Jamie Evan Bichelman

Inside the Mind of Emily Austin

Emily Austin poses with Israel President Isaac Herzog in celebration of Sheba Medical Center's 75th anniversary. Photo | Emily Austin via Instagram
Emily Austin poses with Israel President Isaac Herzog in celebration of Sheba Medical Center's 75th anniversary. Photo | Emily Austin and Sheba Medical Center via Instagram

It’s a windy Wednesday in New York City when I meet Emily Austin in the midst of a whirlwind of to-dos. Earlier in the morning, an interview with Fox News was on the docket; later in the day, planning a trip to Israel would mark yet another block in a frenzied schedule for the rising activist.

“The future is very bright,” she says, walking and talking and navigating passersby on the busy city streets. 

The greatest conundrum when preparing to chat with a mega-influencer of Emily’s stature: Where to start? You don’t amass the sincere following she has on Twitter / X and Instagram without a profound knowledge of the topics for which she advocates. Speaking of. . .

A lot of noble individual qualities and personal identities tend to trigger online trolls in 2023: a Jewish individual, a vegan or animal welfare advocate, a woman in sports, and a well-researched young woman who dares to hold an opinion. 

Emily Austin in Jerusalem. Photo | Emily Austin via Instagram

Enter Emily Austin, an extraordinarily accomplished media professional who knows a thing or two about Israel, sports reporting, animal welfare, and dealing with online trolls and those who dare to reduce her identity to simply being a young woman.

“Let’s focus on 21-years-old, 21-years-old, 21-years-old,” Austin says a month before her birthday, exasperated. “At some point it just gets old. It’s like, it’s not what defines me! It’s impressive, I understand. But I think it’s a little repetitive. 

“I appreciate the fact that it’s often portrayed in a positive light, but I feel like sometimes in this industry, people forget to be kind to one another. Sometimes I’ll be bullied by 50-year-olds, and I’m like, ‘you’re not ashamed of yourself? You’re literally older than my father and you’re bullying me. Your kids are my peers, and this is how you’re acting.’ And I feel like sometimes that can get the best of me.”

For an empire-building young person, you’d expect to meet someone focused on controlling the narrative, far from vulnerable, and locked in to money-making mode. My experience with Austin, however, was anything but: she was refreshingly transparent, breathtakingly vulnerable, has volunteered her time at Safra Children’s Hospital at Shiba Medical Center, hung out with the courageous members of the IDF, and was as real and down-to-earth as any New Yorker should be.

Any number of stories highlight her impressive resume to this point, which spans the politics and activism for Israel and Jewish people; her activism against the cruelty animals face before and during slaughter; and her profound knowledge of sports, particularly basketball hot takes that wind up proving to be the most rational takes when all is said and done. 

Emily Austin served as a Miss Universe judge.

But this story—as so many of my conversations with fascinating individuals tend to become—on this frantic day takes a detour and ventures into the mindset and inner workings of a notable media personality with endless potential who dares to be confident with a dash of vulnerability. 

“I’m always the youngest one in the room,” she shares, punctuating her sentence with equal parts confidence and pensive reflection. “I don’t mind, because I can make a wall talk. But not everyone knows my age, and then people can be really nasty. There’s a lot of jealousy in the space that I never thought of; you think everyone’s fighting against antisemitism for the right reasons, but pardon me, they’re not. Some people love the attention that comes with it, and some people try to slander all the activists and then it becomes nasty. 

“I told my mom recently that I’m glad I’m doing this for the right reasons. And at the end of the day, I understand it’s my obligation to do this, and I’m such a proud Jew, that I won’t stop. But let me tell you, it’s a discouraging field. Everyone’s just trying to prove why they’re better or why you’re not good enough.”

The Other Side of Social Media Fame

Left with no intelligent response, bereft of insight, trolls tend to abandon logic and reduce their target’s identity to a singular feature. Meant to harm, Austin’s trolls often demand she sticks to sports when her well-rounded array of thoughts and issues of concern present themselves.

Emily Austin poses for a Puma ad. Photo | Emily Austin via Instagram

“I know my followers love sports,” she begins. “A lot of things that I hear include ‘stick to sports,’ but that’s the beauty of it: I’ve captivated an audience that loves me for the sports takes, or the modeling, or Puma. But why does that now take away from the fact that I stand for something bigger than just entertainment? People are like, ‘stick to the sports talk, stop talking about Israel, just shut up and dribble.’ These are the comments that I always get! And I’m like, why does me having a career stop me from having a passion?” 

There was a low point in Austin’s burgeoning career where the lack of appreciation for her activism combined with the onslaught of trolling made her question the direction of her public advocacy. 

“At that point I said, ‘if nobody appreciates it, I’m not doing it anymore,’” she recalled, “and my own words gave me a reality check. I said, ‘wait, I’m not doing this to appease anyone else.’ So I realized I lost myself, and then I said, ‘you know what? No, I don’t care if people don’t appreciate me fighting against antisemitism!’ I’m a Jew. My siblings are Jewish, my parents are Jewish. We all have the right to not be hated for the way we pray. I don’t care if not one person is going to appreciate what I’m doing. It’s the right thing to do.”

We all have the right to not be hated for the way we pray.

That epiphany proved to be a profound moment in Austin’s life, as the hatred meant to fuel insecurity instead burned within her and powered the confidence her followers witness today. 

