore, the parents are flailing about.”
So what’s next? At a toy fair in New York City in February, the twins will again be meeting people. “Come meet Katie, Mila & Emma Stauffer, Instagram's Most Influential Family,” an invitation sent by a publicist to BuzzFeed News on Wednesday read.
Also, the twins start preschool this year. Katie doesn’t think their classmates will recognize them, but says their parents might. And the family have their eyes on Hollywood.
“There are talks with real companies for a TV show that Kaitlin would be more writing and be in, and it would be a sitcom,” Katie said.
Last month, Mila was on Jesse Watters’ Fox News show, to discuss her viral videos about Santa Claus.
“So you’re a big internet star, Mila. How does it feel to be so famous?” Watters asked Mila, who was sitting on her mom’s lap.
“Um, I don’t know,” she responded.
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Remy Smidt is a reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Remy Smidt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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