Rachel and I met briefly four years ago. She’d dropped her daughter, Gemma, off at kiss and go for the first time due to time pressures. It was raining and Gemma promptly fell over quite badly – I was the one who took her to the school nurse. After school I saw Rachel and introduced myself as the mum who’d helped her daughter. A blip on my radar and I barely remember it but Rachel remembers it well and felt awful because the first time she drops her daughter off, she came a cropper! We then met on Twitter, re-introduced ourselves in the playground and here we are. Read how Rachel came from Virginia to Hampton and how she uses her photography to tell stories of her family and was a blogger before it became a thing…
I grew up in Virginia on the East Coast of the US. It’s bible belt, right wing, Republican, gun toting territory so that’s why I’m sitting here in Australia. I left as soon as I could; as soon as I graduated high school I went to Los Angeles and lived there for twenty years. So it’s been Virginia, Los Angeles, Hampton.
I’m the baby of five. My mum thought she was going through menopause. She was 44 and had a 20 year old, an 18 year old, a 15 year old and a ten year old and then me. We’re actually leaving in two weeks to go for her 89th/90th birthday and that’s because I forgot exactly whether she was 44 or 45 when she had me so I thought she was turning 90 but she’s not.
My dad died in 1999 and my mum is peacemaker, Pollyanna. If something is clearly upsetting someone in the room she will change the subject. So this trip will be interesting with Alec and myself in an election year. It is possible Trump could be elected. I think one of the big problems in the US is not compulsory voting so if you can’t be bothered or you think “oh the guy’s nuts” and you don’t go vote. There’s a lot of people who think he’s awesome. I think he’s dangerous.
I was 18 when I left home to go to university. I went to California to a very liberal arts school where there were no core requirements. I did social cultural anthropology with a focus on Iceland and fine art which was photography. I left my senior year with no degree. Four points away from a degree because I did fibre arts which I consider basket-weaving and realise that my parents were paying $17,000 for me to take basket-weaving on a university level. So I left school and went and toured with rock bands selling t-shirts because it was a much better idea! I was the merch girl, I was the t-shirt girl. I stood at the front of the hall and made sure that people bought stuff. I went with the Wallflowers for a little while and all these LA bands in the 90s.
I took pictures too; I’ve never stopped taking pictures because I started when I was 14. My dad was a surgeon with a camera habit. I was lucky in that he’d push us to do art and science and made it possible for us. Looking back on it, my parents allowed us to do art when it was not only not generating an income but was costing them money. My dad would pay for my film to be developed and I taught myself. When I left university, my career of blogging didn’t exist, yet I did socio-cultural anthropology which was really looking at modern day societies and how they work.
We had a fan club business, so back before internet sites. We managed the fan clubs for Red Hot Chilli Peppers and some really big LA bands. It was all a very lost time. It was my 20s in Los Angeles. I will let people fill in the blanks but there was a lot of stuff that we did that I don’t want my children doing. I survived and I met a family and became a nanny for an actor and was their full time nanny plus started a photo business in Los Angeles in 1995. We travelled; he did TV shows and now they are my twins’ godparents and that little girl I nannied is 21. She was a flower girl at my wedding. That job was probably the shift to coming back to earth.
I met Alec online when it was Love at AOL, which eventually became Match.com. And he, an Aussie, was living in New York. I’d had a really bad date in Los Angeles and came home and went “fine, I can do what I do in New York, maybe it’s time to leave Los Angeles, what are the guys in New York like?” I found this guy and he was really smart. To answer, you had to pay money and so I paid $25 to join and so I say it’s the best $25 I ever spent. I answered his ad and just said “you live there, I live here, it’s really too bad because I think you sound awesome, maybe we could be pen pals”. He thought he had closed his account but he wrote back and we just hit it off and started calling and a year later he moved to Los Angeles, for me. It was right after 9/11.
