Illustration by Angelica Alzona
In December 2015, readers at women's site xoJane were enthralled and filled with all-caps rage by Rachel Brewson, a self-described "giant liberal" who boldly declared her love for a Republican named Todd. She described, in rapturous terms, how the couple's political disagreements fueled an ecstatic third-date bipartisan fuck-fest that soon flowered into a real relationship.
Mid-date, they got into a "heated debate" about politics, Brewson wrote. They fought from wherever the date took place (she didn't say), into the street, and into a cab. The discussion ended when Todd—who, as it turned out, was a gun-loving, Iraq-war-supporting libertarian—manfully invited himself up to her apartment.
"What followed was the best sex of my life up to that point," Brewson wrote, whose author bio said she was a "dating editor" at a site called Review Weekly. "Somehow the political tension between us had transformed into sexual tension. I was hooked."
The post was a modest success—it was shared just under 3,000 times on social media, and racked up 1,000 comments on xoJane itself (whose editor-in-chief is Jane Pratt of Sassy fame. The site was purchased by Time. Inc last fall). Many of those comments complained about Rachel's privileged white-woman version of liberalism, which allowed her to ignore "petty differences"—her term—between her and Todd on issues like immigration.
"He flashed some money your way and you're ready to label things like rape culture and systematic racism as 'petty differences,'" one commenter fumed. "You aren't as liberal as you want to believe you are."
Three months later, the fairytale was over. Brewson revealed in March that the couple had broken up over Donald Trump, with whom Todd had become enamored. There was an ugly scene at a party, she wrote; Todd had called Hillary Clinton a cunt and her supporters "ugly feminazis." Brewson was shocked. She was hurt. She walked out. She bemoaned the coarsening of our national discourse.
"Trump has lowered the debate into the sewer," she wrote in her second piece. "And it's become toxic."
This isn't great writing—it's cliched and hackneyed, and that sentence construction makes it sounds like the sewer became toxic, not the debate, which is a silly and redundant way to describe a sewer. The pieces were undeniably attention-grabbing, in other words, but they weren't very good, both seemingly only lightly touched by an editor.
Or, for that matter, a fact-checker: as xoJane's observant and perpetually exasperated commenters soon noted, Brewson's author photo and the photo she used in the first piece looked nothing alike. The first piece showed a blonde woman, the author bio a brunette with sharper features.
The image of "Rachel Brewson" from her first xoJane story, left, and her xoJane author bio, right.
And then Brewson and Todd were invited to appear on Nightline, where they argued in a manner that seemed, even to a casual observer, to be staged.
"You smell like booze," Brewson sniffed to Todd, on-camera.
"You smell like patchouli," he shot back.
The couple appeared alongside another couple with ties to xoJane who were also fighting about Trump: the site's editor-at-large Mandy Stadtmiller, who married a comedian named Pat Dixon onstage in November 2015, and who writes a regular column called "Unwifeable" about how that's going. She wrote a column in March called "Trump is Tearing My Marriage Apart," and she and Dixon also appeared in a video for Fusion, where they convincingly talk about being in love with one another.
By contrast, Brewson's story really didn't pass even the most perfunctory of smell tests. She and Jenkins seemed wooden, and the details of how they fell in love were sparse and generic: they were at a "video game conference," supposedly, where both agreed the other person seemed "easy to talk to." Also, Nightline referred to Rachel by the wrong last name, "Brewer."
"What the hell is going on?" wrote a commenter on a message board dedicated to complaining about xoJane. "Is this some kind of JT LeRoy thing?" (LeRoy was a literary hoax, a fake young West Virginia novelist with a tragic backstory. The hoax was uncovered in 2006 by the New York Times. )
Close. If you were one of the people who became a little bit emotionally invested in Rachel Brewson's breakup with her boyfriend Todd—if you felt sorry for her, or infuriated, or thought they both seemed like self-involved jerks— you may be comforted to know that she doesn't exist.
