A chiseled, bleached blonde man in a muscle tank beamed at me and 83,000 other people from behind a camera in his darkened living room.
“What’s going on everybody, it’s Vegan Cheetah!” he yelled happily. “So apparently Freelee did kill her dog,” he continued, pausing mid-explanation to take a hit from his vape, a huge plume of white smoke filling the screen. It was June of this year, and I was six months or so into a mild fixation on YouTube’s most opinionated vegan personalities.
I’m not sure why I became invested in this crowd of insult-hurling wellness warriors, but if I could pinpoint a moment when it happened, it was this one. YouTuber Vegan Cheetah, whose real name is Charles Marlowe, has fashioned himself as a one-man TMZ for vegan YouTube celebrities, such as they are. His was one of the first vegan YouTube accounts I followed, mostly because we shared a fascination with the same person: Freelee the Banana Girl, aka Leanne Ratcliffe, whose adopted name is an amalgam of “Leanne” and “Freedom.” Freelee, a living vision board and the flaming star of this solar system, is a 36-year-old vegan YouTube celebrity and lifestyle guru from Queensland, Australia. (She has, by the way, denied that she killed her dog Figsy, a rumor that began after Figsy stopped appearing in her videos.) Insofar as Freelee is known beyond her niche, it’s for having once claimed to eat 51 bananas a day.
The internet—and YouTube, in particular—has birthed countless hyper-specialized communities, but something about vegans yelling into their computers at each other for an audience captured my prolonged attention. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend Freelee’s videos or those of any other YouTube vegan, but if you’re able to tolerate long, rambling monologues and opaque references to unfamiliar people and situations, YouTube’s vegan corner will reward you with a rich tapestry of juvenile insanity.
Freelee’s followers have been labeled a “cult” by critical members of the vegan YouTube community, and their online dramas center around a range of real-life controversies that form a thicket of accusations so dense that clarity about what’s true and what’s not can, at times, be impossible to attain. In the months I spent watching these people’s comings and goings, I found myself bewildered by the antagonism surrounding a variety of pressure points, including a dubious diet, competing legal claims originating in a semi-permanent community in Thailand, a baffling campaign for mass vasectomies, and a secretive breakup that’s spiraled into accusations of domestic violence.
I first learned of “vegan YouTube drama” about a year ago, when I, along with a significant portion of the internet, watched a sobbing vegan teen named Essena O’Neill decry social media for being “fake”; fellow vegan YouTubers Nina and Randa, along with seemingly everyone else on YouTube, launched a stinging rebuttal. I discovered Freelee shortly thereafter, and for several confusing weeks, I attempted to document the waves of infighting that appeared to plague some of YouTube’s vegans—and there are, surprisingly, quite a lot of them—in a lighthearted series on Jezebel called “Vegan YouTube Drama Update.”
Not all vegan YouTubers are drawn to controversy, and many stick to “What I Ate Today” videos, fitness diaries, and similar #inspo content. But picking fights has been a definitive aspect of Freelee’s online brand, and she has plenty of copycats. A lot of this community’s “drama” is amplified in a bid for traffic, a growing trend on YouTube that is not unique to its vegan members. Conveniently, however, YouTube’s drama-oriented vegans have a high-minded excuse: they are promoting a movement. Several YouTubers I spoke with referenced a vegan “message” whose impact was augmented by targeted trash-talk. “When it comes to creating drama between vegans and non-vegans, I think it’s always good, because it’s like advertisements for veganism,” Eva Svehlova, a 26-year-old Czech YouTuber who goes by the moniker Vegan Ava, told me over Skype.
Freelee has been posting videos on YouTube since 2008 (although she told me that she deleted many of her early videos “because I thought I was too fat”), gaining outside notoriety and regular tabloid attention for various absurd statements she’s broadcast—for instance, that obese people caused 9/11 deaths by blocking the stairways in the World Trade Center (the 2011 video and its channel, BitchinFreelee, have since been deleted), or that 13-year-old YouTube star Talia Joy, who died of cancer in 2013, could have been saved if she had swapped out chemotherapy for a raw vegan diet.
