In the beginning, Emily Gellis Lande vs. Tanya Zuckerbrot seemed like just another war of the influencers.
As the New York Times revealed last August, Gellis Lande, a millennial fashion and beauty influencer, had been exposing, mostly through anonymous complaints, some of the alleged unpleasant side effects of the F-Factor diet, Zuckerbrot’s wellness brand that has been popular with celebrities like Katie Couric and Megyn Kelly.
Starting last spring, Gellis Lande says she began receiving hundreds of complaints about the F-Factor diet—and its line of bars and powders— allegedly causing health issues such as cramping, bloating, gas, and rashes, along with more serious allegations about people having to have part of their colon removed, and accusations that F-Factor led some who used the program to develop eating disorders.
Zuckerbrot, who was known as much for her nutrition counseling as she was for posting photos of her glamorous life on Instagram, pushed back hard, insisting that F-Factor’s products and diet are safe.
“Not one doctor of any ‘alleged victim’ ever contacted the company or spoke to the media elsewhere. These ‘victims’ never showed any proof that their symptoms were caused by F-Factor products,” a spokesperson for F-Factor told The Daily Beast.
F-Factor says that out of 176,000 purchase orders since 2018, it has received 50 complaints about gastric distress or rashes. (A third-party toxicology report commissioned by F-Factor concluded in their September 2020 analysis that “there is no evidence that F-Factor Fiber/Protein Powders and Bars pose a toxicological risk to consumers.”)
Instead of dying down, the F-Factor controversy has only escalated over the last year. The saga, which began as the wellness war of the year, has become full-on digital warfare—featuring doxxing, anonymous hate accounts, and non-stop trolling.
And now, inevitably, it is heading to court, with Zuckerbrot bringing a $500k defamation suit against Gellis Lande (who has countersued). The lawsuit claims, among many other things, that Gellis Lande falsely stated that F-Factor employees are engaging in criminal activity, that the company encouraged pregnant women to ingest arsenic at unsafe levels, and that Gellis Lande falsely stated that Zuckerbrot threatened to kill Gellis Lande’s family.
When asked by The Daily Beast about these allegations, Gellis Lande said she declined to comment on an ongoing lawsuit.
All this social media spewing isn’t happening in a vacuum. According to the lawsuit filed in October, Gellis Lande, a thirtysomething with no background in health, has caused devastating financial damages to F-Factor. Their revenue has dropped from approximately $1 million/month to less than $90,000/month in the time that Gellis Lande has been engaged in her campaign, this according to Zuckerbrot’s complaint.
Gellis Lande’s counsel, New York City-based attorney Henry Kaufman, told The Daily Beast in his first media interview about the case that F-Factor wants “to sue her [Gellis Lande] for posting information of great public interest and concern about an extreme and popular diet and related to their products.” He added: “It’s newsworthy information, and it’s First Amendment-protected. The public interest is the greatest ambit of free expression.”
Besides the lawsuit, the conflict between Gellis Lande and Zuckerbrot has revealed that vicious trolls do not just haunt political and pop-cultural discourse, but are alive and just as vituperative in the world of wellness.
Zuckerbrot vs. Gellis Lande
The close-to-a-thousand complaints Gellis Lande says she received about F-Factor ranged from some of the well-established side effects of products containing whey and fiber, such as rashes, hives, gas, and bloating.
In fact, fiber is so well-known to cause certain gastrointestinal issues that one competitive product to F-Factor’s 20/20 Powder called Just Better, has “Zero Gas, Zero Bloating” scrawled across the front of their label. F-Factor, however, is a lifestyle company with a sexy, aspirational vibe—leading with flatulence would not have been very on brand. Gellis Lande also received more serious medical allegations. One person wrote to Gellis Lande that she had to have part of her colon removed as a result of the F-Factor diet. (F-Factor says their products are safe and maintain the highest standards for testing their products.)
Before Gellis Lande came into the picture, Zuckerbrot was a guru of sorts for a certain subset of affluent New Yorkers who summer in Capri and St. Tropez and can afford $1,700 nutrition counseling sessions (a package of 12 sessions costs $25,000; there are less expensive packages with other nutritionists that cost $5,000 or group sessions that start at $2,500). Zuckerbrot embodies a certain Upper East Side ethos that you can never be too thin or too rich. Her staff was once described as looking like they were straight out of Vogue.
