BYU recently invited Rachel Parcell to speak on entrepreneurship and how she created an Insta-career with more than 600,000 Instagram followers and national brands clamoring to hire her as their social media model. This 24-year-old — who prefers online publicity to public speaking — turned them down flat, much to her father’s dismay. But BYU turned Rachel down a few years ago after she graduated from Alta High School in 2009. At the time, only Rachel and her mother saw the future that would include regular trips to New York, more clothes than Rachel could possibly keep or wear — and the opinionated followers who tend to comment on LDS celebrities.
Rachel saw her future when as a young ballerina, her mind would wander while she was at the barre. “What will I wear tomorrow? And what hair accessories will I pair with it?”
When she got home, she would lay out the entire outfit for the next day, ready for her slim frame to slip into the next morning.
As she entered junior high and high school — and later UVU — she began sewing her own clothes so she could get the fabric and style she envisioned.
And now her #ootd (outfit of the day) gets liked by thousands who want to imitate the classy, outdoorsy and modest look Rachel has become known for under her blog brand of Pink Peonies (which she pronounces pee-uh-nees).
“I’ve asked several florists and gardeners how to pronounce it, and I’ve heard it different ways,” she says.
But when you are drawing millions of viewers, you own the word “peonies.” And in Utah Valley and New York alike, you practically own Instagram. Double tap.
UV: When you think back on your childhood Christmases, what memories come to mind?
Rachel: My parents kept our Christmas decor in a black leather trunk with gold nailheads on it, and when we opened it there was a distinct Christmas smell. Even when I was in high school, when we would open the trunk it instantly brought back childhood Christmas flashbacks. As we decorated, we would listen to Natalie Cole.
UV: What did Santa bring you?
Rachel: I was in 8th or 9th grade before I found out that Santa isn’t real. Someone in sixth grade told me there was no Santa. And I said, “Then why would the news track him and try to find his sleigh? Santa has to be real!” But then a few years later, I was with my mom when she bought my sister a hot pink slug-bug Barbie car, and then on Christmas morning Santa gave that to her. That’s how that story went down for me.
UV: What was Christmas morning like?
Rachel: My sister Emily and I would sneak a peek over the banister. Everything Santa brought was unwrapped, and everything my parents gave us was wrapped. That’s how my sister and I do Christmases for our kids, too.
UV: Every day must feel like Christmas with the readership you have developed for Pink Peonies and on Instagram. How do you feel about all of this success happening when you are still so young? You’ll be 25 in January.
Rachel: I feel so blessed and grateful. I always tell Drew there’s no way I would have done this without him. He graduated in entrepreneurship, and he got us set up with Google ads and affiliated marketing. He’s the business mind, and I’m the creative one. He figured out a way to monetize my interests and create my career.
UV: How do you land these big brands as clients?
Rachel: With J.Crew, I was part of their affiliate marketing program. They were tracking links and they could see the sales I was driving to them. They started asking, “Who is this Pink Peonies girl in Utah? She’s selling more than some of our stores sell.” They paid me to wear three outfits for them. They sent a rep out to take me to lunch. Then I went to New York to meet with their marketing and PR people. J.Crew is a brand I know, love and wear every day, but I thought I would have to move to LA or New York to work with them. I love that I can be in Utah.
UV: Your readers follow you closely and it seems like they can’t get enough. What do they ask you most often?
Rachel: The most common question is, “Where did you get your lipstick?” I also get asked about my foundation, whether I have hair extensions, what shampoo I use, my skincare routine. I try to pre-answer many of these questions in my caption. But I can’t answer all questions. I am a wife, a mother and I have a life. I don’t spend my whole day on my phone. I’ve got to unplug sometimes. Isla is No. 1 for me. When I had just had my daughter, I posted a picture and someone asked where my robe was from, and I didn’t answer. People got mad. But I was a brand new mom! When she was sleeping, I was sleeping.
UV: What was your first big splurge when things started going well for you?
Rachel: It was early spring 2013, and I bought a pair of Christian Louboutins, which are high heels with a red bottom. They are gorgeous! And they hurt! But they make your feet look so pretty. They are my most-worn shoes to this day — I wear them pretty much every Sunday. At the time, $600 was a lot of money. But I had put them on my “outfit inspiration board,” and they were the first designer shoes I ever bought.
