The micro-influencer behind a popular food blog tells THEO PANAYIDES how she became a foodie on a teenage visit to Nobu, although she only got to the fun of her present job after working in the intensely macho environment of the City
Why ‘Cypriot and Proud’? “Because people are not Cypriot and proud, and they should be!” laughs Paola Papacosta, sitting in her home in the Kalogiri area of Limassol on a Saturday morning. Paola is Cypriot and proud; she’s also ‘Cypriot and Proud’ and – at the risk of fatal over-complication – proud of being ‘Cypriot and Proud’, the title at the top of her blog, Facebook and Instagram page. Some might say all she does is post pictures of food, eliciting comments like “Oh my this looks delicious” (a reader response to a photo of a lunch-laden table at Saffron in Limassol) – but then she also spent five years in investment banking, working for Nomura in the City of London: “I made six figures when I was 26”. She has two sides. She’s proud of both.
I turn right at Germasogeia roundabout, heading to the ‘other’ side of the highway – the side that’s “home to many rich and influential city dwellers”, to quote the description of Kalogiri on a property company’s website. Paola’s own home (which she and her husband are renting) doesn’t seem as new, or as grand, as the mansions on either side – all balconies, palm trees and wrought-iron gates – but it’s clearly an affluent neighbourhood. The husband, Nicholas, works in shipping. Paola herself, a slim 36-year-old in a floral-patterned dress topped by a yellow bead necklace, went to all the right schools: The English School in Nicosia, Economics at the LSE, Mathematical Finance at Bocconi University in Milan. Yet the house still seems to simmer with an atmosphere of happy chaos, much like any other household with three young kids (they range in age from five-and-a-half to 18 months) on a Saturday morning.
Paola breaks off to field a call about her daughter’s ballet class. A sweet-natured bulldog named Chackos slobbers over me extravagantly, then lies on the floor snoring loudly (they can often hear his snoring from upstairs, she tells me). The baby cries in the other room. Nicholas takes the kids away for a while, so we can talk, then they return and sit on the sofa, looking at me quizzically. These are not just random details, they also speak, indirectly, to why Cypriot and Proud (C&P) has been successful – because Paola’s life seems approachable and her ‘followers’ can relate, as attested by the feedback she gets. “People are like: ‘I want to cook what you make, and go to the places you go to’,” she reports. The blog “is so natural and so unpretentious, this is what people tell me. I take pictures, [and] my kids’ toys are right there.” It’s a change from most lifestyle blogs, which often feel fake and contrived. “No wonder people come to me, with almost 8,000 followers, and don’t go to people with 20,000 followers”.
She doesn’t have too many followers (7,269 on Instagram, her primary outlet) – but it’s not the numbers that count, it’s the “engagement”. There’s a name for what she does, which didn’t exist in the past (and didn’t exist in 2011, when she launched C&P): she’s a micro-influencer. A well-known supermarket chain, to cite one example, advertise through her blog, and pay her to upload a certain number of posts every month; when she makes some delicious-looking dish – C&P features recipes as well as restaurant reviews – using Ingredient X which she found at said supermarket chain, many of those 7,269 regular readers will head there to buy that ingredient.
“I don’t advertise clothes, or other things. I stick to food, because people trust me – and it’s true, I get all these messages: ‘If you got it, I’m gonna go get it’. ‘So you’ve tried it, it’s nice? I’m gonna go try it!’. It’s all about engagement.” Paola shrugs: “It’s fair enough, y’know? It’s not like I make millions – but for them [i.e. the advertisers], it’s a small price to pay for reaching thousands of people”.
Ethical questions arise, of course: how honest can she be, when she’s being paid? Sometimes the lines get quite blurry. Earlier this year, Paola wrote a review of Islands, the luxurious (and expensive) seafood restaurant at the Parklane in Limassol – but, because she was a guest of the hotel, she made no mention of prices (which will surely be the biggest question on the mind of any wannabe diner). There’s also the problem that – this being Cyprus – there are no bad reviews, even when she’s a paying customer. “First of all, I’m not a food critic,” she points out. “I will say ‘I prefer this to that’, but I’m not going to say ‘It was horrific, I’m not going back again’.” She’s bullish on the restaurant scene in general, especially in Nicosia (she names Beba and Tocayo as favourites), but even lesser places don’t get slated too badly. Her usual m.o. is more diplomatic, namely to gush in proportion to quality; if something isn’t up to scratch she’ll do the minimum – a quick post, a pic on Instagram “and then that’s it”. It seems a shame, speaking as a consumer who’d appreciate more plain speaking when it comes to restaurants; still, I see her point. It took long enough to monetise C&P without jeopardising her relationships by acquiring a rep for being negative.
On the one hand, Paola Papacosta may seem a little too positive, not to say fluffy. She’s chatty, elegant, “very social”, with delicate features and high cheekbones. She talks fast, and smiles often. “Everything went very smoothly, I would say,” she recalls of her childhood in Nicosia (her dad is the Papacostas from Mallouppas & Papacostas Group of companies). What was she like as a teenager? “I think very similar to what I am now… I was a very good student, but didn’t study a lot. I was very extrovert, I liked to go out a lot. My mum always said: ‘You’re going to reach saturation point and not want to go out again, leave some things for later. You don’t have to do everything when you’re 15’.” Mums are usually right, but not in this case; even at 36, chuckles Paola, “I want to try everything, and eat out all the time”.
