"Friends of Essena O'Neill who quit Instagram call it a HOAX," reads a Daily Mail headline. "Friends of Instagram model claims departure from social media was a 'hoax,'" reads another from The Independent. The "friends" referred to in these headlines are Nina and Randa Nelson, 22-year-old identical twin YouTubers. But who are these people popping out of the woodwork to reveal the supposedly ulterior motives behind the Australian model's decision to forsake social media fame? What do they stand to gain from calling out Essena O'Neill? And are they really even her friends?
Let's back up: Essena O'Neill is a 19-year-old Australian model who made headlines this week by quitting social media. She used platforms like Instagram and YouTube—where she had hundreds of thousands of followers—to build her career, claiming to have earned about $2,000 a month from corporate sponsors by incorporating branded products into her posts. The arrangement wore on her, she claims, as did the "fake" feeling of validation she received with every like, heart, and double-tap.
"Everything I was doing was edited and contrived to get more value and to get more views," O'Neill said in a YouTube video posted Monday. The video has since been deleted, but it had racked up more than 900,000 views prior to deletion. "I let myself be defined by numbers, and the only thing that made me feel better about myself…really was the more followers, the more likes, the more praise, and the more views I got online. It was never enough."
O'Neill made good on her promise and deleted her Tumblr and her Snapchat. Initially, she left her YouTube channel intact and her Instagram active, but with the captions of some of the photos updated to expose how "edited and contrived" some of the supposedly candid shots actually were.
By Wednesday, she had deleted her YouTube and her Instagram handles entirely. (She still has a Google+ account, but actually considering Google+ a form of social media in the year 2015 is a stretch.) She says she is now focusing her energy on a new website she launched called letsbegamechangers.com, where she hopes to use her platform to promote corporate transparency on social media, veganism, "being present" in the offline world, and other causes she believes in. Per the site's mission statement, Essena plans to finance Game Changers through crowd-funding and partnering with brands that she feels comfortable supporting.
It's unclear whether O'Neill will continue to model. She is signed to IMG Models' Sydney office, and she is still featured on the agency's website. But the Gold Coast native also expressed a desire to quit modeling in the since-pulled YouTube video posted Monday. Neither IMG Sydney nor O'Neill responded to requests for comment.
Essena O'Neill's decision to quit social media captured the fascination of news outlets all over the English-speaking world, from the U.K. and the U.S. to the model's native Australia. But the story grabbed Nina and Randa Nelson's attention for very different reasons.
Nina and Randa are 22-year-old identical twin YouTubers from Los Angeles, Calif. Their channel started as a showcase for their talents as singer-songwriters, posting original compositions, as well acoustic covers of Ed Sheeran and Kanye West. They've since switched focus to include videos about travel, health, and fitness. A brand in the making, if you will.
The Nelson sisters told me that they met O'Neill through social media and bonded over their shared interest in veganism. When O'Neill visited L.A., she stayed with Nina and Randa on and off for about a month. The twins say that they were surprised by the model's posts railing against social media, even if they didn't quite believe her stated intent.
"Our first reaction to reading her Instagram was a bit of eye rolling," Nina and Randa said in an email sent by their mother, Sabrina Nelson, who is their manager. "[Essena] really likes attention and would have a hard time giving it up. Our reaction to her video was that it seemed kind of hysterical, and we didn't buy her message."
But in a video posted days earlier ("ESSENA O'NEILL Quitting Social Media Is A HOAX"), Nina and Randa appear much more affected by Essena's anti-social media missive—Randa more palpably so.
The twins uploaded the clip Tuesday, and it has already been viewed over 471,000 times, and has received more thumbs-down "dislikes" than thumbs-up "likes" by a margin of over 2,000.
In the video, Nina and Randa say that social media is not inherently bad and that O'Neill shouldn't blame Instagram and Snapchat or other influencers for her own unhealthy relationships with the platforms.
"Social media is not a negative thing," Randa says, "and just because one person had a bad experience with it does not mean everyone should jump on the bandwagon and suddenly think that all social media is bad."
The sisters also imply that O'Neill is untrustworthy because she has supposedly exaggerated being at "the pinnacle of success" in her career. The twins even question whether the model had really quit social media at all, asserting that O'Neill's new website could be seen as a form of social media. (Essena's Instagram and YouTube accounts were also still accessible at the time when the sisters recorded their video.)
O'Neill posted a comment to the Nelsons' YouTube video in the comments section below the clip.
She posted another response on her website later that same day, clarifying her positions on social media, L.A., and her relationship with Nina and Randa.
Perhaps the most damaging claim that Nina and Randa make in the "HOAX" video has to do with Essena's personal life. The twins allege that O'Neill is only "upset" about social media and the people she met in L.A. because a male friend of the twins broke up with her.
Nina and Randa declined to tell me who this alleged man is, but they said that he's an actor and "a sweet guy" who "doesn't deserve to get dragged into Essena's silly drama."