To get a sense of her influence, adult women with college degrees say Zuckerbrot made them afraid to eat bananas. Others have claimed the F-Factor diet in general left them with a poor and disordered relationship toward food. According to Zuckerbrot’s book, The F-Factor Diet, stage one of the diet allows around 900 to 1,100 calories per day, an amount Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, says is “semi-starvation.”
“There is nothing semi-starvation about 1,200 calories a day if it’s nutrient dense,” Zuckerbrot responded to The Daily Beast. “Every single well-known diet plan has a 1,200 calorie option. For some women, if you’re small, that [1,200 calories] is weight management. F-Factor provides breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack. And the lower calorie phase of the diet only lasts for two weeks.”
Despite Zuckerbrot’s success and revered status, pockets of discontent were lurking. Last April, the anonymous gossip site DeuxMoi, which has close to a million followers and has been heralded as the internet’s best source of gossip, posted a claim from a former private client of F-Factor saying that Zuckerbrot had discouraged her from taking antidepressants because they could be leading to weight gain or retention, a common side effect of SSRI drugs. (Zuckerbrot told The New York Times in August “that’s a lie and it never would happen.”)
Gellis Lande, who has used Instagram to discuss mental health and has taken anti-anxiety medication herself, was appalled by this accusation. “You should be taking advice about medication from a psychiatrist, not a nutritionist,” she said.
Last month, Gellis Lande spoke on the record for the first time about the person behind the allegation that caught her attention and ignited her social media probe into F-Factor. In August of 2020, Gellis Lande says, a woman named Julianne Osherow called her out of the blue and outed herself about the DeuxMoi antidepressant post.
According to Gellis Lande, Osherow, better known on social media as “Jule the Bee,” used to be a major supporter of F-Factor. But last spring Osherow morphed into the anonymous F-Factor whistleblower who was reported about in numerous news outlets, including the New York Times and The Cut. “Before Julianne called me, I didn’t know it was her. By the time we spoke, her story just seemed like one of many,” Gellis Lande told me. (The Daily Beast reached out to Osherow for comment, and heard nothing back.)
Things started to get dicey, though, not so long after the New York Times Styles section cover story. By October, Zuckerbrot had brought a half-million dollar lawsuit for financial damages, reputation damages, punitive damages, and injunctive release against Gellis Lande.
The filing claims Zuckerbrot has endured “devastating emotional distress because of Gellis Lande’s social media conduct.” In September of 2020, the lawsuit says, Zuckerbrot was diagnosed with “panic attacks, insomnia, and anxiety.” The filing says Zuckerbrot has been “unable to engage with friends, family, and clients as she used to” due to Gellis Lande and her social media campaign.
There are also allegations in the lawsuit that “Gellis’ social media misconduct” caused a capital investor poised to make a $2 million investment to completely withdraw his “capital investment in F-Factor,” which the investor group, Evolution VC Partners, valued at $40 million.
On Oct. 8, the day the lawsuit was filed, The New York Times quoted “that capital investor” Gregg Smith, principal of Evolution VC Partners, who said he withdrew from F-Factor “without being aware of any internet criticism of the brand from Ms. Gellis or others.” (Smith did not respond to The Daily Beast’s multiple requests for comment. Zuckerbrot declined to comment on an ongoing lawsuit.)
The courtroom drama is being preceded by daily drama on social media, where there have been accusations of poisoning pregnant women with arsenic, death threats, and a level of vitriol and hate that is usually reserved for highly contentious political issues.
Zuckerbrot’s lawsuit claims Gellis Lande made at least 4,500 false, defamatory, and/or harassing statements about her and F-Factor. According to the lawsuit, Gellis Lande has accused Zuckerbrot of, “selling fucking packaged poison,” “comparing Zuckerbrot to Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein,” and “encouraging pregnant women to consume large quantities of unsafe ingredients.”
Dan Webb, a top defamation lawyer, has taken on Zuckerbrot’s case. Webb famously won the “pink slime” $177 million settlement against Disney-owned ABC for their coverage of a beef product. (Webb declined a request to comment.)
The timing of the lawsuit is potentially good for Gellis Lande because New York State has a new anti-SLAPP law that will extend far more broadly to lawsuits based upon “any communication in a public place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest or any other lawful conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of free speech in connection with an issue of public interest.”
Another issue at play is whether Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act will protect Gellis Lande. Originally Section 230 was put in place to immunize internet companies from lawsuits so users could post freely. One of Kaufman’s arguments is that Gellis Lande is subject to the protections afforded to Instagram under Section 230, which has been criticized by many, including lawmakers, as being too broad. “It [section 230] is for anyone who maintains an open forum for discussion on the internet,” Kaufman said.
The case could have very real-world implications, particularly if Zuckerbrot prevails.
“Conceptually,” Kaufman says, “the internet would crumble if you had to verify everything posted by followers on your website or Instagram. If someone’s followers become interested in an issue, and post on it, are you going to shut down the discussion because the host can’t operate like a mini-FDA and verify that the products are or are not safe for consumption?”
“I was sobbing. I was scared I did something wrong”
It may have started over French toast.
Before Gellis Lande vs. Zuckerbrot, there was Ingrid De La Mare-Kenny vs. Zuckerbrot. De La Mare-Kenny, a Monaco-based health and wellness influencer who served time in prison for an internet scam involving selling jeans and is the author of the book Fuck My Life: The Memoir of a Chic Gangster, sells a competing product to F-Factor, a fiber powder called inulin.
In 2017, De La Mare-Kenny went on Instagram and showed her followers how to make French toast from GG crackers, a sandpaper textured cracker that is a central part of the F-Factor diet. (New York Magazine food critic, Adam Platt, who lost 40 pounds under Zuckerbrot’s watch, described the taste of the crackers as “dried lawn mower chippings.”)
F-Factor was not pleased. Sean Kelley, an employee of Zuckerbrot’s, posted on De La Mare-Kenny’s page. “You could learn to take a page from @tanyazuckerbrot. Build your own brand genuinely rather than steal recipes and principles from others… Shame on you,” he wrote, according to screen shots on De La Mare-Kenny’s Instagram page.
But it was when De La Mare-Kenny, who declined to comment for this piece, made blinis out of GG crackers that things really escalated. Someone claiming to be Zuckerbrot’s “best friend” posted a comment insisting that De La Mare-Kenny credit F-Factor.
After that, De La Mare-Kenny wrote to Zuckerbrot privately on Instagram offering an olive branch, saying she wasn’t trying to compete, some of the recipes Zuckerbrot shared were similar to hers, and that her brand, called The Method, was never going to be about dieting. “You do this [dieting] better than anyone and I wouldn’t even come to compete in your field,” De La Mare-Kenny wrote in 2017. She never heard back from Zuckerbrot, according to someone with direct knowledge of the situation.
And that’s when the trolling became brutal and remains so to this day. “Would rather look like @tanyazukerbrot than an overfilled and fake-accented looking hooker,” one account wrote. The trolls came after De La Mare-Kenny’s children, calling them “fat” and her son, who is autistic, a “retard.”
In real life, one former private client of F-Factor’s named Liz says she was being directed by Zuckerbrot to stay away from De La Mare-Kenny. (Zuckerbrot says this is not true.) Liz, who only used her first name when she spoke about her experience with F-Factor on the Podcast Off The Gram, says she paid $20,000 for a package of 12 sessions with Zuckerbrot.
When an F-Factor employee found out that Liz commented on one of De La Mare-Kenny’s Instagram posts, she says she was chastised. “Tanya yelled at me, ‘How dare you go behind my back. You are not allowed to talk to her’ [Ingrid]… I was sobbing. I was scared I did something wrong. I didn’t want her to drop me as a client. At the next session, she [Tanya] pretended like nothing happened,” said Liz.
Trolls, trolls everywhere
According to the F-Factor narrative, De La Mare-Kenny and Gellis Lande are part of a “band of women” engaging in a targeted smear campaign to take Zuckerbrot down. After cease and desist letters were sent to six individuals in late August, including to De La Mare-Kenny, Lanny Davis, Zuckerbrot’s former counsel, said a lawyer for one of the recipients “admitted that his client was involved in a targeted smear campaign and would stop her social-media activity related to the controversy.”
Other more intriguing things, though, connect Gellis Lande and De La Mare-Kenny. For one thing, they are being harassed by 10 of the same anonymous hate accounts. Gellis Lande told me that from the first or second day she ever talked about F-Factor she got threatening messages, a similar pattern and evolution to what De La Mare-Kenny has experienced. “They made up that I was in a mental institution. I have gotten death threats. They were desperate to shut me up,” Gellis Lande told The Daily Beast.
“She chose never to condemn it, including DMs threatening to kill my family,” Gellis Lande said of Zuckerbrot.
