The Revelations of Lady Murderface
Talia Jane wasn’t any naive Millennial when she outed Yelp for its low pay and triggered raises. If you’d had her bizarre life, you might overshare, too.
At the time Yelp announced it was raising the wages of Eat24 phone reps from $12.25 to $14 an hour last week, Talia Jane was at home, racking up likes on her latest tweet as Lady Murderface. It had been two months since Talia’s fiery exit from the company, when she had made international news with her viral open letter to parent-company Yelp’s CEO, shaming him with what it’s like to make minimum wage and live on mostly rice in the most expensive real estate market in the United States.
But no one forwarded Talia the company email stating her former coworkers were not just getting raises, but 15 days of paid time off (up from five) and 11 paid holidays (up from zilch). Talia’s name was never mentioned in the message, though the head of customer support Dale Sahs did take the trouble to point out that “many of these changes have been in planning since Q4 2015,” meaning before Talia posted her letter on Medium on February 19. Nor was Talia’s letter named as a possible catalyst for the flurry of recent meetings with reps about working conditions at Eat24.
Still, members of the customer service staff strongly suspected that her high-profile PR fiasco spurred their workplace wins, effective May 1. “I think Talia was the definite whistleblower here,” says one rep. (Yelp declined to make any comment for this story.) Hearing about the raise, Talia says, “I guess you’re welcome?”
With her open letter, Talia Jane emerged as a 2016 prototype of a labor rights agitator, fueled by social media-driven outrage culture. Talia: winning on-the-job improvements not by orchestrated street protest but by posting a brazen complaint to Medium, then live-tweeting the HR call in which she got sacked. Subject of relentless internet attacks on her character and life choices, all the while clutching her iPhone, wondering what the hell she had unleashed.
The 26-year-old made for a controversial messenger. People tend to be sympathetic to stories of income equality writ large; but when it came to this Millennial describing getting nickel-and-dimed in the tech economy, in her particular voice (asking her CEO to pay her rent), with her idiosyncratic details (living without a roommate, having a penchant for nice facial scrubs), the online masses got judgey really fast.
Everywhere, people questioned just how poor Talia was. She defended the prosciutto-and-brie biscuits in her Twitter feed to a Quartz reporter after critics interpreted it as a sign of secret wealth; she said the ingredients were a gift from a date. Vice wanted to know why she had a bottle of Bulleit bourbon — she explained she needed it for mint julep cupcakes for work. She’s been called “Narcissa by the Bay” by the National Review (“Heed the cry of an entitled young American hipster: Woe is me, me, me, me, me!”). She inspired a cascade of open letters scolding her, then others scolding the scolders — so many open letters, it qualified as a Medium meme.
In the weeks since posting her open letter, the hullaballoo has translated into fleeting moments of IRL fame. When she made a joke onstage at a San Francisco open mic about losing her job, two women blurted out: “Are you Yelp Girl?” She answered she was, in fact, Yelp Girl, and posed for a group selfie. But the thing about viral internet fame, is, mostly, it lives online. She can walk around downtown San Francisco a couple blocks away from Yelp HQ, and sit down smack in the center of a public park for an interview, completely incognito.
“I feel you can’t be internet famous unless you’re verified and making money off your tweets,” Talia Jane says. “I was internet ‘Temporarily Recognized, Slightly.’ People were like ‘oh!’ and that’s it.”
I didn’t know what to expect from Talia. It was a little like meeting a celebrity: I didn’t anticipate a normal person in patterned tights and Converses and long wavy hair — not really. She’d long since become a projection: of hatred towards entitled Millennials, or frustration with the tech economy. It was so easy to assume from the dribs and drabs Talia meted out on her social media streams that she was a cookie-cutter Millennial, she so neatly fit the bill. Yet it was only after I started digging that I discovered her online transparency — to a degree many consider TMI terrain — goes far beyond her belonging to any generation, or any particular personality type.
Through the Yelp fiasco and her earlier reveals, Talia had landed on an intoxicating truth: parsing out her life online gives her ownership of her circumstances, morphing her from victim to protagonist, in control of her darkest, weirdest episodes.
They get weird — and murder-y — indeed.
