The owner of the Instagram handle is not who you might think.
If you tag @chanel on Instagram, as countless celebrities including Kris Jenner and reputable publications like Vogue have allegedly done, you’d think you’d be notifying the 113-year-old French fashion house founded by Coco Chanel. But you’d be wrong. You’d actually be tagging Chanel Bonin, a 28-year-old woman from Vancouver, Canada, who has dyed red hair, always wears a thick cat eye, loves chokers, and happens to possess one of the most recognizable Instagram handles out of over two billion.
Bonin signed up for Instagram in August of 2011, when she was 16. An early adopter of the platform, she was able to claim the @chanel handle before Chanel, the brand, perhaps even thought to. “I just wanted to get my name,” she says today, agreeing to speak on the record about the subject for the first time since the brand reached out to her about ten years ago. “That was the goal.”
Bonin is not the only civilian who shares a handle with a brand name. @valentino is an unverified private personal account with just 5,400 followers owned by someone who goes by Lorenzo Valentino, who could not be reached for this story. They joined Instagram in October of 2010, while Valentino, the brand, joined two years later with the handle @maisonvalentino. Other “maisons,” or fashion houses, like @maisonalaia use the French word in their handles, giving them an extra whiff of official-ness. (But also maybe because @alaia belongs to an 8-year-old girl with 1.2 million followers.)
Beyond fashion, both @newyork and @newyorkcity are owned and operated by individuals. The former is a video creator and the latter an entrepreneur who seems to have made a career out of representing New York on social media, despite no one electing her to do so. But Bonin says she isn’t in it for the attention or the money, which is why I find her story so compelling. Ever since she beat her corporate namesake — one that is known for being particularly aggressive with its I.P. lawsuits — to the punch, she’s had to fight for her right to keep her handle. Why go to all that trouble? What’s it like being @chanel…?
Bonin’s mother is a perfume collector, so she decided to name her daughter after Chanel No. 5, the brand’s most famous scent, since Bonin was born on the 5th. Growing up, Bonin remembers not being able to find keychains with her name on it at gift shops. “If I wanted that, I’d have to pay $400 for it,” she said.
To this day, she isn’t particularly pleased with the luxury associations she inherited. “I hate the idea of trying to live up to my name in any way,” she says, or “go where my mom would expect me to be.” But, naturally, “it kind of worked out like that, anyways,” she continued. Bonin went to school for costume design, and currently works as a seamstress, sewing couture wedding gowns for a local designer. She also has her own Depop shop where she sells clothes she designs herself under the name Cirque Obscura. “I like feminine, girly kind of stuff, but more of the goth version of that,” she says of her aesthetic. Anyone who visits her page should be able to tell instantly that she’s someone with “not even remotely the same style as the brand.”
A lot of people don’t make it this far, though. Of Bonin’s over 47,000 followers, some are there for her content, which consists of selfies and outfit photos, but most of them, she assumes, are not. She says she gets tagged “daily” by people who likely think they’re tagging Chanel, the brand. “People who are professionals who are not checking who they’re tagging ahead of time.” Just this weekend, Julianne Moore — or perhaps someone who works for the actress — tagged her handle, she claims.
According to Bonin, in January of 2013, Chanel finally came knocking. Because she was still a minor at the time, someone claiming to be a legal representative for the brand reached out to Bonin’s mother via a direct message on LinkedIn. “Our company is interested in acquiring the Chanel handle on the social media site, Instagram, and it has come to our attention that your daughter currently holds it,” the alleged representative wrote. Adding: “We, of course, would be willing to compensate her fairly.”
Bonin says the alleged brand representative eventually offered her $2,000 for her handle — a number that roughly reflected her follower count at the time. She found it “insultingly low.” The going rate for a classic Chanel flap bag is currently about five times that, and the brand did $17 billion in sales last year, according to Business of Fashion.
Chanel wrote in a statement: “Chanel launched its @chanelofficial Instagram account in 2014. We did have contact with Ms. Chanel Bonin at that time about the handle of her Instagram account, but our discussions were unsuccessful.” No further comment was provided, only that Chanel is “delighted” with the success of its own account, which launched in 2014 and now has 57.1 million followers (not including @chanel.beauty and @welovecoco).
A few months after Bonin turned the alleged Chanel representative down, someone claiming to be from Instagram sent her an email. They said they’d received a claim of alleged rights infringement regarding her username and photos. To Bonin, the timing seemed “sketchy af!!”
Bonin then provided this person with documentation proving that Chanel was, in fact, her birth name. She also decided to take down any photos she had that implicated the brand, just in case, including one where she wore a Chanel-branded hair clip that her parents bought her. This seemed to appease whomever reached out, and neither Chanel nor Instagram ever contacted her again.
The drama wasn’t over, though. In December of 2015, Bonin’s account was taken down without warning and she was locked out, unable to see her photos for two weeks — a particularly distressing event when you’re a teenager. “I knew on my end that I didn’t do anything wrong,” she says. Outlets like Racked picked up the story with the headline: “Chanel Battles 20-Year-Old Vancouver Woman for Instagram Account.”
In December of 2021, something similar happened to Thea-Mai Baumann, an Australian artist who’d owned the Instagram handle, @metaverse since 2012. Five days after Facebook changed its name to Meta, her account was disabled. “Your account has been blocked for pretending to be someone else,” a message read. When the Times contacted Instagram regarding the matter, a spokesman said that the account had been “incorrectly removed for impersonation” and was restored two days later.
Josh Riedel, a former Instagram beta tester, wrote in a recent Slate article titled “What It’s Like to Be @Josh on Instagram” that, “every few months,” he gets logged out of his account for “suspicious activity.” Like Bonin, he’s been hacked — multiple times, which might explain the need for deactivation. He also constantly receives messages and comments from people either offering to buy his handle, or questioning his reasons for hanging on to it. And, of course, he’s constantly mistaken for other Joshes. Ten days after the article was published, he finally decided to change his username. (Meanwhile, people seem to think that Meghan Markle has finally joined Instagram with the handle, @meghan, although the account is not yet verified.)
Bonin says she frequently receives comments saying things like she “doesn’t deserve” such a coveted handle. “People are like, ‘Girl, you're not going to have it for very long. Don't even bother. It's going to be taken away from you,’” she says. “But I’m like, well, it hasn’t yet!”
Is @chanel worth it? For now, Bonin is holding her ground. “I don’t think Chanel should get the account just because they’re some big brand,” she says. “I feel anarchistic about it a little bit — that’s just my nature. This very big brand with, I’m sure, a huge social media team, was not able to get this account before a 16-year-old girl could. I kind of like that I screwed them over a little bit.”