In his new book Fake Believe Dylan Reeve unpicks how a celebrity chef-turned-wellness-influencer fell down the Covid conspiracy rabbit-hole.
Pete Evans was a familiar face to many as one of the hosts of the Australian cooking reality show My Kitchen Rules. Since the mid-90s Evans had been a chef and successful restaurateur around Sydney.
He wrote cookbooks and appeared often as a guest on Australian TV, and in 2010 began hosting the TV show that made him a household name. A couple of years later Pete discovered ‘paleo’ – a nutritional framework that claims to improve human health in a variety of ways by emulating the presumed diet of our palaeolithic era –thanks to his then-girlfriend Nicola Robinson (better known to New Zealanders by her former married name, Nicky Watson).
Paleo was the beginning of a journey, for Evans, into an entire world of alternative health and well-being that would eventually see him lose his TV career, get dumped by his publishers, receive a $25,000 fine from Australia’s medical regulators and post a well-known Nazi symbol on his social media.
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Paleo for Pete was, bluntly, a rabbit hole. Can I say that a diet is a conspiracy theory? It certainly could tick some of the boxes. The paleo diet is built on some very questionable claims about human nutrition that are not really supported by evidence. Promoters of the diet often accompany it with claims of deliberate suppression of the diet’s true benefits.
And the larger wellness community, in which paleo is often a player, is filled with conspiratorial claims about medical science, the global food industry and human physiology. And so it was, with his embrace of paleo and the broader wellness movement, that Evans saw his audience go from a broad cross section of Australian food fans and millions of television viewers to a small but incredibly vocal collection of conspiracy theorists on his personal website and Telegram channel.
The acclaimed chef had become a household name in Australia (and eventually New Zealand too) after landing his role as a judge on MKR. The fame from the show saw Evans landing new product endorsements, online influence and publishing opportunities.
In November 2012 the tide first began to turn on Chef Pete with two simple words in a Sunday Age ‘My Day on a Plate’ feature: Activated Almonds. The article, which purported to be a food diary of the chef’s daily intake, immediately attracted attention with his talk of ‘alkalised water’ and ‘cultured vegetables’, but it was the activated almonds that caught the attention of social media.
His journey into the world of paleo nutrition and wellness really started to erode his public profile in 2014 when he publicly attacked the Australian Heart Foundation and Dietitians Association of Australia for their criticism of the diet.
‘You all have ignited a spark that has been inside me, which is now a raging fire in my belly,’ he wrote in a long Facebook post directed at the organisations. ‘I am usually peaceful, however the warrior in me is now ready for what’s next.’ Just a couple of months later it also became clear that he had at least some broader conspiratorial interests when he posted on Facebook about a trip to Western Australia to meet with anti-fluoride campaigners.
A photograph of Evans proudly sporting a ‘Fluoride Free WA’ T-shirt was splashed throughout Australian media, and more health experts condemned his actions.
The next big moment for Evans came in 2015 when he co-authored a cookbook called Bubba Yum Yum: the Paleo way for new mums, babies and toddlers, aimed at wellness-influenced parents.The book’s publication was delayed while Australia’s Department of Health reviewed it. Among the recipes in the book was an alternative baby formula created with bone broth and chicken livers that would deliver a dangerously high dose of vitamin A.
Heather Yeatman, president of the Public Health Association of Australia, was very direct in her criticism of the book, saying: ‘There’s a very real possibility that a baby may die if this book goes ahead.’ The book’s publisher opted to withdraw the book, but Evans opted to self-publish it in a digital form (it’s still available on his website).
Despite the controversy surrounding this book, broadcaster Channel Seven stood behind Evans and his place on the show remained safe. Further small controversies popped up as a result of the dubious health advice posted by Evans to his various social media channels. This included him disparaging sunscreen and advising an osteoporosis sufferer to eliminate dairy products from their diet (‘calcium from dairy can remove the calcium from your bones’, he claimed, wrongly).
A trailer for the Stuff Circuit documentary ‘Fire and Fury’
A documentary produced and presented by the celebrity chef in 2017, The Magic Pill, set off yet another round of condemnation from medical professionals for its suggestions that a ketogenic diet could be a significant part of the treatment for autism, asthma and even cancer.
In 2019 Chef Pete seemingly joined the anti-vax movement, sharing a link to a podcast by a long-time anti-vaxxer with his 1.5 million Facebook followers. And in early 2020 he posted a selfie with anti-vax mega star Robert Kennedy. ‘Great to spend time [email protected] and learning more about the important work he is doing for our planet and for the coming generations,’ he wrote, tagging Kennedy and his anti-vax group, Children’s Health Defense.