As a tipster pointed out to Jezebel, and as we confirmed in interviews with the people who wrote her into being, "Rachel Brewson" was fake, the product of an unusually involved internet marketing scheme that managed to strew blog posts, personal essays, and social media profiles across fairly well-trafficked sections of the Internet.
Brewson wasn't a publicity stunt, but an attempt to make money. The character was created by an (all-male) team of internet marketers interested in pushing traffic back to Review Weekly, a site that relied on various internet monetization schemes to try to generate a profit. In the process, they created a bunch of flimsy fake characters to write posts, and an unusually detailed one: Rachel. "She" got published on a few big sites—xoJane, Thought Catalog, Elite Daily—appeared on TV (where the company hired amateur actors to play her and Todd), and left a trail of profiles that remain on the internet to this day.
In the end, Review Weekly was an expensive failure, according to its owner, who chose to fire the entire staff at the end of May. The website remains online, but is no longer publishing new material.
But Rachel's main creator, marketing consultant Kenny Hyder, says the site continues to passively generate income. And he still prides himself on what a great job his team did bringing Brewson to life.
Hyder, who's 31, came to Review Weekly through his friendship with Sheri "Charlie" Katz, an Israeli entrepreneur who runs a company called Equate Media. I reached Hyder by phone on Friday, in Los Angeles, where he lives. In the classic, buoyant style of an internet marketer, he quickly went from being mildly concerned that I'd found him to trying to benefit from our acquaintance.
"I'd like to get something out of this," he told me. He wanted me to link to his website ("Links are really important in this business"), and he wanted to make sure that if Equate was mentioned, "which I don't think they need to be," that they would be "cast in a good light."
I unequivocally said no to both of those things. Hyder paused for a moment and then decided to continue talking. (As he explained later, any press is good press: "It's not going to look bad on me. At least not in my circle.")
Hyder briefly tried to suggest at the outset that maybe Rachel Brewson is a real person.
"You're just assuming she's not real," he said, sounding cautious.
Let's be clear here: Rachel Brewson is definitely not real. Even if we managed to explain away the differences in her appearance— people gain and lose weight, dye their hair, get plastic surgery, have sex with and then break up with Republicans all the time— she has none of the hallmarks of a real person. For one, she doesn't appear in any public records databases. She has no listed social security number, no address history, no property records, no voting history, no records in criminal or civil court, no old MySpace profiles knocking around in the ether. For someone under 100 years old and born in the United States, that's not just an unusual set of absences, it's virtually impossible.
I told Hyder some of that, briefly. He conceded that Brewson was fake, and then explained her genesis.
"The funny thing is we do this all the time," he told me. "You guys just found one."
Review Weekly, he explained, was "a content site that we did to run affiliate programs through." The concept is called arbitrage: "You pay for traffic and then monetize it and try to turn a profit. But because of my background in SEO, it was natural to start some content and try to get some free traffic as well."
If your vision just blurred, as mine reliably does when talking about internet revenue generating schemes, the important takeaway here is that Review Weekly was set up to make money by getting people to click through to their site from other, bigger sites. Everything depended on getting people to click back to Review Weekly, but not on making the content of the site itself any good. It was all incredibly generic: reviews of dating apps, security systems, and "subscription boxes" like Birchbox. Here's the vivid review that "Rachel" wrote about J-Date:
Whether you're looking for a life-partner who shares your values or simply seeking others with a similar background, JDate is a great place to meet Jewish singles. With plenty of ways to flirt, chat and see who's been checking you out, you're bound to find new friends and maybe even discover that special someone.
Hyder explains that the intent of "Rachel" was to try to generate some organic traffic to the site, and to improve Review's domain authority, which scores how well a site registers on search engines. Domain authority is a measurement created by marketing analytics company Moz, ranked out of a total possible score of 100. Jezebel's domain authority, for example, is 90. NYTimes.com is 99. Review Weekly's currently registers at 21, according to an online domain authority calculator.
Hyder's plan was to hire writers to create fake people, and to get real posts published in other, bigger outlets. Naturally, everyone's author bio on those other sites would link back to Review Weekly.
