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Under the influence: What’s it like to live with and love a social media star?

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

In the old days (like, 10 years ago), the most influential people in the world were actors, models, and musicians. These days, the biggest influencers of what we buy, where we vacation, and even how we give back don’t have million-dollar movie deals or TV credits. Instead, they have iPhones and Insta-handles.

There are plenty of influencers here in the Twin Cities. In some cases, they’re TV or radio personalities whose social media presence has become an extension of their on-air persona. For others, their business is all about creating connections between people, organizations, and good causes.

While some influencers might look glamorous in front of the camera (or iPhone) and have sweet, sweet validation from thousands of faceless social media handles, for many the most important person in their lives is the one taking the picture.

Behind the @ symbol is a very real person with feelings and opinions. And behind that person? Often there is a very patient partner. Husbands, wives, boyfriends, and, in some cases, children, have become recognizable, thanks to their influencer, whether they’ve been put into the filtered spotlight by choice, chance, or plain old accident.

Sarah Edwards and Tony Opse hang at her WeWork space in Uptown.

Sarah Edwards and Tony Opse hang at her WeWork space in Uptown. Colin Michael Simmons

Tony Opse & Sarah Edwards

Tony Opse wasn’t sure what was going on the first time he was recognized by a receptionist at doggie daycare.

“The girl just stared at me for a minute and then goes, ‘Are you dating Sarah Edwards?’” he recalls. “So at first I was trying to remember if this was one of her friends I had met or something. Then she goes, ‘I love her style! I’m really into fashion.’ I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do with that, so I just kind of smiled and thanked her. I don’t know why I thanked her, but it felt like the right thing to do.”

While it may seem strange to corner a guy who is just trying to drop off his dog, this has become the norm for Opse. His girlfriend of roughly three and a half years is Sarah Edwards, one of the most active and influential people on social media in the Twin Cities. Fashion, travel, and lavish social events are all staples of her Instagram, which is closely watched and engaged with by nearly 20,000 followers. But for Sarah, it’s (almost) all business.

Many know Edwards as the founder of “I AM” events around town, such as I AM MPLS and I AM ST. PAUL, annual parties that showcase local designers, artists, musicians, and more. By day, she was working for an advertising agency downtown, using her creativity and promotional savvy to help people and brands stand out. About a year ago, she put her influence into action to go into business for herself. The result? Her own marketing agency called, appropriately, I Am Sarah Edwards. She has partnered with brands like Jaguar Land Rover MPLS and Canopy by Hilton Minneapolis, and can often be seen out and about at the latest launch party, networking event, or panel discussion.

“I hate the idea of being an ‘influencer’ because I’m a lot more than that,” Edwards says at the mention of the word. “But social media is such an important part of my business, so I really can’t be that upset about it.”

On any given day, Edwards’ posts are a rainbow of vintage outfits and lavish decorations for her latest client event. However, she also uses it to capture her own personal memories with Opse, from vacations to the occasional non-work-related night out.

“I think about how to divide between my personal life and professional life all the time,” she says. “It’s exhausting because sometimes I feel like I have to be this character, but then I also want to exist as a real person at the same time.”

Fortunately for Edwards, Opse helps keep her grounded while still appreciating the incredible level of access she allows people as part of her business.

“I’m naturally an introvert myself,” he says. “It takes a lot for me to get out and want to talk with people. When I’m at events with her it feels strange, because people will recognize me and want to talk, but it’s pretty low-pressure. With Sarah, she has to be constantly remembering people’s names and what they do and how it affects her business. With me it’s just like, ‘Hey I’m Tony.’”

His laid-back attitude and willingness to include himself in Edwards’ world makes Opse an excellent partner, both in life and in the influencer biz. But it’s still a pain in both of their asses occasionally.

“I won’t pretend I don’t get annoyed with it sometimes,” Opse says. “Like, we’ll be somewhere and we have to stop what we’re doing to make sure we get a photo. But I also know that it’s important for her because that awareness can potentially segue into a new business opportunity.”

Edwards is quick to demonstrate her own self-awareness of the kind of absurdity that comes with the territory.

“There are times that I’m like, ‘I don’t want to ask him to take a photo, but I have to, and now I don’t respect myself!’ But I also know that posting about certain things has allowed me to connect businesses, and in some cases help with really great causes. [Social media] can seem vapid or narcissistic—which it is—but I also try to balance it with the good it can do.”

