How this student survived a social media insult fest

Lauren Hellner

Lauren Kirsten Hellner, a student and actor who fundraised over $2k to pay her rent

This is so wrong! I can’t believe she’s raising money for her lousy lifestyle while homeless people are freezing outside…”

This comment caught my attention as I was browsing a facebook group for self-employed women … The post was accompanied by this derogatory news article about a struggling student and emerging actor who had launched a personal fundraising page to help pay her overdue rent.

I was taken aback. Not only by the facebook post itself but by hundreds of negative comments that followed. An onslaught of slander, hate and judgement; the commentators were relentless.

“Outrageous”… “Stupid bitch”.. “selfish and entitled” .. “is that not your classic con artist?”…  the insults went on and on as I scrolled through them in disbelief. Why was this fundraiser so triggering? What was so bad about someone asking for help when experiencing financial hardship? Why wasn’t anyone digging deeper and considering the real reasons why this student might be in trouble?

In the days that followed several other media outlets picked up the story, including a morning TV segment that was far more positive in its approach. But still there were many questions left unanswered. So I decided to reach out to this brave soul myself and find out the truth …and I’m really glad I did because what I discovered was a story of hardship, hope and transformation.

In this Q & A interview below Lauren reveals how she coped with crippling financial stress and social media madness whilst staying true to her dreams.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself; your career, background goals and general interests.

I grew up in Vaucluse in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. I went to the local public schools until year 9 when mum moved me to a private girls school. Sadly she passed away a few days after my 17 birthday and I was pretty much left to fend for myself. My dad was never really part of the picture. He was a violent alcoholic and mum pretty much made him leave when I was 4.

She would spend years switching the lights off and hiding us when he’d try to come kick the front door down while having one of his episodes. The Watsons Bay police station knew him well. He spent many nights there sleeping off a bottle of scotch. In saying that though, dad was also very personable and funny. He had a great sense of humour when sober and every year we were all invited to the annual Watsons Bay police Christmas party as a family.

While he did many amazing things as a human, sailing for Australia in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and traveling the world going to galas and balls with my mum, he was a terrible husband and father. This didn’t bode well for my future relationships with men. I tend to date abusive men also and I have struggled to break free from this type, but I am doing much much better this year (🙄)

Anyway, dad died a year after mum and I have to say I was pretty relieved with his passing. He finally couldn’t hurt me anymore and I considered it a blessing. I finished high school a year after mums death. I didn’t pass my HSC and struggled to find a career for years that I felt I belonged in. I finally fell into retail and worked for some amazing designers selling mid-range to high fashion for about 15 years. This was amazing and I loved working with amazing fabrics and styles but alas I needed something else.

It was around this time that advertising for Open Universities began to appear. Basically anyone could pretty much enrol. So I did. I couldn’t even write an essay for one of my first subjects but still scraped through with a distinction overall for the subject out of sheer determination. I struggled through a BA Communications working full time managing a cloth in store and evenings in a restaurant and also studying full time.

I was exhausted and it was around this time I began to get sick. I was living in a tiny tiny little room on the ground floor of an apartments nestled (ok one metre away) next to an identical apartment block. There was zero natural light and lots and lots of mould. An autoimmune disease kicked in. I was always tired. My nails started flaming off and my scalp was always itchy regardless of whether I washed my hair everyday or every three or five days. The doctor said I had psoriasis and it was a breakdown of my immune system probably due to stress and overworking.

It-was-about-the-time-my (1)I decided to apply for Austudy and qualified so left the stressful management role and worked as a nanny. It was much better and my health improved. It was about the time my health started fading that I questioned what I really wanted to do with my life. I sat and ruminated for a long time and asked the universe to throw me some signs. The questions that came back to me were, ‘what did you always turn to in difficult times as a means of escape?’ And the answer was FILM.

You know that sweeping feeling that washes over you when you have found something you completely and wholeheartedly love without abandon? Yep. That’s what hit me. And hard. I love film. All films. Every film. The process of filming. Watching films and most importantly I started flirting with the idea of being in front of the camera. The thought terrified me. So I began doing some very personal work on building my confidence and working towards starting acting classes.

I eventually enrolled and after a few years started searching for an agent. The process of becoming an actress is equally satisfying and terrifying. All these emotions that simmer quietly under the surface are of course important to use for your work. Becoming an actress has helped me to find my voice in so many other areas of my life. When people say you’ll know when you’ve found your calling, it’s really really true.

You recently appeared on the morning show talking about your GoFund campaign to help pay your rent. Can you tell me a bit about what happened with your rent situation and how you found yourself in financial trouble? Was it related to the housing crisis sweeping across Sydney?

Finding publicity was never my intention when I started the GoFundMe page. I was in such a panic about receiving an eviction notice that a friend said start a GoFundMe. So I did. I thought nothing of it till a few hours later when I started receiving notifications that people were in fact donating. I was not only completely shocked but incredibly humbled that people were actually sharing with me not only their money but their love.

