NEW YORK ― It was a late January evening, and Lizzy Howell’s iPhone would not stop buzzing. The 15-year-old from Milford, Delaware, watched in bewilderment as notification after notification flashed on her screen until her battery died.
Quite by accident, a video she’d posted of herself on Instagram a few months before had gone viral.
In the 10-second clip, Lizzy, wearing a maroon leotard and footless tights, is spinning on her toes, practicing a classical ballet move called fouetté turns. Eleven times she twirls, gracefully extending her leg and whipping it around. Behind her, several young dancers watch in appreciation.
Fouetté turns take a great deal of skill and years of practice to master. But it was not only her impressive execution that resonated with the public ― it was her size. Lizzy is overweight. When asked why she thought people were going crazy over her video, she shrugged.
“I guess it’s because I don’t have the typical dancer body?” she said in a recent interview at HuffPost’s New York office. Lizzy talked slowly, mulling her words before answering. Dressed in yoga pants and an Adidas sweatshirt, with her hair pulled into a half-ponytail, she looked like a typical teen.
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“I’m still not sure,” she continued. “I don’t think it’s that big of a deal what I’m doing, but everyone else seems to think so.”
There is no magic formula for viral videos, but certain tropes are common. Many of them feature adorable animals or kids. Many contain an element of surprise. They’re humorous. They tell a story. And they elicit a strong emotional reaction. In Lizzy’s case, the message that people took from it was a body-positive, feminist one: Women can be or do anything, regardless of their weight. They don’t have to be thin to dance.
As the video racked up views (as of this writing, it’s been played more than 380,000 times), thousands of people left comments praising Lizzy for her bravery. “I was honestly too scared to go into dancing because I was worried people would judge how I looked,” one commenter wrote. “This gave me the courage to at least try.”
“Oh my god I wish I could’ve had YOU spinning around inside the ballerina music box I had as a little girl instead of the ballerina figurine that it came with,” wrote another.
News organizations, drawn to the story of an inspiring teen breaking stereotypes, started calling. Lizzy was featured in BuzzFeed, People magazine, “Inside Edition,” Teen Vogue and more (including HuffPost’s Canadian edition). Overnight, she went from everyday teen to minor internet celebrity, joining a growing cadre of private citizens who are thrust into the national spotlight for a brief moment, then leave behind a digital footprint ― in Lizzy’s case, almost literally ― that can last a lifetime.
It’s been three months since the clip went viral, and Lizzy is still adjusting to the change. She is grateful for the attention to her dancing ― it’s everything to her ― but the fame has had a personal cost.
While many comments have been positive, there’s also a current of hostility that would be hard for any teenager to withstand. Trolls post spiteful messages about her weight and looks. The worst thing she saw about herself online, she said, was a cruel joke comparing her to meat. Someone spliced footage of her dancing with video of a rotisserie chicken turning on a spit. She cried when she saw it.
Meanwhile, in offline life, relationships have deteriorated ― a loss that cuts deep.
Lizzy, who is home-schooled and gets most of her social interaction at her dance studio, has seen friendships falter, some of them with kids she’s been dancing with since she was 5. They’ve stopped being friends with her, she said. She assumes they’re jealous that she became famous and they didn’t.
“I’ve heard them say that it should have been them and not me, and I’m like, ‘I don’t understand it,’” she said. “They talk by themselves in the corner.”
But Lizzy is strong. Maybe stronger than other teens her age. Her mother died when she was 5. She is being raised by her legal guardian, her great-aunt Linda Grabowski. The year her mom died, she started to dance, and she hasn’t stopped since. She practices at least four nights a week, taking classes in ballet, tap, jazz and contemporary.
“Dance is her outlet for all her emotions, good and bad,” Grabowski said. “She persevered. She wanted to drop out many many times.”
Over the years, Lizzy said, she was bullied because of her weight. She also struggles with pseudotumor cerebri, a medical condition caused by excess swelling in the brain. Last year, she underwent four spinal taps. Still, she keeps dancing. It brings her joy and comforts her when she feels low.
After she was diagnosed in 2016, she started home-schooling. Her medical condition, which can cause debilitating headaches and vision loss, requires frequent trips to the doctor. She is academically ambitious, with aspirations of becoming a forensic psychologist if she doesn’t make it as a professional dancer.
Still, Lizzy’s great-aunt does worry about her, and not without reason. Online fame can be disruptive to teens, according to Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. In the real world, their peers may be jealous or competitive, leading to friction at school or in social settings ― exactly the scenario playing out in Lizzy’s life.
“Our kids are already growing up more public than we were, and few of us are really equipped to guide our kids through that experience,” Heitner said.
Once kids experience a certain level of internet celebrity, they may obsess over their number of followers or likes as a way of quantifying their importance in the world.
Lizzy said she pays pretty close attention to her follower count, checking every day. She went from fewer than a thousand followers on Instagram to more than 92,000, but nowadays, the number has leveled off. The notifications have slowed down. That’s fine with her, she said, though she would still like to break the 100,000 mark.
Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, a pediatrician and digital media expert, said social media fame does not necessarily have a negative impact as long as kids are able to balance their time online and offline. “The goal is not to be famous in a virtual world, but just to live your life as an authentic teenager,” she said. “Remember that some parts of your life you can keep private.”
On Saturday, Lizzy stood in the back of a fitness studio in the basement of Athleta, a sportswear store in Manhattan. She wore Adidas sneakers and a royal blue dress, and she was nervous. The Camaraderie NYC, a social and empowerment group for women, had paid for her to travel to the city to tell her inspirational story, and now there were about 45 women eagerly waiting for her to talk.
Jane Taylor, founder of The Camaraderie, said she’d invited Lizzy to speak after being moved by her fearlessness. Her group is always looking for “extraordinary people who do extraordinary things, and they may not even know it,” she said.
Lizzy began talking, and the women sat on the floor and listened. She talked about her favorite dancers, her trouble finding cute and good-quality leotards in her size, and the amazing letter she got from Misty Copeland, in which the prima ballerina told Lizzy never to let others define her. Then, she opened up about the jealousy and bullying she had experienced. The worst part of her new internet fame was losing friends in real life, she admitted.
“I have like two friends left,” she said. “Everyone else dropped me.”
Taylor asked if anyone in the room had any advice on how to deal with jealousy.
One woman said you only really need one friend. Another reminded her how temporary the high school years are. Monica Parikh, a 45-year-old attorney, told Lizzy that she’d also been bullied as a kid for being different.
“You are building a ton of strength and character by going through this at such an early age,” she said. “My guess is that all those people who are bullying you one day are going to look back, and they are going to be in the same spot they are today ― and you will have just shot up like a meteor.”
The crowd murmured in agreement and Lizzy smiled. It was just what she needed to hear.
So far, Lizzy told HuffPost, her newfound fame has had more upsides than down. Even though she’s struggled with kids in her hometown, she is hopeful about the opportunities opening up to her. She will be appearing in an ad campaign for a clothing company soon, though she wasn’t at liberty to reveal the brand’s name.
All she really wants is for people to stop assuming things about her, she said. Don’t assume she isn’t trying to lose weight (she is), or that she wants to be a ballerina (she prefers contemporary and tap).
Like all teens, she hates being misunderstood.
“You don’t know me, you don’t know anything about me,” she said. “You just saw a video of me dancing and you are making all these assumptions about my life.”
Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and issues related to women’s health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.
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