Kendall Jenner’s waistline magically cinches. Heidi Klum’s boobs perk up. Bella Hadid’s flat abs get, somehow, even flatter. These are some of the transformations that have attracted over 900,000 followers to Celebface, an Instagram account that exposes celebrities and influencers for photoshopping the images they share on social media. Alternating unretouched newswire photos with the nipped and tucked versions of the same photos posted by celebrities, Celebface posts moves between fact and fiction in mesmerizing, looping GIFs. “Welcome to reality,” the Celebface bio reads. “If you don’t want to see the truth, leave this page.”
The account is run by Anna, who is 24 years old and won’t say anything else about her identity. Over DM, she says she launched Celebface in July 2015 to expose how celebrities perpetuate unrealistic beauty standards. Anna sources original images from photographers, friends, and agencies, revealing the editing process in which lips get plumped and noses thin out. Sometimes, her posts are outrageous and shocking, like when she provided evidence that certain beloved reality stars were photoshopping the bodies of their children. Other times, the posts are a gentle reminder that, underneath the red carpet makeup and Instagram filters, even celebrities have zits. It’s “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” for the digital age.
Over the course of Celebface’s short but influential rise, Anna says she has been blocked by Khloe Kardashian and threatened with lawsuits by makeup artists Sonia and Fyza Ali. (The three women did not respond to requests for comment.) Anna has also cultivated a fiercely devoted fanbase. “Your page makes me feel so much better about reality vs. media personas,” goes a typical comment.
But one of Celebface’s favorite subjects isn’t much of a celebrity at all. Model Sarah McDaniel, 23, has been featured on the account dozens of times, with some appearances garnering upwards of 16,000 likes and 400 comments—levels of engagement more commonly found on The Shade Room, which has fifteen times the following. Among a sea of celebrities edited to look uniformly perfect, McDaniel stood out because she seemed to be altering her appearance to look uniquely imperfect. She was accused of faking the strikingly mismatched irises—one brown and one blue-green—that were her calling card as a model.
McDaniel first came into the public eye in 2016, when she was selected to be the covergirl of the newly rebranded Playboy. The magazine had ditched full-frontal nudity (because internet porn) and retouching (because feminism). McDaniel was a girl-next-door Snapchat and Instagram star (handle: @krotchy) whose look telegraphed authenticity. In interviews to promote the issue, McDaniel talked about growing up with heterochromia, a rare and often subtle genetic condition that can result in abnormal irises—a feature she said she was bullied for as a child. A virtual unknown with an instantly recognizable “quirk” (a la Lauren Hutton’s gap teeth), McDaniel seemed tailor-made for the magazine’s millennial-geared pivot.
Around the same time, Anna also discovered McDaniel. Celebface posted a series of photos that seemed to show the color of McDaniel’s blue eye changing, from blue-green dappled with brown, turquoise with a brown ring around the pupil, to solid aquamarine with a black ring at the perimeter, suggesting that their mismatch could be the effect of colored contacts or exaggerated by them. As both women’s followings grew, Celebface posted more: crowdsourced photos of McDaniel appearing to have two brown eyes, side-by-sides of McDaniel with other women known to have heterochromia (e.g. Kate Bosworth), interviews where McDaniel discussed her eyes. In late 2017, Celebface posted a childhood photo that showed McDaniel with matching brown irises. “Expectation: A poor girl with different-colored eyes,” the caption went, “Reality: An ordinary liar who had eye color surgery and tells everyone about her ‘real’ heterochromia now.”
Unlike Celebface targets like Kendall Jenner and Heidi Klum, McDaniel didn’t have vast networks, PR agents, and sums of money to protect her. Soon, hundreds of commenters swarmed her own Instagram photos, accusing her of wearing a colored contact lens or having iris implant surgery. “White girl so basic she had to put in a contact to be ‘different’,” one commenter wrote.
The former Playboy creative director who oversaw McDaniel’s Playboy shoot wasn’t thrilled to learn that the magazine’s choice for a down-to-earth covergirl may have faked the feature that made her seem relatable. “The whole thing around the rebrand was literally to get rid of retouching and have a model who was more natural looking and authentic. That’s the reason she was picked,” Mac Lewis says. When he heard that her quirky eye condition was being called into question, Lewis was “super annoyed.” “It kind of undercut everything we’d been saying about her.”
Meanwhile, McDaniel was devastated by the accusation. “I do have heterochromia,” McDaniel tells me from her home in Oxnard, California. “I guess my eyes sometimes look different in different light, or with different camera quality.” She couldn’t comprehend the level of online abuse leveled toward her on Celebface and on her own page — particularly in an age when the ubiquity of airbrush and Photoshop is common knowledge. She says she experienced panic attacks and debilitating depressive episodes as a result of the attacks.
“I think it mostly reflects badly on the person who made this account, because when you think that negatively about other people, karma’s going to get back at you,” McDaniel says. “I mean, have you ever felt the need to comment something really mean on someone’s photo? I haven’t.”