Gellis Lande had enough hate accounts—over two dozen—to prompt Instagram, which is known to have a particularly high bar for free speech toward public figures on its platform, to launch an investigation into the harassment. The Daily Beast asked Instagram to review the hate accounts targeting Gellis to gain insight into whether they were connected or engaging in coordinated harassment. An Instagram spokesperson said the company didn’t find any evidence of coordination.
To determine this, Instagram looks at “signals like if someone is using the same device or phone numbers to set up accounts, among other things,” a spokesperson for Instagram wrote in an email. As a result of their investigation, Instagram removed two of the accounts under their policy that disallows blank accounts set up solely for the purpose of bullying or harassing. One was Theteaoneverybody, which wrote things to Gellis Lande like “TELL EVERYONE YOU CHEAT ON YOUR HUSBAND.”
The other account that was removed, nata.lia5645, took a more threatening tone: “Be careful what you do in life. your kids may pay for it later if you have any @emily or if you'll ever have any kids. Wow!!! I don't know what's worse YOU or COVID-19.”
That trolling has extended even beyond Gellis and De La Mare-Kenny. M, a member of Reddit threads such as Blogsnark and influencercandy which featured other influencers and bloggers discussing the F-Factor drama, said that she was trolled by @barbaraannsilverberg, one of Gellis Lande’s and De La Mare-Kenny’s shared hate accounts, and at one point there were 50 bully accounts after her. (She asked we only use her middle initial to protect her from further harassment.) The @barbaraannsilverberg account was using her profile picture without her permission and leaving comments on M’s page like: “Hey you fucking asshole INFLUENCER CANDY!!!! We allllll know who you are so you better watch your back.”
One explanation for who might be behind these accounts is they are just hard-core F-Factor fans—fiber fanatics who are willing to go to the mat for Zuckerbrot and her company day after day, ostensibly spending hours producing anti-Gellis Lande content.
Two of the most prolific accounts that have bullied both Gellis and De La Mare-Kenny are EGTruth2020 and FFactorFacts. They refer to themselves as “accountability accounts.” In practice that means, EGTruth2020 encourages followers to boycott brands Gellis partners with.
Their tone is Mean Girls on steroids. For many months during the height of the drama, they commented on practically Gellis Lande’s every move, often posting over a dozen or more times a day with snipes about her apartment (it’s messy and small), or her nails (they are too long and a health hazard), or her dog (he doesn’t seem as nice and cute as Zuckerbrot’s dogs). FFactorFacts claims to be an “independent F-Factor customer [who] has never met with, nor spoken with Tanya, nor anyone from the F-Factor team…neither have I been directed/paid by them.”
A spokesperson for Instagram said neither account was in violation of the platform’s terms of service.
The accounts effectively act as Zuckerbrot’s shadow public relations teams, but ones that can be more aggressive, defensive, and mean with the shield of anonymity. For instance, when this reporter reached out to EGTruth2020 for comment on why things had gotten so “vicious,” I was accused of not believing that Zuckerbrot had been suicidal. I’m still not sure what happened in that interaction, except to say that the rate at which things escalate in the Gellis Lande/Zuckerbrot corner of the internet is terrifying.
Zuckerbrot follows both accounts, but told The Daily Beast she has no idea who is behind these accounts, that F-Factor has nothing to do with them, nor has she or anyone from her company created a fake Instagram account to bully or harass anyone.
Aside from nitpicking Gellis Lande’s life, the goal for both accounts is to change the storyline and cast doubt on Gellis Lande’s credibility, motives, and the veracity of the claims she posted about F-Factor. To do this, they often portray Gellis Lande as a mentally unstable, jealous psychopath. Threats can also be part of their modus operandi. Recently, FFactorFacts re-appropriated a picture of Gellis Lande’s sonogram with the message: “SHOW PROOF, EMILY. OR LOSE EVERYTHING. RUIN YOUR LIFE. DESTROY YOUR FAMILY.”
The haters descend
In February, after months of being in the social media crosshairs, the result of reposting mostly anonymous claims outing the alleged bad behavior of brands such as SoulCycle, Alice & Olivia, and F-Factor, Gellis Lande finally seemed to post something that seemed uncontroversial.
Gellis Lande had been featured on a blog called Babe, part of the high-end maternity company Hatch’s website. The New York City-based brand, which sells $300 dresses, had been the one to approach Gellis Lande. Hatch arranged for a professional photo shoot and sent a writer to Gellis Lande’s Manhattan apartment to interview her. (Gellis is due with her first child, a girl, this month.)