My rental arrears began a few years ago. About the same time I was struggling with juggling two jobs, acting and uni. I began work as a nanny and the family I worked for had a young child with autism. My studies had now taken me in the direction of psychology and as I had an amazing connection with this non-verbal little boy, I began training as a therapist to work with autistic children. So now I was juggling two jobs, training as a therapist and studying full time.

bondi beach

The iconic Bondi Beach, where long term locals are struggling to pay their rent

I let go of my other job to focus solely on therapy work and working toward becoming a shadow at a day care centre for this family. So my hours decreased and the family kept promising more work more work more work but after 6 weeks I was in dire straights. I worked out a payment system with my real estate agent but after experiencing a particularly gruelling relationship I was at rock bottom and emotionally spent.

I slowly got myself back on my feet and was whittling away at the outstanding amount but it wasn’t quick enough. They wanted to increase the rent and in order to do that I had to pay my arrears off first. I had a look around at other suburbs and the rent was the same if not MORE than where I was so I decided to stay and pay what I owed off rather than relocate.

I weighed up relocation costs against what I owed and it was in my best interest to stay where I was even with the rental increase. There is an absolute affordable housing crisis in all major Australian cities and popular suburbs. As travellers and backbackers travel to Australia and pay money to live in unsafe housing conditions in Bondi and the city, in rooms with multiple bunk beds and room mates, landlords pump up the rents. This in turn sees locals and people who have lived in the area their entire lives struggling to not only afford these unreasonable prices but also to find work.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who wants to come and give it a go in Australia but the strain of affordable housing and employment has increased ten fold in the past twenty years with the influx of overseas travelers who want to stay in Australia to live and work.

Rent for the apartment I live in was $180 per week eight years ago. It is now $450pw. That’s an incredible mark up for such a short period of time. I have lived in the apartment for nearly 5 years and have noticed that other apartments in the building are exactly the same size and landlords rent it out with two bunk beds in a one bedroom apartment charging each tenant $150pw for a bed and no contracts. It’s totally illegal and many many landlords are doing this throughout Sydney.

Two bedroom apartments in the city have four or five bunk beds and each tenant is charged $200pw. How are we meant to cope with this? It used to be so affordable to live frugally in Bondi and the eastern suburbs and still afford rent and nice things.

When your GoFund campaign went viral you received some incredibly negative and judgmental commentary. Was this emotionally challenging and did you feel overwhelmed? How did you cope with the negativity on top of the stress of facing eviction?

You kind of question your own values when you have complete strangers telling you what a terrible person you are for asking for help. They were comparing me to kids with Leukaemia who had GoFundMe pages and looking at photos on my social media and thinking I was spending all my money on shoes and designer gear therefore unable to pay my rent. But it just wasn’t the case.

But that’s the nature of social media. You only see snippets of people’s lives and generally only the good parts. They didn’t see the struggle or the skipping meals in order to afford new trainers or work shoes which were generally purchased on sale or layby’ed for months.

Something I have always found is that I work really well amongst chaos. It calms me. So I had this whirlwind of media and attention around me and it made me focus. I looked at my actions and honestly could not find fault with anything I had done. Why does someone have to be homeless before they can ask for help?

Yoga-exercise-and-uniI felt ashamed but not because I was in this situation but because I couldn’t accurately explain what had happened to me to get me to this point. I was embarrassed that I had been in an abusive relationship and it had destroyed me. I was embarrassed that it had gotten me to the point I couldn’t continue with uni and had to take a semester off to get back on my feet and feel safe. But you have to just keep living through the chaos and find the beauty amongst the disease.

Yoga, exercise and uni were essential at this point. Having assignments and reading about something other than what was happening on social media was vital. Learning to separate myself from the broken person people were trying to make me into and remember I was still healing and still moving forward and that change happens in the blink of an eye.

You also have to remember that none of these people slaying into you on social media would have the audacity to say such things in person and that if they did they’d probably be arrested hahhaa.

Do you have any tips for people out there suffering severe rent stress or eviction? How can they better deal with the pressure and uncertainty?

Communicating with your landlord and agent is imperative. Explain your situation and include them in your plans. Ask for help. There are such amazing fundraising platforms out there for legitimate reasons that people are just too afraid to use.

You-dont-need-to-beI wouldn’t change what I did or how I did it but it’s been such an eye opener into human nature both good and bad. You don’t need to be homeless to ask for help. It doesn’t make you any less of a human being asking for help. If anything, it opens you up to receive help and that is an amazing thing. We have all struggled from time to time. It’s the human condition. How we respond to it can help us to grow or it can hurt us. Find the best way for you.

………..

If you’d like to learn more about Lauren you can check out her acting page here

https://www.facebook.com/laurenkhellner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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