The singer says he is trying to connect with fans in a time of isolation. He is also figuring out what he believes.
Seal has spent the last 2 1/2 decades living largely off the royalties of a song he never intended to release. Kiss From a Rose, released in 1994, was not his first hit single — that would be Crazy — but it was the one that stuck, after an appearance on the Batman Forever soundtrack, a No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and three Grammys.
In those 25 years, he has performed at events including the Nobel Peace Prize Concert and the Los Angeles Women's March, always singing Kiss From a Rose. In terms of new business, there has not been much to report, save for turns on The Voice Australia and The Masked Singer.
But over the past few months, he has become an inexplicable fixture on the viewer lists of thousands of people's Instagram Stories.
Users have posted hundreds of screen shots to Instagram and Twitter featuring the musician's verified handle among the friends, family members and acquaintances in their viewer lists. While many chalked the views up to a bot or an assistant, Seal said it is really him watching.
"Me looking at people's Stories, answering people or sending them a quick message, it's always coming from a place of love," he said last month over FaceTime from his home in Topanga, California. "I'm not personally a fan of social media. However, there is one thing that it's great for, and that's for bringing people together. That is my M.O. at the moment."
In the course of a wide-ranging two-hour interview, Seal spoke further about how he's spending his time these days. For one, he is shutting out the negative, especially the news, which he says is not to be trusted fully.
'No one knows anything'
Seal has been riding out the pandemic in his 232-square-metre home (or "isolation cell," as he called it) with his personal assistant, friends and children, when they're not with their mother, Heidi Klum.
He is doing everything he can to feel close to people in these isolating times.
"I am talking to anyone that will listen right now," he said. "If I pass someone on the street, people passing in cars, I'm waving at them, and they're waving back. I think it's a testament to how beautiful we are when we slow down just a little bit and when we're forced to look at the world differently."
In a way, he said, his spiritual practice prepared him for this moment.
"As someone who has grown up with childhood trauma, I set on a course a few years ago addressing that, which involved a lot of therapy, a lot of somatic healing, a lot of journeying to find the person that I had abandoned as a result of hatred, shame and guilt," Seal said.
(He revealed in a 1996 interview with The New York Times that his father "beat him with whips, belts and fists, whatever was handy," until he eventually ran away from home at age 15.)
"I think that it's quite poetic that this thing has come that, when we've exhausted all of the various ways in which we distract ourselves, has forced us to confront ourselves," he said.
Seal has stopped watching news about the pandemic.
"One thing that has become abundantly clear is that no one knows anything," he said. "There just isn't the data at the moment, and there's a lot of alarmist and sensationalist reporting out there."
While it is true that a complete picture of the virus's effects won't exist until testing is universal, there is still plenty of data to be alarmed about: more than 6.9 million cases worldwide and over 110,000 deaths in the United States alone, with a majority of states already reopening as those numbers continue to rise.
Instead, Seal prefers to work on his music, go cycling, listen to TED Talks, bake potatoes (he uses salt and olive oil) and watch videos on YouTube.
One that stuck with him is "Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19," in which Dr. Judy Mikovits, a discredited scientist, details a conspiracy theory about the coronavirus being a scheme for men like Bill Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci to gain power and profit. Seal said he "really loved" the 26-minute film.
"They keep pulling it down, which in and of itself tells you everything," he said of efforts by YouTube and Facebook to halt the video's widespread circulation. The video was shared by several public figures, including mixed martial arts fighter Nick Catone and Melissa Ackison, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for an Ohio Senate seat in April.
Seal has also been watching thousands of people's Stories and leaving comments, like "I see you," "I'm watching you" and "peace and love." It is his way of counteracting what he called "the pandemic of distraction and subsequent disconnection."
He doesn't consider himself a celebrity. Still, he understands why his online behavior has excited some people. "When they see people in the public eye joining them in their conversations, and that I've taken the time to see them, that can go a long way," he said. "So if it makes them feel happy then I love that, then I'm happy, too."