We got married in 2004. About two weeks after our wedding I was pregnant and I was like “there you go, that was fun!” I thought it would take forever and the night before I found out I was up in Vancouver visiting a friend who was filming a TV show and we went out and had Sushi and lots of Saki and I woke up the next morning and just went “hmmm, what’s the date today?” She was still sleeping and I went and got a triple latte with as much caffeine as possible to walk to the store to buy a pregnancy test so I could claim I didn’t know that I’d had all of that caffeine, sushi and alcohol, it was the last hurrah. I ended up taking about eight tests and they were all as clear as day. I think I called Alec second, after calling my best friend. Gemma was born in November 2004.
We got broken into in Los Angeles. The guy broke in while I was at home and I called the police and then called Alec and said “we’re moving to Australia sooner than you thought we were”. While Los Angeles was really fun and had been great to me, I did not want to raise kids there. It was too hard, too harsh, too dangerous and I felt scared. Alec’s actually Russian and came to Melbourne in 1980/81. They moved all around St Kilda, McKinnon and ended up settling in Brighton.
We bought this house in Hampton a year before we moved. We bought in 2006, also on the internet. I do a lot of important things on the internet, like finding husbands and houses. I loved Hampton Street; I thought it was really cute. I think we went to a Thai restaurant in Hampton one time and I just thought “this is a cute little street, why don’t we just look here”. I remember walking up Ludstone Street and some boys got off the bus. Coming from Los Angeles where you have to go through metal detectors for high school…these boys got off the bus, they must have had bikes or something, I can’t really remember but one of them got in front of me and he goes “oh excuse me”. And then we kept walking and I’m like “that was a teenage boy and he was polite. Not only did he not shoot me, he apologised, we’re going to move here”. We found this house online and my mother in law who does not have the same taste as I do was like (in a Russian accent) “oh no good for you”. I’m like “no, no, no, that’s the kind of house we want”. We sent them to bid for it and I sat on the couch in Los Angeles during the auction with Alec and apparently they were the only ones that came to the auction. They made a bid and when they wouldn’t accept the bid, my hardcore mother in law gets in the car to drive away and they chased her down.
We ended up getting pregnant with the twins in the States after IVF. So while Gemma was a honeymoon baby, the twins were very hard won. After Gemma we kept losing pregnancies. The first one it was a bit of “oh I’ve heard that happens to lots of people”. And then the next one. And then I went “something’s not right” and we went to a fertility doctor in Los Angeles and said “not getting any younger, what’s going on” and went through fertility treatments for one round. Also got pregnant and lost that one and then we said “we don’t have enough time, we’re going to do IVF”. Did one round of IVF, the results were so bad that they put four embryos in and nothing took. So we switched doctors to UCLA to a research place. They did a whole bunch of tests and found out I had this genetic malfunction that required high doses of folic acid so they put me on this hardcore regime and we went one more time. They put three in and we got the twins.
When we went for the transfer something went wrong and they had to go back and they came back in and said “oh in that five minute period, one of the other embryos looks better”. We always say that’s Clover, our little lucky charm and when we went for the first scan they said “there’s two there but one is very small and probably won’t make it”. We were used to hearing “won’t make it” so we went “just one, that’s all we want, one and we’re done” and we went back and they said “oh yeah, that one caught up, it’s still there, it’s two for sure”.
When Gemma was born I had severe post partum depression. It was about day 5 when it hit. Boom. Nobody in the States took it seriously. Even the OBGYN. I knew her and even then she said “oh no it’s the baby blues, everybody gets that”. I remember sitting on the end of the bed and not only was it a baby but it was a girl. I wanted a girl first, it was like tick, tick. I have always loved brown eyes. Tick. Could not have designed this baby better. And I remember sitting at the end of the bed feeling cold. It’s Los Angeles, it’s rarely ever cold. But I just felt cold and dark – it’s rarely ever dark either. It’s sunny Los Angeles. I just felt cold and dark and like I was losing my mind. I actually thought “is this what it’s like to go crazy?” Depression runs in my family anyway. I’ve always been treated for anxiety and depression anyway, but this was different. This was sinister and weird. Never wanted to hurt her, never felt like I wanted to hurt me or anybody else, I just didn’t care anymore about anything. I never wanted to hurt myself because I couldn’t be bothered. I couldn’t be bothered doing anything, just kept her alive.
