In the hills above Hollywood, Aresenic’s team of 12 — 10 women and 2 men — are building a media powerhouse based on being real, raw, and edgy.
In the last two years, Arsenic has transformed from being one woman’s hobby to a social media movement where women of any shape, size, skin colour, or location are submitting their own photos and videos for free just because they want to be a part of it.
The startup, which officially launched in June 2015, currently has over 960,000 followers on Instagram, more than Maxim and Esquire combined. Arsenic’s Snapchat channel has around 500,000 people clicking on every photo and video its models post.
Arsenic’s meteoric rise comes at a time when social media can make anyone a star and women are being empowered to take control of their bodies.
The tone was set from the second-ever Aresnic shoot when cofounder Amanda Micallef threw the photographer off the set.
He had come in with the typical attitude of “This is my set, you do what I say” and dictated how the girls looked, she explains to Business Insider. That was not going to fly.
“These women wanted to push the envelope. They liked the idea of owning their sexuality,” Micallef says. “They liked being provocative, but they didn’t want somebody to tell them how to do that.”
The girls traded places and took photos of themselves, posing however they wanted.
“That was the mantra right off the bat: If you don’t like what you’re doing, don’t do it,” Micallef says.
Arsenic doesn’t pay for any of its Snapchat content. The entire platform is crowd-sourced, with people volunteering to takeover the account and showcase their lives. The up-and-coming models want attention and to be discovered. Brands are clamoring to have their products, like cars, show up as photo shoot props. All of the art on display in the Arsenic House is on loan from artists wanting it to be showcased in the background.
Now a generation of men and women who love “the new sexy” have started following Arsenic in droves.
Evening the playing field on Instagram
In 2014, Micallef wanted to start a print magazine.
“I said, Amanda, print is dead,” her now-cofounder Billy Hawkins laughs.
Micallef had started Arsenic as a side project, a hobby to escape the “Hollywood bulls—” that had become increasingly pervasive in her day job as an independent filmmaker.
For the first shoot, she didn’t have any money to provide props or secure a location. The models, the photographer, and the makeup artists showed up for free. Hawkins lent Micallef his house.
The resulting images were a byproduct of not having the money to do something more elaborate.
Then came the next shoot, where the photographer was kicked out. The photos were different, and Micallef could tell she had hit on something.
“In a commercial way, there was just this idea of what sexy, beautiful was that was somewhat limiting,” Micallef says.
“But more than that, there’s a nuance when you look at a picture of a girl when she’s feeling empowered and beautiful — her hair is the way she wants, she’s wearing what she wants, she’s standing the way she wants — that’s very different than when a guy is like stand there, turn your cheek that way, and projecting what he thinks is sexy.”
Hearing her idea of doing a print magazine, Hawkins turned her down, but Micallef is stubborn. She told him she was going to do it with or without his help.
One week later, he came back with an email outlining the pillars of what Arsenic would become.
The most interesting woman in the world and an opportunity
Hawkins and Micallef met years ago, when Hawkins left a career in investment banking to become a mail room clerk at Creative Arts Agency (CAA).
His boss told him about Micallef, a woman who raced Formula 1 Cars and drove the Gumball 3000 race across the country. She didn’t just participate — she got thrown in jail for driving too fast. After her dad bailed her out, she finished in the top 10% of the race. And this was in between her sitting on the boards of several companies.
“This is before the Dos Equis dude, the most interesting man in the world, but that’s kind of how I pictured this woman,” Hawkins says about first meeting Micallef.
He knew her side project had struck a nerve, and it seemed like there was a giant opportunity ahead.
Looking at Playboy and Maxim in 2014, they hadn’t stayed on top of the digital age, Hawkins thought. MTV had slipped as the taste-maker. Instead, it’s Snapchat and YouTube stars dictating pop culture.
“It seemed like there was this unoccupied throne, and there didn’t seem to be a viable contender,” Hawkins said. “And I said, ‘Amanda, you’re getting these models to shoot for free because you’re hitting on something. There’s something to this.'”
Turning a hobby into a business
The free photo shoots were still just a “hobby accelerated” to Micallef, but more women started approaching her wanting to work for Arsenic. They didn’t want to be paid, they just wanted to be a part of it.
Micallef tried to make a WordPress site, but says it was an “utter and total disaster.” Then she turned to Instagram.
“Our first hundred followers came from what can only be called extortion,” Micallef said with a laugh. “Billy would take someone’s phone from them, go to their Instagram and follow Arsenic and hand the phone back.”