After getting on Instagram himself about six months ago, Opse says that more than anything he respects how hard his Insta-famous girlfriend works and her motivations for doing it.

“I don’t really think much about how often she’s on social media because, honestly, it’s like asking someone to cover up a third eye,” he laughs. “It’s part of her and what she does. I also understand that she is doing this for us and our future, and that means sometimes we both have to make sacrifices.”

More than anything, Opse is quick to point out that his girlfriend is a lot more than just an influencer.

“You can’t just start an Instagram account and be an influencer,” he says. “The social media was secondary to what Sarah was already doing. A lot of people get confused and want to be an influencer. You don’t do that. You do the work and people will be interested in what you’re doing. She’s done such an amazing job of that.”

Nora McInerny and Matthew Hart’s kids remain unimpressed.

Nora McInerny and Matthew Hart’s kids remain unimpressed. Kylee Leonetti

Matthew Hart & Nora McInerny

Local author, podcaster, nonprofit founder, and all-around badass chick Nora McInerny isn’t interested in what she’s “supposed” to do on social media.

“I didn’t start using the internet to be an internet person,” she explains when asked about her social media influence. “I never had a goal in mind. I just liked blogs and I was one of the first people on Tumblr, and then all of these crazy personal things happened and this following built up around it.”

Intentional or not, McInerny’s social media channels combine to over 110,000 followers, making her one of the biggest voices in the Twin Cities.

“I don’t do anything to try and gain followers,” she says. “I don’t use hashtags unless it’s something I made up myself, and my goal isn’t to get people to follow me. I use [social media] to share my life in the way I want to.”

Because of her less-than-impressed approach to social media engagement, it should come as little surprise that her kids and her husband, Matthew Hart, are unfazed by her internet status.

“The older two [Hart’s 17-year-old and 12-year-old from a previous relationship] think it’s the funniest thing to come up to me and be like, ‘Are you Nora McInerny?’ Like, it only happened one time but they won’t let me forget it.”

In Hart’s case, his feelings about his wife’s online life have gone mostly unchanged from their initial meeting. The first time he met McInerny had nothing to do with the internet at all.

“We had a mutual friend who introduced us at a bonfire at her house. I showed up, poured myself a glass of wine, and immediately tipped over in my chair. Nora laughed; probably harder than she should have. Like, she was definitely laughing at me.”

That night, McInerny sent Hart a Facebook message, instructing him to ask her out on a proper date.

Unlike most of us, who turn into online detectives at the slightest hint of romantic connection, Hart chose to mostly stay away from her accounts.

“I scrolled through her Instagram a little bit, but definitely didn’t go down a rabbit hole,” he recalls. “Everyone presents what they want on social media, and you’re not going to get to know someone by scrolling. So we went out to eat to actually learn about each other.”

Flash forward a few years and McInerny has released her second memoir, which includes plenty of stories about Hart, and her influence online steadily grows. While she continues to gain more fans because of her writing and her podcast, she hasn’t toned down who she is for the sake of gaining followers.

“I don’t have a brand I’m associated with,” she says when presented with the ugly B-word. “I have never thought that way. I can tell you that I’ve always been a very liberal person. I can tell you that I’ve rubbed a lot of white ladies in Minnesota the wrong way for calling out racist shit. I’m not for everyone.”

Meanwhile, Hart continues to be the more reserved and introverted of the two, though that’s not to say he doesn’t feel the pressures of his peripheral fame.

“There have been a few times where people will DM her about seeing me somewhere,” he recalls. “Understanding that people around Minnesota know who I am is a little weird too. It kind of makes me feel a little pressure to be a good representative of who she is, although in general I’d say the chances of me doing stupid shit is relatively low.”

Hart understands the role that social media plays in her career and her life. He also has no problem supporting her from the background.

“My version of helping is getting out of her way,” he laughs. “She just did an event at the Parkway Theater and we showed up late, so I just hung out and kept the baby entertained most of the time. She’s busy talking to people and signing books, so I step back and do what I can to support her outside of that part. She doesn’t need any help from me.”

That said, Hart’s experience watching the weird, sometimes toxic online cloud that can follow McInerny has given him a new appreciation for social media, or lack thereof.

“The sense of ownership that some people think they have over her just because they follow her online is fucking crazy to me,” he says. “It’s this righteousness, like they think they have a say in what she does sometimes. It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, this is my life and my content isn’t about aligning with your values.’ It’s just really bizarre.”