Talia Jane Ben-Ora was drowning. On February 19 she was down to $150 of credit left on both her cards, combined. Just six months earlier she’d moved up to the Bay Area to escape the stagnation of studying at Cal State-Long Beach and working low-end gigs. She wanted a new life in a new place with a new job, and had just three weeks until her start date at Eat24. Her only lead on a roommate had fallen through, and she wanted to take time to find someone who she “wasn’t afraid would murder me, because I don’t really know anyone.” The only place she could find that cost less than the $1,466 she’d be making in a month at Yelp was 30 miles east of San Francisco, in Concord.
She rented a one-bedroom place for $1,245 a month. She’d search for a roommate at work, she told herself. Work every holiday. Talia signed up for the nightshift at Yelp, hoping to squeeze in some freelance writing or even comedy open mics before heading in at 11:00 p.m. But getting off BART at 8:00 in the morning after nights of work sapped her energy to write anything more than a few tweets. “I was like, this sucks but this is the grind, and I’m just going to keep pushing until things ease up for a little bit.”
So the impetus for her break on February 19? A new upbeat video in her inbox of the ever-suave Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman meeting with Eat24 staffers on a day she’d woken up hungry — like, down-to-rice-and-couldn’t-afford-food hungry, she claims. She just couldn’t take the Techlandia cheer anymore. One of her coworkers couldn’t move into the Section 8 housing she qualified for because of the moving costs. Another staffer I talked to (anonymously, given they’re not supposed to talk to reporters) said that most customer service workers commuted up to an hour-and-a-half to the office from cheaper climes. “We do hire anyone,” that employee told me, “and we do have people who are currently living in homeless shelters. A lot of people there are trying to get back on their feet.”
Says Talia: “You’re getting vlogs about literally how [Stoppelman] styles his hair. Great, how are you going to combat the insane transit fees because none of us make enough to afford to live close enough?” Stoppelman seems well aware of the crippling cost of living: The New York Times reported he was the top individual donor to the Bay Area Renters’ Federation, which lobbies for building more housing in the region. (“It was a real challenge back when I came out here in 1999, and I think it’s gotten far worse,” he told the paper.) Talia tweeted at him for help, her sassy pleas only a slight departure from her usual Twitter fare as a kind of Millennial Cathy — sarcastic self-deprecation about being a plump homebody with dating foibles and an obsession with cupcakes and her cat (Cathy had a dog, but still).
Talia had always felt she was tweeting into the ether, and didn’t imagine these ones would be much different:
On a scale of one to 10 of how certain she felt she’d be axed (10 means “definitely”), she ranked the tweets a 2 or 3. “When you run a company based on community reviews, you’d expect a little bit of a comfort zone.” She got no response. Minutes later, she decided to move over to Medium, and sat down and wrote her open letter in two hours. She hit publish and tweeted it out, adding “might lose my job for this so it’d be cool if u shared so i could go out in a blaze of…..people knowing why i got fired?”
“That scale of one to ten?” she tells me, “This is like a nine. But at least I got to say what all my coworkers would talk about everyday. If I lost that job, I could go get that job somewhere else because it’s minimum wage.”
She got officially fired in a telephone call later that afternoon. As she live-tweeted the call, her article and tweets started to blow up. An email came in from a man sending Talia her own address — a white hat doxxing of sorts — suggesting she take down a tweet that revealed her location. She took the hint.
It was a wise move. Her phone started buzzing with notifications nearly every second.
She spent the next few days fielding rebuttals to her post. The most infamous one came from another Millennial who’d waitressed until getting signed as a TV writer, snagging its own press coverage. (Rebuts Talia: “I couldn’t really get through beyond the first paragraph. I know what point you’re getting at, the rest of it was just talking about how great she is.”) People ransacked Talia’s social media for clues to her lifestyle, seizing upon anything that hinted at extravagance, or concocting back stories:
She noticed that the feedback had a rhythm. “Going viral isn’t just a constant thing. From 11 pm to 7 am, I’m safe, because that’s when all the trolls go to sleep.” She laughs. She created a filter in her email inbox for “entitled” so she could cull the negative messages out and delete them.