I remember Alec looking at me one day and going “do you want to go home to your mum?” He just didn’t know what to do. I probably wasn’t vocalising it, didn’t want to take pictures, didn’t want to do anything. But then I found Flickr and had been uploading baby pictures of Gemma and there was a real community starting of people sharing images online who weren’t just “oh how cute is my baby”. People were interested in photography and photographing life and that community really pulled me back in to taking pictures again.
About five months in, for a moment during the day, I felt happy and then I went back to the blah, numb. It was like somebody had opened a curtain and I went “ohmygod, I’m not always going to feel like this”. I’ve always been on Zoloft, and I’m very open about that, to control anxiety so I was just at the point where I thought I’m going to have to up my dosage and see if that helps and I didn’t because that was the day that there was just this little…I don’t know, I laughed or something, felt happy, and it just got better from there. And luckily with the twins I just had the baby blues. I can tell you there is a difference. And if somebody is saying to you, “no, this is worse than the baby blues”, you need to listen. With the twins there were moments where I was looking at Alec going “you can’t go to work, I’m losing my mind” but then I also knew it was okay. I was breastfeeding twins, I was half naked all the time. I was sore, I had a toddler, I had no family here. I had a friend from New Zealand who came and helped but still there were those moments where I was “oh yeah I’m losing my mind” “no, no I’m fine go, I just need a coffee”. But they took it a lot more seriously here in Australia. They wouldn’t let me leave the hospital until day seven because I had told them that it was day 5 last time. They had a psychiatrist who came to the hospital and all that was great.
The maternal health system was a joke for me here. They told me I didn’t need a mother’s group. It was a really bad experience so I didn’t partake of that other than those checks you have to do. I didn’t get a mother’s group so that probably made it harder to integrate into Hampton because I think a lot of people know each other from mother’s group.
I used to do head shots and modelling portfolios in Los Angeles so I photographed a lot of kid stars and one of them was Miley Cyrus; probably the most famous kid I photographed. I photographed kids in Los Angeles for ages. I got a digital camera and a baby and post partum depression all at the same time and I thought “I don’t want anyone to see these horrible photos because I’d been taking pictures for so long and people knew who I was”. So I created a screen name for Flickr from what I thought was my porn name, your first pet and your mother’s maiden name. Now people have told me it’s your first pet and the street you grew up on. I beg to differ because I ended up with Sesame Ellis. It’s my mother’s maiden name instead of the street I grew up on and I thought nobody will ever figure out who I am from this. Unfortunately it is now its own thing. I think that you really need to choose your screen names wisely kids. So now I have a whole career as Sesame Ellis. I was always sharing personal photos and stories as Sesame Ellis on Flickr and then took it to my own site probably around 2008. And people just started following me and the first time I saw that there was 10 million views on my Flickr, I just went “whoa, this is something”. And luckily it was also the time the blogging world, mummy bloggers and stuff was just starting. I lucked into it timing wise.
People thought Gemma was cute and if you look back it was also the time that Twilight the book series came out and apparently there’s a character in the book, Renesmee, that when Gemma was little, the way it was described in the book – and I’ve never read the books – described Gemma perfectly. So if you go and you search online for Gemma Devine, which isn’t her actual last name, you’ll find years and years of fan pages because people were so obsessed with the idea of her playing this character in the movie.
So I had this huge fan base because they were following my daily life and it was a mixture of great timing, good pictures – because I already knew what I was doing – and a story/slash kid who they were interested in watching grow up. And when I was going through the trouble of getting pregnant again people would always say “oh when’s Gemma going to get a little sister or brother?” And I just went “you know what, I either go away completely or I start sharing”. So I shared.
I shared some images of my experience on Flickr. It’s why I started photo blogging life. I’d tell these little stories with the picture and just went “oh people like the stories too”. So I started telling the stories. I think there were 600 strangers saying congratulations on the Flickr birth announcement when the twins were born.