“It wasn’t a hits business. It was always this slowly accelerating snowball. When it did take off, it had a hockey stick growth curve.”
Moving onto Snapchat
Although Snapchat was a cool new social platform, Micallef and Hawkins weren’t sure how to use it at first.
The disappearing photo network initially had a reputation for sexting, with users sending racy anatomy photos back and forth. Arsenic’s community of models and photographers hadn’t found a safe spot on the social network yet.
But the launch of Snapchat Stories changed that. Originally, Snapchat only let users send a single image or video to a list of friends, one by one. With Stories, users could publicly share a collection of photos taken during the course of a day. All of their followers could watch the stories over and over, and the experience felt more like broadcasting to the masses than text messaging.
A 19-year-old film student who was volunteering for Arsenic offered to start the company’s Snapchat channel. She began broadcasting her day, but having the account run by one model wasn’t interesting enough.
Arsenic began to implement “Snapchat takeovers.” They would put a call out on Instagram for someone to run the account for a day and then pick a model from the comments section.
Anyone in Arsenic’s community could be eligible to run the Snapchat channel, because Micallef and Hawkins didn’t want an “Arsenic Girl” to be a definition, like a Victoria’s Secret model or Playboy bunny.
“We embrace lots of types of women. It’s part of the reason that women engage with it,” Micallef said. “You don’t have to be blonde or six feet tall. ‘Our models could be my next door neighbour. They could be my best friend.”
Soon, the channel began to take on the lives of a variety of women. One day it might be a dancer shaking it at class. The next, a model preparing for a photoshoot on her bed. Or a walk through of the celebrity’s house. A behind-the-scenes look at a concert.
These weren’t glossy, re-touched models and images. It was real, shaky camera hands and all. And soon, hundreds of thousands people were watching.
“From the early days, we were about pushing the envelope, making noise, not being meek,” Hawkins said, pounding his fist to his hand to proclaim each point, as we sit in the living room of the Arsenic House. “We didn’t care if someone unfollowed us on Instagram. Our theory is that these are the real people, and we don’t want to water it down to make it appealing to everyone.”
In January 2015, six weeks after launching on Snapchat, the videos were already garnering 60,000 views. Now, each Arsenic Snapchat video starts with a hand-drawn logo followed by a clip of an old TV show. Whatever comes next is a surprise.
“You tune in because you don’t know what you will miss,” Micallef said.
Building it into a business
Despite the early Snapchat and Instagram success, Hawkins and Micallef didn’t quit their day jobs until June 1, 2015.
“At a certain point, when you’re reaching a certain amount of people, it becomes pretty f—ing hard to ignore,” Hawkins said.
They incorporated Arsenic and started paying some of the women who had been happily volunteering.
Now they have raised a round of capital from LA-based Arena Ventures and have found ways to grow sponsorships and view counts on Snapchat simultaneously.
Arsenic recently did a takeover of 40 people’s accounts, all showing a car wash photo shoot from different points of view, sponsored by a car company.
The startup has also hired its first developer, an ex-Zynga engineer, to build the crowd-sourced platform they are betting their future on. They key to Arsenic thus far has been its inclusivity, but having volunteers pick over the comments section has been labour intensive. Arsenic wants to build a home for people looking to exhibit creativity to a community — like a Reddit for up-and-coming models and photographers — no matter where they are or the connections they have.
“It’s really just an outgrowth of a macro change in the world. People spend more time on their phones than they do watching TV — that has nothing to do with us,” Hawkins said. “We believe there is an 18-year-old in a third world country that is just as valuable as Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams. What we need to do is figure out a way to sort through it.”
To Hawkins, unlocking the potential of ordinary people goes back to his childhood. His mother had always talked about a “them”.
Why did they make the remote this way? Why did they do this?
“I’ve always rejected it because it is a construct of language that then has this idea that the power resides outside of yourself. They have the power, not you,” Hawkins said.
It wasn’t until he gained influence himself in Hollywood that he realised the six major studios are a they. They dictate who gets cast and what stories get made. They control pop culture.
The way women look has also long been in the hands of another they. They, the photographers. They, the men. They, the brands.
That’s changing, and Arsenic is on the cusp of it.
“If we had a version of Maxim’s top 100 sexiest women, we would ask our audience who they think [should win]” Hawkins says.
“And by the way, it could be you.”
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