Even before Jeff Bezos limply threatened to murder Leonardo DiCaprio on Twitter, I already had the one-time Academy Award winner on my mind.
All week I’d been searching for a photo of DiCaprio I was convinced had existed for years. In it, he was sitting alone at a student bar at my old university. It was 2011, and he was in Sydney filming for The Great Gatsby.
The photo was grainy, like you’d expect from a sly camera phone 10 years ago. He was wearing dark sunglasses, a baseball cap and a hoodie with the hood lowered. I think he had a beer clasped in one hand and he was peering just over it – staring into the distance to be alone with his thoughts. The rest of the scene was empty. He had no entourage or security – he was contently detached, like he had his own seat on the train or was watching Friends reruns.
But my search was fruitless, just like it had been the year before and the year before that. Despite being a big moment for the sleepy little town of Sydney, no record of it exists – not offline or online. Instead, it is a rapidly deteriorating memory. Something entirely illusory.
What follows is an account of my manic search for this photo – a journey which often left me with more questions than answers.
In his latest film, Don’t Look Up, Leo plays a daggy astronomer warning humanity about an impending comet collision and going insane when no one listens. It’s a nod to the frustrations of climate and health scientists – but I know it intimately, too. For years, no one listened when I’d asked the tough question: whether Leo had the power to remove this photo from the internet. Well, now I’m here. And I have a story to tell.
When I spoke to friends recently in search of the photo, some of them questioned its very existence. Others remembered it. Like me, some were there that day at Manning Bar, Sydney University’s once-fabled waterhole, when this mystical photo was apparently first captured.
Back then, I remember word spreading quickly that Leo was just sitting there, in broad daylight, quietly hunched over the table like a pensive iguana enjoying its sunbake.
Fortunately, however, the incident was mentioned in the press. A 2016 article in the student paper mentioned it as a memorable moment of a bar that was coming to a “slow death”. And when the bar really did die, in 2020, Australia’s newspaper of record confirmed the gossip had “reached international ears”. Locally, a fashion blog noted it was “still being whispered in USYD’s hallowed halls”.
Finding these mentions and whispers of reality were the last few moments of calm before my frenzy to find the photo began. It wasn’t long before I wondered whether this was all just hearsay. Infamously, no one bothered to talk to or approach Leo that day. Without a photo, there was nothing to verify this wasn’t just one rumour blown into a minor myth, or worse, a conspiracy of lies.
I had theories, but I was also starting to understand how conspiracy theories formed. The web of coincidences, the powerful actors, the clues and obstacles.
I needed a visual to ground my search before my memory completely slipped into doubt. So I tried to sketch what I remembered, looking for the suspect. The result was, frankly, an abomination. A window into my emerging madness.
On Facebook, I scrolled through the archives. Going back to the 2011 source was futile. I’d already been alerted to local rumour monger The Dirt (now defunct), but its archived page was missing a photo. Its parent outlet, 2DayFM, didn’t have any archived pages to its articles – but I did find links shared by the broadcaster, suggesting that, at some point, a photo was involved.
And I found my own post on Facebook, too. A sad little reminder from 10 years ago. It was like I was leaving myself clues to pick up down the road – a Memento tattoo as evidence I was once there.
In any case, I knew there was a photo of some kind. But this knowledge only pushed me further down the rabbit hole. Links to The Dirt went to one of those abandoned web domain sales pages, and 2DayFM’s links were all subsumed by grandparent company the Hit Network.
Most unsettling, though, was an article from Britain’s right-wing “banned in Liverpool” tabloid – the Sun.
A few months ago, a mate on Twitter had shared a screenshot of the Sun’s piece about DiCaprio’s mythical visit. It opened with a spicy remark that he was there because he “likes a young lady”, and added a supposed cigarette to the scene.
The Sun story wasn’t unique, either – like the others, there still wasn’t a photo. But when I tried to revisit the article a year later, it was completely gone. There wasn’t even an old URL to try to find it on the Wayback Machine (an archive of basically every webpage since the start of the millennium). All I was left with was a headline, an opening paragraph, the date of publication (20 October 2011) and the day it was updated (5 April 2016).