Emily Austin poses for a Puma ad. Photo | Emily Austin via Instagram

“I don’t do this for a particular audience’s approval,” she continued. “I don’t do this to get a pat on the back. I genuinely do this because I understand it’s the right thing to do for the Jewish people. And even though oftentimes I feel like nobody appreciates it, I know that it’s first of all necessary, it’s dire. And I always think, if not me, then who? That’s kind of my thought process. 

“And a lot of times I feel like quitting because of the hate and the overwhelming social media death threats, or whatever it is. But I really always go back to, if not me, then who? And I also go back to how many peers I have that are afraid to speak up. Am I inspiring them? And that kind of keeps me going. And at that point I’m like, screw anyone who’s against me. You don’t like it? That’s too bad. Unfollow me.” 

And I always think, if not me, then who?

Her mature approach and hard-fought acceptance of the realities of social media weren’t always easy. But as a role model to the next generation of student activists, and as one of few individuals amongst her peers unafraid to raise her voice in the midst of hate, Austin is hyper-aware of those that look to her for guidance.

“It took hitting an extreme circumstance for me to understand it,” she explained. “I’m not doing this to get an award. It’s funny, after I had my realization, I started getting the recognition after I said, I’m not doing it for the recognition. And I guess that’s how life works. But I definitely needed to remind myself, why am I doing this? Because when I wanted to quit, my heart didn’t want to. So you have to do it for the right reason.”

I think it shows the worst in humanity if we can torture animals

Emily Austin in an ad for PETA. Photo | Emily Austin via Instagram

As it turns out, Austin’s empathy and compassion for the mistreatment of others extends to animals and the cruel realities of both commercial product industries and industrial animal agriculture. I was delighted to discover that Austin’s social media often is a testament to the fact that Jewish values and vegan principles are harmoniously aligned.

“I always make a joke that I must’ve been a carnivore in my past life,” she says with a smile. “But then I started seeing on my Twitter feed the videos of the cruelty that occurs behind-the-scenes during the slaughter of the animal. I would always combat it with, ‘well, no, I keep kosher so the animals I eat don’t suffer.’ And then I found out it’s not just the actual slaughtering that’s the worst part – it’s what leads up to it. Then I saw videos and I started going down this rabbit hole of fashion and makeup and the cruelty that occurs in slaughterhouses.

If humans can do this to helpless animals, what can we do to one another?

“And I was like, this is something that really scares me. If humans can do this to helpless animals, what can we do to one another? I saw the videos of the rabbits screaming and sheep and cows crying. And I’m like, you know what? I know that animals experience emotions the way humans do. Now, I am eating an animal that suffered right up to its death. Without getting too deep into it, I’m going to eat the energy of an animal that suffered to its death, and then I am going to absorb that energy. There has to be some bad karma there. So I know alone, I won’t make a big difference, but I see there’s a big vegan community. I can’t support torturing animals, and there has to be a more ethical way.”

What’s Next for Emily Austin?

Emily Austin poses for a Puma ad. Photo | Emily Austin via Instagram

I really loved participating in Miss Universe as a judge,” Austin said. “They say that Miss Universe is really like a family, and I got that feeling being there. Everyone’s very genuine. And being in pageantry when I was 17, I ran for Miss New York. Now being on the other side, I can see how it’s more of a family vibe, and I hope to definitely stay within the organization.”

Austin launched The Hoop Chat since we spoke, posting engaging and fun interviews with NBA stars and up-and-comers and tapping into her interview prowess.

I try to keep it fun,” she explained. “When I went to NBA Summer League, I did something called Lightning Round where I gathered so many fan questions to ask the players whatever they want. I don’t care how weird they were. And I remember asking Josh Giddey what shampoo he uses and it went viral. So I just try to have a light, fun conversation with non-repetitive questions, and I’ll keep it basketball-related or just about their life. Who’s the guy behind the player dribbling the basketball? How did he get to where he is today? And just showcase their lives.”

Between the sports interviews, her work with the United Nations, liaising with politicians—Austin shared with me the scoop when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. clarified to her his news-making antisemitic comments about COVID-19—and building her empire, Austin has prioritized nurturing the confidence and direction of the next generation.

Emily Austin speaks at FreedomFest in Memphis, Tennessee in July 2023. Photo | Emily Austin

“A moment where I felt proudest: when I spoke at the Israeli American Council (IAC) conference, so many kids came up to me and they said, ‘I heard you speak in Boston at the Jewish National Fund (JNF) Conference, and I wanted to let you know because of what you said, I started being more active on social media,'” Austin said. “To hear those words come from a high schooler’s mouth, I started to cry. I was like, just give me a hug. I just want to hug you. That was a big eye-opener for me. I was like, ‘wow, these kids are so impressionable and they’re looking to do good, and they really just need a little bit of inspiration.’

“One thing that did concern me: I was speaking to a really large group of kids and I said, ‘raise your hand if you’ve ever stood up publicly against antisemitism or anti-Zionism,’ and out of 300 kids, one kid raised their hand. And then I said, ‘okay, now raise your hand if you would have done that if one of your classmates did?’ Everyone raised their hand! It’s almost like safety in numbers, and I think everyone just needs a little push or a little encouragement from a classmate. So I hope that we can start encouraging one another to be more visible.”

About the Author
Jamie Evan Bichelman is a marketing and communications professional, as well as a mental health expert and researcher with a straight-A graduate education at Harvard's Extension School and in New York University's graduate mental health counseling program. Jamie is a proud Jewish man and vegan and has been a lifelong disability rights advocate.
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