His outlook may seem obvious to an outside observer, but as anyone who has been inundated with social media dickheads can tell you, it’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re in it. This is something that doesn’t go unnoticed by McInerny.

“Matthew is a good reminder for me that the little dopamine rush I used to get from social media is not as wonderful as having a real place to land,” she says. “It used to be that if someone was shitty to me online, it would take me out of my fucking mind. Healthy people don’t shit on other people on the internet. And I can say that because I’ve been a shitty person who shit on people. Matthew is just so present and doesn’t need the internet to try and fill a hole in his spirit.”

Hart has an equally supportive outlook on McInerny’s internet life.

“This is going to sound corny but I realized early on that I was falling in love with this person, and that this was just part of the territory. This was going to be my person, and all these weird things are just going to come with it. I’m comfortable with that.”

He takes a brief pause, then adds, “But when people do come up to me all excited and ask, ‘Are you Nora’s husband?’ I just want to tell them, this is going to be a very disappointing conversation.”

Alyssa DeRusha, wife of Jason DeRusha, has found her own fame as a fashionista.

Alyssa DeRusha, wife of Jason DeRusha, has found her own fame as a fashionista. courtesy of the couple

Alyssa & Jason DeRusha

Believe it or not, people dated before apps were invented. But that doesn’t mean the internet didn’t still play a role. In the case of Alyssa and Jason DeRusha, they met back in 1995 at Marquette University, where Jason used a super primitive version of AOL Instant Messenger to ask Alyssa if she’d like to go to a church polka fest in Milwaukee.

Shockingly, that line worked, and the two are now happily married with two children, successful careers, and a very impressive social media footprint. In fact, Jason currently has more than 50,000 followers on Twitter (@DeRushaJ), which he uses to break news and give non-famous folk a look into his personal life. That’s where his wife starts to get annoyed.

“I don’t love it when he announces to 50,000 people that we’re going to Arizona next week,” she says, laughing. “Or when he puts up photos of the front of our house with the house number still on there. He just doesn’t really think of that stuff in advance.”

Small grievances aside, Alyssa knows that connecting with people is part of what makes her husband so great at his job as a WCCO-TV reporter. Not to mention it is just part of who he is.

“Jason has always been an open book,” she says. “He shares more than I’d be comfortable sharing, but he’s always been one to just put it all out there.”

While Jason is known for his combination of wit and empathy when sharing his thoughts, he says that his eye for finding content can occasionally take over.

“I realize that part of my job is social media,” he says. “But I think sometimes I find myself seeing the world in terms of possible material: What would make a great Instagram post or what would be a great tweet? Alyssa has seen me trying to craft a tweet or make a joke just right.”

Without missing a beat, Alyssa brings Jason down a few notches.

“I make jokes that you tweet as your own,” she shares.

Over the course of his career, Jason has received plenty of attention from fans at events as well as in his day-to-day life. But that notoriety is something that has become new to Alyssa in the past few years.

“It happens semi-frequently now where people will recognize me and know my name,” she says. “The weirdest is that people will come up to me when he’s not there and say that they recognize me.”

While some would possibly run from the attention, Alyssa has managed to use it to launch her own social media presence as a local fashion maven. About four years ago, she started her own fashion-focused Instagram (@alyssastyled), which has given her an online identity all her own.

“Jason was getting asked to host or be a part of more and more events and restaurant openings and things like that, and so I’d come with him,” she recalls. “I’ve always liked fashion and getting dressed up, and one of Jason’s old co-workers told me I should start my own fashion blog. I didn’t think anything of it at first, but then I decided I liked the idea of having a creative outlet to showcase that side of me.”

Soon, Alyssa was showing off her best looks, from her Starkey Gala ensemble to her relaxed outfit at a summer concert. And she had a very familiar photographer at her disposal.

“I am 100 percent her photographer,” says Jason, beaming. “I love it when someone comes up to her and says they love her fashion Instagram. People laugh, because we’ll be at events and they see me off to the side taking pictures of Alyssa. Sometimes we’ll forget to get a picture while we’re out, so we’ll pull over and get one on the way home.”

Alyssa adds, “We stopped at a Menards one time. We realized we hadn’t taken a picture, so Jason pulled over and took my picture in the parking lot.”

Her presence online has continued to grow and, in some cases, her own notoriety has managed to eclipse that of her husband.

“Some magazine ran a picture of Jason and me from a charity event we went to,” Alyssa recalls. “And the caption used my maiden name: ‘Jason and Alyssa Bannochie.’”