And don’t worry – I tried the fan sites.
Leo has been a recurrent heartthrob since the 1990s, and his stans date back to then, too, helpfully cataloguing his whole life: from recent films he’s starred in, to the absurd art he’s made for charity, and even finding out his nickname is “The Noodle”, as verified by a somehow still extant (and perhaps questionable) Angelfire site.
One site exhibited a collection of candid photos of DiCaprio, helpfully arranged into years and locations, but somehow the photo of him at Manning Bar - one that apparently made “international” waves - wasn't among them. Among dozens of digitally zoomed creepshots of him standing on a balcony, or just the back of his head, there wasn’t a hint of a spark.
Frantically, I slid into the DMs of a Leo fan club on Instagram but heard no reply. I also visited Bellazon, a fashion message board. One popular topic on the site is on all things Leo, where users post updates on his latest films, appearances and rumours.
I asked for help but my post soon got buried, thwarted by the very same thriving community I wanted to join, which was particularly disappointing as the forum held one of the first clues I had found to the reality of the photo. Back in 2011, someone had posted it there and had linked to the same dead 2DayFM link. But now it was gone, too.
At some point, a user had been smart enough to link directly to the image, and a well-wisher had been smart enough to look it up in the Wayback Machine for me. But while there once was a copy of the picture – from September 3, 2016 – it was gone now as well. Deeply abnormal for a site whose only purpose was to keep things available.
At this point, I began to lose it. Friends had already suggested that this could be a Mandela Effect thing – where individuals or whole communities obsess over a fact that they’ve remembered completely differently, named for people who insist Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980s. VICE has written on this numerous times, most recently on how a British brand of chips explicitly rebutted claims they had swapped the colours of their salt & vinegar and cheese & onion packets.
Still, I have questions that may never be answered. The biggest is whether a person like Leo actually has the power to disappear from the internet.
Forlornly, I went back to my original sources for evidence. A friend suggested I look at records from the student newspaper at the time. This was a newspaper with extensive online records – yet missing were the two final editions of 2011, the same two editions released after Leo was spotted at the bar. I was shaken. Had the publisher’s website been breached? Or were they in on it?
Before I could start another full-scale investigation into a digital disappearance, I found some rogue online copies of the student newspaper by trudging through digital magazine repository Issuu. I also found the magazine owned by the student union that ran the bar. There was no photo, not even in the erroneously titled “Caught on Campus” section – although the incident was mentioned in the news spread, dismissively:
And believe me: I tried to gather eyewitness accounts. An informant turned me to the original author of the first exclusive. She was currently in charge of communications for a prominent conservative lobby group, and here I was dredging up an alleged celebrity coverup. I was even close to contacting their workplace directly but stopped myself: my day job was in some ways in opposition to them, and I couldn’t put myself in their crosshairs as well as Leo’s. Sadly, I received no reply on Instagram.
Eventually, I turned back to the friends and comrades who had first supported me on this quest. My friend Naaman had never seen the picture, but remembered the anecdotes. Madeline was still recovering from her own search for the photo, which she vividly remembered and last saw around 2016. I asked Jonathan, who remembered the sunglasses but not the hoodie, and he told me he saw it around five years ago: 2016.
2016. The last update on the Sun’s piece. The last saved search of 2DayFM’s picture. The last eyewitness accounts of the photo. The year Trump became President and the year David Bowie died. The year Harambe became a meme.
2016 was the smoking gun, I was sure of it.
This was the year Hulk Hogan took down Gawker – could it have been the year Leo took down this photo?
Unfortunate as it may be, I came up empty.
2016 was a pretty big year for Leo: he won his first ever Academy Award for The Revenant and he got Pope Francis to cameo in an environmentalist film. It also wasn’t entirely celebratory: his big year ended with his foundation being caught up in a broader corruption scandal.
I couldn’t see the connection, though; I couldn’t find the link. I had theories, but I was also starting to understand how conspiracy theories formed. The web of coincidences, the powerful actors, the clues and obstacles. People pushing you into delusion and paranoia. Trying to find meaning in it all while the world burned.
