With one scroll through Australian model Essena O'Neill's Instagram feed, she appears to be among the same species of Cool Teen that I'm not afraid to admit I stalk on a regular basis. The 18-year-old's posts aren't unfamiliar: skimpy bikini pictures mingle with those of vegan salads, while inspirational quotes post up alongside baby tigers. It's a spread that could be interchangeable with any number of genetically blessed adolescents — but yet, it's what she's written in each of her captions that tell the real story.
On Saturday, O'Neill (who was not immediately available for comment) announced what so many of us already know: Social media isn't real, and it innately encourages its users to compare themselves to others's manufactured personas. And so, after 173 weeks on Instagram, O'Neill is completely changing her online presence and speaking up about the complexities of those platforms built around likes and followers.
To kick-off her crusade, O'Neill not only deleted a large number of Instagram photos, but also edited the captions of her remaining posts to reflect the truth behind them; on Wednesday, she deleted her profile entirely. On one swimsuit shot from 77 weeks ago, she added: "Took over 100 in similar poses trying to make my stomach look good. Would have hardly eaten that day." She launched a new site called Let's Be Game Changers, too, on which she's already posted four (notably makeup-free) video diaries, launched an open forum for her readers and curated a vertical loaded with relevant interviews, lectures and art. Through each piece of content she churns out, her message is clear: "There is nothing cool about spending all your time taking edited pictures of yourself to prove to the world, 'You are enough,'" which she wrote on her site on Monday.
While to this point O'Neill has been vocal about body image and self-love, she's also coming clean about the clothes she's worn in her photos. She warns that if a so-called "Instagram girl" tags a brand, "99 percent of the time" she's getting compensated for doing so. "Was paid $400 to post a dress," she captioned about a tight, striped item, worn while drinking out of a mason jar. (Ah, the cliché!) "That's when I had maybe 150k followers. With half a million followers, I know of many online brands (with big budgets) that pay up to $2,000 per post. Nothing is wrong with accepting brand deals. I just think it should be known."
This, of course, begs the question: How much might someone with up to 1 million followers "charge" for a single photo? In a May interview with Harper's Bazaar, Danielle Bernstein, who runs the blog We Wore What, explained that Next Models sets her rate anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 for a sponsored post. This fee, she explained, is flexible depending on the terms of the deal — and when she hit 1 million followers earlier this year, she was able to charge "a good amount more." "I hate talking about money, but let's just say it's more than I could have ever imagined as a 22-year-old," she said. "I fully support myself, and it's in the mid-six figures. I save, I invest, I'm trying to be smart about it all and learn as I go."
O'Neill delves into these social media sponsorships in-depth, describing how, at 16 and with 50,000 followers, she charged $50 a post to help sell $150 bikinis; others with a similar following, she learned, were charging $500. As her numbers grew, so too did her paid endorsements. "In the past, I have agreed to promote companies who didn't align with my core values," she wrote. "Without fail, this left me feeling extremely shallow, greedy and lost. I thought if I had lots of money and lots of nice things, I would be happy."
With such a sizable, dedicated audience, O'Neill now has the opportunity to influence her younger fans who may not yet understand the fabricated nature of her former Internet self. If Dorothy, eager to follow and enchanted by all, was O'Neill's nearly 700,000 followers, O'Neill herself was the Wizard of Oz, shamefully hiding his normalcy behind a curtain. And in the end, wasn't Dorothy much happier to have met the real, honest man behind the projection?