Her reach, at a little over 720,000 YouTube followers, is well below that of YouTube big-shots like comedy vlogger Jenna Marbles, YouTube’s biggest female star, or Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie, who has 49 million subscribers—but she has appeared in videos with Marbles, a former Freelee target (“Why Has Jenna Marbles Gained Weight??”) who now, along with a number of other influential YouTubers, credits Freelee for “turning” her vegan.
In the two months of emailing that it took for Freelee to commit to an interview, I got to know her in other ways. Her YouTube channel has nearly 800 videos, and I have watched so many of them that at a certain point they began to blur together into a single Aussie-accented reprimand that I hear in my head sometimes while I’m trying to fall asleep. Early efforts show Freelee dancing by herself for two minutes straight, (seen in the hit “Sexy dancing fruitarian girl in underwear!”, which received over a million views); these more blatant appeals to virality contrast quite a bit with more recent videos, which show Freelee traipsing through her morning routine in an elegantly renovated home on Australia’s Gold Coast. But she consistently relies on a few key images: the large quantity of food she eats, and the “results” of that consumption—her body.
Freelee’s body is the product and the salesman, and it appears in bikinis, in lingerie, in crop tops and teeny shorts. Her arms gesture wildly; her voice, soft and tentative in her earliest videos, became sharper, almost irritated over the years. The effect is likely meant to evoke a tough but wise life coach; occasionally, it swerves closer towards the childhood camp counselor who made you cry.
Most entrepreneurs have a rags-to-riches story, and the one Freelee tells is that twice-over: her success comes not only in money and internet fame, but in a body miraculously healed of all dysfunction. Freelee, like many of her followers, became a vegan for health and weight-loss reasons; the ethical justifications came later. She says that a move to Sydney, Australia at age 16 hurt her health; she claims to have been anorexic, bulimic, and a “zombie follower” of fad diets, and says she developed a host of gastrointestinal issues which an army of doctors and naturopaths failed to cure. So she went vegan in 2007.
Her path to “losing 40 pounds of blubber,” as she has phrased it, involved a few Tony Robbins seminars and several beautiful women—one in a magazine article, another at a raw food picnic—whose eating habits she mimicked. Through this method, Freelee encountered and began following an extreme “mono-diet” that involves eating only bananas for up to a month, called “Banana Island.” For several years thereafter, Freelee went far beyond veganism to follow a high-carb, fully-raw vegan diet of mostly fruit, the lifestyle she became known for on YouTube. Her first ebook, Go Fruit Yourself!, was released in 2011. (At one point she had jewelry custom made for her out of real orange slices; they have since rotted.)
Freelee didn’t do this alone. In 2006, she met her now ex-boyfriend Durianrider, another self-styled vegan guru, on a raw food forum, and until this summer they were regular collaborators and romantic partners. “Durianrider” is the YouTube name of Harley Johnstone; his namesake, the durian, is a popular Southeast Asian fruit that smells like raw sewage. Similar to Freelee, but on a somewhat smaller scale—he has about 200,000 followers—Durianrider has cultivated a fanbase that seems to view him as one of the only vegans out there who tells it like it is.
Until recently, Freelee and Durianrider’s reputations have been completely entwined, although Durianrider is generally understood to be the more controversial of the pair. Durianrider, who often features images of Freelee in videos and on Instagram and has jokingly claimed to profit from “pimping her out,” takes credit for convincing Freelee to start polarizing her audience with controversial statements, a tactic he says she recoiled from at first. “Not many people can handle the drama. I remember Freelee at the start couldn’t handle it, and I said look, this is really good for views,” he recalled. (Freelee didn’t dispute this claim.) “People love the drama. The Kardashians are so popular because there’s drama attached to them.”
