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How social media created (and destroyed) Tila Tequila

How social media created and destroyed Tila Tequila header“In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” – Oscar Wilde

It feels a little dirty to write about Tila Tequila. After enjoying a period of unprecedented Internet celebrity, she’s had a hard time. It seems clear from the current iteration of her personal website that she’s not mentally stable, and after she checked into rehab in 2012, she’s reduced her Internet presence to a paranoid Facebook Page filled with “False Flag” video montages and Illuminati conspiracy theories. And even though it’s easy to just look at her and see a first-class fame-monger getting crazier and crazier in a bid to keep the ever-dimming spotlight on her, it’s also pretty disturbing that she continues to descend into paranoia unabated.

“… There’s a difference between those girls and me. Those chicks don’t talk back to you…”

I initially looked into Tila as a potential “Where are they now?” story, but she doesn’t have the kind of nod-inducing, semi-appropriate, quasi-obsolescence we enjoy seeing from our faded stars; she got famous enough to suffer the kind of negative press and scrutiny that drives starlets to the edge, but not famous enough that people still care. And while the first reaction we should have to that is how sad that is, the other is that what the Internet makes, it can also break and sweep under the rug.

Social media has changed what it means to be a celebrity, and while that does help people court fame through grassroots networking, it also makes it hard for fragile celebrities to keep a healthy private life – and since Internet celebrity is a more fickle type of fame than traditional stardom, the mix of no filter and no safety net can make for a disastrous combination.

Happier times 

Tila Nguyen courted fame aggressively. She was proactive. She didn’t have a talent in the traditional sense, but then again, neither did Paris Hilton, who was becoming very famous for very little at the same time Tila joined MySpace, in 2003. Of course, Paris Hilton is an heiress who looked like a Barbie and grew up around flashbulbs and celebrities. Tila was the middle-class daughter of Vietnamese immigrants in Houston, who’d moved from Singapore to the U.S. as a baby. Tila had to work a little harder and look for alternate routes to fame. After modeling for a variety of import car magazines and creating a personal website with nude pictorials for premium members, she decided to re-brand herself as Tila Tequila. She used MySpace to upload countless glamour shots of herself, record and broadcast her singing, and to interact with fans.

Tila had already gotten kicked off Friendster when she joined MySpace, but the new social network proved to be a better fit. Since she’d already amassed thousands of followers on Friendster, she had some name recognition on the new website. She invited thousands of people to join the site, helping MySpace make its mark just as she was making hers. And the structure of MySpace helped her gain fans – since Nguyen was one of the most popular and oldest members of the network, she often automatically appeared in random people’s “Top Friends” during the early days of the site.

 A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila
A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila Image used with permission by copyright holder

In 2006, she had the most-viewed MySpace profile, which mainly consisted of bikini-clad cheesecake shots and tinny party tracks. Then she scored a show with MTV called A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, a dating show where men and women competed for Tila’s attention and affection. 

2006 was the apex of her career, and she was profiled by Time magazine, the New York Times, and many other news sources as the premiere star of MySpace. She counted over 1.5 million friends on MySpace, and her blend of over-sharing, sexy pictures, and impressive commitment to fan engagement made her a potent social media force.

The way Time describes her accurately captures how she embodied the flavor of the Internet at the moment, though it is also kind of depressing to read knowing how far she’s fallen: “Nguyen clearly grasps the logic of Web 2.0 in a way that would make many CEOs weep. She sells Tila posters, calendars, a clothing line of hoodies and shirts. She has been on the cover of British Maxim. She has a single due to be released online. She has a cameo in next summer’s Adam Sandler movie. She has four managers, a publicist and a part-time assistant. It’s hard to know how to read the rise of Tila Tequila. Does she represent the triumph of a new democratic starmaking medium or its crass exploitation for maximum personal gain? It’s not clear that even Tila knows. But she knows why it works. ‘There’s a million hot naked chicks on the Internet,’ she says. ‘There’s a difference between those girls and me. Those chicks don’t talk back to you.'”

What happens to falling stars?

Tila’s striving, vigorous assault on MySpace and other social media catapulted her into the echelon of real celebrity, but she was not as well received off the Internet as she was on it. Her forays into music and acting petered out and her personal antics diverted attention from any attempts at a career. A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila aired from 2007-08, but by the end of 2008, the Ikki twins replaced Tila, and her reality career was on the skids.

