Kiwi reality TV heartthrobs Harry Jowsey and Kristian Barbarich tell Jane Phare
how they use social media to "build the brand" and why Los Angeles is the place to be.
Harry Jowsey is multi-tasking from his West Hollywood apartment, constantly peering at his image on the computer while we talk, ruffling his hair and examining it from different angles. At the same time he's talking about why if you're not on TikTok these days you're wasting your time.
Jowsey, 23, and Kristian Barbarich, 27, met three years ago while filming New Zealand
reality show Heartbreak Island. It was a show that made them digi-famous,
earning them 100,000 devoted followers each on social media and spring boarding their careers.
That led to Jowsey starring in the Netflix reality series, Too Hot to Handle, a
bizarre celibacy challenge between a group of muscly hunks and Kardashian klones trying not have sex in a seaside Mexican villa. Jowsey's Instagram following catapulted to 4 million. The biggest leap was 500,000 followers in one day; then 400,000 the next.
His "brand" had taken off and last September he and Barbarich moved to LA. Back in 2018 when Jowsey won Heartbreak, he spent part of the prize money on new sunglasses. Now he and Barbarich have their own range, Knsngtn, stylish sunglasses priced under $100.
It stands for Kensington Sunglasses, after the palace, but without the vowels.
"We liked the vibe and the mental imagery", Barbarich says. "But we wanted to make it a Millennial brand and have it be its own thing."
Are they royalists? No, Barbarich says. "We could be," Jowsey jokes. "We could be anything."
It's true. They could be anything, and they'll do whatever it takes. Jowsey in particular is riding on a digital wave and there's money to be made.
He'll get up to 1.8 million views each time he uploads an Insta-story, and he does that between 10 and 20 times a day. That sends traffic to the Knsgnton website = lots of sales = happy days, they say.
"Think about traditional marketing," Barbarich says, "how much you'd have to spend to get 1.8 million people to see your product or whatever, in an engaged targeted audience. You're getting that for free every day, essentially."
Which brings Jowsey back to TikTok, a social media platform where users share short videos, often dancing to music and lip-syncing. He can't talk it up enough.
"Just having a link in my bio on my TikTok pumps numbers all day long," he says.
"Imagine if you posted one video and you grew 100,000 followers. That's how easy it is with TikTok. Yesterday I posted one video and I got 500,000 followers."
He and Barbarich talk about two brothers they know who became millionaires in a 72-hour period using TikTok to promote their brand. And an 18-year-old who made US$3 million ($4.5m) in 24 hours selling headphones. Even if the numbers are exaggerated, they're after some of that action.
The app doesn't pay incentives but TikTokers use their fan base to shift followers across to their websites, and social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram.
So Jowsey and Barbarich spend their days working both on their digital presence and their physiques. They're necessarily vain, working out at a gym, sometimes twice a day. Barbarich often appears in Jowsey's posts and the followers want to see abs, not flab.
On TikTok Jowsey is at his boyish best, performing TikTok-style dances to cool music, brushing his hand through his mop of hair and regularly breaking into his charming Harry-the-lad grin while larking about. He uploads a new TikTok about four times a day for his 2.3 million followers.
And that's how it works. Kensington Sunglasses was trucking along well enough
on the back of Heartbreak but the Netflix exposure pushed them onto a whole
The pair are a little vague about turnover with Dowsey saying things like, "We're very healthy, we're growing like crazy which is epic."
They say they have around 20 people on the part-pay roll, including an agent, a PR
company and customer service staff.
Finally they give out some numbers. They launched Kensington Sunglasses just over a year ago (83,700 Instagram followers) and now sell between $15,000 and $31,000 worth of product every day.
But it's the tip of the digital dollars. They know if they do this right, they'll be millionaires, and then some. They're ambitious and out for every opportunity.
Some of it they haven't got right. The sunglasses are handmade in China, shipped to New Zealand and dispatched from there. Customers overseas had to wait too long for the product so they'll be working on upgrading the back end and improving shipping times.
During Too Hot to Handle they had an "insane" amount of traffic but then Covid hit which made deliveries even slower. Once they've got the business end sorted, they'll be looking to expand but they don't want to spread themselves too thinly. Better, says Barbarich, to build up a few global brands "than try to do a million things."
There's talk of more TV work, hosting, another reality series. Jowsey, it seems, is a natural, winning both Heartbreak Island and Too Hot to Handle.
In the latter show, $100,000 prize money was at stake with contestants being fined every time there was sexual contact, including kissing.
If rule-breaking was the decider, Jowsey wasn't very good at the game. He and Canadian Instagram model Francesca Farago, 27, racked up $32,000 in fines, including a $20,000 fine for one steamy night together. (They later won the $32,000 back by spending a night together without touching each other).
But of course they were good at it. They won and became overnight celebrities, carrying on their steamy relationship until their break-up last month.
And what a digital duo. She's got 4.8 million Insta-followers and 1.3 million on TikTok. He's got nearly 4 million Insta-followers and 2.3 million on TikTok.
Provocative shots of Farago modelling Kensington sunglasses – wearing bikini tops not
much bigger than the glasses - appeared on Jowsey's social media. All good for business. And the break-up leaves him free to be the hot bod on any other steamy reality shows that comes his way.
Jowsey and Barbarich are well aware of the viral-spiral of social media. Shortly before Too Hot to Handle went to air this year, Jowsey thought he'd better "get some merch going" and launched Naughty Possums, a clothing brand taken from one of Jowsey's TV catch cries, "Naughty little possums."
The tees and sweatshirts have references to the show on the front. "Naughty possums" is the biggest seller, "Harry's My Dad" and "$32,000" (the amount he was fined) do well, and there's another that's too rude to mention.
Again, Jowsey says there's room for improvement. The line of clothing was launched in a hurry and he wants to introduce new designs and improve customer service.
The next big push will be into podcasts, long-form content that gives followers more than a brief video hit or an Insta-selfie. Part of the deal is letting the fans into their lives.
"Your audience gets to know you a lot better than, say Instagram where you are posting a picture of yourself," says Barbarich. " You're relating to a mass of people."
They point to the Call Her Daddy podcasts which rocketed to two million downloads in the space of two months, and was bought by Barstool Sports. The formula is crassly simple. Two young women, Sofia Franklyn and Alexandra Cooper, talk about sex, dating and life in New York. That was until they fell out over money earlier this year.
And then there's Joe Rogan, the brash American comedian (more than 10 million Instagram followers and 8.95 million subscribers on YouTube) who this year signed a multi-year deal with Spotify, reputedly worth $155m.
So although they miss New Zealand and Australia, Covid is far from under control and "everyone has guns," the pair say there is no better place for them to be than LA to grow their fan base and expand business.
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