He tries to connect with as many Instagram users as he can, though he said he spends "very little" time on the app — 30 minutes twice a day at most — so he has enlisted the help of "a couple of great girls who do a lot of social media stuff for me," he said.
'We didn't want to be spammy'
Those "girls" are Sarah Olea, 30, and Malena Lloyd, 29, the founders of Social Light, a branding and marketing agency in Los Angeles. The company's client list also includes Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, who was recently named in a BuzzFeed article for watching strangers' Instagram Stories en masse.
The agency first started working with Seal in September and began applying the Instagram Stories strategy three months ago — a tactic that, according to Olea, has helped add 24,000 followers to his social media.
"Instagram is always changing, and we didn't want to be spammy where we were just following and then unfollowing people. We think that's such a cheesy, old method," she said. "So what we do is we go in and find other artists that have similar sounds as him, and we go through those different fans and watch their Stories."
Olea, who is the CEO of Social Light, said that her team of 10 is responsible for the majority of Seal's social media activity across platforms, leaving black heart and peace sign emoji in his stead. They flag to him the more heartfelt messages so he can personally respond.
"Since we've been in quarantine, he's been responding to a lot of DMs and comments," Olea said. "He's inspired by it. We don't want to make it seem like it is all him and he just sits on his phone all day long, but we also want them to know that he is active."
Preston Million, founder and CEO of Influential Management, a digital marketing agency, said there is a much simpler explanation for what the singer and his team are up to. He said it sounds like the work of a social growth hacking tool called Mass Poller, a subscription service for verified accounts. For $155 a month, the software can watch up to 30,000,000 stories a day on its client's behalf.
"The reason why influencers and musicians do this is it provides a lot of traffic and visibility for that verified profile," Million said. "From the end user's perspective, they simply see that a celebrity or public figure viewed their story, get excited, go to their profile, and maybe that person is promoting a new song or a new video." (Olea said that Seal is planning to release a new album in the near future, his first since 2017.)
The tactic is not one Million would recommend to his own clientele.
"All the networks have been cracking down on abusive behavior, if you will," he said. "This is just a new method that will soon be patched. People can get their accounts suspended if they do that type of behavior as that's not what the platform was intended for."
Olea insisted her company does not use this type of software.
"The problem is they're not safe. We implement the same strategy, but in a manual format so that Instagram doesn't flag it because that's technically against terms and guidelines," she said, adding: "How would Seal feel if I got his account deleted?"
When software providers have contacted Olea in the past, she has turned them away; their services, she said, not only defy Instagram's policies but also make her job much more difficult. She is concerned that as Instagram begins to crack down on automated software, companies like hers could be punished and her celebrity accounts banned.
Mass Poller's low prices have also forced her to try to justify the higher cost of Social Light to her clients. According to Olea, there's simply no comparison: "It's like Starbucks over McDonald's coffee."
The strategy may be working. Lauren McKenzie, a business analyst from Surprise, Arizona, said that she wasn't following Seal, "but I noticed him watching one of my Stories and ended up following him after. Then, he would just continuously and randomly pop up along with a chunk of other musicians."
"My initial reaction was absolute shock, glee and excitement," she said. "I'm 35. He's definitely a significant chunk of my childhood and young adulthood. He's always seemed like the nicest, most chill guy. I'm very honoured."
Others, like Christina Cacouris, 25, a writer and curator in Brooklyn, New York, have been less impressed.
"The first time I saw Seal pop up on my Instagram Story was around mid-March," she said. "I was at the beach and posted a little video of dogs, and he opened it. I thought, weird, but OK.
"Then it happened again a week later," she said. "And again a week after that. It's happened at least seven times now. I refuse to follow him. Even if he is personally watching my Stories, which I don't believe he is, it's weirding me out."
Seal is undeterred by this type of response. As he told his Social Light team: "All PR is good PR."
Written by: Emily Kirkpatrick
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES