On Monday, the Daily Mail blared in one of its signature oddly capitalized headlines that model-actress Elle Macpherson was spotted kissing a “mystery man” over some root vegetables at a Miami farmers market. By Tuesday, in news that caused some of us to make an undignified gibbering noise of shock, Mystery Man was identified: he’s disgraced ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield, who was the lead author on an infamous, now-retracted 1998 study suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The study helped create a plunge in vaccination rates and a public health panic on a global scale. Yeah: He’s that guy.
Macpherson has been professionally known as The Body, for having a body people like to photograph; she’s now the co-founder and public face of a wellness business called WelleCo that sells things like plant protein powder and what they call “elixirs.” Wakefield is known as a walking one-man public health crisis, for his continued insistence that vaccines cause autism. His claims have gotten more dire over the years: he now insists that “80 percent of American boys” will have autism in 15 years, a claim I have personally heard him make on several occasions.
And it is actually newsworthy that Macpherson and Wakefield are dating: One of the core aims of the anti-vaccine movement is spreading their message far and wide with the help of celebrity support. If the relationship lasts, Macpherson could be instrumental in introducing Wakefield and his ideas to a whole new world of monied and influential people—people who are, like her, concerned with the somewhat spongy and ever-more-profitable concept of “wellness.”
Some background: Wakefield’s 1998 paper, originally published in the British medical journal the Lancet, was retracted in 2010. The same year, Wakefield lost his medical license. By that time, he had already moved to Austin, Texas with his wife Carmel and their four children, where he’s been involved in a series of autism- and anti-vaccine-related businesses. Those include a children’s treatment center called Thoughtful House—which soon shed Wakefield and changed its name—and another called the Strategic Autism Initiative. Though Wakefield likes to claim that his quest to prove that vaccines cause autism has ruined his life, it has also been, by some measures, quite profitable: The Austin-American Statesman reported Wakefield was making $300,000 a year in his first two years as president of SAT. (As funding to the organization dried up, he stopped receiving a paycheck.) As of 2015, the home he owned with Carmel was valued at $1.2 million.
Most recently, Wakefield was behind the film Vaxxed, which generated a huge amount of news when it was included and then pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival. In 2017, he was the subject of an oddly flattering and uncritical documentary, the Pathological Optimist, which painted him as an unassuming family man, dragged unwillingly into the fight of his life due to his quest for The Truth About Vaccines. In the process, the film promoted a misleading view that there is some amount of true debate over vaccine safety. (There is not.)
The Daily Mail’s source, whoever that is, reports that the Wakefields separated in early 2017 and he and Macpherson began dating later that year. If true, that means that by the time the Pathological Optimist was released and Wakefield was promoting it, the central picture of him as a family man living quietly in Austin and fighting Big Vaccine was not quite accurate.
That’s fine; whatever happened in their marriage is very much between the Wakefields. What is alarming, however, is that Macpherson’s global platform could mean a new life for Wakefield’s claims.
We don’t know if Macpherson is a vaccine “skeptic” herself (I have reached out to WelleCo for comment on that subject and will update should I hear back). What we do know, though, is that celebrities have an unfortunately large impact on how people think of vaccines: The last round of widespread anti-vaccine sentiment in the early 2000s was fanned by the gusty winds of Jenny McCarthy, who is still, to this day, part of the brigade claiming that vaccines are unsafe.
A 2014 study by academics J. Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood on medical conspiracy theories among Americans found that 20 percent of the people surveyed agreed that physicians “still want to vaccinate children even though they know such vaccines to be dangerous.” The study also found that people who believe in medical conspiracy theories are less likely to consult a family doctor. They were more likely to report relying instead on friends, family, the internet or celebrities for advice, including TV doctors like Dr. Oz.
There is, in other words, some segment of the American population that’s highy susceptible to what anti-vaccination celebrities have to say. Further, there is a possibility here that with his involvement with Macpherson, a high-profile public figure who gets softly glowing writeups in places like The Cut and Into the Gloss, Wakefield’s highly misleading claims about vaccines could become even more enmeshed into the so-called “wellness” movement. It could become again, as it has several times in the past decade, that anti-vaccine sentiment is once again promoted by credible-ish public figures as a “holistic” or “natural” way of living your life and raising your kids. Recall, for example, the way Kat Von D recently drew a nonexistent link between her veganism and her intention not to vaccinate her baby. (Reality star Kristin Cavallari did the same thing in 2014, claiming that she wasn’t vaccinating her kids to avoid giving them “asthma, allergies, ear infections, all kinds of things.”)
All of this is probably an extreme overreaction to some photos of Wakefield and Macpherson snogging at a farmer’s market, but given the enormous measles outbreak in Europe right now and the fact that some California schools still have “dangerously low” vaccination rates due to anti-vaccine parents, a small amount of freaking out is perhaps warranted.