What Happened to Sarah Joy, the TikTok Influencer Accused of Pretending to Be Amish?

After quickly gaining more than half a million followers by sharing glimpses into her life as a “plain” woman — a term used to describe sects such as the Amish or Mennonites — TikTok influencer Sarah Joy Nelson abruptly left the platform last week, signing off with an ambiguous apology. Her disappearance first prompted concern from fans, who assumed the account, @thatplaingirl, had been discovered by Nelson’s insular religious community, and that Nelson may be in danger. Yet those fears soon gave way to suspicions that she never belonged to any such denomination at all, prompting allegations that she was merely pretending to be “plain” for clout.

Nelson, who did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment, started her account in late 2023, quickly racking up hundreds of thousands of followers for her cheery, folksy nature and her apparent candor in discussing her plain upbringing. In her content, she documented daily activities such as her job in a “plain” store (a term for a general store owned by Amish or Mennonite people) and spoke openly about her issues with the community, as well as her past struggles with mental health.

In her March 26 farewell video, however, Nelson exhibits an entirely different demeanor. “This is the last TikTok that I’m going to be making while I’m still in the community,” she says in the farewell video, which has since been deleted along with the rest of her account. In the clip, she appears stiff and gulps nervously, at one point glancing off-camera. “It has been very nice to get to know all of you, and I appreciate the opportunity that you have given me to talk about the community,” she says, concluding, “I wish you all well.” A caption on the TikTok reads: “I deeply apologize if I have offended anyone for stepping outside the community guidelines.”

The video alarmed followers who speculated that Nelson was being coerced into sending the message by male elders seeking to silence her. In addition to maintaining simple dress and a certain distance from the modern world, plain people abide by strict gender roles and patriarchal church systems, which have been reported to internally suppress claims of sexual and domestic abuse. Nelson had often acknowledged such issues in her TikToks, and when she signed off, followers inundated local law enforcement officers near her home with calls for a wellness check. While a sheriff’s office said it would investigate, it’s not clear whether officers made contact with Nelson. (A representative for the sheriff’s department in Nelson’s county did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.)

Nelson then returned to TikTok to address the reaction to her last message, insisting that she had not recorded it as a “hostage” but claimed she had been given the choice to remain in the plain community or pursue a life outside it. Despite previously sharing a lot of content expressing the desire to leave to further her education and other ambitions, Nelson explained that she had decided to stay. She also shot back at an unnamed person for characterizing her as a “scammer” and a “fraud,” claiming to have “converted” to her lifestyle around 2018 or 2019. Amid the furor, Nelson’s sister — whom Nelson had identified as a “friend” in her videos — also announced that she was taking a break from TikTok.

Because Nelson did not respond to our requests for comment, it’s unclear whether she did formally join the Amish. But two women acquainted with Nelson who spoke to Rolling Stone — one of them on the condition of anonymity, for fear of alienating Nelson’s family members — say they are not aware of the TikToker “converting” to the plain lifestyle at any point. Both women, who knew Nelson and her sister from a homeschool and co-op they attended as teenagers, alleged that Nelson has a history of fabrication, telling people she had Tourette’s syndrome when she did not, in fact, have such a diagnosis. Both women also shared photos with Rolling Stone of themselves with Nelson in years past, showing Nelson evidently living the life of the average American teenager: hanging out at the mall, going bowling, using makeup, dressing in costumes, and taking silly selfies with Snapchat filters.

Further, Nelson’s father is a pastor at a Pentecostal church, which does not appear to have any affiliation with plain groups. (Its Facebook page is no longer publicly accessible, as the church has received multiple threats, according to the women; the name of the church is being withheld for this reason.) The church did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.

“She did say she was Mennonite” some years ago, before her TikTok account took off in late 2023, says Alyssa, one of the women who befriended Nelson in the Virginia homeschool (and preferred to be identified only by her first name). “She did that for a couple of weeks, and then she went back. [But] when I saw her [in 2020], she was just living her normal life in her normal clothes.” Alyssa recalls that Nelson, now in her early twenties, had experimented with both Amish and Mennonite identities, and also tried out a “goth” phase.

The second woman, who chose to remain anonymous in speaking with Rolling Stone about Nelson, says her TikTok account seemed to take off thanks to her place of employment: a local plain store (or general store) owned by Mennonites. Nelson recorded much of her content at this location. “I didn’t really grasp onto the whole thing because she does work at a plain store,” the second woman says. “That is true. Because there’s no other jobs out there.” She says she believes Nelson’s job “kind of sparked” her decision to purport to be Amish, adding, “I’m not sure if the requirement was she had to wear plain clothes, or if she just went along with it to fit in.”

Nelson’s childhood friend says she was hesitant to come forward questioning Nelson’s background, as she was close with her family members and did not want to upset them. She changed her mind, however, after she posted her video quitting TikTok, sparking concern among mutual friends. “They were like, what’s going on? Something needs to happen. You have to take action,” the friend says.

While some fans believed Nelson’s story about “converting” to the plain life sometime before 2020, such cases are extremely rare. (According to one estimate, there may be only about 150 to 200 Amish converts living today, due to the relative difficulty of the Amish lifestyle. There’s no evidence that directly disproves Nelson’s conversion narrative, though both sources for this story say it is unlikely, and Alyssa claims to have seen Nelson dressed normally at a wedding in 2020.) Most TikTok users following the drama instead pointed out that Nelson’s own videos reveal how she lives in a relatively modern house — the same one as her sister — and dredged up Facebook photos showing her celebrating last Halloween with her father’s church. (Plain people generally do not observe the holiday.)

Internet sleuths even tracked down what appears to be Nelson’s previous TikTok account, active from June to December 2022, which shows no indication that she belongs to a plain religious community. In the earlier videos on this profile, Nelson acts out tales of Norwegian ancestors surviving Nazi occupation in the 1940s before immigrating to the U.S. At another point, she shared an image of herself as a child opening a Cabbage Patch doll for a Christmas gift, which is a highly unusual gift for an Amish child, as Amish people typically eschew commercial toys and products.

While plenty of TikTok commenters reveled in the messiness of the Sarah Joy saga and the expanding “lore” around Nelson, a few expressed sympathy for what they saw as troubled behavior. “I know I’ll get dragged but I feel sorry for her,” wrote one under a video from Nelson’s old TikTok account. “She’s obviously struggling with mental battles and just wanted attention and maybe love.” Another added: “It’s the internet, people lie every single day, she was doing something that she was having fun doing.”

Nelson’s two homeschool classmates agree that mental health struggles may have led Nelson to play a character different from herself. “I think it has to do with her just not really knowing what to do, where to be, and she’s just trying to fit in somewhere,” says one of those friends. “And, of course, the people in that community on social media are very supportive. I think she just felt supported there.”