Jessi Slaughter on becoming a meme and falling victim to trolls after infamous YouTube video

'All my friends abandoned me. One of them poured chocolate milk on me, another threw a biscuit at me once,' Slaughter tells The Independent

Maya Oppenheim
Wednesday 30 March 2016 18:01 BST
Jessi Slaughter now identifies as Damien Leonhardt and is using her experience to help others in similar situations
Jessi Slaughter now identifies as Damien Leonhardt and is using her experience to help others in similar situations (Instagram)

At the age of 11, Jessi Slaughter was thrust headfirst into the callous and unforgiving world of the internet.

In a turn of events wholly out of Slaughter’s control, in 2010 the Florida teenager became an accidental overnight internet celebrity, but the most unfortunate kind imaginable.

A YouTube video, which amassed more than a million views in the space of a few weeks, shows Slaughter sobbing while their father, Gene Leonhardt, yells at the camera in an attempt to stop trolls from contacting his child.

Slaughter – who now identifies as Damien Leonhardt, and asked to be referred to with the pronouns they, them and their – had fallen prey to cyber-bullying after unfounded rumours emerged they had slept with a 25-year-old singer.

In the video, the father comically yells the now-infamous phrase, “you done goofed”, and a number of other far more obscene words.

In turn, the video fast descended into "viraldom", being viewed millions of times. It quickly found its way onto blogs and won the hearts – and laughs – of the internet.

In the end, it resulted in Slaughter being turned into a meme, with dozens of images and remix videos being created, and their family appearing on Good Morning America.

“I know who it’s coming from,” the father rather farcically shouts in the video.

“Because I back-traced it… you’ve been reported to the cyberpolice and the state police… And if you come near my daughter, guess what? Consequences will never be the same (sic).”

Ironically, the video went on to attract the same type of cyber-bullies their father was so keen to scare off.

Six years later, Leonhardt is using the experience to help others in similar situations and spoke to The Independent about how life had changed.

The Independent: How did it feel to be at the centre of such a vicious viral storm at such a young age?

Damien: I was having a manic episode and manic episodes mess up my memory.

I remember small weird details of things but entire days are missing and memories of feelings and other stuff get wiped too.

It's weird. So I can't remember much from the time but now it just feels like I was a spectacle and for everyone to say “oh look at this thing on the internet how sad and strange, let's poke fun at her but also feign concern for her”.

(I am using her as other people talking about me – you are not allowed to use she/her pronouns for me).

Nobody actually wanted to help. Nobody was concerned for me, my mental health, my safety, nothing. It still feels that way. Everyone is quick to talk about my videos and the storm that happened afterwards but not about the effects years later. Not about me. Just about Jessi Slaughter.

I: Do you feel the internet is less of a messed up place now than in 2010 because there is greater awareness of cyber-bulling?

D: I wouldn't even call what happened to me cyber-bullying, it was straight up harassment and stalking. It started out as cyber-bullying but it quickly evolved.

As for a less messed up place, no-ish? People are still awful but there is a greater awareness, like you said, and so there are more people who are at the ready to stand up to stuff and support people who are victims of internet buttholes.

But that is only if it gets to a giant scale, on smaller scales (like a small blog or YouTube getting harassed) people don't get the support they need or anybody reaching out to them.

MP warns over internet trolls

I: How did it affect your friendships at the time?

D: Horribly, all of them abandoned me. One of them poured chocolate milk on me, another threw a biscuit at me once. The one who started it all punched me in the face/chest twice. Middle school was hell.

I: Why do you think trolls' comments can be so damaging?

D: Because people have feelings. This is a pre-school concept. You say mean things, you hurt peoples feelings.

Just because you're online, just because we're somewhat grown now doesn't mean this changes. There is a person on the other end of your internet tube thingy. When you post a comment you are actually hurting someone.

I: Do you feel like you've gained perspective on the issue now?

D: It's been six years, I've gone through some stuff. I think I'm more than equipped to give some advice on the topic. I'm not an expert though.

I: What are you up to at the moment?

D: Right now I'm extremely sick. I've recently been diagnosed with fibromyalgia on top of my already extremely long list, so that's fun.

I've been working with a tiny local trans group doing things, I'm getting ready to go on hormones and begin medically transitioning. I'm preparing for a string of comic cons.

I want to restart up my YouTube channel but my lack of camera or editing skills is kind of holding me back. I really want to make videos again, not just in vlog style, but educating [people] about issues that are dear to me.

And I want to join up with diversity and LGBTQA+ groups and panels at conventions and do that as I am native, as well as my other stuff. Ultimately I want to do music and voice acting. I want to meet people and go places and live freely and happily.

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