"I trained my team to write under profiles that we set up," he told me. "We have an approach where we go after getting syndications and regular slots on other sites like with xoJane, where we can write content regularly."
Most of Review Weekly's fake writers aren't very convincing as people: they have cartoon avatars and identical biographies on Facebook, Twitter, and anywhere else they get published. Take TJ Farhadi, an apparently fake Review Weekly writer who has been published on BroBible and Thought Catalog, and whose bio always reads like this:
I love anything that has to do with automation and AI. In addition to seeking out the latest and greatest technologies, I also enjoy kayaking across Lake Union.
TJ's life seems lonely, aside from all that kayaking: his Twitter bio is just a series of links to tech stories that he wrote or commented on. He rarely interacts with anyone. (That's not usually how tech geeks act, especially on Twitter.)
Another Review writer named Kryssie Spence is slightly more human-seeming. Here's her bio:
Kryssie Spence loves a good surprise. She's obsessed with online shopping, going on urban adventures with her partner-in-crime, husband Josh, and prides herself on being the "Cool Aunt."
That all sounds vaguely lifelike, and especially so if you're familiar with the typical writer bio tacked on to most essays that appear on women's internet. Kryssie often commented on other people's blog posts, too. And while the real intent was clearly to link back to Review Weekly, the comments sometimes sound almost human. Like this one, on a story that a woman wrote about her mental illness: "So many feels for this story. Thank you for sharing your story. You're a very brave woman." Elsewhere, she got really excited about a cookie recipe: "These look absolutely incredible! I'm going to surprise my office with a batch of these next Monday."
All of the comments left by "Kryssie" and "TJ" linked back to Review Weekly when you clicked their names. Some of RW's employees were specifically tasked with creating and maintaining a social media presence for the company's characters, which would have included commenting on other sites.
Rachel Brewson was the most fleshed-out of Review Weekly's roster and, probably not coincidentally, she performed the best in the real world. The three biggest sites "Rachel" landed on were xoJane, Elite Daily, and Thought Catalog (where Brewson's first xoJane piece ran again, four months after it appeared on xoJane, and without a note that it had been previously published elsewhere).
Brewson also got published on lesser-known sites like the Self Actual, SW Experts and Role Reboot (where she mused about dating a male model to get over a tough breakup). Her author bio was the same on RW and everywhere else:
Rachel Brewson, Dating Editor, has played matchmaker and dating coach to friends and colleagues, as well as written for xoJane, Thought Catalog and a handful of online blogs. She loves craft beer, the beach, and warm LA nights.
Virtually all of the people apparently writing for Review Weekly were doing so under fake bylines, explained Charlie Wilke, a former Equate Media employee I spoke to last week. Wilke, who says he's in his "mid-thirties," (he, too, lives in Los Angeles and does some acting, which he says is why he's reticent to give his exact age). He worked at RW for four months, on salary, at what he says was a fairly standard rate (he declined to say exactly how much).
"I was hired as a content writer," he explained. "And in the interview process was asked about how I felt about writing under a different name." Wilke said that only one person, a guy named Angel who wrote about horror movies, was permitted to regularly use his real name.
Wilke agreed to the terms, but told his new bosses he would always present his work as his own in his portfolio. That is how aggrieved xoJane readers, including our tipster, eventually confirmed Brewson was fake: Wilke included a Rachel Brewson piece in his "content writing" portfolio.
By the time Wilke got there, Hyder and the team had already gotten the first Rachel Brewson story published on xoJane. They were delighted by how well it did and how much natural discussion it provoked.
"We wanted to get more," Hyder says. "We wanted to get another piece to go viral." (There was money involved, but a very small amount: xoJane pays $50 or so per submission. It's unclear who would've gotten that check here, since it would have been made out to someone who does not exist. Neither Elite Daily nor Thought Catalog typically pay contributors.)
Wilke was part of a team of about five writers tasked with doing the second Rachel story. He says he soon decided Donald Trump needed to play a role.
"I'm like, obviously Trump is the big attention-grabber right now," he told me. "The obvious thrust for the second article is things fall apart because he starts to like Trump."