And people just keep following. It’s gone onto Instagram, my own blog, Facebook. The majority of the traffic probably comes from Facebook and I’m trying different things; learning video, just sort of rolling with it. I think that’s why I’m still here. I enjoy it and I keep doing it. I think because I share the good and the bad but in a curated way. My tag line is “based on actual events”. So I do share what’s going on but you don’t need to see everything for a good story. Truman Capote said “I believe more in the scissors than I do the pencil”. It ended up getting me a book deal with Random House – Beyond Snapshots – to teach people photography and then two eBooks and then another book and now I’m doing the photo club at school and helping kids tell their story.
I had no idea where it would go at the start. Alec and I have made this choice for our kids and at this point Gemma reaps the benefits of it, as do the twins. At some point we did have to have a family come to Jesus moment and it was “look this is now a business for us”. I mean Sesame Ellis is like a soap opera. There’s Mr Devine which is not Alec’s last name but people think he is. I didn’t take his last name, we are married, but I didn’t take his last name because ‘Devine’. It’s like okay, so I’m just going to keep that. So we call him Mr Devine and he is the polar opposite of me in that he’s financially responsible, he likes cooking. So he plans our trips and he does tech posts – we’re going to get more into it this year, tech posts, cooking, financial, all the sort of day to day stuff he does really well and makes it so that we can travel and do things because he knows little tricks to save money or to find the best deals.
Gemma does her own side of it. Olympus has given her a camera and she’s the 2016 tween spokesperson for Bellabox. And we give Netflix feedback on what we’re watching. So we sat down and said “look we either don’t do it at all or you’re all in”. And they understand, to the extent that seven and eleven year olds can understand, that it’s out there and rarely do they ask me not to share something. And I am very, very aware that the majority of Gemma’s friends follow me on Instagram and I did go into the classroom last year and talk to them about social media. So I am very aware of what I put on there. There are some funny moments that I’ve taken a photo or video of Alec – well Alec’s whole thing is that he doesn’t want his picture online. We’ve turned it into a thing. I’ll warn him if something is going up “I’m sorry you’re in that shot and it’s going up”. I’m pretty good at knowing what wouldn’t be a good idea. For them it’s all false economy, it really doesn’t mean anything so we also talk about that. I think they’re probably more educated than people about our decisions than people give me credit for.
There’s a lot of pushback. Of course there’s moments where you go “oh god” and then the rest of it is okay. I get a bit more immune to it as the years go by. And my pictures get stolen all the time and people say it’s dangerous. I’m pretty good, sometimes I’ve let it go but if I put a photograph of Gemma wearing her uniform I used to take the logo out but then she became Friendship Captain and she was doing all this stuff and I’m like “who cares?” So that was the sort of the last little bit that I let go of. But I’m more worried about people in real life than I am about anything online. People are going to misunderstand anything and everything. So while I respect people who choose not to put their kids online, I respect the ones that share everything and for me, it’s not only helped me literally climb out of depression but then I’ve helped people and Gemma sharing her life and teaching kids how to take good pictures and tell their stories, as long as their parents approve, really helps them develop their sense of self.
But people complain all the time. I get emails, I get advice. Recently there was an Instagram photograph of Clover because the light in the bathroom was really great and she was about the have a bubble bath. You could only see from her shoulders up and I put a photograph of her, a beautiful close face shot and you could see her shoulders. And someone wrote “why is that child naked online?” I’m like “how do you know she’s naked, she could have a towel wrapped around her”. There was a picture of Gemma that was her looking out the window after bath time and she was probably 9 and she had a towel wrapped around but you couldn’t see that because it was just shoulders up anyway and somebody said it was child pornography. At this point I usually let my Facebook people respond for me. I’m lucky I think I’m left alone a lot more than some of the other bloggers are out there.
You can follow Rachel (along with 21.8 thousand others) on Instagram @sesameellis and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/sesameellis/ and visit her website here.
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