UV: Do you get free shoes from them now?
Rachel: No, that brand is a little too big for me.
UV: What is challenging about your career?
Rachel: The hardest part about being a blogger is knowing when you can just enjoy life and when you’ve got to capture something for Instagram or the blog. I especially feel this on vacation when I’m in a new location that would make for amazing photos. It’s hard to not want to take out the camera and shoot. For Isla’s blessing, I wanted it to be a big family day, but at the same time I wanted to capture it to share with my readers. Usually Drew would take those pictures, but I hired a photographer that day. We didn’t pose — I just wanted behind-the-scenes moments. And when everyone left, we took a few pictures as a family. Afterwards I was looking through the pictures and was so glad I had them because I got to enjoy the day without worrying about taking pics.
UV: How does your husband handle his role in your famous life?
Rachel: When we’re on vacation, he’ll tell me that he’ll take pictures for me or do whatever I want him to do for an hour and after that he just wants to relax.
UV: How do you decide what to share publicly and what is too private to go online?
Rachel: When I gave birth to Isla, I hired a photographer so I would have those pictures. I was so out of it but wanted to see all the details of the day later. Afterwards, Drew and I were going through them and they were so beautiful. I wondered if I should share the images, and we went back and forth. I finally realized that my readers were anxious to see the birth of my daughter. They had been with me the past four years on my life journey. So as a thank-you for following, it didn’t feel right NOT to share such a special time in my life. It turned out to be my highest-viewed post of all time. My readers thanked me for being personal, which makes people want to follow more. But there’s definitely a fine line of knowing when to unplug and just live life.
UV: How did your following grow?
Rachel: My first outfit post was in September 2012, and I think I had 200 followers, which felt like a lot at the time. I said to my mom, “What if I got 1,000 followers?” But I thought that would never happen. But my mom would say, “One day you are going to have thousands of followers.” By December, I had hit 1,000, and to celebrate we went and bought a small camera lens. After that, my imagery was so much prettier, which meant that my pictures got pinned more. In another month, I was at 2,000. Now the more followers I get, the faster they come. Honestly, hitting the 1,000 mark was a bigger deal to me than hitting 500,000 on Instagram. It was so much more work to get that first 1,000. I was reaching out to other bloggers, guest trading and trying to figure it out. I wasn’t charging anything — I just shared what I was wearing. Then I started charging $20 for people to send me a shirt to wear. That’s when it started going from a hobby to a business.
UV: How do you even grasp the kind of readership and influence you have?
Rachel: I can’t grasp it. It’s just a number and almost doesn’t seem real. I was at a BYU basketball game with my dad, and he said, “You have more people who follow you on Instagram than are in this entire stadium.” (Editor’s note: Make that 32X as many people.)
UV: How do you handle your religion as part of your persona?
Rachel: From the very beginning, I showed pictures of my temple wedding. I had a link to mormon.org on my blog. I didn’t want my religion to be something nobody knew about me. I like to do subtle hints. I’ll take a picture in downtown Salt Lake and talk about going to Women’s Conference. I’ll be cuddled up watching General Conference, and I’ll tell my readers what I’m watching. They’ll ask more about it. And I’ll either respond or my Mormon readers will do it for me. I work with national brands, and they don’t want me pushing politics or religion. But I feel like Mormonism is such a lifestyle and not just a belief on Sunday. My whole life is based on it, so it’s naturally integrated into what I do. In New York, I’ll tell people I’m from Utah and they’ll ask, “Are you one of those Mormons? I can’t believe you are stylish and wear normal clothes!”
UV: Do you find your criticism comes from inside or outside the Mormon church?
Rachel: Inside. It’s hard for me when someone comments and tells me my dress is too short. I’ll have 2,000 positive comments and then someone will say they used to consider me classy and now they are confused. Some of my readers will defend me, and I often delete critical comments. I don’t want people seeing that people within my religion are attacking me. I don’t want them to think that in our religion we judge and attack each other. I never want to make my religion look bad. (Editor’s note: Rachel has a large painting of Jesus walking on water in the room where this interview took place.)
UV: What are your hopes for the next five years?
Rachel: My industry is changing so fast that I don’t know what it is going to be like in five years. I hope my readers stay with me as I get older and as they get older. As my life changes, their lives will change. I want us to grow throughout the years together.