The sticking point was that "Todd" hadn't been a Trump fan in the original piece, and had in fact referred to him as "the idiot," according to his girlfriend. They needed to figure out how he turned so quickly, Wilke explained—to come up with a convincing narrative that could explain both his political conversion and the couple's speedy breakup.
"We got deep into the psyche, probably the reality, of why people have shifted towards Trump," Wilke says. "The inner nasty. We tapped that into that."
Wilke says he shrugged off some lingering feelings of ethical unease because, well, he needed to work.
"I suppose I was able to disconnect myself from the virtues of the company by my desire to eat," he says dryly. "Your ethical and moral high ground evaporates when you have to pay your rent."
Another former Review employee who worked on the "Rachel Project," as he calls it, was Alexander Abbey, who now works for a startup. He said, when I asked him about it, that he found Review a little odd when he first got there.
"The concept that we had created these people— who were presented as fully formed personalities—out of thin air was bizarre to me," he told me in an email. "When people started paying attention to one of them it kind of blew my mind!"
The morality, he argues, was less shaky than it would appear: "As far as ethics go, once I understood what was happening with it, the character was fictional, but the advice she was giving was real, and good advice, so there was a benefit to getting her out there." (Rachel wrote dating advice columns too, like one for Elite Daily about what to do when your boyfriend inevitably asks for a threesome. It's worth noting that the site has had serious fact-checking issues before: An imposter impersonated Gizmodo writer Kate Knibbs to write for them.)
The day that "Rachel" was asked to appear on Nightline was huge, Abbey adds. He remembers hearing Hyder stand up and jubilantly yell out, "What is happening?" Then, he adds, "there was a lot of talk about what the best way to go about presenting this fictional character on television. That was insane."
Hyder says that "a lot" of places wanted to interview Rachel about her Trump-sunk relationship— though he declined to specify which ones exactly—and says the Steve Harvey Show even offered to fly her to Chicago. But he knew from the start that there might be an issue later.
"I knew there would be a problem with his one down the road because of the pictures," he says. The original photo is a woman in Russia, he says, who granted him permission to use her photo. The photo accompanying the author bio is the same woman who appeared in the Nightline segment, he claims, an actress and internet marketer herself. (Jezebel didn't manage to learn her name or get in touch with her directly.) Todd Jenkins was played by his cousin. A Facebook profile photo for Brewson created by Review Weekly staff uses a different person altogether: "There was another woman we tried to use but it didn't work." He declines to get into specifics. "It just wasn't the right the person to use."
xoJane wouldn't let them take down the original photo from the first post, Hyder says ("Rachel" emailed and asked if she could swap out photos, Hyder says, a request that was denied). But otherwise he claims the process of launching a fake person into TV fame was surprisingly easy, even with the picture discrepancy. I asked if anything about it felt unethical, and he said no, pointing out that no one at ABC or Nightline ever asked for ID or any other kind of verification.
"How is it unethical?" he added. "They wanted to interview her about this story that went viral and it was a story. You know what I mean? TV is all made up anyway. Why not join the fun? That's the state of our reporting in this country."
Besides, he says, "It's not the first time for me, having a fake author get invited to go on TV." He estimates that he has created "thousands" of fake characters over the years, and that seven or eight were as detailed as Rachel Brewson. (He didn't want to tell me about any of the more detailed characters he said he'd helped create or where they appeared, saying it could hurt his livelihood.) He claims that "Rachel" isn't even their most successful character:"She isn't the biggest. That side of Equate was so minor, such a minor blip."
"It's really funny because there's stuff on TV all the time, people that are not real people," he added, chuckling. "No one even knows, but us internet marketers just laugh."
A public relations representative at ABC told Jezebel early Tuesday that the station was "looking into" the matter. Before responding to us, however, they deleted segment from the ABC website without explanation later the same day. A version without video remains live on Yahoo, where it was syndicated, and still quotes "Rachel" and "Todd." The PR representative, Julie Townsend, told us Tuesday the following statement would be put online later that day:
Since our report about couples who broke up due to differences in their politics aired (4/15/2016), it has come to our attention that two of the interview subjects may have misrepresented themselves. As a result we've taken the piece off line, and we apologize to our viewers.
