Written by Abigail Winn
Chiara Cheng, for all intents and purposes, is a powerhouse for her age.
At 21, the born-and-raised Italian is a deeply involved student as president of the University of Oregon’s International Student Union and a second-year Resident Assistant (RA), all the while studying accounting in the Lundquist School of Business. Ultimately, her goal is to work for Deloitte U.S., one of the nation’s top four accounting firms.
She left her home country two years ago for college, speaks five languages fluently or with considerable proficiency and, based on her current outfit of a tied-waist beige dress over a black T-shirt and chunky shoes, her style game is major.
If all that weren't awe-inspiring enough, Cheng’s side gig is being a social media influencer. She has over 51,000 YouTube subscribers and nearly 10,000 followers on Instagram and holds affiliate deals with fashion retailers such as CupShe and Zaful. To further understand her high-achieving world as a digital influencer, Ethos sat down with Cheng and discussed her internet success, the pressure of being in the spotlight and her identity as a Chinese-Italian woman in the age of 24/7 performance online.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What inspired you to begin creating content on YouTube?
I started by doing vlogs. It was a year during [which] I was a crazy fangirl and I used to go to a lot of concerts. I thought it was a good idea to record those days, since they meant so much to me, and just have them somewhere that I could go back to and look when I wanted to. I never imagined getting to the point where I am right now. I was happy with my hundred subscribers and that was it. And then I started getting comments on my video saying, ‘I’m just like you, I’m a Chinese Italian girl, just seeing your videos and seeing you is really inspiring,’ because we don’t have that many Chinese Italian YouTubers. Once I started gaining more followers, I realized that I could talk about things that are not really talked about on the platform and use my identity to actually represent a group that’s in Italy but is not represented.
When was the moment you realized, or felt, you had ‘become’ an influencer?
I still struggle to actually recognize myself as an influencer. But I would definitely say it was the end of my senior year of high school and one of my videos trended. And after that video trended, I saw an incredible amount of subscribers following me on Instagram and on YouTube, getting a lot of comments in a very short period of time, and in that moment I realized maybe I was actually stepping up a little bit. I wasn’t just an average YouTuber that has those 50 or 100 subscribers, but maybe I could actually become something more than just that.
At any point when that was happening, did you ever want it to stop or, on the other hand, want it to continue?
I did see the numbers of followers and subscribers as a way to validate myself. The more subscribers I had, the more followers I had, the more value I had. I was in high school at that time and I had a lot of self-esteem issues, so just seeing so many people following me and liking me gave me a lot of self-esteem. But then it got to a point where it started to actually grow. The love grows but also the hate grows as well. And I’m very sensitive and was affected a lot by negative comments. The more people started to follow me, the more hatred I would get. I had this anxiety and stress about having to keep up with my job as an RA, a full-time student also trying to get good grades and involved in clubs, and then on top of that, I also had this [job].
With the negative comments, how often are those comments about your race or identity?
It’s very common. That was one of the reasons that spurred me to do content but also really affected me. Sometimes people just don’t take me seriously because they just say, “You look Chinese, you can’t talk about Italy because you don’t know anything about Italy, because you’re not Italian.” I’ve always struggled with my identity because nobody ever considers me as Italian even though I was born and raised there. I consider myself as full Italian, although I do recognize my Chinese origins and do appreciate them. But it was very hard to be in an environment where I was the minority. I was one of the two or four girls during my first two or three years in high school that were Chinese or coming from a Chinese background. So I constantly see people mocking my physical appearance because I look Asian. They do get offended sometimes when I talk about some of the negative things about Italy, and they just think that I have no right to talk about them because I am “not Italian” even though I am.
How has being an influencer affected the way that you understand the multiplicity of your identity? From what I understand, you’re full Italian, with origins in China, and if I’m not mistaken from your LinkedIn profile, you speak five languages at varying degrees of fluency.
My social media presence and my college experience really influence the way I see my identity and my approach. I used to be very, very insecure about my identity. If you asked me this question a couple of years ago, or even at the beginning of high school, I would say, “I wish I wasn’t Chinese” because I was literally the minority. Every time I wasn’t taken seriously, it was mainly because I looked Asian and I wasn’t the stereotypical Caucasian Italian person. Coming here to a much, much more diverse environment than the one that I was used to just made me really appreciate my Chinese background. But during my years in Italy, I really just didn’t want to even talk about my Chinese background. Yes, I have hate comments, but then I have many more people supporting me and just really appreciating me and that really just helped me accept my identity and be proud of it for the first time.
How has it affected the way you connect with people offline?