She turned down several TV appearances, because she thought it reeked of glory grabbing, when she says she really wanted to highlight a systemic issue that affected coworkers, too. “If [going on the TV circuit] is your go-to when something like this happens, that’s like a flaw. Or an ego thing. You want the attention despite you claiming to write something bigger than yourself.”
Meanwhile, Yelp got its own hazing. Stoppelman hastily deflected the blame onto the high cost of living, and announced that Eat24 was “growing” its support jobs in Arizona, prompting more Twitter backlash.
Inside Eat24, the number of prank orders spiked. Reps who were still working there told me that some supposed customers sent dick pics in their email messages, or would add “I know your job sucks” into their chat queries. The 150-or-so customer service reps were instructed not to talk about their wages to customers. Someone — assumed by the reps to be a manager — posted an “Open Letter” sign in the office declaring their gratitude for Stoppelman (which a fellow colleague texted Talia’s way).
According to one of her former coworkers, Talia’s rant was divisive even within the ranks. “She has a very dry sense of humor, and some people don’t get it and some people can’t live without it,” the worker says. “I thought she was being the voice of the people, and I appreciated it.” That worker says others were of the mind that “here you are throwing the company under the bus while we’re trying to get a raise.”
Another Eat24 employee tells me Yelp was likely aware of the brewing discontent — including plans for a strike and public protest — and had formed a committee to discuss the working conditions even before Talia’s letter, but “she put it on blast,” the person says. Around the time of Talia’s letter, new head of customer support Dale Sahs came onboard, and in the following weeks, focus groups and one-on-one meetings with reps rolled out. Small things improved. Senior reps got assigned desks instead of playing musical chairs each shift, and management eased up on demerits for being late or not showing up. Sahs emailed staffers on April 20 about the raises and more paid time off, saying all the changes added up to roughly a 22 percent increase in compensation.
Of course, by that time, Talia wasn’t there to benefit.
With unemployment stretching out before her, and “swimming in stress” in the days after the letter, Talia hardly left her apartment for a week, veering between panic and talking herself down. Eventually, she sold off $300 worth of possessions in a yard sale. And she decided to get back into standup comedy.
Internet fame did have its perks. One sympathizer ran a GoFundMe campaign for her and collected $2,755. Her Twitter followers doubled to 11,700, and many of her tweets garnered a solid 20 likes. She constantly goes through and deletes tweets (“it’s not a museum”), especially ones where she thought in retrospect that she’d gotten too personal about her distant and troubled relationship with her parents. She’d tweeted about them in haste to defend against her haters’ hypotheses that she probably was some middle-class spoiled brat with a huge support network.
Only the most diligent of internet sleuths discovered the back story of Talia Jane — the one she had for years only entrusted to the closest of friends, ones like Emma Aldaco, who remembers the phone call when Talia cautiously opened up to her. “You could tell she was about to tell me something really big and wasn’t sure if I was going to believe her.” But two years ago, Talia decided to rid the secret of the shaming power it held over her, and tell the internet.
So here goes: When Talia was four or five, she moved with her single mom from Southern California up to Concord in the far eastern suburbs of the Bay Area. The goal as Talia understood it was to be closer to her dad, “there-ish” throughout her childhood, she says. Soon after moving, her mom — a practicing Wiccan — asked her whether she wanted to go to her grandma’s church or the neighbors’ church. Talia answered the neighbors’. That church ended up being a Mormon one, and her mom eventually befriended a young woman there named Dawn Godman.
Godman led her into a friendship with a former stockbroker who was excommunicated from the church named Glenn Taylor Helzer and his younger brother, Justin. Glenn claimed to be a prophet and wanted to raise $100,000 for a convoluted plot to overthrow the Mormon leadership — by death if necessary — to take over and speed up the return of God. Talia often went over to the Helzer house, and one time rode in a pickup truck with Helzer’s recently adopted Rottweilers in the back, she recalls. While Talia’s mom circulated in their social orbit, Godman and the brothers conspired to fulfill the elder Helzer’s vision, starting with the extortion of one of his former clients.