Perhaps there are simpler explanations. Maybe more of the internet is fated to be lost to memory, like GeoCities or Ask Jeeves. Maybe I should’ve asked more people, tried to hunt down the photographer, recruited tech whizzes to hack or code or whatever. Maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew and just didn’t have the skills for it.
Still, I have questions that may never be answered. The biggest is whether a person like Leo actually has the power to disappear from the internet. To do so in an era where our online personalities are rapidly inspected, torn apart and put back together again, is some sort of magic. Whole social movements are forming around the right to be forgotten, but then again, celebrities can get injunctions, superinjunctions, cease and desists, settlements and probably hackers. We can’t.
Now, I’ve stopped trying to understand how, or if, Leo destroyed the photo. The technical expertise is beyond me. But figuring out why something like this might have happened keeps me up at night.
The most common theory from friends, sources and well-wishers was also the most obvious: Leo was famously private. A friend had once tried to take a hipshot snap of him at a restaurant and he had cowered behind a menu. This was a worse place to be spotted – embarrassingly at a student bar –made worse by his notoriety for dating younger women.
But why this photo? Why this instance? There are plenty of paparazzi photos of him with models in their 20s, and plenty of articles going in-depth into his sex life that are still online. Jezebel even wrote a piece on rumours that he vapes while using noise-canceling headphones when sleeping with women he brings back to his hotel room, and his decades-long friend group – which included Toby Maguire – was called the “Pussy Posse”. I mean, come on.
Then again, VICE’s anatomy of Leo’s dating life has broken down how he may have kept almost all his hookups out of the press. In one incident, the then-38 year-old Leo was dating 21 year-old model Toni Garrn and held a party for her. When photos were uploaded from the event, appearing on gossip blogs and social media, they just as quickly disappeared.
It’s hard not to fall into some kind of conspiracy theory thinking around this. The operation to clean the whole internet of one innocent photo of yourself is immense beyond thought; but it’s also only as unreal as requiring anyone within a few feet of you to sign confidentiality agreements, or simply being an eternal celebrity who hates being talked about. Leo even reportedly uses body doubles as decoys – including during his time in Sydney in 2011.
And while Leo going out of his way to annihilate a picture of himself sounds far-fetched, the limitless power of billionaires and celebrities is its own irrationality. Part of this power lies in the secrecy of its reach and capabilities.
If there’s any rationale to this piece it’s that the internet and celebrity culture are designed to drive us insane. Like Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, the internet contains all knowledge, until that knowledge is lost and historians have to debate whether it even existed.
Or maybe it’s just a simple story about a shy man; a famous guy who still hates the spotlight. The kind of man who hid behind a menu when a friend tried to covertly photograph him at a restaurant. The kind of guy who just wanted to keep this rare moment’s peace, sitting alone, enjoying a cold beer to himself.
But while I hang up my boots and leave this case unclosed, inside I still hope a fresh new lead spurs me out of retirement. Please, let VICE know if you have this photo. If you’re the Michael who reached out to The Dirt in 2011 as an eyewitness: reach out to us too.
And finally, if you’re Leo and you’re reading this: what happened in 2016?
Following the publication of this article, suburban dad turned internet sleuth @custaro found the elusive photo. Trawling through the National Library of Australia’s online archive Trove, he found the same broken links to the image – but ended up using a fragment of the URL that led him to an archived page on Triple M Perth.
It was slightly different from what I remembered – he was looking down, there was no beer, and he was clearly on the second floor near the cafe, not the top balcony where the bar is. But there were still remarkable similarities to my sketch.
Unresolved questions remain – why only the Perth page? Was it taken down everywhere else or did it just disappear in time? And most chillingly, many people have reached out to me suggesting the existence of a ‘second shooter’ – another photo they clearly remember, where he was on the balcony drinking a beer.
We may never find out. But for now, the mystery has been settled. The photo existed. All is well with the world, and I can finally have some peace.