Inside the company that provides fake paparazzi, pretend campaign supporters, and counterfeit protesters
The text message says to show up at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel at 11 a.m. on a Monday. But through some combination of traffic and my own chronic lateness, I find myself rushing into the lobby at 12 minutes after, aware that it’s not a good look to be late for work, my first day on a new job.
I’ve been hired by a company called Crowds on Demand. If you need a crowd of people — for nearly any reason — Crowds on Demand can make it happen. Now it has taken me on as one of its crowd members, although the specifics remain a mystery. It’s an odd sensation to be headed into a gig with no idea what task I’m expected to perform. All I know is that I’ll be making 15 bucks an hour.
In the hotel lobby, Adam Swart, the company’s 24-year-old CEO, is greeting a dozen other recruits. Handsome, fit, sporting slacks and a button-down shirt, Adam bears an uncanny resemblance to House Speaker Paul Ryan, though he’s more than 20 years younger. He circles around us with manic energy, as though jacked up on six cups of coffee. While he gently reprimands me for my lateness, I take his tone to mean, You’re off the hook this time, but don’t do it again. He leads us downstairs to a ballroom in the basement and gives us the lowdown.
The Marriott, Adam explains, is hosting a conference for life coaches from around the country. As these folks arrive in the ballroom to register and pick up their badges, lanyards, and gift bags, our job is to treat them like mega-celebrities, to behave like a wild throng of fans desperate for their love. As it turns out, this is one of Crowds on Demand’s most popular services.
Before the “celebrities” start filing in, Adam and his talent coordinator, Del Brown, a joyful, exuberant woman in her late 30s, provide each of us with roles. They post a young, energetic guy from South Central named Lloyd Johnson closest to the door where the life coaches will enter the room. Lloyd’s assignment, as Del puts it, is to completely “lose his shit” each time someone walks in. Lloyd laughs. “You want me to get all white girl wasted?” he asks.
“Exactly,” says Del.
Lloyd’s friends, Michelle and Secilia, are cast as autograph hounds. Six or seven photographers have been hired to act as paparazzi — actual freelance photographers, some of whom hadn’t realized they’d been hired only to take fake pictures. A hulking guy in a dark suit and sunglasses named Deon Mason is assigned to play the life coaches’ bodyguard, escorting them past all of us, from the door of the ballroom to the registration table. Deon is one of Crowds on Demand’s rising stars, known for his prowess not only as a fake bodyguard but also as an opinionated fashionista at art openings.
My job? Adam appraises me thoughtfully. “Tell you what,” he says. “You be the Selfie Guy. Whatever it takes to get a selfie, make it happen. Get rabid.”
Adam and Del give us a couple of hurried run-throughs to practice, and then, within a couple of minutes, the life coaches begin to trickle in.
Instantly, the room turns into a mad scrum. As each life coach slips into the room, Lloyd erupts, squealing. Michelle and Secilia beg for autographs. The paparazzi stalk the rope line, flashbulbs popping, as Deon and a second bodyguard try to keep us all at bay.
To be successful in getting a selfie with each life coach means becoming completely unhinged: I have to reach out over the rope, cry out each person’s name, and fend off Deon while desperately pleading for a quick pic. “I’m so happy you’re here! Come on, just one little picture, please!”
It becomes something of a dance between Deon and me as he shoves me firmly but good-naturedly out of the way and only occasionally — if I work for it hard enough — allows me to lean across the rope for a shot with the life coach who, in that moment, has become the object of my feigned adoration. As a half hour slips by, and another half hour, we do this over and over and over again, time folding into a continuous 20-second loop. With each pass down the aisle, Deon and I shift our strategies subtly, jousting and parrying with my iPhone and the palm of his hand.
The most surprising thing about the whole crazy scene is this: Even though everything about the situation is fake, the joy in each life coach’s face is authentic. Most get it that this is all a charade, but still they mug for the cameras, give us gleeful hugs, and graciously sign autographs.
As for me, any initial qualms about a display of such goofy insincerity have rapidly dissolved, and I’m struck by how fun the morning has become. I’m proud to be the Selfie Guy! Looking around the room, I see that my colleagues are enjoying the hell out of this, same as me. In real life, when we see our favorite musician, writer, or movie star out in the world, we’ve been taught to check our excitement, to leave her alone. I’d have never guessed how pleasing it would feel to geek out over these unknown life coaches from Cincinnati and Tampa. The most sterile, lame space imaginable — a conference room in the basement of a chain hotel — has been transformed into a surreal dreamland where everybody is desired, everybody is famous, and where famous people, thrillingly, return their fans’ embraces.
Two and a half hours later, the event is over. As I head to my car, I see Adam and Del, along with some of their crowd members, hurrying off to their next gig, a documentary screening where they’ve been hired to bolster audience numbers and lob softball questions at the filmmakers during the Q&A.
Adam waves me down. “You were late today,” he reminds me. “But I liked your commitment to the part. Ready for more work?”
He nods. “Good. Welcome aboard. You’ll get a text from someone soon.”
Adam started Crowds on Demand as a 21-year-old UCLA undergrad. He’d volunteered with Jerry Brown’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign and found that it could be challenging to rally large crowds to speeches. Adam believed a niche service providing crowds might appeal to campaign directors. But once he launched the service, he found that he was asked to wield his crowds in a way he hadn’t anticipated — not only to support a candidate but to protest a candidate. A candidate might muster 500 supporters to a speech on a college campus, but if Adam sent just five recruits to demonstrate outside the auditorium, he discovered that the media would give equal coverage to both the rally and the demonstration.
That was only the beginning. In New York, the advance team for a well-known but controversial foreign dignitary hired Adam to send people all over Manhattan holding signs and flags supporting the guy, without his knowing, to buoy his spirits before an important speech. Adam has summoned crowds for a Danish artist’s performance piece. He has sent angry mobs to picket outside car dealerships, law firms, and restaurants. His company is like a Charlie Kaufman movie come to life.
After I reveal to Adam that I’m a journalist, curious about his business, he invites me to join him for dinner in San Francisco, where he’s come for a Crowds on Demand job. He suggests the Fairmont Hotel, and we sit in the grand atrium as a piano player fills the room with a bright rhapsody. Adam has what NFL draft experts call “a high motor.” He talks in hyper, precise bursts, listens with intensity, drives a silver Tesla, and works out for two hours a day at the Equinox gym in Santa Monica, cranking through P90X workouts and pushing weight-laden sleds. To launch his company, Adam parlayed profits from his teenage investments in Southwest Airlines and Toys “R” Us. Now, just two years out of college, he has an office on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, two full-time employees along with some part-time staff, and he claims his business is bringing in more than $1 million in annual revenue.
Crowds on Demand, he says, serves several clients a week, sometimes a day — most in L.A., San Francisco, and New York but an increasing number in smaller cities like Nashville, Charlotte, and Minneapolis. When people inquire about a potential event, Adam guides them through the possibilities and the approximate costs: $600 for fake paparazzi at a birthday dinner; $3,000 for a flash mob dancing, chanting, and handing out fliers as a PR stunt; $10,000 for a weeklong political demonstration; $25,000 to $50,000 for a prolonged campaign of protests. According to Adam, protests have become the company’s growth sector, and just as with advertising, repeat impressions are key. “When the targets of our actions see that we’re going to be back, day after day, they get really scared,” he says. “We’re in it for the long haul, and the problem’s not going to go away on its own.”
When he can, Adam trains his hired crowds himself, but more often he relies on local coordinators who manage the events. In Los Angeles, Del Brown — the woman I met at the Marriott — is Adam’s point person. Del moved to California in 2012 to pursue an acting career and soon landed a Doritos commercial, but after that, she mostly found work as an extra in student films and small indie projects. She worked a gig with Crowds on Demand, and Adam was so impressed he immediately put her on staff. Del has established a wide network she can reach out to when she needs, say, 60 crowd-fillers for a party on the roof deck of the W Los Angeles hotel or a 6-foot-6-inch man in a leather kilt to act as a fan at the launch of a book about S&M culture. Many of Del’s recurring crowd members are background actors she’s met on film sets, yet she is continually trawling for fresh faces.
At the Marriott, I’d met Jackie Greig, who typifies the crowd members Del and Adam often hire. Jackie is 50 years old, a film student at Los Angeles City College. A teacher had shared a posting about what she thought was an upcoming film shoot that was looking for paid help. Jackie showed up at the Marriott only to discover that this was not a film shoot. Yes, she was being asked to aim her camera at the life coaches, but whether she hit record was immaterial. On one hand, Jackie was frustrated. She’d skipped class and driven more than an hour to be there. On the other hand, after a couple of hours, she’d made $37.50 and could now afford a Foo Fighters concert for her daughter. “I just wish they’d been more transparent about what the gig really was,” Jackie tells me.
The tricky thing, Adam says, is how many of his clients insist on secrecy. If you’re hiring a crowd to fill a campaign event or a film premiere, the last thing you want to do is let anyone know. Adam must balance his goal of spreading awareness of his company, so he can attract more clients, with the benefits of keeping the public in the dark. If people start to doubt the veracity of crowds, his business might suffer. “Right now, we’re still kind of this secret weapon,” Adam says. “We have the element of surprise. Yeah, you might’ve heard about political candidates paying to bring some extra bodies into their campaign events, but it’s beyond the realm of most people’s imagination that crowds are being deployed in other ways. Nobody is skeptical of crowds. Of course, in five years that could change.”
Adam says he gives Del wide latitude to recruit crowd members. Most often, she presents the gigs as background acting work. This is only slightly misleading: Crowd members won’t bulk up their IMDB profile, but being part of a fake crowd is a kind of acting. In a world where everybody is constantly playing a part, staging moments to be broadcast later on social media, the line between counterfeit and authentic has become blurred. Is curating a version of yourself on Facebook any less fake than pretending to be a superfan of a life coach?
Years ago, in Chicago, I threw a launch party for my fledgling zine, Found. To make Found seem like a bigger deal than it was, I recruited three friends to scalp entry tickets along the block where our party was being held. The event wasn’t sold out, but the impression that it might sell out — that scalpers had flocked to the venue as if Prince were playing a show — had an instant effect. I overheard people on the street calling their friends, urging them to hurry over.
Once the party reached full swing, my scalper friends came inside to join us. They hadn’t sold many tickets, but one pointed out an older guy who he said had bought a ticket from him. “Reporter for the Chicago Tribune,” my friend said. “He was freaked out, thinking he wouldn’t be able to get in.” In the Trib the next week, the reporter wrote a glowing piece about Found. Would he have given us such generous coverage regardless? Maybe, maybe not. For me, though, it was clear: A crowd — more precisely, the illusion of a crowd — had done its work.
A crowd means something matters, that it has value. Bands know they get more buzz from selling out a smaller venue than from having a cavernous space half-full, even if the bigger venue means more people are able to attend. The crowd out on the street who couldn’t get in is an advertisement of the band’s rising fortunes. You know how it goes. You’re on a road trip. You find two Japanese restaurants side by side. One has a dozen customers, and the other is desolate. Which place has better food? No need to check Yelp — just follow the crowd. Accurate or not, its presence tells a story of its own.
Hired crowds have a long history. The Roman emperor Nero required that 5,000 of his soldiers show up for his performances and respond with enthusiasm. The 16th-century French poet Jean Daurat bought tickets to his own plays and gave them away to anyone who promised to respond favorably. A ringer crowd, prone to easy applause, became known as a “claque,” and in the 1800s, agencies in Paris — precursors to Crowds on Demand — began to supply claqueurs to theaters and opera houses looking to fill seats or guide an audience’s response.
Just as Del Brown had assigned roles to each of us at the Marriott, claqueurs had specialties. Some chatted up their row mates between acts, going on at great length about their favorite scenes; some laughed raucously at funny moments, while others feigned tears during sad ones; and some simply cried, “Encore! Encore!” when the show was done. In Italy, crowds were used to extort money from famous opera singers, who were threatened with boos if they didn’t pay a hefty fee. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that claques lost favor, but the practice still continues in Russia with the Bolshoi Ballet.
Back at the Fairmont, Adam breaks down his schedule. In recent weeks, Crowds on Demand has handled an array of requests. In Dallas, a woman who was a member of a European royal family hired the company to solve a troubling problem: She felt that her security team didn’t show her the desired level of respect and didn’t believe their presence was really warranted. As she toured the city, Adam arranged a series of “coincidental” run-ins — countrymen who would spot her at the airport or at a museum and come rushing up to her, wanting to shake her hand and take a photo with her. Did it work? “By the end of the week,” Adam says, grinning, “her security detail had a new sense for her importance as this global inspiration.”
According to Adam, a young man hired Crowds on Demand to provide support at a college expulsion hearing. The school allowed the subject of the hearing to present testimony from members of the community. While the student had two friends willing to stand before the board and testify, he asked Adam to provide 20 more. One after another, they introduced themselves as the student’s longtime friends, mentors, classmates, colleagues, and employers and read heartfelt endorsements, all written by the student himself. The board elected not to expel Adam’s client.
Fake fans at the Marriott are one thing. But here, Crowds on Demand was wading into murkier waters. If this had been a court of law, Adam’s hires would all have been guilty of perjury. That this was a college hearing and unbound by the same legal standards amounts, in my mind, to a technicality. What if the student had sexually harassed classmates and deserved to be expelled? “I look at each client on a case-by-case basis,” Adam says. “In this instance, I believed the kid was being railroaded. Yes, I’ll accept jobs even if the client’s beliefs don’t align with my own, but I have some very clear boundaries.” Crowds on Demand is often contacted by hate groups, Adam says. “Sorry, KKK, we’re not going to send crowds out to help you.”
The text says to arrive at an address on California Street in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood at 5 p.m. on a Thursday. Like my previous Crowds on Demand gig, I have no idea what my work is going to entail. All I’m told is to wear a suit.
Again, I’m running late. As I crest the hill at California and Taylor, I see elegantly dressed older couples streaming into a palatial white building. Photographers and TV news cameramen swarm around each pair, while a reporter blocks their path, bombarding them with questions. Getting closer, I realize that this isn’t a TV reporter — it’s Adam wielding a reporter’s hand-held mic.
“What’s your opinion on the Georgia edict?” he shouts at a couple in their 70s who veer around him, making a beeline for the front door.
“No comment,” the guy says. “We’re from Greece.”
“No comment?” Adam shrieks, as they duck into the building. “What are you saying? Greek people can’t stand up against bigotry?”
He spots me and comes over to say hi, making note of my lateness. Breathlessly, he gives me a hurried orientation. This is the California Memorial Masonic Temple, where Masons have gathered for their annual world conference. Recently, the Georgia grand lodge passed a bylaw — known as the Georgia edict — prohibiting homosexuality among its members. Our job? To pose as a TV news crew, confront Masons as they arrive for the opening gala, and challenge them to take a stand. “Just watch me for a few minutes,” Adam says. “You’ll figure it out.”
Sprawling camera crew in tow, Adam intercepts the Masons and interrogates them as they struggle to rush past him. Most ignore his questions, but now and then a couple stops to talk. “It’s a state’s rights issue,” a courtly, silver-haired man from Florida tells him. “Do I agree with what they’re doing in Georgia? No way. But one of the main things about Masons is, we don’t interfere with other chapters.”
Adam inches closer to the guy, raising his voice. “If you don’t agree with it, isn’t it your duty to stand up and say so?”
The guy shrugs. “I’m not a lodge master.”
Adam goes berserk or, as I observe him more closely, puts on a controlled show of going berserk. “What an embarrassment!” he shouts. “Listen, I go to the Equinox gym in Santa Monica. If the Equinox in Boston bans gays, I’m damn sure going to do something about it!”
Two cops barrel over, a burly male and a spike-haired female. The male cop says, “Hey! You guys can do whatever it is you’re doing. That’s your right. But knock off the swearing! There are kids around.”
Adam wasn’t really swearing, and there are no kids in sight. Left momentarily speechless, Adam allows the Florida Mason to hurry up the temple’s front steps.
Adam turns to me. “All right,” he says. “You got the idea?”
Actually, I don’t, but Adam deputizes me on the spot, passing me a mic. He assigns a ragtag band to shadow me — six altogether, ranging from 20 to 60 years old. We’ve got two photographers, two videographers, a soundperson with a mic on an extendable boom pole, and a young woman balancing the brightest floodlight I’ve ever seen in my life on a rickety monopod. We don’t look like any kind of TV news crew that I’ve ever seen — more like students in a community college filmmaking class — but for Masons visiting San Francisco from Arkansas, Oregon, Portugal, and Uganda, unfamiliar with the local media, maybe we’ll pass.
What brought my fake camera crew here tonight was a Craigslist ad Adam posted earlier in the week: “Adventurous videographers wanted,” with few other details. Emily Ivker is the person wielding the boom pole. She’s a recent college graduate from Wayland, Massachusetts, who just landed in San Francisco the previous week with dreams of becoming a travel blogger. “Twenty bucks an hour,” she says. “I couldn’t pass it up.” (Crowds on Demand wages vary depending on the type of job and the local cost of living: $10 an hour in New Orleans, double in the Bay Area.)
