IN 2011, a preteen with an interest in cosmetics began offering tips on makeup for middle-schoolers on YouTube. Looking straight into the camera, she taught viewers how to ensure their eyeshadow lasted a full school day or advised them on the best nail-polish brands. Her videos would soon garner millions of views.
Meet Talia Joy Castellano, who passed away this month at the age of 13. Shortly after being diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a form of cancer, at age 7, she told her mother she wanted to be a makeup artist, and several years later, she started sharing cosmetics lessons online. The cancer treatments caused most of her hair to fall out, but she did not wear a wig. (“Makeup is my wig” was her motto.) In between the infectious tutorials, she also recorded compelling and frank updates on her health. After being told last August that she might have only four months to live, she told her followers not to “freak out because it’s not like it’s tomorrow.”
In total, she recorded more than 200 videos, as well as several appearances on television. Last year she was invited on Ellen DeGeneres’s show, where she was presented with a CoverGirl portrait of herself. When asked by DeGeneres how she stayed so positive, she quoted from Finding Nemo. “What do you want me to do, be depressed?” she asked. “I mean, a little fishy told me, ‘Just keep swimming, just keep swimming!’”
In search of her influence on her peers, I called BASE Camp in central Florida, a charity that cares for young cancer sufferers and their families. Talia was a regular participant, often talking new arrivals through the treatments they would face, or reassuring them that upcoming tests would not hurt. Katelyn, a 6-year-old girl known as “KK” who suffers from acute lymphocytic leukemia and is a current BASE Camp participant, told me Talia was her idol. “All I want is to look like Talia when I go bald. So beautiful!” she said.
Terri Jones Robbins, a close family friend, said she had seen young cancer patients choose to take off their wigs for the first time after seeing that Talia had been accepted as a celebrity. “Talia embraced the fact that she was not going to have a long life. Her approach had a huge impact on the others,” Robbins said. “When we watched her TV appearance, she just quietly smiled. She was really proud of what she had done.”
DeGeneres led the public tributes when news of Talia’s death was announced. Hundreds of thousands of messages flooded Twitter and Facebook, many written by young supporters and fellow sufferers. “Dear Talia, I forgot to tell you that you inspired me not to hide myself with a wig anymore,” wrote Amanda Nevarez, from California, on Facebook. Videos of people helping Talia complete her unfinished “bucket list” soon appeared online. One showed a family jumping into a pool of Jell-O—No. 11 on a list of wishes she had published. Others covered a car in sticky notes, gave flowers to strangers, or sent a message in a bottle.
Robbins said Talia would have been thrilled with the reaction. “Like any celebrity, she enjoyed the attention,” she told me. “We were laughing after leaving the funeral home, saying she must really be loving all this hoopla.”