Indeed, Freelee, who is open about her eating disorder history, has been known to accuse other diet gurus of promoting eating disorders. Durianrider, a cycling enthusiast who encouraged Freelee and many of her followers to start biking, occasionally implies that other fitness personalities use steroids, despite the fact that he publicly experimented with them in 2014, boasting about how easily they were to obtain from a doctor.(Freelee and Durianrider were sued in 2015 by fitness personality Kayla Itsines and her partner Tobias Pierce, who accused them of defamation for claiming Itsines’ program The Bikini Body Guide starves people and that Pierce uses steroids. The case settled out of court.)
Durianrider, 39, is wiry and speaks with a heavy, sometimes unintelligible Australian accent. He rarely blinks, and in his videos often refers to people as “shit-cunts.” In an interview, he told me he was raised by a single mother in poverty line conditions in Adelaide, Australia, and summarizes his educational background as “taking a lot of drugs in high school,” including meth. In addition to the Itsines lawsuit, he’s been involved in a legal scuffle with raw foodist David Wolfe, and was apparently yanked from this year’s VegFest LA lineup after calling an alleged victim of domestic violence a “dumb bitch” (he reportedly managed to sneak onstage anyway).
Durianrider’s videos often show him conducting elaborate, childlike rescue missions on behalf of local fauna. “I can literally walk up to a jumping spider or a huntsman and tell if it’s dehydrated and then present that spider with a teaspoon of water and make it drink. Same with moths and butterflies,” he brags in his book, Carb the Fuck Up: Follow Your Heart With No Fucks Given.
Although Freelee and Durianrider have a unique way of making veganism look even more labor-intensive than it already is, they’re effective at framing it as an imperative rather than a choice. I’m not naturally inclined toward veganism, bananas, or presenting spiders with water, but I am sensitive to factory-farm footage and plausible doomsday scenarios—and after spending so much time with Freelee and friends, I found myself avoiding meat.
Excessive fruit consumption, of course, is not how most vegans eat. Veganism of the less radical sort than Freelee’s and Durianrider’s appears to be on the rise. Studies have indicated that a vegan diet can be effective at treating and preventing some chronic diseases and cancers, as well as obesity; widespread veganism could also help mitigate the effects of climate change, a cause the United Nations Environment Programme has urged. A 2012 study commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that the number of vegans in the U.S. has more than doubled, up from 1 percent of the country to 2.5.
According to a recent article in The Guardian, the rise in British veganism is largely attributable to young people—42 percent of vegans in the UK are between 15 and 34 years old. Most of the teens interviewed credited the internet and social media for the growth of veganism among young people; one 15-year-old mentioned Freelee as a source of inspiration.
Veganism as it’s traditionally defined is only one element of Freelee’s brand. After some time on a completely raw diet, Freelee says that she and Durianrider got “really hungry,” and in 2012, Freelee began promoting a controversial lifestyle called Raw Till 4. RT4, as it’s also known, instructs followers to consume a minimally-processed raw vegan diet of mainly fruit—in enormous quantities—for the first two meals of the day and then, for dinner, a high-carb cooked dinner of starchy plant-based foods. (She says her mom came up with the name.) RT4ers are told to consume “unlimited” calories, the majority of which should come from fruit.
Adherence to Raw Till 4, according to Freelee’s book The Raw Till 4 Diet, can result in weight loss, lighter, shorter periods, improved thyroid issues, reversal of polycystic ovary syndrome, healed IBS, Crohn’s Disease and other chronic digestive issues, and reversal of Type II Diabetes. Durianrider told me they’ve seen people lose “half their body weight,” and claimed that people have reversed or massively improved “eczema, anemia, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, mental issues, insomnia, depression, I’ve seen pretty much everything.” He also claimed that they’ve seen a few cancer patients “reverse their conditions,” although he declined to name them.
Many followers, like Freelee, say they’ve suffered from eating disorders or come from a background of caloric restriction, the arch-nemesis of Raw Till 4. And yet, despite a rhetorical emphasis on “abundance” and “healing” (and followers with eating disorders are encouraged to eat a higher ratio of healthy fats while recovering) weight loss is definitely emphasized as a goal. “Looking hot”—specifically, the thin kind of hot—is presented both as an inalienable right and a universal ideal, although, ironically, weight gain on RT4 is one of its followers’ most frequent complaints. Freelee and other RT4ers chalk this up to a lack of exercise, and something Freelee calls “metabolic damage.”
