One morning in early November, Amber Fillerup Clark sat at her dining-room table, which serves as her desk most days, peering at her laptop. She had professional photo-editing software open, and was using it to tweak pictures that her husband, David Clark, had snapped of their toddlers dressed up as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The children had rotated through several costumes before Halloween—11-month-old Rosie wore a lamb outfit; 2-year-old Atticus dressed as a dragon; the whole family donned matching superhero getups—and Clark had photographed each one for Barefoot Blonde, Fillerup Clark’s blog about motherhood and fashion. As we talked, she adjusted the colors in the pictures, giving them the warm pastel hues characteristic of wedding portraits. She assured me that she stops short of Photoshopping appearances, then reconsidered: “Sometimes I’ll whiten teeth.”
Fillerup Clark has shared enough holidays and milestones that she and her husband can predict what types of images will charm her followers. “Before we post a picture, we can usually tell how good the engagement will be based off the content,” Clark said.
“If it has the whole family in a pretty place, traveling, that’s going to do the best,” Fillerup Clark said. On another occasion she’d told me, “We always have to think of our life as ‘Where can you take the prettiest pictures?’ ”
Not so long ago, Fillerup Clark was a broke student in Provo, Utah. Today, at age 26, she is the equivalent of internet royalty: a “relatable influencer,” someone whom hundreds of thousands of women trust as a friend and whom companies pay handsomely to name-drop their products. Stepping for the first time into her living room in Manhattan, I found it intimately familiar, thanks to the up-close-and-personal Instagram photos, YouTube vlogs, Snapchat videos, and blog posts Fillerup Clark shares with her 1.3 million Instagram followers, 227,000 YouTube fans, and 250,000 monthly blog readers. I knew from the redecoration “reveal” she’d posted a few months back that the velvet side chair had been provided by West Elm, and I recognized the tangle of curls on a shelf as clip-in hair extensions from Barefoot Blonde Hair, Fillerup Clark’s own line of products, which sold out within 72 hours of its debut in October. I could even name the stuffed dog on the couch: That was Chauncey, it belonged to Atticus, and it had been named after the family’s real golden retriever.
Since launching Barefoot Blonde in 2010, Fillerup Clark has adhered to a deceptively simple formula: beautiful pictures of herself—she has the golden locks, lithe frame, and wholesome femininity associated with prom queens who date quarterbacks—paired with breezy diary entries that read like texts from a best friend. “Me and my friends were talking about how long the perfect massage would be and I think we settled on 5 hours lol,” she wrote in a blog post featuring 19 photos of her family’s lazy day at home. Nothing is too momentous or mundane to share: Watch a video of Fillerup Clark in a hospital gown, shortly before giving birth to Rosie, then scroll through pictures of her walking Chauncey, her outfit annotated with links (when a reader purchases an item, Fillerup Clark usually earns a commission). She has chronicled her engagement to David, their wedding, both their children’s infancies, and their 2014 move from Alabama to New York City. Soon the blog will detail construction of their dream house, near Fillerup Clark’s hometown of Mesa, Arizona, where the family will move early next year.
Fillerup Clark’s portrait of domestic bliss has earned her a top spot among the second generation of so-called mommy bloggers. She joins a clique of stylish women, among them Naomi Davis of Love Taza and Rachel Parcell of Pink Peonies, who have acquired loyal followings (and incomes rumored to be in the seven figures) by showing themselves excelling as ordinary wives and mothers. If the feats these blogs capture are familiar—dressing well, attending to children—this is a key part of the appeal; the women epitomize a new breed of celebrity, as public fascination expands beyond the rich and famous to the well-off and above-average. “We’re seeing people following almost idealized versions of themselves,” said Rob Fishman, a co-founder of Niche, an ad network for online influencers that is now owned by Twitter. “It’s this attainable perfection.”
Mommy blogs first emerged as a mainstream obsession in the mid-2000s, led by dooce, which featured Heather Armstrong, an irreverent ex-Mormon, dishing on the agony and ecstasy of raising two daughters. Armstrong, who cut back on blogging in 2015, has trouble recognizing the genre in its current form. As she sees it, written storytelling has given way to pretty pictures. Where advertising was once confined to banner ads, “native advertising” now packages sponsors’ messages in a blogger’s voice. (Many Barefoot Blonde photos include product placements: A post sponsored by Seventh Generation, for example, features the Clarks picking berries with their kids outfitted in the company’s diapers.) And where Armstrong’s cohort divulged the frustrations of parenting—“Feeling guilty for blaming my farts on the baby,” reads a typical dooce post—current bloggers, in her view, present an airbrushed, Pinterest-ready vision of parenthood, one that can leave readers feeling jealous, inadequate, or ashamed when they almost inevitably fall short. “Because the way to make money now is through sponsorships, we’ve lost the grit, truth, and messiness,” said Armstrong, citing pressure from sponsors to tone down her voice and rope her daughters into promotions. “It’s all staged. It’s all fake. It’s like, ‘How many photos did you have to take to get that one photo?’ ”
Fillerup Clark rejects the idea that she whitewashes motherhood. “We take pictures as it happens. Whatever we get, we get,” she said, as she winnowed about 30 photos of her kids in their Trump and Clinton costumes down to six blogworthy shots. She noted that she regularly shares aches and pains in the text accompanying her photos. And when it comes to her own appearance, she is candid about the ways she gives Mother Nature a helping hand, openly discussing her fondness for sunless tanning, false eyelashes, veneers, and hair extensions.