ABC didn't immediately respond to our inquiries about how Nightline verifies the identities of its guests.
Melanie Berliet, Thought Catalog's editorial director, told Jezebel in an email that while the site allows pseudonyms at times, Brewson seemed to be real to her:
We allow people to publish under pseudonyms to protect their identities. However, if Review Weekly is using a pseudonym to deceptively place promotions for a commercial venture, this is wrong and needs to be rectified.
Many contributors to Thought Catalog are in college and do not have an established web footprint to fact-check. I personally corresponded with Brewson and she seemed to be real based on our interactions.
If the author has a preexisting relationship with a publisher that requires attribution, we will add it.
The site didn't delete the articles after our email exchange, but did update
It's unclear what the editing and fact-checking process on the Rachel Brewson stories entailed, and xoJane didn't respond directly to our request for clarification on this matter. In the meantime, the site also added a note to "Rachel's" author bio.
A spokesperson for Time Inc., their parent company, referred me to the editors' note tacked onto Brewson's author page.
In a brief phone call, Sheri "Charlie" Katz (he uses both names professionally) told me that Review Weekly ended after existing for less than a year, both because it was expensive and because the writers were too high-maintenance.
"I didn't like what was going on there," he said in his pleasant Israeli accent. "The whole office, they wanted to be treated differently because they were like creative writers. So I got turned off with all this and I just cut it. I had to stop what was going on and fired everybody."
Katz appears to have gotten his start in moving companies: he owns one called Budget Van Lines, based in Nevada and California. In 2011, the company was one of several who were the subject of a Senate Committee's investigation. Senator John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia wrote a letter to Katz questioning him about the company's alleged practice of holding household goods "hostage," hanging onto customers' stuff until they agreed to pay "exorbitant fees," as Rockefeller put it, that weren't part of the original agreement.
It's unclear if there was any further action taken as a result of the Senate Committee hearing, and Budget Van Lines remains in business. Katz also owns dozens of domain names for other moving websites. But he's also branched out: Equate is a lead generation company; that is, one that promises to drive customer interest and "massive volumes of traffic" towards moving websites, as well as sites for dating, entertainment, and home services companies. It's registered as a business with the Secretary of State in both California and Nevada, where Katz owns a home. (However, their business license in California is listed as "suspended or forfeited" for "failure to meet tax requirements," which can mean a failure to file a return, or to pay taxes, penalties or interest.)
Hyder cheerily calls Review Weekly "a painful experience for me."
"They did SEO and they're supposed to be ranking on search engines and it didn't—nothing really happened," he says. He ended up paying an office full of people for nothing: "It was a bunch of writers and salaries and this and that and nobody cared about nothing. You know? It's like you do editorial reviews and things like that but we got no traffic, so what's the point?"
They didn't make money, but Review Weekly was still on to something. The "harrowing personal essay economy," as Slate termed it, makes for almost irresistible reading, even when it's badly done or pisses us off. It's clickable, shareable, bloggable, sometimes TV-worthy, and has turned into something that non-professional writers can easily pick up. Media companies are experimenting with it too: for a time, Hearst ran The Mix, for example, a personal essay content farm that wrote headlines and solicited articles to match from a stable of hundreds of poorly-compensated writers.
xoJane has become infamous for running a certain breed of personal take by a particular kind of woman: the one taking a "bold stance" and "refusing to apologize," even as she makes herself look like a total asshole. The It Happened to Me series, the site's best-known feature, turns on that, frequently running pieces that go viral, often because people hate them. Perhaps best known among this group is Jen Polachek, a "skinny white girl" who wrote a painfully earnest, very embarrassing, instantly infamous essay about staring at a larger black woman in her yoga class. There was Amanda Lauren, who called her friend's suicide a blessing, since the friend wasn't doing much anyway. There was also the lady who got a ball of cat hair in her vagina and decided to tell us all about it.