Vegan Ava, whose Youtube homepage touts her journey “from anorexic to athlete,” told me over Skype that she was inspired to follow RT4 when she saw how great Freelee looked in her videos. She transitioned into the lifestyle by eating “like 900 bananas in one month,” which she describes as “the best month of my life.”
Taken very, very broadly, the Raw Till 4 lifestyle can seem pretty reasonable. Eat organic. Avoid processed foods. Stay hydrated. Move your body daily (cycling, a passion of Durianrider’s, is emphasized). Focus on long-term health over short-term results. Get lots of rest. Get enough vitamin D (although “full-body sunbathing” is recommended for 20 minutes daily, with no mention of sunscreen). But nestled in between these low-key commandments are guidelines that nutrition experts dismiss as fantasy.
Freelee is not, it should be mentioned, a licensed nutritionist, dietician, or MD, nor is she a college graduate. This lack of credentials doesn’t seem to damage her brand much—Freelee presents this as a positive, freeing her from the long arm of the meat and dairy industries. Freelee told me her outsider status gets her compared to Donald Trump a lot, but she doesn’t know much about him, and said that politics in general don’t interest her. When I asked her if she votes—voting is compulsory in Australia—she replied: “I vote with my dollar.”
Intermittently over the past few years, media outlets have attempted to debunk Raw Till 4, and the high volume of bananas Freelee recommends eating (she told me she now eats about 10 a day, but “if an individual feels like eating up to 51 bananas in a day then they should go for it!”).
“Bananas are the last thing I would advise people to eat 30 a day of,” health writer Jo Robinson told The Daily Beast in 2014. Adolescent girls are especially vulnerable on Raw Till 4, nutritionist and food science lecturer Evangeline Mantzioris, PhD, told Australia’s Adelaide Messenger in June, because a lowered intake of essential food groups can reduce your growth rate. A recent BBC documentary called Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets panned the Raw Till 4 diet; in a video response, Freelee called BBC the “British Brainwashing Corporation.”
The experts I reached out to responded to Raw Till 4 with incredulousness. Jennifer Culbert, MS, a senior nutritionist at Boston University’s Sargent Choice Nutrition Center who often works with patients suffering from eating disorders, emphasized that Raw Till 4’s macronutrient distribution range, with its disregard for protein and fat, is completely out of whack. Raw Till 4 is “not a healthy way to be eating,” she said, adding that it could lead to long-term malabsorption issues.
I also contacted Marion Nestle, Ph.D, M.P.H., the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. “Really, the lengths people will go to complicate their lives,” she said in an email. “This is a classic fad diet, meaning that it makes promises that can’t possibly be kept, or at least for long. Whatever.”
As is sometimes the case with fad diets, Freelee’s lifestyle recommendations—and the community that’s sprung up around them—can appear cultish. In The Raw Till 4 Diet, Freelee writes:
It was no mistake you chose this book, it was obviously time. We both know you have been searching for a way out of the ugly, [sic] dieting world or to simply feel and look better. Subconsciously searching for a lifestyle that will allow you to eat as much as you want to and still look hot. A lifestyle that cares for your health as well as the health of the Planet and the animals too.
Though she proudly cites “years of experience coaching thousands of girls” as her true education, Freelee does claim some minor fitness and nutrition credentials, and aggressively defends them. According to Freelee, “some trolls on the internet” have tried to discredit her nutritional background, referring to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that fact-checked her claim of having attended the Australian Institute of Fitness. This was a simple error, she said, due to the volume of institutes with similar names in Australia. “I was at Fitness Institute of Australia. So maybe I said Australian Institute of Fitness or something, but [it’s] very easy to confuse them.” (Freelee does appear to have attained fitness certificates from various FIAFitnation courses, although she says she couldn’t find her nutrition training certificate.)
