Eileen Kelly is at Café Gitane in Nolita on a recent Thursday afternoon about to dig into an avocado toast. She is the 20-year-old who went from having 6,000 followers on Instagram to over 130,000 in less than a year. Her handle and bio - “shes a killa and a sweet thang” - is a fairly accurate description of her online persona and the girl at brunch doing more talking than eating. She has big green eyes, rosy cheeks, and a tiny frame – a “sweet thang,” indeed - and wears an oversized, vintage rock ‘n’ roll t-shirt, baggy khaki pants and scuffed Golden Goose sneakers. Oh, and that “killa” instinct? It comes across when she says things like: “I don’t give a f--k if you have 200K [followers]. That’s not the reason I’m going to date you. I’m going to date you because I connect with you.”
It’s a little curious hearing this from someone whose Instagram profile –heavy on bikini selfies, late night party photos with Luka Sabbat, (he asked her to prom), and stylish poses with ex-BFF Sarah Snyder, (who is now dating Jaden Smith, but that’s another story) – seems to exist solely for Insta-fame. But it’s possible Kelly’s thousands of fans have flocked to her for the sort of candor and advice an earlier generation might have sought in Judy Blume’s young adult books.
Kelly first gained a following on Tumblr while in high school. “I gave advice and shared my experiences with boy issues, break ups, sex, drugs—anything people couldn’t talk about with their parents,” she says. “My Tumblr is like a diary that I’ve had since I was 15… I shared my life so openly on the Internet, and now I’m not sure whether or not I partially regret that. No one was telling me how to do it. But I can’t take it back.”
She still takes time to answer questions on Tumblr like, “How do you prepare for sex?” and “Do you think friends with benefits relationships could work?”
“It’s so crazy to look back and see how the questions have changed,” Kelly says. “Now I get young girls in high school asking me things like: ‘This boy didn’t Snapchat me back, what does that mean?’ And I’m like, holy s--t! I didn’t have to deal with that in high school.”
But, as her social media notoriety has soared, so has the way she doles out her brand of wisdom. “I never tell these young girls what to do now. There’s not a right way to go about anything. I don’t know the backstory. I don’t know your boyfriend,” she says.
(She’s also now had to begin addressing the gossip that comes with Insta-fame like, “Did you have sex with Vic Mensa?” and “What happened between you and Sarah?”)
Kelly’s followers think they know her, though.
It was an experience with intense cyber-bullying and stalking that forced Kelly to confront just how closely people followed her advice. The way she tells it, in February, someone started commenting on her Instagram photos with “nasty, borderline illegal stuff,” including jabs about her late mother. When she tried to block the account, they continued to make new ones. “They would DM me these really long, horrible things. It took a huge toll on me emotionally to the point where I had to tell my dad. I couldn’t deal with it anymore. It was traumatizing. We had to get the police involved,” Kelly says.
A couple of months ago, after the authorities got the account permanently deleted, Kelly says she found out the perpetrator was a girl she used to give advice to on Tumblr.
“It’s funny, because I remember it so clearly. I gave her my real number because I was super young and she was just another girl. She got really attached to me and would say things like, ‘I miss you,’ even though we’d never met. So I distanced myself. She thought we were really good friends, though, and that I hurt her feelings. I had to just keep reminding myself that this person doesn’t know me,” Kelly says.
As she’s climbed the ranks of Instagram, Kelly has started re-assessing some life choices.
In the past few months, as she has rid herself of stalkers, bad boyfriends, girl friends, her Twitter, and her Snapchat, she’s also declared she’s “done with New York City.” Think of it as the social media equivalent of a juice cleanse. “I used to care about filters and sexy little rap lyric captions. Now I just post what I want,” she says. “I don’t care about the likes, they’re going to come no matter what.”
Here’s her post-social media fame five-year plan: “I’m really passionate about sex education and would maybe one day like to design my own sex education program,” she says. “I would go back to school for gender studies, which is what I was studying before I took time off. I’ve also been thinking about taking time to work at Planned Parenthood.”
Today, Kelly has her avocado toast, and eats it too.
“I have this following, why wouldn’t I use it to express my thoughts and who I am as a person?” she says off-handedly. “It’s so easy to just post a sexy selfie and think that’s it. But I’m more than just a photo. I can use my phone for like, some good. There’s so much more out there than this little screen.”