On a freezing January afternoon, the podcaster and influencer Eileen Kelly welcomed a reporter into her spacious Lower East Side loft. She was wearing her show’s merch — a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “Prozac” (she also sells Wellbutrin and Lexapro versions). Glass vases on a nearby credenza held six dried bouquets, gifts from ex-boyfriends she has kept for years. Two red candles burned beside a tray of snacks.
“Sorry if this looks like I set the table for a date,” she said, laughing.
Ms. Kelly is a provocative influencer on Instagram with more than 400,000 followers, a sex-education blogger and a podcast host who interviews incendiary cultural figures and dishes on topics including her sex life and her stay in a psychiatric hospital. Like other nebulous multihyphenates living in the swath of neighborhoods surrounding SoHo and the Lower East Side, she performs a version of herself in the theatrical milieu of the internet. More than any particular venture, a textured, dramatic life is Ms. Kelly’s product.
“I remember my dad told me in high school, ‘Never put anything on the internet that you don’t want your teacher to see.’ And I was like, ‘Well, oops. I put literally everything on the internet,’” she said.
Catapulted into the spotlight in 2016 by a New York Post article, Ms. Kelly, 27, has spent the entirety of her adult life online. She posted risqué selfies before the OnlyFans boom; she opened up about her mental health struggles just as therapy and burnout were becoming de rigueur topics for influencers. Her years of exposure have earned her, if not quite fame, then something within spitting distance. Her core followers — mostly young women — feel a strong bond with her.
“Every time we go anywhere there are genuine fans that stop her,” sometimes sharing highly personal details from their own lives, said Ondine Viñao, a friend who has known Ms. Kelly since she was 16 and sometimes helps her select podcast guests, which have included the writer Tao Lin and the Trump lawyer Michael D. Cohen as well as health care experts, like a Mount Sinai doctor who specializes in suicide prevention.
Podcasting is now Ms. Kelly’s primary mode of exhibitionism. Playing with the familiar trope of the beautiful, tragic woman, Ms. Kelly shares frank accounts of her life on “Going Mental,” which tends to stray beyond themes like self-care and conventional ideas about wellness.
Podcasts by Emily Ratajkowski and Julia Fox, who also combine personal anecdotes with interviews focused on sexual health and pop culture, are its closest analogues — not “Goop.” According to Dear Media, a podcasting network that bought “Going Mental” last year, the show is downloaded more than 100,000 times a month on Spotify.
“What’s up in Eileen-land?” she asked herself on a solo episode of the podcast last fall, before going into a 30-minute monologue that swerved from lighthearted to more serious topics: her “cougar-esque” dating life (“I’m definitely in my cradle-robbing era right now”), recent dreams (“I had been scrolling Instagram, stalking this girl who randomly used to give me a lot of anxiety”), her experience being treated by the same therapist as her mother, who died when she was 8 (“We played a lot of Clue”) and the stigma she said she faced because of her mental health diagnosis (borderline personality).
“The only way to kind of combat shame is to scream it from the rooftops,” Ms. Kelly said in an episode last year. “If I’m not ashamed of it, then no one can judge me for it, and if they do, it won’t bother me.”
Fluency around mental health has become a powerful new weapon in the arsenal of influencers, said Tara Isabella Burton, who has written about wellness and social media in her books “Strange Rites” and the forthcoming “Self-Made: Creating Our Identities From da Vinci to the Kardashians.”
“They’re balancing the role of entertainer and cultural repository of our neuroses,” Dr. Burton said. Mental health influencers, she continued, “invite the viewer into a kind of intimacy with their struggles, in a way that perhaps the prototypical influencer of five or so years ago with the ‘perfect body’ and ‘perfect life’ might not have done.”
On her show, Ms. Kelly aligns herself less with aspirational figures than with people deemed villains or outsiders. Her first “Going Mental” guest was Amanda Knox, who in 2015 was acquitted in the murder of her roommate while on vacation in Italy.
“Obviously, I was not put in prison in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language,” Ms. Kelly said. “But I feel like there’s some common ground of like, she was very misconstrued in the media and vilified.”
Among the most recognizable images of Ms. Kelly is the one that appeared in The New York Post in 2016. A reporter from the paper reached out to Ms. Kelly when she was 20, asking to interview her about her Instagram account, where she posted photos of herself posing in lingerie.
Ms. Kelly had never talked to the press before. She was unprepared for the tabloid treatment. The article called Ms. Kelly a “modern-day Lolita” and quoted a psychologist who placed Ms. Kelly in the vanguard of a dangerous trend: “girls posting sexually suggestive photos online” who were inspiring their underage followers to do the same.
“I cried for days. I was honestly just embarrassed for my dad to see it or someone to send it to him,” she said. “I felt like I was portrayed as, like, a baby sexpot prostitute.”
