- Josh Ostrovsky, known professionally as The Fat Jewish, has 10.6 million Instagram followers.
- He has turned loyal fans into energized customers.
- Last year he sold his wine company, Babe Wine, to Anheuser-Busch InBev. It was the brewing behemoth's largest investment in wine.
- Business Insider spoke with three social-media-management founders and CEOs, all of whom said Ostrovsky's success is replicable for other influencers — provided they take the right steps.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Memeing the Kardashians and judging a wet T-shirt contest for pregnant women doesn't sound like the normal start to entrepreneurial ventures. But Josh Ostrovsky — better known by his social-media alias, The Fat Jewish — isn't typical.
Instead of filling fans' feeds with photos of chiseled abs and dewy skin, Ostrovsky, 38, serves up to his 10.6 million Instagram followers photos of his pronounced belly and his upright ponytail, which he affectionately refers to as a "hair erection."
It's differences like these that might have helped a fledgling social-media star in 2012 build an empire.
Over the past eight years, Ostrovsky has ascended from viral hit to legitimate businessman. He's landed sponsorships with prominent companies like Burger King, appeared in beloved TV shows and a music video, and partnered with celebrities like Madonna. Perhaps most notably, in 2015, he cofounded Babe Wine, which he sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2019 in what the brewer says was its largest wine investment to date.
Ostrovsky has also said that the influencer world has become so competitive in the past eight years that his playbook for netting high-price sponsorship deals is already obsolete. He declined Business Insider's request for an interview.
But Business Insider spoke with social-media experts who agreed that Ostrovsky's success is indeed replicable for other influencers, provided they follow a few key steps: Build a strong persona, remain authentic, and understand the needs and wants of their followers.
Here's how Ostrovsky built his following and turned it into a viable business — and what other influencers can learn from his strategies.
The man underneath the upright ponytail
Ostrovsky published his first Instagram post on October 11, 2012, two years after the platform launched. The close-up photo of a man's white tube socks with "suck my dick" in black lettering has garnered 1,006 likes.
His breakout moment came in 2013, when he posted a video of himself conducting a mock spin class for homeless people using Citi Bike, New York City's bike-sharing system. The stunt poked fun at exercise classes like SoulCycle that incorporate choreography and rah-rah speeches. The video, which has 91,000 views on The Fat Jewish's YouTube page, was covered by outlets like Mic, New York magazine, and Business Insider.
Ostrovsky's LinkedIn profile says he worked as a creative director for the online media outlet Thrillist in 2013, then was a "content marketing evangelist" at Nintendo until 2015. Neither company confirmed his employment.
Now, eight years after his first Instagram post, Ostrovsky's penchant for vulgarity and shock humor helps his posts regularly amass 300,000 to 500,000 likes. His content attracts commentary from stars like the actress Bella Thorne and the musician Kacey Musgraves.
However, Ostrovsky's rise to fame wasn't without stumbles. In 2015, comedians including Patrick Walsh, Ben Rosen, and Wayne Gladstone accused Ostrovsky of posting their jokes without giving them credit. Ostrovsky has since added attribution to jokes he doesn't claim as his own.
Ryan Detert, the CEO of Influential, a tech platform that connects brands with social-media influencers, said The Fat Jewish's followers skew more female than male, are under 30, are highly engaged, and tend to be living, breathing humans rather than bots. This is important: Social media is saturated with bots, so actual human engagement makes partnerships all the more attractive for brands, he added.
And as Ostrovsky's social-media persona grew, he integrated it with pop-culture events and trendy TV shows that exposed him to new audiences and fan bases.
He starred in the music video for DNCE's "Cake by the Ocean," which has been viewed 400 million times. He made guest appearances on reality shows such as "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" and debuted a clothing line at New York Fashion Week in 2015. He even partnered with Madonna in 2017 to shoot a joint commercial for their wine and skincare brands. He's also frequently spotted with actress and model Emily Ratajkowski, who married his childhood friend, filmmaker Sebastian Bear-McClard, in 2018 and became Babe Wine's "chief of taste" the following year.
Along the way, Ostrovsky scored social-media partnerships with the likes of Virgin Mobile, Seamless, Burger King, and Bumble, leading to big-name brand recognition and big paydays. Posting content for those companies on Instagram is likely netting him $30,000 to $50,000 per campaign, Detert said.
Rosé all day
As Ostrovsky built his social-media empire, he teamed up with David Oliver Cohen and Tanner Cohen — the brothers and writers behind the Twitter account White Girl Problems — and Alexander Ferzan to create Babe Wine. White Girl Rosé, which poked fun at the real-life rosé shortage that struck the Hamptons in 2014, was its star product.
"Every time you interact with him there's laughter," said Jonty Kelt, the founder of Fantail Ventures, an early-stage investment fund. Kelt invested under $1 million in Babe Wine in 2016. "I think everyone has a superpower, and for Josh, it's his ideas and creativity," Kelt added.
In 2016, Ostrovsky debuted Babe Wine and introduced a canned bubbly rosé. It now also has a carbonated pinot grigio and a red wine. The bubbles do more than just punch up the wine — they communicate enjoyment to customers, said Beth Bloom, an associate director of US food-and-drink reports at the market-research firm Mintel.
