The creative genius responsible for the internet’s favourite imaginary actress spends his days teaching in South Auckland.
“I can’t fix this! That’s what I’m talking about! You think I want the kids to go through this?! I don’t!”, screams Paloma Diamond in her Oscar-nominated film The Remedy. As she watches a clip of her performance at the awards ceremony, the silver-haired actress looks from side to side, affecting modesty but patently proud of her acting abilities. In the running against Diamond are fellow Hollywood stars Lorelei Lynch, Jane Farraway, Justina Sorgen and Taylor Witherfork.
Since being posted in March 2023, the height of last year’s awards season, the video of Diamond and her fellow nominees watching their Oscar reels has amassed more than 19 million views on TikTok alone. With the 2024 Oscars fast approaching, campaigns have begun for Diamond to be both a surprise nominee and winner. Hundreds of Twitter accounts sport her name and pay tribute to her performances. In fact, Paloma Diamond appears to be the most talked-about actress in Hollywood right now.
But Diamond isn’t real. She’s a creation of Julian Sewell, a hobbyist TikToker generating engagement that full-timers would kill for. Sewell isn’t a full-timer yet. He’s a teacher at a school in South Auckland.
Sewell might be a teacher, but who is Paloma Diamond, and where did she come from?
To get to the bottom of that, you need to understand Sewell’s journey to Diamond. He got started on TikTok when he was living with his sister during the first nationwide lockdown. “It was a bit of a slow burn,” he says. “I didn’t really post any videos that people were watching or liked, but then we did one video that got over 13,000 views.”
Slowly, Sewell found his groove. He had studied performing arts in Australia and had completed a Masters in theatre in Wellington, and had always excelled at accents and impersonations. While he started his TikTok career doing lip-synced recreations of scenes from movies and TV, he realised he’d get more views if he used his voice, if not necessarily his own accent.
“A lot of what I do is just a pisstake of pop culture, celebrities, and the pretension and frivolity of Hollywood culture,” he says. “If you think about awards season, what these awards actually are, they’re not Nobel Peace Prize awards. Art is incredibly subjective. These are awards for something you can’t really measure that well.”
The obsession with awards among those in the Hollywood inner-circle is especially fascinating to Sewell. The idea for that first truly viral clip – 19 million views, remember – came from a conversation with his sister. “I thought it was so funny that whenever they called the Best Actress nominees, there would always be a slow zoom in on the actresses as their names are called. It’s very indulgent! So I wanted to blow that up and put that on a pedestal.”
Audiences responded with views, likes, and follows. His total follower number is 726,000 (he follows just 262, a truly iconic ratio) and his views so far top out at 39 million. Since that Oscars clip went go-for-broke viral, his videos have covered everything from the famous Diana interview, to America’s Next Top Model eliminations, to guest star appearances on sitcoms and, delightfully, “how people in the olden days say ‘yes’”. If there’s a cultural reference, chances are Sewell has the voice, and probably the wig, for it. He’s found his niche.
White his characters are not direct copies of particular actresses, he does draw influence from A-listers. Paloma Diamond is the exact midpoint between eight-time Oscar loser Glenn Close and three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, capturing both the former’s gritted teeth endurance and the latter’s benign grandeur. Another of his characters, The Last Train Home star Lorelei Lynch, has shades of Amy Adams and his new character, Sasha Alexander (no relation to the former NCIS star of the same name), draws from Florence Pugh and La La Land-era Emma Stone.
And the fans love it. “Since that time last year, my Tiktok career has reached new heights and new levels,” he says, obviously amazed. “It’s skyrocketed what was a hobby into an actual serious influencer thing!”
But how does that affect his everyday life? Where does Paloma stop and Julian start?
When we speak, Sewell is busy with the first week of the new term, at the school he’s been at since last year. After he went viral last year he had to have some frank conversations with his students. “You might know me from TikTok, but right now, while I’m here, I have to put up boundaries,” he recalls saying. “I have to say, ‘I am first and foremost your teacher, and I have to prioritise your learning’.” When he says this over the phone, it’s with such clear determination that it could be, yes, a monologue from one of his fake Oscar-bait films, perhaps Matchstick Playground or Awake, Alone and Aware on the Streets of Topeka, Kansas.
Thankfully, his students are remarkably cognisant of the fact that they can’t talk about his TikTok career when they’re being taught. He does let the wall down a bit outside the classroom, though. “If I’m walking by or on duty, they can talk to me about that stuff,” he says, “I’m more than happy to talk about what I do online, because a lot of them follow me. Some of them want me to follow them but again: boundaries.”
Outside of his teaching life, he’s not recognised that much, because he’s not wearing his wigs. When he is, it tends to be during visits to the US. “They’re like, ‘Paloma Diamond!’, and I go [Paloma Diamond voice] ‘Oh my goodness, they recognise me!’”, he says.
Moving forward, Sewell would love to play around with more characters, but he admits that people know – and love – him as Paloma. “You have to give the people what they want,” he says. “I’ve tried out a new character to see if people like it, and a lot of comments are asking for her.”
Paloma Diamond might go home Oscar-less again this year, but she has what every really actor wants. People love her. And behind that steely smile, under that silver bob, is Sewell, sitting atop his ever growing pile of followers, loving what he’s doing.