It’s clear that despite her budding modeling and fashion influencer career, Alyssa is still more comfortable playing the support role to her husband. But that doesn’t stop Jason from gushing about her like she’s the star of the show.

“I have spent my career getting attention because I’m on TV,” he explains. “I love having Alyssa step out and having me take her picture. I’m so proud of her for doing it.”

Jake Gotler and Falen Bonsett found love on social media, too.

Jake Gotler and Falen Bonsett found love on social media, too. Dave Puente

Jake Gotler & Falen Bonsett

Unlike some influencers’ partners who weren’t all that familiar with their significant other’s web fame prior to getting together, Jake Gotler knew exactly who he was matching with when he came across Falen Bonsett of KDWB fame on Bumble.

“I saw her profile and showed my sister her picture,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Isn’t that the girl from the radio? Should I match with her?’ She goes, ‘No way she’ll match with you.’ But she was wrong, and here we are.”

Despite being familiar with Bonsett’s radio personality, Gotler still did the social media deep-dive once the two began talking.

“I definitely went and creeped her Instagram,” he laughs. “My initial impressions were that she was super cute, her Bumble photos were up to date, and that she had some really interesting, funny, cool hobbies.”

On the other side of the swipe, Bonsett was dealing with her own nervousness with online dating.

“It felt weird to put myself out there,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone using me for Pitbull tickets or something.”

After matching with Gotler, she admits to doing the same level of social media snooping. Except her search was far less fruitful.

“Of course I stalked his social media,” she says. “I think when you first start dating anyone you want to find out about who they used to date and how you compare. The problem was I couldn’t really find a lot on him.”

A guy with a limited virtual presence was a stark contrast to her own, with more than 120,000 social media followers. But even once the relationship became social-media official, Gotler insists he didn’t have any concerns about being thrust into the frame.

“It was funny because people would come up to her when were out and say hello, which I thought was sort of unusual, but I got used to it pretty quickly. The weirdest thing was when people started to know me.”

As any KDWB morning show listener can attest, Bonsett is an open book. That translates both on-air and online.

“I probably feel some pressure to let people into my private life,” she admits. “I made that conscious decision a long time ago. How can people relate to me if I’m a surface person? If they listened to me and heard me being honest to a fault, and then saw this perfectly cultivated Instagram, they’d be disappointed.”

But in the case of maintaining a relationship, being authentic can come with risks, which both Gotler and Bonsett recognized going in.

“I know in her case, she was much more cognizant of putting something up online about us,” Gotler says. “Because if something goes wrong, you don’t want to have to explain it to 50,000 people.”

Bonsett seconds this. “I’ve come to accept that people are going to say mean things to me on the internet, but I don’t want people being mean to him.”

As fans already know, the couple decided that the reward was worth the risk, and they were married this past September. While Gotler knew that this meant being a part of Bonsett’s life forever, he didn’t realize that it also meant being a part of other people’s lives.

“It’s funny because now we’ll be at the State Fair or something and instead of just asking him to take our picture, people want him to get in the picture with us,” Bonsett laughs.

For his part, Gotler is happy to play the part alongside his wife.

“When her fans come up to me I try to always be polite and positive,” he says. “People will occasionally approach me when we’re at radio events or appearances for her, but it is sort of weird that they’re interested in taking pictures or meeting me just because I’m married to her.”

Bonsett admits that she has put her husband to work on occasion.

“Of course I’ve made him take pictures of me looking off into the distance,” she confesses. “I have the dream of having one of those super cute Instagram photos. But he’s terrible at it so that dream will never come true with him.”

Dream photo shoots aside, Gotler says he is always happy to lend a hand, regardless of what side of the camera he’s on.

“If we’re out somewhere and people want a picture, I’ll always help out,” he says. “We also started our own food page together and made a YouTube show, Festivals, Fairs and Food Trucks.”

While a couple having a shared social media account or YouTube channel can potentially be nauseating, Gotler and Bonsett have managed to use her status to bring them closer together and make them into an influencer couple.

Whether they turn out to be the king and queen of the Twin Cities social media scene or just continue taking way too many photos of their dogs, Gotler embraces his wife’s work as an influencer.

“I’m proud of her more than anything else,” he beams. “She’s built up a following and has a fanbase, and she deserves it. Her social media is a really accurate representation of who she is, which is the same funny, cool, cute girl I fell in love with.”