I didn’t hear back from the institute where she says she studied dietetics 16 years ago, but, she warned me, in an otherwise friendly and obliging email back-and-forth, “I was definitely enrolled so please do not portray like I lied about this or the course as with enough digging around it would be found and that will look bad on your behalf if I am forced to make a video.”
Video-making is the weapon of choice in this community, and there do appear to be consequences when Freelee or Durianrider’s leadership is questioned, even indirectly. After publicly criticizing the “HCLF” (high-carb/low-fat) vegan diet trend, an Israeli YouTuber called Henya Mania says she ended up getting “banned” from a Raw Till 4-affiliated festival in Thailand, along with, she says, a number of her followers who stuck up for her in comments sections. Durianrider made multiple negative videos about her, and she says she received death threats, mostly from Durianrider’s followers.
“People are basically scared to say stuff,” Henya told me, in a conversation about the duo’s influence. “If you don’t support them, you’re going to have lies spread about you, you’re going to have videos made about you.”
At a certain point, bearing in mind my subjects’ hunger for controversial content, I began to feel like an instigator simply for asking questions. “She’ll do anything to stay relevant on social media,” Durianrider said of Henya in response, implying her harassment claim was made up. “I don’t condone death threats, but it’s the internet, it’s the West out there.” He doesn’t dispute having banned Henya, but says it was because he thought she’d displayed an eating disorder relapse that would be “triggering” for festival-goers. In an email, Henya denied this.
“Those tendencies he is talking about I assume are drinking coffee, eating less than 3000 cals a day and eating until I’m full and not until I can swallow my own vomit after a meal. Very unhealthy indeed.”
Pretty soon after I began watching videos of RT4 followers, I started hearing the term “Chiang Mai” thrown around quite a bit, serving a similar function to “Cannes” for the Hollywood elite, or “Burning Man” for unself-aware millennials. Chiang Mai, for the Raw Till 4 crowd, is where YouTube turns into real life.
In 2013, Freelee and Durianrider were demoted from their place of honor as “pioneers” of the Woodstock Fruit Festival—a large fruitarian festival based in upstate New York—for, among other things, advocating eating some cooked vegan foods. Afterwards, Freelee says, she and Durianrider decided to create a festival of their own (Durianrider runs the Facebook group, and refers to it as his event).
Chiang Mai, Thailand, with its long list of high-quality vegan-friendly restaurants thanks in part to Thailand’s majority Buddhist population, has long been a top destination for vegan/vegetarian travelers and expats. The first annual Thai Fruit Festival was held there in 2014, attracting (as estimated by Durianrider) around 250 vegans from around the world over the first few weeks of June, some as young as 16. In 2015, twice as many are said to have attended, although it was narrowed back down this year to exclude attendees who aren’t cyclists. It is now called the Raw Till 4 Bike Festival.
The festival, which YouTube viewers see mostly in the context of bike rides, huge restaurant meals, and a single waterfall, serves as a three-dimensional staging platform for a community that primarily interacts remotely. Each year there has been “drama,” which is then echoed throughout YouTube in an escalating series of back-and-forths until it becomes difficult to corroborate what actually happened, who was really involved, and to what extent these situations were downplayed, exaggerated, or twisted for clicks.
Some of the allegations originating at the festival are serious, and many involve Durianrider. This past spring, Durianrider accused another vegan of sexually assaulting multiple women at the 2015 festival. In a YouTube video that received over 77,000 views, Durianrider read a letter he described as being from one of the alleged victims, adding tearfully, “If you fucking see this cunt when I’m around, please let me know.” Durianrider identified this person on his Instagram, Tumblr and in an interview with me, and he is named in a number of videos and YouTube comments; however, Durianrider declined to name or put me in touch with any of the alleged victims, whose identities I was unable to confirm. The accused has deleted most of his social media accounts, and did not respond to multiple inquiries.
