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Where Are You, Essena O’Neill?

In memory of Essena O’Neill’s internet career.

How time flies: It’s been one year since Essena O’Neill abruptly and very publicly announced she’d be leaving social media for good. Essena who? I am glad you asked. Essena O’Neill was the then-19-year-old Australian model, Instagram star, and vegan-lifestyle enthusiast who dramatically and publicly declared social media “not real life” last November, lighting a fire that burned on and off the internet for several weeks.

O’Neill, who had more than a million followers across multiple platforms, deleted her accounts on Snapchat, YouTube, and Tumblr. Her Instagram account was left up, but O’Neill changed the captions to more accurately reflect how she was feeling in each photo: anxious, hungry, sad, emotionally drained. (These photos have since been removed and all that remains on O’Neill’s Instagram account today are two pictures of two inspirational quotes.)

Following her emotional YouTube announcement (the last YouTube video she would ever share), O’Neill also announced, via Vimeo, she’d be launching a new website called Let’s Be Game Changers. (Since then, all of O’Neill’s Vimeo videos have also been deleted.) “Social media isn’t real. It’s purely contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other … And it consumed me,” O’Neill explained on the now-defunct site.

One of the last few images of herself Essena has left on the web. Photo: essenaoneill/Instagram

O’Neill is certainly not the only person to feel negative effects from living life online, and many people reacted to her revelation, however dramatic, positively. Many … did not. Videos began popping up from from other YouTubers claiming O’Neill was pulling a giant attention-seeking stunt. The vegan YouTube scene became a battlefield. Two of her former friends, twin-sister YouTube duo Nina and Randa, went so far as to post a 15-minute take-down of her “hoax” and labeling O’Neill as a huge “fake.” For the record, today Nina and Randa have 66,000 Instagram followers. In her peak, O’Neill had over 570,000. YouTube twins may have other motivations in mind besides speaking truth to power.

A few months later, O’Neill popped back up in the form of a lengthy email to her followers. (Which someone kindly posted to Tumblr, where it lives on in posterity because nothing on the internet ever truly goes away.) In it, she explained that extreme backlash (“I received so many death threats”) caused her to shutter Lets’s Be Game Changers and that her actions were never meant to be a stunt. She also announced she was writing a satirical book entitled How to Be Good at Social Media and dreamed of writing science fiction as well. (A dream O’Neill says started when she was 12.)

I don’t blame anyone for my actions or how much I was absorbed by social media, my appearance and this 2D world. It was me, I was being deceitful, I was lost, I was sick and I needed serious help. But of course I didn’t know that at the time. At the time I thought more money, more of these friends, being thinner … that would solve this internal misery.

That was January, and it the last we heard from Essena O’Neill. Today, all her social-media accounts remain shuttered and both of her websites are blank. Recent efforts to get in touch with O’Neill directly were unsuccessful, but I did manage a brief message exchange with her mother, Jules O’Neill, who, like her daughter, also has an Instagram account loaded with inspiring mantras. The elder O’Neill is a teacher of a homegrown wellness system called “Body Conscious,” which her website explains as a “collective combination of energetic processes that gather awareness’s.” (Okay. Sure.)

When I inquired about connecting with Essena, Jules told me that her daughter is not currently doing any press, but that she’s “doing really well.”

Like anyone who is brave enough to listen to their heart, choose it, regardless of judgements or fears, life is better than ever before for her … Hoping you find other great inspiring stories to give to the world. Ones that inspire others to open up and follow their hearts no matter what. It takes tremendous courage and the willingness to be very brave to make changes like Essena did. She is an inspiring game changer here to create positive shifts on our planet.

Essena, I am so happy to things are going splendidly. But if you happen to read this, I’d still really like to know about the whole sci-fi thing.

Where Are You, Essena O’Neill?