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Essena O’Neill
@essenaoneill via Instagram

Is Instagram model Essena O’Neill a fraud?

The viral sensation has shut down all her social media accounts after being hit by allegations about her authenticity

Essena O'Neill can't really seem to win. Since she shattered social perceptions earlier this week by revealing the truth behind her “perfect” online life, the Instagram model has been ambushed by accusations over her authenticity. As a result, all her social media sites have been shut down, and her online presence has been significantly diminished. Was the whole thing really just a big hoax? Is she just trying to boost support for her new business venture? Was any of it actually real?

Granted, there are suspicious elements to her story. O'Neill is, after all, starting up her own website; which will apparently be focused on promoting “veganism, plant-based nutrition, environmental awareness, social issues, gender equality, (and) controversial art”. Depending on how it all pans out, she may just be swapping one form of aspirational self-promotion for another. It's also pretty perfect that she'd find herself slap-bang in the middle of a viral storm right as the site's been announced – and right when she's been struggling financially.

“I can’t afford rent right now,” she shared on her site. “It’s like I’m just embarrassed to admit that I need help ... if you like my videos or like any of my posts or you like this website, if this is of value to you, then yeah, please support me because I can’t afford my own real life.” 

Along with the floods of online abuse she's been receiving, there have also been other, more credible detractors. Fellow Instagram celebrities Nina and Randa Nelson, who claim to know the model, have openly expressed their scepticism. “She's gotten more Instagram followers than ever because of this publicity stunt,” they said in a YouTube video on Tuesday night. “She may have left Instagram... but she's still looking at social media. The bottom line is social media is not a negative thing. Just because one person has had a bad experience with it doesn't mean everyone should jump on the band wagon.”

Of course, while it is true that social media can be a very powerful force for good, there are still instances where it can be damaging – particularly for younger girls. A recent study from the University of Missouri found that increased use of sites like Instagram and Facebook can result in greater feelings of competitiveness and jealousy – which is ultimately linked to depression. These are the tools we use to market our best selves: places where we can curate a perfect picture that's often miles away from reality.

I spent 12-16 wishing I could receive validation from numbers on a screen,” O'Neill defended. “I spent majority of my teen years being self absorbed, trying desperately to please others and feel 'enough'.  Spent 16-19 editing myself and life to be that beautiful, fitspo, positive, bright girl online.”

So, whether O'Neill is a “fraud” or not – at this point, it doesn't really matter. She's addressing a sinister side of the social world, and something that affects more people than we care to realise. And besides, her intentions really could be as simple as she says – only time will tell. “I didn't find happiness in social approval, constantly edited and shooting my life. So I decided to quit,” she says in an online response to her critics. “Now I want to start something important.”