During this year’s festival in June, Durianrider took to Facebook to accuse another YouTuber, Eisel Mazard—who has long been critical of Freelee, Durianrider, and RT4—of predatory behavior towards teenage girls, and threatened to have “the lads” “citizens arrest” him. Durianrider later acknowledged to me that calling Mazard a “pedo” was wrong, but maintained that Mazard contacted a young woman at the festival (he wouldn’t say who). Mazard vehemently denied the accusations in a video and in an interview with Jezebel, and says that he is pursuing criminal charges against Durianrider, which individuals can do through lawyers in Thailand. Durianrider claims that he hasn’t been been served with charges.
Shortly following Durianrider’s accusations against Mazard, a YouTuber at the Bike Fest who goes by Hannah Chloe claimed that Durianrider—whom she called by his real first name, Harley, in a since-deleted video about the alleged incident—sexually harassed her while he and Freelee were on a break in 2015, pressuring her to have sex after repeated rebuffs. “The hypocrisy of this situation is ridiculous,” she said in the video. “I think that Harley expects us as a community to just allow him to slander someone when there are simply no other allegations other than Harley’s.”
“Harley is constantly portraying himself as this white knight in the vegan community who is trying to stick up for young women and alert them to sexual predators,” she continued, with a weary expression. “But the irony of this is, in my experience, he has been the most sexually predatory person that I have come across in this community.”
Durianrider released several videos in response to her comments, asserting that the two had consensual sex, and claiming to have digital evidence that would somehow prove this. “Give this video a thumbs up if you want to see emails, Skype conversations recorded,” he said. In response to her allegations, which he denied, he told me that Hannah was a “fraudulent person” and “just a girl who wanted more and got angry or jealous or whatever.”
In August, before her breakup with Durianrider became public, Freelee told me that Hannah “got a world of hate for her lies.”
Hannah Chloe’s YouTube channel has been deleted. She declined to speak with me, citing a lawsuit in progress.
A few months ago, I asked Maddie Lymburner, 20, a YouTuber and Raw Till 4-er, what it was that she found trustworthy about Freelee and Durianrider. She replied: “Just how honest they are.”
“They’re just very giving and very caring, and they really listen to you when they talk,” Lymburner said. “All they want to do is help you.”
This may have been true for Lymburner, but although this community trades in extreme self-transparency, a number of people declined or were reluctant to go on the record with me, fearing backlash. Plenty of vegan YouTubers, particularly Vegan Cheetah, refer to Raw Till 4 as a “cult,” though neither Durianrider nor Freelee appear to mind.
“I definitely believe it’s a cult. We’re all part of cults, whether we want to be or not,” Durianrider told me. “We’re pack animals.”
“I mean, you can call it a cult,” Freelee replied mildly when I mentioned Durianrider’s comments. “People call it all sorts of things, but usually cults are associated with like, religious movements.” I pointed out that there was a certain evangelical undertone to her videos. And what about all this talk of a movement?
“If that helps them to stay in the lifestyle, if that that helps them feel like they’re part of a community, why not?” she said.
Although Raw Till 4 doesn’t really fall within our conventional understanding of cults, an entrenched willingness to court controversy above all else—up to and including this embrace of an extremely loaded term—does seem to turn some Raw Till 4-ers into marionettes. Plus, Durianrider and Freelee are charismatic leaders who appear to hold a surprising amount of influence over their young followers—on his Tumblr, Durianrider has, for example, encouraged teenagers to buck their parents’ instructions and attend the Raw Till 4 Festival in Thailand. At this year’s festival, Freelee and Durianrider held daily hour-long Q&As for attendees at the top of a mountain, dispensing advice on everything from breathing from your mouth to how to avoid mosquito bites; they have also coached newbies on the fundamentals of YouTube (and, according to Durianrider, expect those YouTubers to vocally support them once their channels get big).
