For most teenagers, life flipped upside down pretty quickly once the pandemic descended. Plans were canceled, goals were put on hold, and sooo many TikTok videos were made. For Olivia Ponton, everything switched; only in her case, she skyrocketed to social media stardom.
Just two weeks before COVID-19 lockdowns began in 2020, Ponton signed with Wilhelmina Models at 17 during a spring break visit to New York City. “The day that I left was the day that the whole entire city shut down,” Ponton tells GRAZIA NOW.
Work was slow at the start of the pandemic, so she did what everyone else was doing: She made TikToks. “I loved sharing what I was doing with my life. During COVID I was trying one new thing a day, whether it was cooking, playing basketball, volleyball, or exploring new places in my hometown,” she says. “I got really positive responses from people about how I made them feel. That was my main motivation to keep going.” She eventually caught the attention of Thomas Petrou, a founder of The Hype House, a home that online content creators live in together. After she visited the Los Angeles mansion, she moved in for about three months.
Ever since, she’s amassed 7.8 million followers on TikTok and 3.5 million on Instagram. “In the blink of an eye, all of a sudden, I’m in this incredible position,” Ponton shares. “I would say genuinely, it’s been a little hard to process everything.”
She not only became a social media star; but also, started racking up serious modeling credits, too. Indeed, her next career milestone was a full-on pinch-me-moment. Earlier this year, Ponton was named a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Rookie and was featured in the 2022 issue. “When I got the call for SI Swimsuit issue, I didn’t believe it happened for weeks. I was even on set shooting in Montenegro, and I was just like, This isn’t real. Olivia, snap out of this. This is a dream. You’re going to wake up tomorrow morning.”
Rocketing to fame so quickly at a young age could be tricky to navigate for anyone, but for Ponton, it’s possible to stay grounded by working out, eating healthy, and focusing on “all those little basic self-care hacks.” The other half of her mental health equilibrium involves ignoring the “insane” amounts of negativity that’s online. “There are hundreds of thousands of people saying things to you that are not very nice,” she explains. “And for a while, I didn’t want to do it anymore because I was like, I can’t handle people being mean to me 24/7.”
Instead of quitting — because as she puts it, she “does not quit” — Ponton decided to deliver the type of uplifting content she wants to receive. (She’s known for sticking Post-it notes with positive quotes and affirmations around her home.) “Everything is about karma. What you put out is what you get back,” she says. “I decided I’m just going to post my happy content and make other people happy.”
Of course, Ponton’s only human, though. Something is bound to trigger self-doubt or impostor syndrome when she’s scrolling through her feeds. (It’s a pitfall no matter how many followers one has.) Still, she’s mastered channeling negativity into something positive.
“When I do catch myself getting into that rabbit hole — stalking girls and looking at Pinterest and getting into a whole comparison game, Why don’t I look like this? Why don’t my outfits look like this? Oh, my body. It makes me sad, and I’m not a sad person. I don’t like being sad,” the model shares. “The moment I catch myself doing that, I literally breathe and say, Out of my head and into my body. And in that moment, I check with what my body needs. Am I hungry? Have I showered? Am I ready for the day tomorrow? Am I doing what I need to be doing in this exact moment? Every time I start doing something that is positive for me in that moment, it takes me away from my phone and now I’m focused on myself rather than the pretty girls that are on social media.”
This strong mindset and focus on mental health helped propel Ponton forward into another realm of self-realization: Last year during Pride Month, Ponton announced that she was bisexual, an experience that she says “immediately” felt like a “weight lifted” off her shoulders. Afterward, “I could breathe,” Ponton recalls.
But that was Instagram. Reality? She describes the first few months after as “hard,” especially with those she loved. “Coming out is not the easiest thing,” she shares. “In the past year, the biggest accomplishment I’ve had is accepting me for me and figuring out the type of people that I liked, what I liked.”
By Pride of this year, she announced she is “pansexual and proud” in a rainbow-filled post on social media. Says Ponton, “I have a very emotional connection to a person rather than based on looks. I think that’s something that’s been beautiful that I’ve been able to realize.”
She continues, “Sometimes people are scared to put labels on things and I’m right there with you. I absolutely love when other gay or lesbian couples come up to me and they’re talking about how I helped them. I’ve talked with a lot of girls about being hyper femme, and I honestly thought I was the only person that was struggling with that. It makes you feel even more a part of the community.”
Ponton has already achieved impressive career milestones and inspired millions – during a global pandemic, no less. When asked what’s next, she says she just wants to keep going. “This is a dream. Working with brands that I absolutely love, magazines that I love. Honestly, I’m just genuinely grateful for anything,” Ponton says. “I’m so young; it’s hard to even tell you exactly where I want to go, but I just love working. I’m like, Book me seven days a week. I do not care. I’m kind of a workaholic.”
She says she looks up to the careers of models Josephine Skriver and Leyna Bloom, but she’s ready to forge her own path — even if she’s not sure where it will lead just yet.
“I’m just being open to anything. I think when people have one certain route that they want, it sometimes gets a little toxic for your head. I have a mood board about a hundred places that I go. I wouldn’t be mad if I went towards any one of them. Whatever comes to me is obviously meant for me.”
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