But, after all this (and various other outrageous conspiratorial posts) it was the Covid pandemic that really pushed him fully into conspiracy theory and spelled the end for his high-profile (and high-income) career as a celebrity chef. In April 2020 Evans promoted a device called the ‘BioCharger’ in a Facebook live stream. According to his website (where he sold the device) and his video, the device works by emitting ‘light, frequencies & harmonics, pulsed electromagnetic fields (PEMFs)and voltage’ in specific predefined combinations to energise your mind and body, and facilitate a faster recovery from injury.
‘It’s programmed with about a thousand different recipes,’ he said on the stream. ‘There’s a couple on there for Wuhan Coronavirus,’ he told viewers. The device was available through his website for only $14,490 (a saving of $5000 apparently).This claim – that his fancy light machine could cure or prevent Covid – was a bridge too far for governmental authorities in Australia, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration issued Evans with $25,000 in fines.
Soon after this event his contract with Channel Seven, reportedly paying around $800,000 a year, was cancelled, ending his 10-year stint on MKR and, functionally, his continued position as a TV personality and celebrity chef. But this was just the beginning for Evans in his Covid conspiracy promotion. He was soon regularly sharing Covid conspiracy meme images to his millions of followers on Instagram and Facebook.
‘Soon you will hear about certain high-profile people (celebrities, politicians, executives, elite, billionaires) having [Covid]. Here are some CODE WORDS to look out for,’ read one image he shared, before it went on to explain that terms like ‘self quarantined’ meant they were under house arrest, and ‘tested positive’ meant they had confessed, taken a deal and would be executed in private with a cover story being issued to preserve their legacy. Those announced to have ‘tested negative’ had refused to confess and would be put on trial publicly, ruining their legacy. It was full QAnon.
His public output became more and more extreme and broad. He promoted claims by David Icke (of shape-shifting alien reptiles fame) that Covid wasn’t really a virus and was caused by 5G antennas. He claimed to have helped people cure cancer, and that he had reversed terminal illnesses with his ‘holistic approach’.
In November 2020 he shared an image on his social media platforms which incorporated the ‘black sun’ – a symbol adopted by neo-Nazis and displayed prominently by the Christchurch shooter. This particular post was apparently the last straw for his publisher, Pan Macmillan, who issued a statement that the company was ‘finalising its contractual relationship’ with Evans and wouldn’t be entering any new publishing agreements with him.
Chef Pete’s Facebook page was removed by Facebook in 2020 for ‘repeated violations’ of the platform’s misinformation and harm policies. His Instagram account followed in February 2021 for the same reason. In the space of just a few years Pete Evans had gone from a successful celebrity chef, with cookbook contracts, product endorsements, media appearances and millions of social media followers to . . . none of those things.
It seems all attributable to a journey into wellness with paleo that laid the groundwork for a further spiral into conspiracism. Today Evans is trying to re-establish himself as a wellness influencer through his Evolve Network, which describes itself as ‘a conscious content network that allows collaborators to share their vision and views, and to express without censorship and restriction’.
His reach seems much smaller, and his income is presumably a fraction of what it once was. His Telegram channel is a mixture of forwarded conspiracy theory posts, food photos, bitcoin promotion and links to his Evolve Network content.
While one-time celebrity chef Pete Evans is a very overt example of the conveyor belt from wellness to conspiracy, he is far from the only person to follow this path.There’s nothing remotely new about the search for fad diets and miracle cures. What’s now commonly called, simply, the wellness industry can arguably trace its origins to the literal snake-oil salesmen of the American frontier.
However, to be fair to the snake-oil sellers of the past, and the modern wellness influencers, our desire to find cures and health aids evolved with us. Humans throughout the ages, and across cultures, have looked to the natural world for solutions to health problems, and often they’ve been successful – there are countless modern medicines and treatments that owe their existence to the natural world and traditional practices.
But we also live in a time where we have a pretty good understanding of both human physiology and the natural world.It’s obviously far from perfect, and there remains much to learn,but at this stage we can be fairly confident that if citrus oils cured cancer we’d know about it, in an official way.Nevertheless, we still seek out new ideas for how we might feel better, or lose weight, or have a clearer complexion. And so there exists a multi-billion-dollar wellness industry that caters to us all with everything from meditation and vitamins to fad diets and corrosive salves.