All of that is true. But it’s also true, on the other hand, that she set herself a fearsome challenge by trying for a job in the City, “to prove I could do things other women don’t do”. She wasn’t a trader at Lehman Brothers (later taken over by Nomura); she sold quantitative portfolios, “mathematical models to predict stock prices” – using both her mathematical background and sales skills – but it was still an intense, very macho environment. The hours weren’t too bad, 7.30am to 6pm, but “it’s not the hours – it’s demanding work, y’know? If you don’t meet your goals – bye-bye! It was not playtime.
“But I didn’t care,” adds Paola, slightly surprisingly. “People ask ‘Weren’t you stressed?’, I’m like ‘No, I didn’t care at all!’. I was good. I was very good with clients, I sold a lot of products, I worked hard. Why would I be stressed?”
People expect such highly-paid work to be very difficult, I note.
“Yeah,” she agrees. “It’s a paradox, if you ask me.”
So it wasn’t difficult?
She shrugs: “It was extremely difficult to get in. I had to go through a lot of rounds of interviews, IQ tests…” It helped that she ticked two dissimilar boxes; most people with a good head for numbers don’t also have the personality to talk to clients. “Once you’re there, certain positions – probably the higher-paid ones – are more difficult. And you’re around all the elite schools, [the banks] only look at applications from Cambridge, Oxford, LSE and Imperial. So there’s no room for mistakes… All the time, they were firing people”.
She, however, left of her own accord; even before meeting Nicholas (who already lived in Cyprus), she was ready to come back. London, I suspect, was a trophy she had to acquire, a question she had to answer – not just as a woman in a man’s world but a Cypriot in London, her “centre of the world”. That was where she’d first become a foodie, on a teenage visit to Nobu where “I couldn’t believe that food could be so good”. (Last month, that long-ago epiphany came full-circle when she sat down with celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa – in Limassol for the new Nobu restaurant at the Amara Hotel – and posted the interview on C&P.) London had to be encountered, if only to be outgrown – but she didn’t really care about the job, as she says, and it wasn’t even “real”, selling non-existent mathematical models. She wanted something “real”, a word she uses again and again.
Her blog is real, with its homemade feel and kids turning up in the background. The food in Cyprus is real – “real food, good authentic food,” she says, sounding very Cypriot and proud – even if we lack education on how to use it creatively. Being a micro-influencer is real, not just in the sense that it exists but also in the sense of direct, tangible impact – but it wasn’t yet ‘a thing’ when Paola came back here, moved in with Nicholas and started her blog. (The kids came later, in fact “we weren’t planning on kids”; she was six months pregnant when they got married.) “It wasn’t very well accepted,” she recalls, listing some of the questions she had to field: “‘Why are you a blogger? How do you make money? You have some other job, right?’ It was very demeaning. I didn’t find my work demeaning, but their attitude was demeaning… I knocked on doors,” she adds, speaking of her first attempts to monetise, “but it was like ‘What is it? Who’ll see me there? €300?’. Today, they come to me to pay €300 – not just me, in general. Y’know, it’s all perception”. It’s only in the past two years, with sponsorship taking off, that she’s felt “100 per cent confident”.
Paola Papacosta looks like a socialite, but she has a strategic mind; both her main strengths – maths and marketing – build on strategic thinking, a flair for the bigger picture. She doesn’t seem especially arty (I don’t see any books in the house); her hobbies are skiing and sports, and she goes to the gym three times a week. There’s an activist streak, especially when it comes to the environment – she’s militant about not using plastic – and a strong sense of a doer, an organiser. She seems most proud (not just Cypriot and proud) of the way she’s been able to juggle motherhood and the rest of her life. “I just want people to know about good things,” she says at one point, spelling out the C&P mission statement, “and also to know that, with three kids, you can [still] do whatever you want”. She works from home, and spends the day with her children – but still goes out most evenings, keeping up with the restaurant scene.
In the end, it’s a fine balance. Paola’s a success because her blog is relatable – yet in fact it’s also aspirational: people follow her recommendations not just because they feel they’re like her, but also because they want to be like her. In a way, Cypriot and Proud shares the weakness she identifies in many local restaurants: “We often want to satisfy everybody, so we include sushi, burgers, pork chops, Caesar salad – y’know, we don’t specialise. No identity!”. She too suffers slightly (professionally speaking) from a wish to be all things to all people. One minute she’s a foodie, the next a businesswoman. One minute she’s an ordinary mum, the next she’s having dinner at a place that would break the bank for most of her followers. Then again, running a blog has something else in common with running a restaurant: it’s very hard – in Cyprus, at least – to make money off either. Paola’s done it.
I suppose it’s something of a dream job, posting ‘stories’ and photos of herself cooking and eating, and making a living that way (she also has some clients as a social-media consultant; but C&P is the bulk of her work). Maybe so, she admits – but “I made it happen, and it wasn’t always like this”. Would she ever go back to the corporate life? She shakes her head. “I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had,” says Mrs. Cypriot and Proud, looking back on a life that’s progressed, by and large, pretty smoothly. “This freedom is amazing.” The kids fidget, sunlight streams in from outside; then Chackos the dog wakes up with a snort, and starts licking my trouser leg.