"It communicates fun, celebration, and refreshment," Bloom said, "which are aspects that are of greater interest to younger consumers."
Three years later, in 2019, Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's largest beer-maker, bought Babe Wine.
Four months after the acquisition, Anheuser-Busch InBev announced that Babe would be the NFL's first "official wine sponsor" and appear at the Super Bowl.
The canned-wine category has continued to grow. Year-over-year sales of canned wine in retailers such as liquor and grocery stores increased by 61.8% between March and September, according to Nielsen.
Innovating the influencer business model
In March, during a podcast interview with Morning Brew's Kinsey Grant, Ostrovsky said he didn't believe that new influencers trying to build their careers today could follow the trajectory he'd charted. That's because, he said, the value of everyday social-media influencers — that is, people who have thousands, not millions, of followers — is dropping as brands see lower returns on campaigns.
"The influencers need to learn how to actually build brands, because as the brands that are paying them to just be influencers start to catch on, the amounts of the deals are getting smaller," Ostrovsky said, adding that the influencer model is "not actually that effective."
All three social-media-influencer managers and experts Business Insider spoke to expressed a different sentiment. While no one could identically mirror Ostrovsky's trajectory — turning static memes into a persona — many could build something comparable, they said.
"I absolutely think people can create the same kind of success," said Kat Peterson, a cofounder of the influencer media company Re61. "But it requires an incredibly intimate relationship with your fans that's super consistent."
Detert expressed a similar sentiment. Using social-media platforms to develop a personality, build a following, and release a product line will continue to be a powerful business model in the coming years, he said. While some brands prefer celebrities for their existing fan bases, influencers are getting more attention as people spend more time on their phones, he added.
Consider Karina Garcia, a DIY expert and lifestyle YouTuber who grew her following by posting recipes for slime. She started sharing videos in 2015, has amassed more than 9 million YouTube subscribers, and developed a crafting product line for Target.
Then there's Kayla Itsines, an Australian personal trainer who turned to Instagram in 2012 to share her workouts and nutrition methods. As her following grew, Itsines published e-books and cofounded the at-home workout app Sweat. She now has 12.7 million followers on Instagram.
But few influencers are able to make a living doing only that. Influencers who have 100,000 to 500,000 followers on Instagram can net $20,000 to $100,000 a year in deals if they're active, Detert said. He estimated that 25,000 people worldwide were able to sustain a livelihood from their influencer work. There are more real-estate brokers in the US, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Communications scholars have also dispelled the notion that the influencer lifestyle is always glamorous. Brooke Erin Duffy, an assistant professor at Cornell, has written about how influencer work involves "algorithmic precarity" — you never know what kind of content a platform is going to favor next.
Build the persona, then the product
Ostrovsky's first step toward success was creating an original online personality. After he built a loyal following, he was able to turn likes into purchases.
Ostrovsky's product was wine with a punchline, but he also created a marketing strategy that appealed to his younger followers. Babe Wine recruited "brand ambassadors" — often attractive college students — to give away samples and swag at parties.
Brand ambassadors often aren't influencers themselves, but they know who the school's influencers are, where they hang out, and what parties they attend, a former ambassador told Business Insider.
Ambassadors also handed out Instagrammable goods, such as millennial-pink hats with "Babe" printed in white lettering, that further helped to spread brand awareness.
The secret sauce is authenticity
Examining Ostrovsky's success as a social-media maven turned entrepreneur is especially relevant today as people turn to platforms like Instagram to launch side hustles or businesses.
For the past six years, Joe Gagliese has fielded an increasing number of requests from people hoping to become influencers and work with his digital marketing agency, Viral Nation. The CEO and cofounder said he had received about 5,000 of those messages so far this year, up from about 2,000 in 2019, and that growth is standard for the industry and not indicative of the pandemic.
Detert also said he hadn't noticed an influx of people trying to make it as influencers specifically because of the pandemic, but he added that interest is on the rise as emerging platforms like TikTok and Triller mint new social-media stars.
Despite the number of influencer hopefuls, Gagliese said he sees people "reach that pinnacle of success every day." What sets Ostrovsky and other top influencers apart from the competition, he said, is their authenticity.
"Being as appealing as possible doesn't get you the sharing culture," Gagliese said, adding that viewers are more inclined to share posts that are offensive and shocking. For example, the Instagram account FuckJerry grew to 15.6 million followers by posting saucy memes and survived accusations in 2019 that it stole other people's jokes. "They like bad boys and people who don't follow the status quo," he said.
Ostrovsky strikes that tone.
He often mocks celebrities, uses viral content to describe a feeling, or points to stereotypes of millennials. A post in January 2019 that said "Sex is cool but have you ever wanted to cancel plans but didn't and then they cancel," with the caption "Last week someone I know canceled their 15-person birthday dinner on the day of and I swear I felt like I had shot heroin," received more than 410,000 likes.
"There's something that's really exciting and attractive about what he's doing and the audience that he's reaching," Peterson said, describing Ostrovsky's partnership with Burger King as an "on point" branding campaign for both camps.
Something like, say, getting a "chicken fries" tattoo on your chest — "that's an example of someone who wants to put authenticity before anything else," Peterson said, "and it's not for everyone, but it works for him."
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