Some might argue that almost all of the wellness movement could be considered a conspiracy theory. Whether it’s complex dietary plans, crystal healing or chakra realignment, almost all alternative health ideas have some at least borderline conspiratorial ideas within them.
Typically there’s an implication that a truth about the human experience is being hidden, and that there is secret knowledge available which can help you break free of the mainstream system. Sometimes it’s argued that the claims made in mainstream health are purposeful lies that are promoted in order to subjugate or exploit naive victims.
While I don’t buy into those ideas, I would typically consider them to be at the harmless end of the conspiracy spectrum, provided they don’t displace effective medical intervention when necessary. If meditating with some crystals makes people feel better, that doesn’t really seem like a problem.
But the subtext (or, in some cases, big bold headline text) with a lot of the wellness industry is that the mainstream health and food industry is corrupt and causing harm, either through negligence or perhaps in a deliberate effort to damage society. Some will imagine a fairly simplistic (and, honestly, probably somewhat accurate) motivation for corruption and negligence: profit; while others see more moralistic motivations and are willing to look for less straightforward reasoning.
In these cases, there are plenty of ways in which the massive industries that feed us and maintain our health can be tied into malevolent global conspiracies. From the surface it can be hard to tell the difference between a community that simply enjoys meditation and scented candles, and one that discourages conventional cancer treatments and encourages potentially deadly parenting practices.
Just like any of the more obvious ways into conspiracy theory rabbit holes, these seemingly helpful and informative communities and personalities can soon serve to pull people into conspiratorial mindsets and provide a leaping-off point into all manner of other more traditional conspiracy theories.
Like just about every subject I’ve tackled so, the scope and scale of conspiracy theories within the wellness community exploded with the arrival of Covid-19. Groups that were already sceptical about aspects of mainstream health care were suddenly confronted with public health rules and government mandates that were unlike any they’d experienced before.
As people struggled to best understand how to assimilate these new facts into their world view, there were many conspiracy narratives flooding onto the pages of influential wellness Facebook groups and Instagram accounts. The virus was a plot engineered by the government to force people to take medication or a vaccine. You could ward off a coronavirus infection through a combination of superfoods and vitamins. It was actually an illness caused by radiation from 5G cell towers.
Soon some high-profile wellness influencers had bought in fully to various conspiratorial ideas, from alternative medical treatments to full QAnon claims. It had been happening before Covid too, with discussions of Pizzagate and QAnon coming up often in wellness groups, but in many communities that type of content was discouraged or was met with critical responses.
With everyone facing the same crisis, globally, and a tendency towards distrust of mainstream medical ideas, the response to those conspiratorial posts became less dismissive as users started ‘educating’ themselves with links, videos, podcasts and meme images shared by believers both new and established.
One yoga fan I spoke to recently expressed frustration with how hard it had become to find content creators on social media who weren’t also deep into conspiracy culture. ‘Sometimes I think I’ve found someone, and I’ll follow them for a while and suddenly in the middle of their video they’ll drop a passing mention of adrenochrome or something,’ they told me with frustration.
In her January 2022 research article for the European Journal of Cultural Studies, verbosely titled ‘Alt. Health Influencers: how wellness culture and web culture have been weaponised to promote conspiracy theories and far-right extremism during theCOVID-19 pandemic’, Stephanie Alice Baker explores the ways alternative health influencers became both a model for conspiracy up-and-coming influencers, and also, in many cases, promoters of conspiracy themselves.
For example, writes Baker, ‘The association between QAnon and wellness culture became so significant that leading figures of the wellness community publicly distanced themselves from the group.’ The battle within wellness culture rages on, but for many casual participants it’s easy to find conspiracy culture invading all corners of the online niche, in part due to some well-aligned traits between both cultures.
‘While wellness culture is characterised by personalised solutions, health optimisation, independent thinking, truth-seeking and alternative beliefs and practices,’ writes Baker in her conclusion, ‘it is these very preoccupations that alt. health influencers have weaponised to promote misinformation, conspiratorial thinking and illiberal politics.’
These aspects of the wellness industry have turned sizeable portions of these online spaces into, effectively, a more publicly acceptable arm of the broader conspiracy theory community where they are serving as a fairly efficient means of converting newcomers to a conspiratorial mindset.
Extracted from Fake Believe: Conspiracy Theories in Aotearoa. Out now (Upstart Press, RRP $37.99).