Real Life

Kiwi web sensation Lonelygirl 15 is no longer lonely!

From NZ teen to Hollywood hopeful, Jessica's journey has a very happy ending

With her popular YouTube alter ego “Lonelygirl15”, Kiwi teen Jessica Phillipps went from a smalltown girl from Mount Maunganui to a trailblazing online phenomenon in 2006 – and she made headlines worldwide when it was revealed her viral video diary was in fact a scripted series.

“When it blew up, I was excited, but it felt unreal,” Jessica tells Woman’s Day. “I was like, ‘This isn’t meant to happen this quickly.’ I felt like I didn’t deserve it.”

Fifteen years on, after becoming one of YouTube’s earliest stars and shifting to Hollywood, the 34-year-old is no longer lonely, having found love with former Neighbours actor Tim Phillipps, the father of her two-year-old son Rory, and she’s finally ready to reflect on her crazy journey to happiness.

Despite finding fame online, Jessica says she was a shy kid who avoided the spotlight after moving to New Zealand from Maryland with her US-born dad Michael and Kiwi mum Coralie at age eight.

But after discovering drama at school, she headed to Auckland at 15 to complete a film and TV make-up course as a “back-up” to her acting ambitions. “My goal was to work with Peter Jackson and I ended up being an assistant make-up artist on King Kong, which was exciting.”

At 18, Jessica left Aotearoa to study at the New York Film Academy’s LA campus. Lonelygirl15 was only her second audition and she was stunned when the YouTube series – in which she portrayed a home-schooled teen vlogger whose parents were part of a cult-like religion – exploded.

“Today, everyone’s interested in other people’s lives through Instagram, but back then, the only people whose lives you knew about were friends and celebrities,” Jessica says, explaining how voyeuristic elements of Lonelygirl15 fuelled its popularity. “My character Bree’s innocence and genuineness also made her popular.”

Family Christmas with (from left) brother Justin, sister Lauren and Dad.

Despite her sudden global stardom, Jessica had to keep her identity secret to give the impression Bree was a real person, which proved tricky, especially after being invited onto Tyra Banks’ talk show. Increasing scrutiny around the series culminated in media confirming Bree was a fictional character portrayed by Jessica.

“I don’t have a thick skin, so I worried people would hate me and some did. They were upset because they loved Bree and connected with her. They thought she was a friend, so finding out she didn’t exist

was like the death of a mate.”

The bullying was “outrageous by today’s standards”, shares Jessica. “I got terrible comments about how I looked and everything. When I moved to LA, I never thought about the bad things people might

say or that they wouldn’t like me. I was just excited about life, so when the negative comments started coming in thick and fast, it took a toll. It knocked my confidence.”

On the flipside, viewers were fascinated by the new medium of storytelling and Jessica attracted further roles, including on the comedy series Greek – where she dated her co-star Jacob Zachar – and the drama Sorority Forever.

Wedding day bliss with her mum and gran

“Some people come to LA to pursue acting and never get the chance to be on TV or film, so I’m grateful for the opportunities that came to me because of Lonelygirl15. The hard part was that the internet was new, so people went, ‘Is she a reality star or an actress?’ Agents didn’t know where to place me and I wasn’t very experienced, so I didn’t know how to audition for the biggest casting directors in the world.”

Crushed by continuous rejection, Jessica’s passion for acting began to dwindle, however, she found a new love in the shape of actor Tim, 33, moving with him to Australia after he won the role of Daniel Robinson on Neighbours in 2014.

“He was just a nice guy – hard to find in LA!” she says about meeting Tim through friends. “I knew if I didn’t go with him, I’d always think about him.”

Tim casually proposed at home in 2016 and the two wed in Melbourne, before welcoming Rory in 2019.

While Jessica’s pregnancy and labour were smooth, her love of planning and preparation made first-time motherhood challenging.

Tim and Jessica are doting parents to Rory

“I’d read all the books, tips and articles, so the transition was smooth, but I got a shock when we got to the four-month sleep regression. It was like, ‘This isn’t just a six-week thing like books say!’

“I also found the food phase tough and struggled mentally because I put pressure on myself to make all his food and ensure it was healthy. Sometimes it would end up all over the floor or he wouldn’t like the purée I’d just made a litre of. I thought, ‘That’s a reflection of me. I’m not doing anything right.’ The biggest thing I’ve learned from being a mum is sometimes you have to surrender control.”

While she hopes to have another child, for now, Jessica’s feeling her passion for creative ventures returning. After relocating to Tim’s native Adelaide last year, the pair have been pouring their energy into their content and video production business Eat Media.

They’re also starting a video podcast, Part Time Creative, and Jessica has optioned a book, Hamburger Hill, by Mount Maunganui writer Ryan M. Glover, which she hopes to develop into a movie.

Global audiences fell in love with YouTube’s Lonelygirl15, not realising it was a piece of fiction and starred Kiwi teen Jessica.

Reflecting on how the internet’s changed since she made viral waves, Jessica urges those seeking online fame to be mindful of how web content lasts forever. She’s also cautious of dangers like online bullying.

“The idea that my son or anyone could get bullied online is scary. The world’s becoming a kinder place, but it’s never an easy landscape to navigate, so parents need to have open conversations with their kids.

“At the same time, the internet makes people happy. People are having a great time making TikTok videos with their families, and Tim and I make sketches for Instagram.”

Yet while Jessica has enjoyed spending time with her family bubble during the pandemic, she can’t wait until borders open so she can come home to Aotearoa, where she plans on satisfying her addiction to Pineapple Lumps.

Smiling, she says, “It doesn’t matter how many times I land in New Zealand and do that drive back home – I’m always like, ‘It’s even prettier than I remembered!'”

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