The strangest aspect of Freelee and Durianrider’s influence, however, is their apparent ability to convince people to get vasectomies—a campaign I first noticed on Durianrider’s Instagram, where he posted a selfie Freelee took of herself in lingerie. The caption contends that the “[b]est thing about vasectomy is I can ride Freelee bareback and she doesn’t have to worry about getting preggo or taking hormones,” and that the procedure allows one to “blow loads whenever u want.”
Durianrider claims that he had his vasectomy when he was 21, a decision that Freelee supports, citing environmental concerns. Freelee and Durianrider, of course, aren’t the first to promote this idea, although the relative youth of their followers renders the situation somewhat unique, as does Durianrider’s suggestion that a vasectomy isn’t necessarily a permanent choice (reversals are possible, but not at all guaranteed).
Vegan Gains, a hyper-masculine vegan channel belonging to an occasionally knife-wielding 25-year-old Canadian bodybuilder named Richard Burgess, published several videos about his decision to obtain a vasectomy last summer, which Freelee applauded. (“No, I’m not a misogynist, but I do think a lot of women use children as a means to manipulate their partner,” was one of the explanations he gave.) A number of other channels have detailed decisions to get vasectomies, including That Vegan Couple, Cycling Slim, Minimal Pro, and Unconventional Living.
Vegan Ava’s boyfriend, who would only give me his name as “Pablo” and says he’s 21, told me in an interview that he got a vasectomy in Chiang Mai this past summer after being inspired by Durianrider. The couple are part of a small subset of the Raw Till 4 community who have opted to stay in Chiang Mai semi-permanently.
It’s impossible to know definitively how convincing Durianrider’s message is, but Vegan Ava claims to know of about 15 people who have done the procedure; Maddie Lymburner, who is 20, told me she personally knows about five. Unsurprisingly, Durianrider’s estimates are even higher. When I asked him how many vasectomies he’s influenced, he replied that of people he’s corresponded with either in person or online, “it would definitely be in the hundreds.”
The thrust of the message here is Durianrider’s belief that humans should go extinct (a belief that some extreme environmentalists share). I asked him if he really rooted for the demise of the species. “Yeah!” he shouted triumphantly. “It sounds extreme, but no one can honestly answer this question: What good do humans do for the planet? Nothing!”
When I shared this with Freelee, she was less eager to promote a mass die-off. “I might say it a little bit differently from extinction of all humans. I mean, my desire is to see everybody on the planet turn vegan.” But: “I think at the moment, vasectomy’s a fantastic idea.”
You may have noticed that a lot of what you’ve read so far lacks a unified narrative, since very few claims made on YouTube or other public platforms go undisputed. This same sense of chaos applies to Freelee and Durianrider’s public split, which, in a not-so-shocking twist, got very ugly.
Freelee and Durianrider broke up around June, but only publicly acknowledged this in September. (Oddly, since their breakup, Durianrider has accused Freelee of forcing her new boyfriend to obtain a vasectomy, a charge she has denied.) When I first spoke to Durianrider, in August, he told me they were still together, which turned out not to be true. He says this united front was staged so he could avoid “female stalkers”; she says he didn’t want to lose YouTube viewers. Although most of their posts about their breakup have been deleted, their feud appears to have gone public a few weeks later, when Durianrider accused Freelee of secretly using Botox. She vehemently denied this claim.
Vegan Cheetah and various others picked up the scent, and allegations spiraled as the community began to take sides: in Tumblr posts that have mostly been deleted, Freelee accused Durianrider of secretly “shooting up steroids,” cheating on her with multiple women, expressing interest in one of their underage followers, and blackmailing her into continuing to do videos with him. He denies all of these accusations.
Also on Tumblr, Freelee accused Durianrider of domestic violence, while acknowledging that the pair got into “small physical tussles” over the years (“I have pushed him yes, he has pushed me yes”). She said he punched her “so hard in the leg that I could legit barely walk,” pinned her against a wall, hit her in the face with a bag, and hit her in the face with his hands. “Ironically everything he accuses me and accuses others of, he is guilty of himself,” she wrote on Tumblr. Durianrider told me that he has only been violent towards Freelee “in self-defense,” and “only with reasonable force, I never caused her any damage. I never struck her in the head,” he paused, “deliberately.”
