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Phoebe Jane Elizabeth Tonkin was born on July 12, 1989 in Sydney, Australia to Nicholas and Jane Tonkin. She has one younger sister named Abby. Phoebe began performing at the age of four, beginning with dancing courses in classical ballet, hip hop, contemporary dance, and tap. As a child, Phoebe attended Loreto Kirribilli, a Catholic school for girls, and later graduated from Queenswood School for Girls. Despite her love of dance, by the age of ten, she knew exactly what she wanted to be - an actress. Two years later Phoebe began courses at the Australian Theatre for Young People at the Wharf Theatre. Her credits include the role of Helena in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing, also by Shakespeare. Phoebe's big break in Australia came from her co-leading role as Cleo Sertori in the television series H2O: Just Add Water which follows the lives of three teenage girls who magically turn into mermaids when water touches their skin. Tonkin and her fellow cast members improved their swimming abilities during pre-production of the series. The show aired for three seasons due to its popularity.

In 2008, Phoebe was nominated for Best Lead Actress in a Television Series by the Australian Film Institute Awards. The next three years were busy for the young actress. During the break between the second and third seasons of H2O, Phoebe worked in a local pub. Once the series wrapped, she made guest appearances on the popular Aussie shows Packed to the Rafters and Home and Away as Lexi and Adrian Hall, respectively. The former starred H2O's Angus McLaren. During this time, she also co-starred in her first feature film as Fiona Maxwell in Tomorrow When the War Began, based off the young adult book series of the same name. While the film was not very successful internationally, it was a huge hit in Australia and New Zealand. Within two weeks, the film grossed over $7.7 million in Australia to become the highest-grossing domestic film of 2010. A sequel was announced, but unfortunately never came to production. By January 2011, Phoebe moved to Los Angeles; however, she returned to Australia that year to film the horror disaster movie, Bait 3D with H2O co-star, Cariba Heine.

In March 2011, after two months in Los Angeles, Phoebe was cast on the CW's The Secret Circle as Faye Cahmberlain. Set in the fictional town of Chance Harbor, Washington, the series focuses on Cassie Blake who, after moving to Chance Harbor, discovers that she is a hereditary witch and soon after joins a secret coven of five others. The show filmed in Vancouver, Canada, and premiered in September 2011 to over 3.5 million viewers. For her performance, Phoebe received critical acclaim, with critics referring to her as the breakout star of the series; she was featured on Variety's list of "new faces to watch" and named one of 2011's breakout TV stars by E! Online. However, due to the series' declining viewership and high production cost, it was cancelled on May 11, 2012 after only one season. However, this was not Phoebe's last production with the CW and by August 2012, Phoebe was cast as Hayley Marshall in a recurring role on the CW's teen show The Vampire Diaries. Her first episode aired on October 25, 2012. She joined former H2O co-star, Claire Holt, who portrayed Rebekah Mikaelson, an original vampire, on the series.

On January 11, 2013, the CW confirmed that a spin-off series of the Vampire Diaries was in production and would be titled The Originals. The series revolved around the original vampire family members - the Mikaelsons, and it was announced Phoebe would "be heavily featured in the prospective pilot" of the series. The backdoor pilot aired on April 25, 2013 and was quickly picked up for a full fall series to premiere on October 3, 2013. Claire Holt also joined the show for the first sixteen episodes. When Holt left the show, Phoebe took over as the sole female lead. While filming the Originals, Phoebe appeared in a guest starring role on the show Stalker, reuniting for a third time with Kevin Williamson, executive producer of The Secret Circle. She has also co-starred in The Ever After, starring best friend, Teresa Palmer, and starred as the female lead in Billionaire Ransom (aka Take Down) with Jeremy Sumpter. In December 2015, she filmed her second short film Cul-de-Sac which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2016. The fifteen minute short was about a married couple who's bubble of suburban normality is punctured when they find a surprise inside their toddler's teddy bear.

While in France in early March 2017 to attend Chanel's Show at Paris Fashion Week, Phoebe received the news that she had been in cast in SBS's upcoming thriller mini-series, Safe Harbour. The announcement of Phoebe's new project came on May 15, 2017. Filming wrapped in mid-June. That following month, Phoebe started filming the fifth and final season of the Originals. Unfortunately, Phoebe's role was greatly reduced and she only appeared in six episodes. Soon after the show wrapped, TVLine announced that Phoebe would appear in a guest role on the critically acclaimed Showtime series The Affair. Sarah Treem, the showrunner, saw Phoebe's audition for another role and praised her performance as "smart and striking". In June of 2018, Phoebe filmed another short film this time teaming up with horror director Roxanne Benjamin. A 3D audio thriller, the short was sponsored by Sennheiser and used their Ambeo Smart Headset. The film features a young woman who is being followed by a dark figure and ends with a surprising twist. The following month, Phoebe's episode of the Affair premiered, marking her first appearance on premium cable.

August 2018 was a big month for Phoebe's career. Her Australian drama Safe Harbour was picked up by exclusively by Hulu; previously, the series had only aired in Australia. Even more excitingly, Phoebe's next big role was announced. On August 20th, it was revealed that she had been cast in a lead role in the Stan series Bloom. She joined friend and fellow former child actor Ryan Corr along with the critically acclaimed Jackie Weaver and Bryan Brown. The series takes place a year after a devastating flood has killed five locals in an idyllic country town. One day a mysterious new plant appears. The plant's phenomenal ability to restore youth is so formidable that attempting to harness it for those affected to re-evaluate their values. The six episode season premiered on January 1, 2019 and Phoebe's portrayal of Gwen Reed received critical acclaim. Prior to the release of the first season, Phoebe revealed in a Who Magazine interview that there was a possibility of that Stan may pick up the series for a second season. In the same interview, Phoebe mentioned having several things lined up in LA for the new year.

Prior to her move to the United States, Phoebe appeared in commercials for Vauxhall Motors, Just Jeans, and Old Navy. She was previously signed to Chic Management. Her modeling career includes shoots for Girlfriend, Teen Vogue, ELLE Australia, Miss Vogue Australia, Vogue Australia, Dolly and Free People. Phoebe was previously the face of Matteau Swim, an international swimsuit line by Ilona Hamer and Petra Heinsen. In 2012, Phoebe played the female lead in Miles Fisher's "Don't Let Go" music video. That same year Phoebe launched the website Your Zen Life with Teresa Palmer; however, she eventually stepped down as a contributor to the site. Continuing her interest in fashion, Phoebe participated in Ellery in Paris, a documentary about Kym Ellery - the third Australian fashion designer to be invited to Paris Fashion Week in the last twenty years. She also led a campaign for Jan Logan along with appearing in a short film for the design house titled Sunrise to Sunset Blvd in 2014. In 2018, Phoebe participated in a digital campaign for Chanel, and has since been credited as an ambassador for the brand.

Phoebe remains close friends with her Secret Circle co-stars, Shelley Hennig and Britt Robertson. She is also godmother to Teresa Palmer's son, Forest. From 2013 until 2017, Phoebe dated her former Vampire Diaries co-star, Paul Wesley. The two ambicably split after four years of dating. Currently, Phoebe lives in Los Angeles, California.