Madison Beer came of age on the internet. After being discovered by Justin Bieber on YouTube when she was just a preteen, she shot to fame as an influencer and pop musician, becoming an unwitting underage sex symbol in the process. Her resulting struggles with mental health are the subject of The Half of It, a raw memoir in which she lays bare her battles with her own demons. In this excerpt, Beer writes about what it was like to discover her Snapchat nudes had been leaked when she was just 15 years old — and her journey toward overcoming her own humiliation and shame.
Out of everything I went through as a result of my sudden rise to fame, having my private nude photos leaked at 15 was one of the most traumatizing.
It still haunts me almost a decade later. Every time I think I’m fully healed, another side effect rears its ugly head, like peeling back the layers of an onion, and I realize just how much the trauma has leaked into every aspect of my life.
It started when I was Snapchatting a boy who was a childhood friend of mine. I’d known him for years, trusted him wholeheartedly, and we both had massive crushes on each other. We’d send videos and pictures back and forth — both of us young and still figuring out our bodies and sexualities. I thought it was impossible to screenshot or save a video through Snapchat. Once he saw it, it would be deleted forever. Plus, like I said, I trusted him.
Eventually, as most teenagers do, we grew apart. Months passed, and I thought nothing of it. At this point I was already living in L.A., but I kept in contact with him and a handful of my friends from Long Island, which is how I first found out that there was a video of me being spread around my old school.
It happened in the span of a night. I remember it vividly, and wish I could forget. Every detail is burned into my brain. My mom had already gone to sleep, and I was lying in bed, absentmindedly scrolling through my phone. I was already nervous about dance practice the next morning, and I was trying to distract myself, knowing I needed to go to bed soon to wake up in time.
And then, out of nowhere, I got a text from a friend back home: Yo, someone just added me to a group chat and sent a video of you holding your boobs.
I thought it was a joke at first, but then I started getting more and more texts from old classmates telling me they’d seen it. Most of them were from concerned friends, but a few of them were already poking fun at me, asking roundabout questions that all boiled down to: Why were you careless enough to send the video in the first place? My heart was pounding, and when one of my friends sent a screenshot of the video, my entire body went numb. It was me. And it was a video I’d sent to that boy. I had no idea how he’d saved a copy of it. Panic ensued.
It all happened so fast. One minute I was dozing off watching YouTube videos, and the next I was sobbing alone in my bedroom.
I called the boy I’d sent the video to, but he vehemently denied having a copy. I felt crazy. He acted just as shocked as I was that it had gotten out, but who else could have done it? He was the only one I sent it to. I hung up on him and pleaded with my friends to tell everyone else to delete it.
But beyond that, I didn’t know what else to do. It was already being sent around, and I was powerless. It was humiliating enough to know my closest friends had seen these videos, but I was also terrified that someone might send them to my parents, and they’d ground me for the rest of my life, or somehow my little brother would hear about it. The thought made me sick.
In a matter of minutes, as the reality of what was happening sank in, my goal changed from stopping the video from being spread around my old school to stopping it from reaching social media.
Deep down, I knew it was a matter of time. All it would take was for one person to post it online — knowing I had a growing following, knowing how something like this could shatter my reputation — and it would spread like wildfire. Once it reached the internet, it wouldn’t disappear. It would live there forever.
I had to be up for dance in a few hours, and most of my friends who were helping me track down the video had already fallen asleep. I was too scared to wake up my mom, so I had no other choice but to turn my phone over, shove it under my pillow, and try to go to bed, hoping that the nightmare would be over in the morning.
I was waiting outside my house for my mom to pick me up for dance class when I saw the first tweet: follow and dm me for madison beer’s nudes.
It was starting. Someone I had never seen — someone who I didn’t know — had the video. And they were using it for followers and attention.
I messaged them instantly, begging, please delete your tweet and please dont send it to anyone, please im just a kid who made a stupid mistake.
The account blocked me immediately. I sat staring at their page with the username now dull, unable to refresh their tweets. I was powerless.
It was during dance rehearsals that the video finally made its way online. Someone posted it to Vine, and it had already been picked up on Twitter and Instagram. It was being shared over and over until it became a trending topic. I flipped my phone over, saw the barrage of texts, and broke down.
It felt like my life was over. All I could think about was the internet safety lesson in middle school, where our librarian sat our class down and warned us about the dangers of the internet, making us believe that if we posted anything inappropriate — like tweeting about being drunk — our future employers would see and wouldn’t want to hire us.
That was laughable compared to this.
I sobbed on the floor of the dance studio, glued to my phone. I could only watch as the video spread farther and farther, reading every single comment about how disgusting I was, how my career was over, how my parents must be so ashamed of me. People were criticizing my body and pointing out every single flaw. This marked one of the first major instances where it felt like the only way out — the only way this would ever end — was to take my own life.