Durianrider accused Freelee of domestic violence as well, writing on Tumblr that she “sucker punched me in the head.” In a video that’s since been deleted, he claimed she’d “scratch me so hard in the arms they’d bleed.”
Now, Durianrider claims to be suing Freelee “for defamation and stealing my concept.” He says he created Raw Till 4 in 2001 (Freelee says she created the lifestyle in 2012). “The name I didn’t come up with, but all the things that Freelee teaches today I taught her,” he said. Durianrider didn’t respond to an email request to put me in touch with his lawyer, and Freelee declined to confirm whether or not the lawsuit exists.
Freelee also declined my request to respond to Durianrider’s domestic violence allegations. This decision surprised me, particularly since she’d already denied his allegations in an interview with the Daily Mail, and had written, in since-deleted posts on Tumblr, that Durianrider is “jealous and resentful” and that he is “not mentally stable.”
“Ironically everything he accuses me of and accuses others of, he is guilty of himself. Steroids, cheating, physical and mental abuse, the list goes on,” she wrote in one of these posts. She encouraged me to quote these deleted posts in lieu of the response I was seeking, explaining in an email: “I have moved on and want to live above the drama, so opening up the can again with new quotes is not what I want to do.”
With Durianrider out of the picture, Freelee’s brand appears to have undergone a significant shift, although she still promotes Raw Till 4. Her videos show vision boards, beach montages, and Freelee reading from a book called Believing in Myself: Daily Self Esteem Meditations. A new boyfriend recently debuted. Commenters have praised her more “peaceful” vibe in recent videos; she’s lately taken to decorating her bright pink walls with inspirational quotes (“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain”).
But the culture of “drama” that Freelee and Durianrider helped to cultivate hasn’t really gone away, despite increasing pushback. Anti-Freelee and Durianrider campaigns began in earnest, according to one YouTuber I spoke to, following Durianrider’s accusations against Eisel Mazard. Unnatural Vegan, a popular vegan vlogger who promotes “a rational vegan community,” has called Freelee “delusional”; Joe Vegan, a “vegan comedy” channel, released a video with his wife Lauren examining their brief experience as Raw Till 4 acolytes, during which they report quitting their jobs and blowing all their money on bikes, fruit, and tickets to Chiang Mai. “I remember thinking ‘I have to finish this [four-portion] meal or I’m not good enough,’” Joe said.
Some have protested in different ways, starting Facebook groups like Just Vegan, which warns against “bad-mouthing” and asks members to watch out for “trolls” looking to “cause drama for Durianrider and Freelee’s promotion.” The group’s founder, Jason Pizzino, is holding a vegan event in Chiang Mai in December.
As I reported this story, an endless deluge of accusations, claims, confessions, and clicks ensured not only a relentlessly evolving storyline, but also the remarkable absence of any reliable narrators. I felt, over and over, as if I couldn’t fully grasp what I was looking at, a state of permanent fog that made it difficult to know when to extract myself. The irony of the situation, on the other hand, remained abundantly visible throughout. In a bid to purge themselves and their followers of society’s ills, the vegans of YouTube have provided us with a live demonstration.
Increasingly, it became clear that I was gawking at a (particularly entertaining) variation on a virus that’s advanced well beyond YouTube. Accuracy, for many of YouTube’s vegan and non-vegan creators, doesn’t appear to be a particularly high priority. They’re judged on a different set of values: the entertainment they provide, the promises they make, the drama they stir. This formula is no secret, but it doesn’t prevent them from wielding enormous influence over their followers, whose lives—and digestive systems—are affected in decidedly tangible ways.
And what ever happened to Freelee’s dog Figsy? After months of heated speculation and murder claims, Freelee finally explained, via Tumblr, that Figsy wasn’t coping well with her owner’s nomadic travel schedule and is now living with a “wonderful loving family”—free, one hopes, from the eyes of the internet.