Less than 24 hours after the blog post went up, it came down. No one from Hatch contacted Gellis Lande to tell her why. But Gellis Lande told this reporter she immediately knew what happened to this seemingly innocuous piece of promotional content. The hate accountants—there are dozens with not very subtle names like emilygellisnazi, emilygellisthefatbitch, Emilygellisunraveled—had been harassing her for months via direct message and on her public Instagram page.
They had bombarded Hatch with comments like: “Are you trying to ruin your business by featuring this awful poor excuse for a human?” as one of her trolls ineedyoutoknowthis, wrote on Hatch’s Instagram page: “Another, Annakof82, weighed in: “Is this a joke @hatchgal? She’s endangering her baby by taking multiple vacation to Florida.”
A full onslaught of negative comments from Gellis Lande’s hate accounts is certainly one explanation for why Hatch tried to stealthily vanish a feature they had commissioned. (In February, Hatch told The Daily Beast that they “made the decision to remove editorial content that featured Emily Gellis as the comments on the post became extremely harmful and combative.”) There is a certain irony in a company that preaches female empowerment canceling another woman for garnering too much criticism.
Plus, it was no secret to anyone with an internet connection that Gellis Lande is a pot-stirrer. She has no compunction about taking on what have become some of the sacred cows for a subset of affluent, white, urban women. When her followers started a conversation about the misdeeds of the boutique fitness brand SoulCycle, someone wrote in and Gellis Lande posted anonymously: “As a fat woman, I was asked to be in the last row at SoulCycle.”
In her mind, Gellis Lande was opening up her platform to complaints about women-focused brands that were telling their customers, both implicitly and explicitly, that they weren’t good enough, but often under the guise of “you go, girl” marketing. Others, particularly those whom Gellis Lande has trained her eye on and those adjacent to them, did not view what she was doing so charitably.
After Gellis Lande followed up on allegations about the clothing company Alice & Olivia being an “abusive” workplace with her own followers, the author and actress Jenny Mollen, who is close friends with one of the label’s co-founders Stacey Bendet, called Gellis Lande “a new type of influencer who basically creates a platform where they talk shit about other people to get famous or attention.”
In response to Mollen's characterization, Gellis Lande told The Daily Beast: “I have been in the field of influencing talking about hot topic items for years. I did not just appear to talk about these topics. I didn't know speaking up for people who felt their voices can't be heard would be classified like that.”
Why didn’t Zuckerbrot, even if the company only believed one of the complaints Gellis Lande received, apologize, or pull the products from the shelves, and then restock with labeling that was clearer about the side effects and increasing dosage slowly—particularly, as nutritionists have pointed out, there is no science for the upper limit intake of products with added fiber?
F-Factor’s own third-party toxicology report points out that for those not used to fiber it’s normal to experience temporary symptoms that resolve either when the person stops using the products or adjusts to the increase in fiber. In the meantime, though, the report says, they might experience “unpleasant gastrointestinal effects including, bloating, nausea, gas, flatulence, belching, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, constipation, feeling too full, and dehydration.”
Put another way, two seemingly opposing ideas can be true at the same time: products can be safe and have unpleasant side effects. But in the polarizing world of social media, these nuances get drowned out.
“I don’t understand why Tanya doesn’t just say she made mistakes, say she’s sorry, and move on?” said one woman who is familiar with Zuckerbrot and her company. “That would be the smart move. Instead, she goes on the offensive, attacking everyone as liars and jealous Mean Girls. She has said that people who are against her are anti-woman. It’s crazy.”
Gellis Lande said she also expected F-Factor to take some accountability. “Instead, demonizing me became their motive. Despite the mockery, madness, and attempt to distract from the truth, the things I shared are real stories from people who felt their voices weren’t being heard,” she said.
In response to allegations about taking accountability, Zuckerbrot told The Daily Beast in a text message, “The health and safety of our customers is paramount. From the day F-Factor launched products, we established a fully-regulated external third-party process to respond to any and all customer complaints or concerns. Every verified complaint receives a response. It is impossible for any company, including F-Factor, to respond to an anonymous allegation,” Zuckerbrot wrote.
She added: “That said, in an effort to continue to educate the public about the safety of our program and products, F-Factor issued numerous company statements, published the Certificate of Analysis for the F-Factor products, published a third-party toxicology report verifying the safety of our products, and created an F-Factor facts page to provide additional information.”
And so, even though no date has been set, the war of the influencers now heads to court. Whether a ruling will draw a line under their conflict, and all the online rancor that has amassed around it, remains to be seen.