On a summer night in 2000, Talia and her mom went to see “X-Men” at a suburban movie theater, followed by a feast of meatloaf and mashed potatoes at Denny’s. What 10-year-old Talia didn’t know was that her mom was following instructions to buy extra movie tickets and extra food. She was creating an alibi for her three friends, who were embarking on a murder spree that night, which would eventually take five victims.
Prosecutors ended up not charging Talia’s mom, using her instead as a key witness in the 2001 preliminary hearing and both brothers’ respective trials a few years later. “We cut her some slack in return for her testimony,” says the former Contra Costa county prosecutor who tried the case, Harold Jewett. “Her daughter could be pissed off, because she involved her daughter in an alibi to cover multiple murders.” Talia lived with her mom while she, paranoid that they’d be hunted down, was whisked into witness protection. (Both Helzers were sentenced to death row and Godman to 38 years to life in prison.) When Talia says her mom entered the hospital on a 5150 psychiatric hold a couple years later, Talia moved in with her grandparents, who became her surrogate parents. She bounced between their house and her mom’s for the rest of her teen years.
Talia continued on through community college, then transferred to Cal State. Once she turned 24, she started thinking more and more about her past. “I realized that I was older than one of the victims that had been murdered. I’m like if it were reversed, I wonder if she’d want to speak out and kind of say anything, or just carry this with her.” Talia says she even contacted the author of a book about the Helzer case to ask questions about what she’d mostly been too young to understand while it was happening.
The most Talia had ever written publicly were her tweets and her Tumblr blog, sometimes quoted in BuzzFeed listicles. She decided to write her own version of her experience, pitching the story to Cracked.com in hopes it would help other people burdened by the secrets of their childhood, Talia says. The writing process dredged up tough memories. “I had a moment I had to stop writing for three days,” she recalls, though she didn’t want to come across as a pity case. Once published, “7 Things I Learned As An Accomplice to Mass Murder” revealed Talia’s macabre gallows humor. She cracked jokes about the Rottweilers, which had been conscripted to eat the bodies of the victims, and referred to the murderous trio as “well, duo now” with a snarky link to the news that Justin Helzer had hanged himself on death row in San Quentin.
But the writing also revealed an adult daughter’s consideration of her mom’s struggles:
“My mom was and remains excruciatingly insecure, latching onto anything that comes along that might give her strength. If throwing some herbs in a pot and calling it an attraction potion gives her confidence for a date, great. If burning sage in the house makes her feel less anxious, awesome!”….
My mother was a model of what I was supposed to aspire to, but all I saw were her mistakes. She trusted people too readily, so I ended up with some pretty serious problems trusting people.
Talia signed off the article: “Talia Jane is a relatively well-adjusted adult who spends most of her time not writing about murder.” The site’s editorial manager wryly referred to her as Lady Murderface in a phone call, and Talia made it her Twitter handle.
It was internet tell-all as an exorcism of demons. Talia followed up with a piece on Femsplain about finally being free of her secret: “I wanted to remove the power I had placed on my secret and the power it had placed on me. So that’s what I did. I told the whole damn world.” The Cracked post was popular, but not exactly viral — and readers were supportive.
But then Talia says she got a call from her mom, and they got in a fight over the piece.
Talia says she hung up on her. She hasn’t talked with her since.
Few would have lived through a childhood like Talia’s unscathed. Yet even during the swirl of the investigation, “she seemed pretty well-adjusted for a kid,” says the Helzer case’s lead investigator from the Concord Police Department, Steve Chiabotti, now retired from the force. Talia tried therapy a few times, but found it took four sessions just to get through the details. So mostly, she’s worked through her past on her own and by writing to an internet audience, lightening it up with humor since, for Talia, absurdity is a coping mechanism. “I always call her Mama Talia,” says her friend, Emma Aldaco, who first met her through Twitter and then in person, heading to Tweetups together for the platform’s early fans. “Because she had to fend for herself and basically raise herself, she has a very motherly personality. She’s a lot more adult than a lot of people our age.”
Now picture Yelp-era Talia, living for rent reasons back in Concord, a town rife with flashbacks and little support network, and you see why she’s wary of letting just anyone live with her. Also perhaps why, after going viral, she slept on her couch for a week, “because I was worried someone would try to break into my apartment and I wouldn’t hear it from my room.”