Jezebel is by no means exempt: we published, for example, a woman's ruminations on having sex with her father (although, unlike the stories discussed here, that piece was fact-checked by talking to the author's family members and friends). Slate specifically criticized that piece in their indictment of the "first-person industrial complex." The Jezebel piece got nearly half a million pageviews and will likely be the author's first Google result forever, even if she ever decides that she'd rather not be primarily known for that chapter of her life.
So it's not surprising that an internet marketer or ten would try to exploit both the Internet's appetite for confessionals and the economy that produces them. Hyder says he was entertained by the amount of outrage that the stories on xoJane generated.
"Rachel is a man, in the first place," he says. (Well, several men, but I took his point.) "You have to laugh at it. It was funny in the beginning to get everyone all mad. People spend too much time on the internet caring about stupid shit and comment their asses off and don't realize it's not real."
I said that it must have felt strange, to realize he could manipulate people's emotions like that.
"Yeah," he said. "But these aren't real people who matter. It's some women's site that has a bunch of content on it. It's not a real political discussion or a religious debate. I'm not doing anything malicious. I'm not trying to control the world. I'm just trying to get activity." (It does seem odd not to specify which other fake people Hyder has helped achieve viral fame, if there's nothing wrong with planting those characters.)
Hyder said, too, that his more detailed characters are always women, and that he's gotten good at writing like one: "I get a tone for what works and what fits and how not to talk like a woman, because I don't write like a woman when I write for myself."
I asked him to explain.
"I think my tone comes off as extremely analytical," he said. "Women's tonality is definitely much lower in criticism and that stuff typically."
Hyder and his team took advantage of a variety of things: SEO-based marketing schemes, confessional essays, but fundamentally, the way women's media works and the conventions it's founded upon, the strange combination of extreme disclosure and relative interchangeability authorship on these sites seems to demand. Their efforts proved, if anything, that a woman writer on the internet can be a cipher, as featureless as Kryssie Spence. All she needs is one or two photos, a vague bio, a tale of woe, or some unpopular opinions. Stripped to their most basic impulses, neither the readership nor the editorial structure of many women's sites asks for more. (Nor is this a new phenomenon; some pieces that ran in the earliest days of Cosmo, for example, were either not fact-checked or outright made-up.)
True, Jezebel rigorously fact-checked the father-sex essay, but we certainly haven't done the same amount of legwork for other, less explosive personal essays. And were it not for the photos, there would have been nothing in particular that should have tipped xoJane off that "Rachel" wasn't real. Nothing in her writing was in any way remarkable for the personal essay economy. (It's worth noting here that there are other authors on the site that commenters believe are similarly flimsy. Briefly checking into a few of them, it was genuinely difficult for me to tell.)
What's somewhat chilling is realizing that all of our sites function just fine either way: whether the person on the other end of the keyboard is an impassioned woman with a shitty ex or a team or marketers chortling around a whiteboard, diagramming third-date sex to a tearful, Trump-tinted breakup in just five moves.
Hyder told me one of his better characters was still active, and getting published (a male character, as it happens). I asked him to tell me where. He politely refused.
"Definitely not," he said, nicely enough. "I don't mind burning xoJane. I don't need links from them anymore. But this is my livelihood."
He said it was unlikely that anyone would ever find the male character, who he planned to keep alive indefinitely. "I've been doing this for a long time and I'm going to keep doing it. It works."
In fact, he added, with a grin I swore I could hear through the phone, this story was probably going to do wonders for the corpse of Review Weekly, which continues to generate pay-per-click profits: "The site monetizes on pages you can't navigate to," he explains, "pages that aren't linked and hidden from search engines." All the curious readers seeking the site out—even though I've taken special pains not to link to it in this piece—will only make it bigger.
"This is maybe a new strategy," he mused. "Now it'll get more exposure and you'll make that site even stronger. Jezebel.com is a really strong domain."
Full disclosure: I wrote a personal essay for xoJane in 2013, for which I was paid $50. I am appropriately embarrassed about it, believe me, although it's sort of funny now, in light of all this.