I try to be as understanding as I can. And I try to be understanding because I recognize that some people are just brought up in a culture where they’re not used to recognizing people with different identities and different backgrounds. I actually felt much more accepted here in the [United] States because I suffered so much in Italy. But even if I went back to Italy now and I had to talk to someone, I would just try to be more understanding. And if they say something that is problematic, I would try to think, “Their intentions are not necessarily bad intentions, they’re just ignorant in the sense that they don’t know.” So it’s almost my job. I do want to be the one to help them understand more. And with other Americans, what I really appreciate and that just made me feel very accepted was that I never felt anyone here [was] arguing the fact that I was Italian.
And that wasn’t the case in Italy?
Italy sees sometimes minorities as worse; [they] are not as educated and polite. So I always tried very, very hard in school. Also in the way I dressed, I always tried to really fit in, but no matter what, because I looked Asian to them, I was always the Chinese girl. I want to use my platform to start initiating process of educating people that minorities do exist and they are just as important as the majority of Caucasian Italians.
What got you through when you were feeling particularly isolated or sad?
In high school, I didn’t really have a good support system, and even [now] I still struggle to have a good support system. Because of all the experiences that I had to deal with during my time in Italy, I just started building up walls, not wanting to talk about my feelings to anyone, because I just felt like nobody actually understands me. I saw YouTube as an escape, as a way to actually start talking about it. At first I started using YouTube privately, so the people that I knew didn’t know about my YouTube channel. I was okay with it because the people who were watching my YouTube videos were strangers, but strangers that appreciated me. But as I said, I still struggle a lot. Even here in college. I started going to therapy and that helped me ... I’ve realized that trying to let the people around me, my friends in, and just be vulnerable with them. And definitely faith has helped me a lot. I don’t want to appear as the stereotype “religious person,” but during my lowest times I always had this connection with God and have always felt the need to talk to him, you know?
How does your mental health come into play with your identity? How do they affect each other?
I've always struggled a lot to define my identity and that really affected my mental health negatively. It really hurts when you are not taken seriously just because your skin color is different. For years, I questioned my identity. I started to doubt my authenticity as an Italian person because everyone around me doubted it. It caused trauma that I struggle to deal with even now. It made me feel incredibly insecure and worthless.
In what ways does your social media presence help you escape from the frustrations of racism and prejudice you experience?
I felt empowered once I noticed that more and more people started following me. It gave me hope. For years, I was surrounded by negative and close-minded people that I almost thought that everyone was like that, and yet once I noticed that I started to gain more followers I recognized that it wasn't true. For every bad side, there is always a positive one. I wouldn't say that social media is a complete escape from racism and prejudice. On the contrary, I would actually say that often times people feel more empowered behind a screen and say the worst things without hesitation. But I would definitely say it helped me a lot to appreciate my identity and it really gave me the confidence that I was lacking during my high school years.
What do you think it means for other people like you to see you be successful on social media?
Most of the people that follow me see it as an inspiration. I often get direct messages about how me going to the [United] States to study by myself [inspired] them to be more ambitious and determined. It's nice to know I motivated someone else. My goal really is to spur people to become better people and better selves, especially minority women. I really want to give them the hope to believe that they can be successful, too.
What do you want people to know about working as an influencer that they either don’t understand or have preconceived notions about?
I don’t want to sound entitled or spoiled or ignorant, but I feel like sometimes people really think that being an influencer is a dream. I’m not even close to being a professional influencer that does that as their only job, but even in my small situation, I feel really stressed about having to do content, having to post, because I know that it is what is expected of me. I also don’t want to let people down, nor do I want to lose that presence that I have because I’m very proud of my online presence, and that is a big part of my life. I want to keep that up, but I wish people understood that it’s much more than just posting a picture online. And even just posting a picture, sometimes I don’t want to put my makeup on, I don’t want to wear something cute, I don’t want to go out and take pictures or ask people to take pictures of me.
Where do you want to see the ‘influencer’ community go in terms of inclusion?
I just always hope that there’s going to be more understanding from the influencers’ part but also from the followers’ part. Sometimes there’s a very toxic environment in which there’s this "cancel culture." On my side I think that it gives me personally a lot of anxiety because I’m constantly scared of doing something wrong, not because I have bad intentions but maybe because I simply just didn’t think about it thoroughly. So I’m constantly scared and I feel like I always have to calculate every single thing that I have to do because I’m scared that if I mess up everybody’s just going to be against me, and that has a very bad effect on my mental health. We’re all human beings, we are allowed to make mistakes but we also want to learn from our mistakes. That goes both ways. I try to be more understanding from my followers when they criticize me but they’re not necessarily insulting me or offending me.
So, ultimately, what do you want your followers to know/understand/take away from your content about your identity?
It’s very important for me to just let my followers know that I am a human being. I have feelings and I have a normal life. Because sometimes you see the posts and you think, “Oh, that person has a perfect life, I wish I was them,” but it’s not, because at the end of the day, I have my own problems too and I’m just as human as they are.
Would you want to continue being an influencer and growing your following?
I don’t know. I’ve thought about it. I do know for sure that I want to be a successful woman in business, and being an influencer would mean that, too.