The humiliation only snowballed. The sentiments being tweeted were the same things I heard from my parents and managers when they found out what had happened. Everyone was upset with me. Ashamed. Telling my parents the truth was mortifying enough, but it was just as crushing to hear how disappointed my team was. I was fifteen years old, being made to feel like my one mistake would not only cost me my entire career and future but also ruin the reputations of all the people who worked on my team.
All I wanted to do was lock myself in my room and hide under the covers. I didn’t even want to look at myself in the mirror or change out of the clothes I was wearing. I felt violated. I became suspicious of everyone in my life. Who else could possibly have photos or videos of me that they’d post online, even if they weren’t explicit? I smoked a cigarette once at a sleepover — what if someone had taken a video? I couldn’t trust anyone, and no one was sticking up for me. No one wanted to hear my side. I’d ruined my life, somehow, with one single ten-second video.
It’s hard to remember the specifics of the days that followed, but what I do remember, word for word, are the countless hateful comments I read. I spent more time with my eyes glued to my phone than I did in the real world.
Not only was I embarrassed and ashamed and insecure about my body, but now I had to suffer through awkward conversations with my team about how to do damage control. Sitting across the table from my mom and my managers, knowing they’d seen the video, knowing they were disappointed in me, only drilled the shame that much deeper into my being.
My team advised me to vehemently deny that it was me in the video. At the time it seemed like our only option. Because my entire face wasn’t in it, the hope was that if I denied it once, publicly, and then pretended to be blissfully unaware that the video was continuing to spread, the speculation would eventually die down and I could move on.
But that didn’t happen right away. Instead, denying it was me in the video only fanned the flames further, and people started trying to prove I was lying. They posted pictures comparing my manicure in the video to my manicure on my Instagram posts, or comparing the headboard of my bed to the headboard in the videos. Even something as specific as the freckles on my body was put up for debate. Seeing my body being dissected online, over and over, made me want to shed my skin, crawl inside myself, and never come out.
To make matters worse, other videos started surfacing, ones that weren’t of me but of girls that looked enough like me that it was believable. They were much more explicit than mine, but because they were grouped in with the first video, people thought nothing of believing they were me, too. There was no way I could come out and say, “This video is real, but these aren’t,” so my only choice was to deny, deny, deny.
ON INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY 2020, I posted a statement on my Instagram, finally acknowledging that it had been me in the videos, and explaining why I was no longer allowing myself to be ashamed of them. Instead, I pointed the shame toward the ones who betrayed the trust of a fifteen-year-old girl. Even though it was just a single post, to this day, I consider it one of the most important decisions in my life. I needed to take back my power, no matter the consequences.
But still, I was surprised at how much courage it took to finally press post. And what surprised me even more was how positively it was received. I wanted to take my power back, but before I posted, I also had to accept that my career or reputation might take a hit. I had to make sure I was ready to handle whatever hate I’d get, because my experience at fifteen had conditioned me into thinking that this was something I deserved to be hated for.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, I got apologies from some of the people who had spread the video all those years ago. Young girls who had their trust betrayed in similar ways reached out to me, thanking me for making them feel less alone.
I should have been thanking them, too, because their responses were invaluable in my healing. And I wished I could have gone back and shown these messages to my fifteen-year-old self — to make her feel less alone, too, and to prove to her that she wasn’t the only person going through this.
Here’s the thing — I should have been better protected. It’s a federal crime to knowingly send or receive any image of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct. Yes, I had sent the video in the first place, but there were also hundreds — if not thousands — of other people who sent and received it. And I wasn’t the one who distributed it online.
Over the years there have been countless stories of young girls who have had their trust betrayed in the exact same way, while all the adults around them choose to sweep things under the rug instead of pursuing justice. In 2016 a fifteen-year-old girl killed herself after her ex-boyfriend posted a nude video of her to Twitter — and her story is one of many. Yet to this day no federal laws revolve around revenge porn.
For my own good, I try not to spend too much time reflecting on all the ways my situation could have been better handled, but when I do, I’m just left feeling gutted for that fifteen-year-old girl I was, who didn’t even realize she was a victim. Who thought she was disgusting for exploring her body and sexuality in a way most teenagers do. Who was taught to hate herself and her body because of someone else’s selfish choices.
It’s been almost a decade now since that incident, and even though the internet can still be brutal, I am hopeful that something like this wouldn’t happen today. The internet was a different place back then. People had a lot more anonymity, and the law was still struggling to figure out how to deal with crimes happening online. The words sexting and cyberbullying weren’t even added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 2011.
I hope now, if the same thing were to happen to another fifteen-year-old, social media platforms would be forced to take more responsibility to stop the distribution of the materials. We have more of an understanding of how damaging (not to mention illegal) something like this is. But I also think the culture online has changed, and that we’ve become a lot more self-policing, enough that online communities would rally around the victim and work to stop explicit content of a minor from being spread further. I have to believe we would do better.
But most importantly, I am no longer ashamed. Realizing that was the first step.
From the book The Half of It: A Memoir, by Madison Beer. Copyright © 2023 by Madison Beer. Excerpted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.