She’s still a very active online presence, but there’s a very sinister, sad ending to the story of Tila Tequila.

Tila continued releasing music, but she experienced a mishmash of personal problems and more public turbulence – for instance, she was allegedly beaten by ex-boyfriend NFL player Shawne Merriman, who she then sued for $1.5 million dollars – but then Merriman counter-sued for $2 million and won. Then she briefly became engaged to heiress Casey Johnson, who then died of diabetes, and then in one of Tila’s last public appearances she was pelted with balloons filled with urine, feces, and rocks during “The Gathering of the Juggalos” in 2010.

In 2011, Vivid released a pornographic video starring Tila with two other women – something she said was not meant to happen, but who knows. Either way, it didn’t exactly help lift her above her increasingly sordid reputation. She basically became the anti-Kim Kardashian; instead of lifting herself above the salaciousness of an early start in T&A, she became more engrossed in the sleazy side of show business. She moved further to the dirty fringes of show business instead of into the mainstream.

In 2012, Tila entered rehab for substance abuse, and since then she’s mainly focused her public persona on something quite different than her previous, heavily sexualized pursuits – though no less disconcerting.

A strange twist

She’s still a very active online presence, but there’s a very sinister, sad ending to the story of Tila Tequila. She was still making public appearances in 2011 – for instance, she appeared on a very X-rated episode of The Howard Stern Show. But she was far from stable, talking about how she is bipolar, has multiple personalities named Jane and Caroline, and has tried every drug in the book. And after her stint in rehab, she’s shied away from most media outlets, preferring to document her days on social media – although several of her former favorite platforms have banned her. She had over 200,000 Twitter followers, but she’s no longer allowed on the platform, and other media attention has petered out. And her strange appearance with Howard Stern looks positively down-to-earth when you compare it to some of the items she’s been publishing to her blog and Facebook Page. 

Tila Tequila Howard Stern Show
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“I am writing this article for a free internet medium in order to help the people understand: George W. Bush is no human,” one post reads. “He is not the son of his alleged parents. He is a cloned president. The Clone President.”

In addition to believing in presidential clones, Tila also rails about the Illuminati, how she has received direct messages from God, and Reptilians. Basically every single one of her posts refers to a conspiracy or the idea that she has super-human abilities; sometimes she intersperses updates with slightly-less-insane horoscope-feel good-stuff, but everything she puts out seems based largely in her own imagination. 

According to her Facebook page, her most recent public appearance was on the Bob Tuskin show, where she talked about “Inside Knowledge on Occult Influences in the Media,” a decidedly out-there appearance – Tuskin is a 9/11 “truther,” one of Tila’s newer associates.

She’s a fervent, vocal conspiracy theorist, banned from Twitter, banished from relevancy in the same way her beloved MySpace fell out of favor. But Tila isn’t completely off the grid; she regularly posts videos on YouTube and Facebook, and although she’s abandoned her blog, she’s still fully committed to her new persona of conspiracy theorist meets new age-y occultist.

Her latest video doesn’t mention anything about false flags or inside jobs, but it’s still intensely strange – a seven and a half minute attempt on Tila’s behalf to prove she has a supernatural ability to control air. Watch for yourself:

Tila had a skittish side to her even when the wackiest thing she did was post racy pictures on MySpace, but her devolution certainly looks to an outsider like a sad record of someone suffering from a serious mental illness. And right now, just like she started, Nguyen is cast to the fringes of mainstream media, once again only allowed on certain social networks. In fact, her current level of fame is most similar to the amount of attention she got back when MySpace was just starting out. The only difference is, Nguyen’s fanbase shifted from horny teens and MTV devotees to hardcore wackadoos. It’s hard to look at Tila’s story from any angle and think the amount of fame she achieved did her any good, or whether the attention she received on social media fanned the flames of her worst attributes and validated the wrong parts of her personality.

Social media: the ultimate rubbernecking platform for down-and-out divas

Social media erases barriers, which creates opportunities for communication that didn’t previously exist. This is good in many ways. And it’s how Nguyen eked out her position in celebrity culture. But having an unfiltered soapbox can exacerbate mental health issues by feeding young celebrities’ desire for attention and validation. And the people who engage mentally unbalanced starlets on social media don’t always do so in earnest.

Tila’s story is definitely weird, but it’s not totally unique. If you look at two other cases of young, famous women acting out on social media, a pattern starts to emerge — they respond to all the wrong messages.

