Several prominent models and Instagram influencers are facing backlash after attending and promoting Saudi Arabian music festival, MDL Beast. Commenters are “disappointed” and say they are “quietly ignoring the Saudi Arabian humanitarian crisis” by endorsing the country. The anger comes after Diet Prada — a prominent Instagram account that calls out fashion copycats — pointed out that models and online personalities like Nadine Leopold, Elsa Hosk, and Lorena Rae made posts advertising the festival.
Citing anonymous sources, the Diet Prada story claims influencers were offered six-figure sums for attendance and geo-tagged posts, in what appears to be the latest campaign by the Saudi government to try to rehabilitate the kingdom’s image through lavish sponcon.
Many models and influencers included hashtags in their Instagram posts like #mdlbeastambassador and #mdlbeastpartner, indicating they were paid to promote the festival. These hashtags were used by Alessandra Ambrosio, Teyana Taylor, Rose Bertram, Romee Strijd, and others. Some influencers have since made their accounts private, such as Jazzelle Zanaughtti, Kristen Noel Crawley, and Simi Haze. As of this writing, their posts (seen above) are still live. Combined, these posts have received tens of millions of likes.
Two years ago, Saudi Arabia set into action a plan called Vision 2030 to diversify its economy, with $2.7 billion set aside for entertainment, according to Billboard. These government-subsidized events pay artists up to six times their normal booking fees to perform.
A source says influencers were offered six-figure sums to attend the event and post on Instagram
The Diet Prada post pointed out that activist Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested in 2015 for defying the country’s ban on female driving, and was then tortured and threatened with rape and death. (That ban was lifted this year.) The post also mentioned the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi which the CIA concluded was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. After Khashoggi’s death, overseas investors pulled $1 billion out of Saudia Arabia’s stock market. Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to death in connection to that killing today, but has been criticized for shielding the Crown Prince from his connection to the murder.
In response, Saudi Arabia has been trying to use entertainment and influencers to market the kingdom and boost tourism. A few months ago, the country revamped its visa program to make it more attractive for tourists, which is around the time sponsored Instagram posts started increasing in frequency. The new changes allow visas for non-religious tourists and exempts female tourists from wearing a traditional abaya robe (though “modest clothing” is still required).
In October, The Guardian reported that the country enlisted an organization called Gateway KSA to facilitate posh, all-expenses-paid trips for influencers, who then post beautifully staged photos to Instagram.
The MDL Beast festival seems intended to make a splash. Glamour UK has an entire hub on its website dedicated to the festival and promoted it extensively on Instagram Stories, as pointed out by The Washington Post’s global opinions editor, Karen Attiah. (Glamour UK has turned off its Instagram comments.) EDM.com was also paid to promote the fest — its post includes a “sponsored” marker at the very bottom. Vogue Arabia wrote three pieces, though one only appears on the Arabic-language version of the site. Vogue’s main American site featured a story on Dutch model Imaan Hammam’s festival style at MDL Beast, but that article has since been deleted.
This summer, Saudi Arabia finally gave women the right to register births and to be issued official family documents. But women still need the permission of a male relative to live on their own or exit a domestic abuse shelter, and women can’t pass on citizenship to their children. LGBT rights are still nonexistent in the country — same sex relations are a crime in Saudi Arabia, and can be punishable by death.
Some stars have made a point of refusing involvement with the country. Nicki Minaj backed out of a concert in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, saying “I believe it is important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression.” Similarly, Emily Ratajkowski told Diet Prada she declined to attend MDL Beast because, “It is very important to me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, freedom of expression and the right to a free press.”
The Verge has reached out to Ford Models and Muse Management NYC for comment.