"We do still consider her as a friend," they added, "and [we] hope she feels better soon."
On its face, Essena O'Neill's video about quitting social media captures a largely unspoken aspect of the ascendant social media celebrity economy: the often invisible hand of the corporate sponsor, a pervasive method of advertising in the world of celebrity social media that can even be spotted on Nicki Minaj and Kylie Jenner's feeds. In deleting her social media handles—and the half a million followers she had accrued with them—O'Neill is turning down thousands of dollars in monthly income from branded partnerships, effectively imploding her own career in order to stand by her convictions.
Most people wouldn't have even known who Nina and Randa Nelson are had they not uploaded their "HOAX" video, a clip that smokes but not because there's a fire. What do Nina and Randa stand to gain from appearing to take down their so-called friend? Becoming part of the narrative.
Nina and Randa told me that they did not post their Essena O'Neill "HOAX" video in order to gain publicity for themselves.
"[Publicity is] not why we did it," the sisters told me. The "HOAX" video's views are high, they said, but their channel's subscriber rate has not been significantly impacted by the clip. Their only goal, they said, was to "counter what Essena has said by spreading a positive message about social media and [set] the record straight."
But no decision can be considered self-contained in this daisy chain of social media stardom. When every person and every event is interconnected, you can't help but see the seams.
Nina and Randa Nelson have a younger brother named Willie (full name: Willie Nelson). Willie is a 19-year-old student and, as of two weeks ago, a YouTuber with his own channel. His first three videos are equal parts introductory and relatable, but his latest clip is dedicated to exposing how fake Essena O'Neill is. It is appropriately titled, "ESSENA ONEILL IS FAKE."
The talking points Willie uses to discredit Essena are very similar to the ones Nina and Randa employ in their video, right down to the rhetorical fixation on the phrase "pinnacle of success." But the sisters say that they did not discuss specifics with Willie before uploading their respective responses.
"We did talk about the hypocrisy of her video together, and then we made our own videos separately," Nina and Randa told me. "Our brother is very supportive."
And they were supportive right back. Near the end of the "HOAX" video, Nina tells viewers to check out her brother's response, which the twins link to in the description box below. Unlike his sisters, Willie does not have an established social media following; his most-watched video before this week barely cleared 2,000 views. But "ESSENA ONEILL IS FAKE" has already garnered more than 87,000 views. It's fair to assume that its view count would be far lower had Willie's sisters not promoted the video in front of their nearly 200,000 subscribers.
Eighty-seven thousand views is a lot, but it still pales in comparison to the view count of another video that the Nelson brother has appeared in: Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off," which has been viewed over one billion times.
Despite the grassroots feeling of his YouTube videos, Willie is signed with the Daniel Hoff Agency, Inc., a talent agency with offices in L.A. and New York. The agency has commercial, TV, film, youth, and musical theater departments, and their talent roster includes Saleisha Stowers (America's Next Top Model cycle 9 winner), Casper Smart (an actor/dancer/choreographer you might also recognize as Jennifer Lopez’s boyfriend), Miles Brock (Love & Hip Hop Hollywood), and Morgan Fairchild (Search for Tomorrow, Dallas, Murphy Brown, Friends). They will be launching a digital department soon, a representative from the agency told me in an email Thursday.
Nina and Randa Nelson are also represented by the Daniel Hoff Agency; they have been clients for a year and a half. Prior to signing with the agency, the sisters made frequent appearances in videos for their parents' vegan and vegetarian lifestyle website, vegsource.com, as well some commercials and a more high-profile cameo in Justin Bieber's 2010 music video for "U Smile."
On Wednesday, the agency celebrated the twins' recent media exposure by posting a photo on Instagram and Facebook of their clients on the set of Inside Edition. The sisters had booked a short segment on the program, where they discussed Essena O'Neill's social media "hoax." Inside Edition reached out to the twins directly to schedule the interview, a Daniel Hoff Agency rep told me.
"[Essena O'Neill's decision to quit social media] is a publicity stunt," Nina told the interviewer, "and she is using social media to get other people on her other form of social media."
The agency's social media handles boasted about Nina and Randa's booking using the hashtag "#EssenaHoax." This hashtag has only been used once on Facebook and once on Instagram. Both times, it was used by an official Daniel Hoff Agency account. A Daniel Hoff rep told me that Image Architect Consulting Group, the company that handles the agency's social media, came up with the hashtag.
Nina and Randa's mother, Sabrina Nelson, said that her daughter's did not know anything about the hashtag or the fact that their agency reached out to a consulting group to create it. She also said that her daughters did not meet with their agent until after uploading the "Hoax" video to YouTube. Meanwhile, their rep says, Nina and Randa are fielding requests from multiple outlets for additional interviews; they've already booked a radio segment, presumably also related to the #EssenaHoax.
When I asked Nina and Randa if they thought social influencers should be more transparent about ads and sponsorships, they told me that "Popular influencers ARE transparent."
If they weren't, they said, "they would lose their credibility very quickly."
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.