First, there’s the saga of writer Cat Marnell, who just cemented her first book proposal, How to Murder Your Life, reportedly for $500,000.

Marnell is Internet-famous and an avid social media user, just like Tila Tequila, and she has highly publicized substance abuse and mental health issues, just like Nguyen. And like Nguyen, she seeks out controversy. But Marnell’s ascent to fame started when she was already plunging into deeply destructive behavior, whereas Nguyen started out as a flighty but seemingly with-it glamor model. Both women started out on the Internet, Nguyen on MySpace and Marnell writing about beauty for XOJane. Both found some of their more destructive impulses nurtured by comment boards.

Tila Tequila social media Cat Marnell
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Now, Marnell almost certainly would have continued using drugs if she didn’t have a popular column on the Internet. But because her tales of drugged-out destruction got so many page views, she certainly had an extra incentive to continue abusing substances and writing about it. Tila’s original schtick wasn’t as openly damaging, but she did heavily trade on her sexuality and outrageous antics for publicity. As her MTV show ended and MySpace lost its userbase, Tila may have started upping the ante, turning to increasingly worrisome stunts to regain media attention.

And the media obliged, though with diminishing returns – TMZ and other outlets did come calling whenever Tila got into a personal scrape. Her decision to go on “Celebrity Rehab” with Dr. Drew underscores how Nguyen seemed willing to mine her personal demons for the spotlight – and the fact that the less-than-morally-outstanding “Celebrity Rehab” decided to kick her off the show for being “unrehabilitatable” shows how we’re willing to gawk at someone’s crazy until we have to, you know, maybe be a little bit responsible for it.

And that’s something she seems to share with celebrity media’s current cause célèbreakdowns, Amanda Bynes. Bynes took a more conventional path to fame, appearing on Nickelodeon programs and then kid-friendly movies, but right now she’s most famous for being a complete maniac on social media. She ditched her fresh-faced, wholesome image in favor of X-rated tweets about Drake and a bleached-blonde, pierced, cleavage-centric look and recently had the police show up at her house. And since she was dropped by her publicist, lawyer, and agent – and doesn’t speak to her parents – Bynes now communicates with the outside world primarily through her Twitter. And the result is that she’s inviting media outlets seem intent on exploiting Bynes’ instability and she does not have the wherewithal to understand she’s being used for page views.

Tila Tequila social media Amanda Bynes
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Although Nguyen started on social media, she used her MySpace fame to climb into the mainstream MTV world of celebrity, before falling back down into Internet-levels of notoriety. But as Bynes’ case shows, communicating primarily through social media with the press is not a bright idea when you’re in a dark place. It seems like conspiracy-mongering on Facebook is Nguyen’s last stab at maintaining relevancy, just as it seems like her Twitter account is Bynes’ primary link to the outside world. The thing that made them relevant is now breaking them – and it might mean it’s time to log off and find real world support. 

Can Tila serve as a cautionary tale?

Yes: I realize that I just went on about how media outlets shouldn’t pester mental unstable celebrities while I’m writing a feature story on a mentally unstable celebrity. But I’m hoping Tila’s tale can operate as a warning for both wannabe Internet-famous types and already-famous types who like social media: social media is not a good place to have a breakdown, and its rapid-fire fame churn encourages unhealthy attention-grabbing antics.

Tila Tequila social media cinco de mayo party in las vegas 2010
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The heart of Tila’s appeal was that she was just a regular person using the Internet who happened to be extremely good-looking; a sex symbol who would message you back. And she successfully used the goodwill she built up to hopscotch into mainstream fame before falling back to the sort of modest following she had at the beginning of her MySpace days – this time, a following comprised of Illuminati-haters rather than dudes who love hot girls in bikinis. And her rise and fall would be fine, and sort of karmic, except she’s clearly mentally unstable, and while she was given plenty of attention, she never received any of the help she clearly needs. 

She’s the original example of how people will “connect” with you, “follow” you, and talk about you on social sites, but they won’t really know you – and they’re not there to help. Everyone wanted to be Tila’s friend on MySpace when she was there to provide titillation, but those same followers are nowhere to be found as she continues to exhibit profoundly paranoid characteristics. That’s why it’s useless to have millions of online “friends” when none of them are real. 

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Kate Knibbs
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kate Knibbs is a writer from Chicago. She is very happy that her borderline-unhealthy Internet habits are rewarded with a…
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