Beyond the GoFundMe and yard sale profits, Talia got a healthy tax refund and a severance check from Yelp, for a sum she won’t disclose. While we’re sitting in the park talking, a homeless person struts up selling a Street Sheet newspaper. Talia fishes the last $4 from her open mic money out of her wallet, and hands it over.
“Why did you do that?” I squealed in a tone that, given the money situation she’d been describing, came out less reporter than worried mom.
“He has it worse than I do. I still have a place.”
The most grating part of unemployment hasn’t been the money, she says, but the loneliness out in the ’burbs (“the whole thing is a senior living facility minus the old people”). Her only friends in the Bay Area had been work ones. At the end of the interview, I head across the street to Walgreens, and Talia, killing some time before an open mic that night in the city, comes along. I need eye drops, and she needs razors. As we walk through the aisles, she asks, “Are we allowed to become actual friends?” I could write how I responded, but Talia already tweeted it:
It’s Wednesday night in Concord, and Talia awaits her set on a patio outside Grant Street Pub, ready to test whether she’s funny somewhere other than Twitter. About ten far-flung tables of suburban diners are waking up to the realization they’ve inadvertently sat down in the middle of an amateur comedy hour where the jokes are hewing towards I’m-so-fat-I-can’t-see-my-cock and elephant sex, and the payout to the talent is going to be single-digits and a free pizza. One guy raises his hand when a comic asks for Trump supporters. Sitting at one of the tables, Talia is letting out supportive laughs as she types her lineup of jokes on her iPhone, which has a picture of her absurdist hero, Richard Simmons, as wallpaper.
I ask her if she’s nervous, and she looks up and gives me a “so-so” gesture. In fact, for as much as she seems to seek the spotlight, Talia says she’s always been a very nervous performer. She says when she had to play one note to tune her clarinet in front of the entire high school band back in Southern California, she would turn red and shake. She tried a few stand-ups in SoCal in her early 20’s and got heckled, which left her rattled. Though her voice still quavers and hands shake from the attention, she says, now, performing gives her a sense of deep calm and purpose.
And on the lineup after the elephant sex guy, there’s really nowhere to go but up. Talia takes the mic and starts energetically. “Hey people in the back! It’s a woman doing comedy — can you believe it?” She gets a few whoops. “I mean, I’m on a patio in a pub, but it’s a step up. I have a mic in my hand instead of my hairbrush in front of my bathroom mirror.”
“It was my birthday on Wednesday,” she says. Another hoot of support. “I just turned 26 so now I can criticize every woman under the age of 25! How many of you are early 20-year-olds? Man, they’re so stupid.”
Her jokes are a work in progress — one about discovering a porn video playing on her VCR at age three seems a bit more worrying than funny.
Talia doesn’t use her Yelp bit on this set, skipping the easy irony of getting fired from a reviews company for writing a review of the company. The Yelp jokes will have to sunset soon. “I’m putting myself in the spotlight to hone my skills outside the spotlight. And get better without having to have the crutch of ‘I’m Yelp Girl.’”
Being Yelp Girl at least got her some writing gigs. She penned a piece about Millennial poverty for Fusion, and had just taken a trip to New York City, where she did yet another open mic, and met with another editor about freelancing. After the Yelp firing, “It was like the rug got pulled out from under me, and as it got pulled out, it was like I realized I’m a really good tap dancer,” she says, making hokey vaudeville arms for comedic effect. I laugh. “Like I was just like ‘Whoa, whoa, check this out! This is great!’ Now I’m just like tap dancing around.”
The day after we talk, she pops back up in her corner of Medium with a post announcing that she’s moving to New York. She wrote that she’d wound up in a lonely suburb, not San Francisco, so she might as well take the next leap. Plus, she wanted to get into the comedy scene there. I recognize much of the language from an epic email she’d sent me a week prior, about discovering how empty fear is once you confront it. The piece’s title was straight from a joke she’d workshopped on me: “Learning to dance when you think you’re falling.” That’s what happens when you interview someone who is quite adept at telling their own story.
This time, the responses cheered her on.