As Fillerup Clark clicked through photos, I asked how she chose which ones to post. Given that millions of Instagrammers perseverate over vacation snapshots and food pictures in the hopes of attaining even a fraction of Fillerup Clark’s success, I steeled myself for a spiel on the hallmarks of the Barefoot Blonde brand. Fillerup Clark looked at me like I’d asked why she was right-handed. “I don’t know,” she said. “Whichever ones I like best.” What fueled her success on Instagram? “It just kind of happened.” Why do people find her interesting? “Good question. I don’t know.” This might have sounded coy. But Fillerup Clark seems to just instinctually understand what the internet wants, and to take pleasure in offering it. Though she has two assistants, she handles most fan-facing details herself: She vets comments, replies personally to followers, brainstorms photo shoots, plans outfits, writes her blog entries, and curates the pictures. (She and Clark do have a part-time nanny, who has traveled with them.) Fillerup Clark speculates that logging her life might come naturally because—like a disproportionate number of top mommy bloggers—she and her husband belong to the Mormon Church, which encourages keeping a journal.
Fillerup Clark did not originally intend to make Barefoot Blonde a career. She created the site while volunteering at an orphanage in Fiji when she was 20, so she could update her family back home; after returning to Utah, she transitioned to posting style inspirations and musings on college life. The blog’s early popularity earned her a gig with an alarm-system company that paid her to wear a T-shirt with its logo around campus. But school failed to keep her interest, and after a year she transferred to a yearlong hairstyling program; she went back to college for a second year before dropping out. During their first year of marriage, she and Clark made ends meet by donating plasma at a blood bank and living in his parents’ basement. Then, in 2014, the blog got its first big break: a sponsored campaign with the hair-care brand Tresemmé. Before the year was up, Barefoot Blonde was profitable enough that Clark quit law school to become a “blog husband.” Today he serves as the go-to photographer and manages logistics for the hair-extension line. The Clarks declined to tell me their income, but Karen Robinovitz, a co-founder of Digital Brand Architects, the agency that represents Fillerup Clark, said bloggers at her level can earn between $1 million and $6 million a year.
The following afternoon, I joined all four Clarks for a photo shoot in Central Park. Fillerup Clark, Rosie, and Atticus wore matching jean jackets—freebies from a boutique—and Fillerup Clark tossed leaves above the kids’ beaming faces while the photographer, a friend hired for the day, snapped away. Like other successful parent bloggers, the Clarks have been accused of exploiting their children for financial gain. They counter that Rosie and Atticus are never forced to do anything, and that Barefoot Blonde allows the family more time together than would any traditional job. As the shoot continued, the toddlers appeared largely oblivious to the camera and delighted to be feeding ducks with their parents.
Fillerup Clark says she juggles about five photo shoots a week, not including impromptu picture-taking when the family happens to be doing something photogenic. It was the Clarks’ second visit to Central Park that day; the earlier trip, which they’d deemed a casual family outing, not an official shoot, had generated content for an Instagram photo, a Snapchat video, and a blog post.
The seemingly effortless grace with which the Clarks are living the American dream appeals to their fans, who are overwhelmingly female, largely in their mid-20s to early 30s, and concentrated in New York and California, according to Clark. Twenty-nine-year-old Gena Baillis, who lives with her husband and their infant son in Charleston, South Carolina, has followed Fillerup Clark for three years and looks to her “to help me become a better version of myself.” On Fillerup Clark’s recommendation, Baillis has bought nail polish, camera gear, sports drinks, healthy snacks, and workout equipment. (For her birthday, Baillis said, her husband “bought me a spinning bike because Amber takes spinning and I swore that’s what would work.”) “My husband’s like, ‘You aspire to be like her, so this is what you need to do,’ ” said Baillis. “They kinda seem to live a fantasy life, but they seem pretty down-to-earth. It doesn’t seem fake at all.”
The shoot in Central Park wrapped up within half an hour, and as we walked back to the Clarks’ apartment, the Manhattan skyline glowing gold in the late-afternoon sun, Fillerup Clark and her husband reflected on how Arizona’s landscape would be less photogenic than New York’s. They were already planning ahead to ensure their new home would offer attractive backdrops.
“So we’re thinking of having an indoor gym in our home because if we could even say yes to one or two fitness campaigns, then that would pay for the gym itself,” Fillerup Clark explained. They’d sprung for an outdoor shower for similar reasons. “Sometimes we’ll have a campaign where we’re doing shaving cream, and it’s a little awkward to be indoors in your shower, so it makes more sense to have a beautiful outdoor shower and do it out there.” They were incorporating picturesque window seats, and had come up with a special design for what they called “Amber’s hallway”: It would be extra wide and lined with windows and, according to Clark, was partly “based off of ‘I want to take pictures there.’ ”
“The more our house becomes Pinnable, the more it leads back to the website,” said Clark. “We want it to traffic well. We want it to go viral.”