Ms. Kelly, who grew up the youngest of four in Seattle, said she took refuge online around age 14, when she was struggling with a “disjointed and chaotic” home life after the sudden death of her mother. On her Tumblr account, she made friends with other teenagers around the country and posted in detail about the sorts of things she wished she could discuss with her mother: crushes, boyfriends, starting her period, losing her virginity.
When she moved to New York to study psychology and gender studies at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, her Tumblr audience followed her to Instagram, and she turned her unfiltered blogging into the slick sex-ed website Killer and a Sweet Thang, publishing articles about sex and identity by other young women, and men, in addition to her own musings.
She also began regularly posting seminude images, which she said helped drive her follower count into the six figures.
Today one might have a tough time explaining to a college student why a young woman posting provocative photos would justify news coverage.
Discussions about the way teen girls and young women interact with platforms like Instagram — and the effects on their self-image and mental health — still abound. But in the mid-2010s, conversations around influencers, sexuality and online behavior were only just taking shape, regularly provoking geysers of feeling. Some feminists suggested that selfies could be empowering; others called them narcissistic, self-objectifying, even a “cry for help.” Outrage about Ms. Kelly was one more piece of bait tossed into these churning waters.
“Generally in the mid-2010s there was a feeling that selfies were the nadir of internet narcissism, filtered, of course, through the lens of gender, and the way women and girls doing practically anything online was deemed dangerous and uncouth,” Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, a former editor in chief of the feminist website Jezebel, wrote in an email. “Even mildly risqué selfies were often considered the work of fallen women tramping through the internet, in so many words.”
Ms. Kelly’s perspective has shifted over time. “I felt very empowered by posting these more provocative photographs,” Ms. Kelly said. “We convince ourselves that it’s empowering when it works for us. And then when it no longer does, you’re kind of slapped in the face with that.”
Ms. Kelly was able to turn the upsetting article into career momentum — more followers, new brand deals, speaking gigs at Ivy League schools, panels for Planned Parenthood — but she found herself in an increasingly dark place mentally. She said she struggled with obsessive thoughts and paranoia, often related to romantic relationships.
“I would go home and cry myself to sleep, or be shaking or not able to leave my apartment for three days,” she said.
After what she says was an attempt to end her life, Ms. Kelly saw a succession of health care professionals over three years. Eventually, a doctor told her she had borderline personality disorder, she said, a diagnosis that helped her understand what she was feeling.
In 2019, she sought inpatient treatment at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychiatric center in Massachusetts known for treating patients including Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. At McLean, she recalled, her days were strictly regulated. She attended hours of therapy every day for five months and wasn’t allowed access to a cellphone. She lived in a house with a group of women who had the same diagnosis as her.
Staff observed her throughout the day, she said, and their reports were checked against her own accounts of her behavior in therapy. “You’re constantly watched, like a lab rat,” she said. “I loved it, but it was kind of like ‘Survivor.’” Ultimately, she said, the program saved her life; she said a regimen that includes therapy now keeps her symptoms at bay.
These days, Ms. Kelly describes herself as a bit of a recluse. She spends most of the week working in her apartment a few blocks from Tompkins Square Park, though she does go out on weekend nights for dates, dinners and art openings. She’s also something of a downtown connector. At the cocktail parties she hosts every month or so, she melds her disparate friend groups: “starving artists,” intellectuals, “basic rich kids” and “Dimes Square types.”
“I’m a chameleon,” she said. “I’m able to get along with all different types of people.”
Recently she befriended and became a muse for the downtown painter Anna Weyant, whose show “Baby, It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over” at Gagosian Gallery featured two paintings of Ms. Kelly. In the painting “Eileen,” Ms. Kelly faces herself, arms lifted over her head, her underwear revealed beneath a white gown. The other painting, “Two Eileens,” shows two doppelgängers standing side by side with their eyes closed. On the left, Ms. Kelly’s cheeks are dimpled in a smile at some inner joke. On the right, she’s somber and still.
“I thought she had really soft features and really beautiful curves that would be fun to paint,” said Ms. Weyant, who met Ms. Kelly through a mutual friend. She appreciated Ms. Kelly’s willingness to submit to her otherworldly vision.
“I can play with her face and her figure and distort it in ways that I am comfortable distorting my own, but not usually another person,” she said. “She lets me do that without being offended, or hurt.”
Ms. Kelly hasn’t totally relinquished the grip she has on her own image. She sent the photographer for this article a mood board with stills from “Gone Girl” and “The Virgin Suicides.” (Times photographers do not typically require artistic direction from their subjects.) And she continues to post provocative photos of herself on social media — though she said she is no longer “addicted” to the attention and validation of strangers, as she was when she was younger.
A few weeks after the opening of Ms. Weyant’s show, Ms. Kelly returned to Gagosian. It was a rainy day, and she was alone in the gallery. For someone who has made a career of “selecting specific photographs to put out into the world,” contemplating Ms. Weyant’s portraits felt therapeutic. “A weight lifted off my shoulders,” she said.