Over the past half hour, the group has done its best to improvise. Now everyone huddles around me, waiting for me to do my Adam impersonation. Taxis keep pulling up to the curb, disbursing Masons, but it’s hard to blast from zero to 60, especially when I have such a flimsy grasp on the issues. I know next to nothing about Freemasonry: Don’t Masons have something to do with that pyramid with the giant eyeball on the back of a dollar bill? Are they connected to the Illuminati? Wasn’t Tupac a Mason? I know even less about the Georgia edict.
Adam, who’s continued working with his own crew down the block, sees me floundering. He makes his way back over. “Look,” he says. “It’s all about building awareness.” Some Masons, he tells me, don’t even know about the Georgia edict. For those who do and oppose it, our job is to motivate them to take action, however we see fit. “There’s no wrong way to do this,” he reassures me.
That’s a nice sentiment, but over the next 45 minutes, I find some impressive ways to prove him wrong. The gala has already started, and Masons are in a hurry to get inside. When I bark questions about the Georgia edict, they give me the same look they might give a homeless guy screaming about aliens. Others poke me menacingly, slap my shoulder, or shove me away. Many are from Europe, South America, and Africa and don’t have a great command of English — or claim not to. It’s almost impossible to start a conversation with anyone in the few seconds it takes them to cross the sidewalk.
Finally, I try a new tactic, and instead of confronting them when they step from their cabs, I offer a cheery welcome instead. This changes everything. Rather than hurry to get inside, they pause to talk to me. I introduce myself, shake their hands, and ask their names and where they’re from. While they’re still bewildered by all the cameras and lights, they seem to think that I’m associated with the Masons, maybe a curbside greeter. Quickly, I pivot to the question at hand. Are they aware of the Georgia edict? What do they think of it? Some know about the edict and profess disapproval, but all say they’re powerless.
“Don’t you feel that this kind of ugly discrimination stains the entire organization?” I ask a couple from France. “People may think that all Masons are bigots.”
“Yes. Perhaps,” the man says.
I borrow a line from Adam: “Why don’t you pressure the Masons to withdraw recognition of the Georgia chapter?”
“Is not so simple,” says the man. “We have to go.”
The work is exhausting, and after another hour, Adam and I take a short break. The client who hired him, he says, is extremely well-known, and he has promised not to reveal his identity. Afterward, though, I traded emails with the client, who tells me that he’s a senior Bay Area Mason appalled not only by the Georgia chapter’s openly anti-gay discrimination but also by instances of what he views as anti-black, anti-Jewish, and anti-female discrimination in chapters around the world. He and a group of like-minded Masons believe this kind of intolerance is dooming an organization they’ve come to care so much about, and they decided they couldn’t let Masons from all over the world congregate in San Francisco and just party it up. So they hired Adam’s company to make sure that the topic of discrimination within the Masonry was unavoidable. “Ruin their vacations,” the client ordered Adam. “I want everyone talking about this.”
Adam could have staged a more standard protest, but the decision to create fake news crews instead was canny. “It’s easier to ignore protesters than a reporter,” Adam says. He turns to face the Masonic Temple. In the lobby, Masons clink their glasses, sipping wine and Champagne. “Look,” he says, “there’s 15 of us and a thousand of them, but we changed the conversation tonight.” As though to affirm his claim, several of the Masons seem to be pointing out the front windows at us, watching in silence while the rest of Adam’s crew continues to stalk the sidewalk out front, flashbulbs popping, accosting latecomers as they arrive.
During our break, Emily Ivker, the woman holding the boom pole, has picked up my mic and taken on the role of truth-hunting TV reporter while the others film the action and offer questions of their own. As Adam and I have been talking, my fake camera crew has morphed from a group of strangers looking to make a buck off a Craigslist gig into a team of passionate activists. Fantasy has become reality.
An hour later, the gala starts to wind down, and Masons stream out of the building. Many now seem more interested in talking. Maybe it’s because they have time on their hands, or maybe our initial conversations have had a chance to sink in.
A young guy from Brazil whom I chatted with briefly on his way in pulls me aside. “The Georgia chapter,” he says. “That stupid ban. Everyone in there was talking about it. They added it to the topics for us all to discuss this weekend.” My camera team appears, and the spotlight’s glare sizzles to life, but rather than shrink away, the man seems to bloom. He leans in over my microphone, picks out the video camera, and stares directly into it. “Georgia chapter does not represent us,” he says gravely, as though he’s being broadcast in Times Square and splashed on airport monitors. “We are Masons. We include all.”