There are triple threats, and then there are sextuple threats like Lilia Buckingham, who at 17 is already a successful actress, author, influencer, activist, model, and dancer. These days, Buckingham mainly divides her attention between finishing her upcoming novel Influence about a murder in the social media space, starring in Brat TV series Crown Lake, and working with the anti-bullying organization Positively Social. But she’s also a fully fledged influencer who’s committed to growing her online presence, which includes 1.7 million followers on Instagram to date.
But Buckingham transcends influencer stereotypes. She practices healthy social media habits, like turning to Pinterest for a creative recharge when Instagram becomes too much, and encourages her followers to prioritize their mental health as well. “When you’re spending all of your time on [social media] and you realize when you come off [that] you don’t feel good about yourself, that’s when it becomes unhealthy,” Buckingham told MTV News. “You’ll know when you start to question how you look, or what you’re wearing, or what you’re doing.”
Her foremost social media survival tip is stepping back and realizing that what you see on the internet isn’t always 100 percent accurate. “A lot of social media is curated, and it’s not real life,” she said. “And so when you start believing that it is, that’s when you bump into issues.” So how does she, at such a young age, manage not to get caught up in a digital world that’s inundated with thirst traps and Instagram presets? “I do this thing where I’ll go through all my photos and point out all the good things that I love about my life,” she said.
And while she prioritizes staying grounded, focused, and motivated in her personal life, she occasionally escapes to fictional worlds full of deceit, betrayal, and good, old-fashioned teen drama. Influence, which Buckingham co-wrote with Pretty Little Liars author Sara Shepard, is testament. The book will give fans a window in the world of social media superstardom, but with a murder mystery twist. “I’ve just lived in this whole insane influencer world for my whole life and I always think, why is there nothing written about this?” she said. “It’s such an interesting world to build.”
Buckingham was inspired by Shepard’s earlier work — especially Pretty Little Liars. “The reason I love [Pretty Little Liars] so much is because you get to get sucked into the screen of these crazy, dramatic terrifying lies,” she said. “I like knowing that there’s a centralized, good, moral reality in my real life, and then I’m allowed to disappear into the fantasy of these incredible, terrifying TV shows.” She also added that, despite PLL having a mysterious figure threatening everyone’s existence over text, “there were still the same underlying themes of my life, and bullying, and finding yourself as a teenager, and I wanted to continue telling those stories because they helped get me through a lot.”
The series of books from which the Freeform show was adapted made just as much of an impact. “Those were the first books I fell in love with and made me want to be a writer,” she said. “I loved getting to disappear into them, and I wanted to be able to do that for other people.” She particularly loved that they centered four very strong female characters, which is something she tried to emulate in Influence. “It’s told from four perspectives, and they’re all four different kinds of social media influencers,” Buckingham revealed. One character is a YouTube comedian who struggles with her mental health, another Buckingham described as “almost like a Disney star,” one believes that she’s the best and organizes her whole life into vlogs, and the last became famous online by accident. “We see her rise to fame and how this murder investigation shows her downfalls,” she said. “All of the characters intertwine and it’s just a super fun thriller. A lot of the stories are anecdotes from my life, so hopefully it feels authentic.”
For Buckingham, penning a fictional story about influencers is one of the most authentic ways she could give fans a window into her world while also maintaining some semblance of privacy in her real life. “It’s hard because when you’ve grown up on social media and your followers are so used to seeing everything about your life, when you’re not showing them everything about your life, they start to make assumptions,” she said. “That really terrified me, so for a long time I really was showing everything.” But Buckingham’s since learned an important lesson: “Sometimes it’s good to just keep things for yourself.”
Still, there are some topics that Buckingham feels a responsibility to be open about, including her mental health and sexuality. “I feel like there’s this common misconception that influencers have perfect lives,” she said. “And I think it’s important for young kids to know they’re not alone and that the people they’re following are going through the exact same stuff that they are.” One of those things is cyberbullying. And believe it or not, receiving hate online is actually what inspired Buckingham to create Positively Social, an organization that she built with dancers Maddie and Mackenzie Ziegler, whom she first met while performing at the MNR Dance Factory, to “help spread kindness and stop online bullying.”
“I’ve had this platform since I was 12,” Buckingham said. “And at first I didn’t really know what to do with it. It felt like I had all of these people watching and nothing important to say.” Positively Social changed that, allowing her to speak directly to other young people about the importance of being kind on the internet. Recently, the organization paid visits to multiple boys and girls’ clubs around Los Angeles, opening up the conversation to kids facing online bullying themselves. “I wanted to make a difference, and the reason Positively Social is so important is [because] teens really do listen to other teens, because we’re all in the same boat. Whether you have 1,000 followers or a million followers, we’re all dealing with this relatively new created cyberspace.”
But when you’re as widely followed as Buckingham, online hate is, to some extent, inevitable. And after facing it head-on for many years, she’s come up with a few ways to help her cope and understand why some people choose to spread negativity on the internet. “When I was a little bit younger, the hate comments took more of a toll on me because it felt like it was the whole world,” she explained. “I didn’t really have the mental capacity to accept that these people weren’t hating on me because they hated me. They were hating on me because they were having problems with themselves.”
While still a teenager herself, Buckingham has devoted her entire career thus far to telling stories relevant to other people her age. Her many Brat TV series — including Crown Lake, Total Eclipse, and Chicken Girls — navigate ever-changing friendships, boy drama, and the ups and downs of high school. In Season 1 of Crown Lake, which Buckingham co-produced with Shepard, the show touched on “bullying and changing yourself to fit in.” In Season 2, the series shifted gears and showed one character’s tumultuous journey with her own sexuality. “We just did a lot of things kids can resonate with, and that’s why I think I’m drawn to these stories,” Buckingham said. “I lived them and I want to help other people tell them.”
Influence is just one way Buckingham is continuing her mission to tell these stories. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, fans are going to have to wait a little bit longer. Originally, the book was supposed to come out in June, but COVID-19 has since impacted the release date, delaying it until January 2021. In the meantime, Buckingham is using this time to crack down on her studies and plan for college. “I got into a screenwriting class at the University of Southern California, so I get to start taking that,” she said, adding that she’s excited to write more coming-of-age stories. “And lots of college stuff. I keep forgetting that I’m also a real-life student who has to apply to college, so among all the social media stuff, I’m trying to pass my classes and study for the AP exams.” How does she do it all, you ask? It’s simple: “It’s not bad when you love what you’re doing.”