Writing over Instagram direct message, Anna says that her page isn’t meant to enable harassment. Its purpose is to help followers with the complexes they develop comparing themselves to touched-up photos of already thin, attractive celebrities. To Anna, this work is important because of thereal consequences that social media has on young people’s body image and mental health—new research from the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery indicates that social media selfies are millennials’ leading motivator for cosmetic procedures. “People often thank me for my work. Some girls write to me that they become more confident,” Anna messages.
Anna is right that digitally perfecting one’s image isn’t just for celebrities anymore, says Jean Kilbourne, creator of the film series Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women. “I started talking about the tyranny of the ideal image of beauty 50 years ago, but it’s so much worse now,” she says. “With Photoshop and social media, girls end up comparing themselves not only to supermodels, but to idealized images of each other. Then they feel pressured to create their own images. It’s a never-ending cycle.” Any model McDaniel’s age or younger may have been doing her own Photoshopping and FaceTuning for years.
The ubiquity of digitally engineered perfection is making us crave more relatable models with off-kilter and asymmetric features, says Jimmy Jellinek, former Chief Content Officer of Playboy. “There is an incredible power to someone who claims authenticity or some type of imperfection,” Jellinek says. “The ability to market yourself becomes much easier. You have an automatic talking point.” America’s Next Top Model contestant Chelsey Hersley was actually instructed to widen the gap between her front teeth to look more like Lauren Hutton. As Celebface writes to me: “Then everyone wanted to be just beautiful, now everyone wants to be unique.”
Lewis says that when picking Playboy’s November 2016 cover, he intentionally chose Ashley Smith because of her gap tooth. “That’s not a type of model Playboy would’ve had before,” he says. “You never would have had someone with a blemish who isn’t the ideal pin-up. But now people don’t want perfection.” If cookie-cutter perfect pinups inspired liposuction and breast implants, it’s only logical that, as Lewis says, “People are craving authenticity so much that they’re even going so far as to fake things that make them look different.”
But in an age when virtually every image is retouched, faked “flaws” seem to be where we draw the line of acceptable inauthenticity. When makeup artist Hung Vanngo revealed that he’d drawn on faux freckles for Selena Gomez’s “Fetish” video, fans were furious. Like critics who accused Jennifer Lawrence of playing up the relatable, pizza-eating and carpet-tripping “cool girl,” McDaniel’s trolls have also made clear that there’s no shortage of venom reserved for women who fake being real. “I mean if you want to alter yourself there’s makeup, photoshop, liposuction, filters… but eye implants? Too far,” writes one commenter on a Celebface post of McDaniel from March 2018.
Partly, the frustration seems to stem from the sympathy points expected for models who have imperfect, non-Barbie features, yet still look supermodel hot and are given magazine covers. The girl-next-door image starts to break down and fans feel betrayed, especially if the quirkiness seem calculated or even made-up. “Now that authenticity has become a look, it gets incredibly confusing,” Jellinek says. “Now it’s like ok what is authentic? How do you even prove your image hasn’t been doctored?” While plenty of models and celebrities on Celebface have been called out for using photoshop or filters, only McDaniel got a nickname for her perceived dishonesty: McLiar.
McDaniel still says one of her happiest memories was learning that she would be featured as a 2016 covergirl. But, two years later, McDaniel has seen the drawbacks of modeling and public exposure. The childhood picture that has circulated on fashion message boards and subreddits devoted to “exposing fake people” and “botched plastic surgeries” was released by her father, with whom she has a strained relationship. Following Celebface’s posts, McDaniel says she considered sharing photos touching her eyeballs to show that her mismatched irises are real. Her sister Zoe encouraged her to ignore the public attacks. “She was like ‘just don’t pay attention, it’s not like your talent is all in your eyes. They’re not what makes you yourself.’”
Her mother, Angela McDaniel, tells me she prefers not to speak about the eye condition because “there’s so much more to Sarah than that.” She encourages McDaniel not to read Instagram comments; “they’re cruel,” she says. “They cut you, they really hurt.”
From recent photos, it’s clear that McDaniel no longer looks exactly like she did on her breakout cover. Few models do. And like other models whose changing noses could be the result of surgery, or expert contouring, or Photoshop and FaceTune, McDaniel is under no obligation to say why. Maybe her misstep was one of timing: She debuted at the start of the trend toward the authentic—and just when the Instagram side-by-sides were picking up steam. If more celebrities and models begin to manufacture their own off-kilter quirks, will the fiery blowback start to subside?
McDaniel, for one, won’t be in the industry to experience it. She says she’s now exploring other interests. She acted in the 2018 film Perfect, which was screened at SXSW, and is producing her own short film (a science fiction drama about a parasite that controls human emotions). She is also launching a CBD skincare line called Walagoot. She’s gone from spending afternoons in photoshoots to poring over contracts and state cannabis laws. She says that she hadn’t been interested in modeling growing up, and pursued it more out of a need for cash — but it wasn’t worth it to be treated like a “human hanger.”
McDaniel is also limiting the time she spends online. “The longer breaks I take from social media the less and less I want to return,” she recently wrote. She’s holding on to the @krotchy handle that launched her career, she says, but as of this fall she says she’s deleted the Instagram app from her phone.
Photography by Yerin Mok. Special thanks to The Mayfair Hotel Los Angeles.