Two years ago, New Zealand pop culture reporter David Farrier — a man who’d made a career out of writing about the lighthearted, quirky sides of life — was perusing the internet when he stumbled upon a video of “fit, young men” tickling one another. Little did he know he had happened upon a story of a lifetime: a multimillion-dollar fetish video and cyberbullying ring called Jane O’Brien Media that spanned continents and ruined the lives of dozens of young men.
Farrier turned his exposé on Jane O’Brien Media into a documentary called Tickled, his first. The film has received rave reviews and sparked ample controversy, with the subjects of the film filing multiple defamation suits against Farrier.
In a conversation with MEL’s John McDermott, Farrier discusses the curiosity that led him to the story, how he felt in over his head when reporting it and how, at its core, Tickled is really a story about power and control. (Editor’s Note: Heavy spoilers ahead.)
My experience with your film is probably a common one. I was told, “Hey, there’s this documentary about a tickling fetish.” At first, I thought, Well, that’s probably a 5-minute YouTube documentary. But when I saw it, it was something else. Was that a common reaction among people who have seen the film?
Definitely. A lot of people, just hearing the title, wouldn’t know what to expect. And that’s great, because people go down a bit of a rabbit hole with this whole thing. The disadvantage is that people hear “tickled” and they think, Oh God, I don’t want 90 minutes of that. I’m gonna go see Swiss Army Man instead.
And then it becomes this story of intrigue that spans continents, with fraud, identity theft and cyber-bullying. Not to mention a film that’s inspired great word-of-mouth. So what’s it like being you right now, amid all this publicity and controversy?
It’s been interesting because back in New Zealand for the last 10 years I’ve been an entertainment journalist on a little New Zealand TV network. I guess in New Zealand it’s a big network, but in the sense of the world it’s quite tiny. So it’s unusual being on the other side of that.
And what does the other side feel like?
I’m not a big fan of reading about myself, so having it be open for anyone to comment on the film or me has been interesting. But it’s great that people want to talk about the movie, and if that means they want to talk about me, that’s fine. I’m so used to it being the other way around.
One day you were perusing the internet, and you happened upon this endurance tickling competition. Can you explain what the video was?
It was this website for Jane O’Brien Media, and they ran a competitive tickling competition in L.A. All the videos of the competition were online and they’re between 30 minutes and an hour long. The competitors were five to 10 fit young men between the ages of 18 and 24, who were in Adidas sportswear. And they would do a little talk in the beginning — like a pre-match thing — talking directly to camera about how ticklish they were and their experiences with tickling.
Then they would go into the competition, which was usually one of them tied down on a mattress in the middle of this stark, white photo studio. Other competitors would be on top of them tickling them in various ways. Next, they’d change the format so that if they were on their backs, the person that was being tickled would be on their belly — or suddenly they’d be the one doing the tickling. Finally, they’d have a post-match analysis where all the competitors would be looking at the camera talking about their experience.
Did you think this was a legitimate sport or athletic organization?
At the start, I thought if something like Ultimate Frisbee was a sport, then this could be a super-niche thing. I didn’t think it was the Olympics, but I thought maybe this company had created a sport they were trying to get off the ground. But then, the more you watch the videos, you couldn’t help but think there was a sexual element to it. Because they’re all attractive young men on top of each other tickling. I mean they’re on a freakin’ bed, right in the middle of the studio tickling each other.
I have to think you saw this video and thought, This is gonna be another quirky, lighthearted story about a certain subculture.
Totally. When I reached out to Jane O’Brien Media, I had a Skype interview with Jane. I expected to maybe find a competitor from New Zealand with some tickling footage and that it would be a short wacky news story. But Jane responded in a pretty crazy way; that’s when things started to escalate.
Did you feel in over your head — especially because you had never reported a story of this magnitude this before?
Completely. I mean, Jane O’Brien replied immediately saying, “We don’t want to deal with a homosexual journalist.” That made me think that something else was going on, because these tickling videos are super gay.
That’s a very elegant way of rephrasing the response you got, which was an intensely homophobic response.
Oh yeah, and there were lots of them. It started on Facebook. Then we started emailing each other; the words flying back and forth were so hateful that I started publishing them. After a couple of weeks, I got contacted by a lawyer in New York who said, “This is defaming us — stop or you will get sued.” The legal threats started piling up really fast after that. There were a few times I literally cried because I was so stressed. I was in the newsroom, maybe having a bad day already, and another legal threat would come in — it wouldn’t stop. I felt way in over my head.
When you got that initial response from Jane O’Brien, was that when you thought, Well, now I have to pursue this story to wherever it takes me?
There were a few things. Her homophobic response piqued my interest and made me think, Okay, there’s another layer to this. I screengrabbed that initial response and put it on Facebook just because I thought it was so strange. That’s when [co-director] Dylan [Breed] got involved. I didn’t even know him that well; we were just Facebook and Twitter friends. He saw that response and thought, “Who is Jane?” He went to the website and started looking into the domain names and who owned what and who Jane was. He found out that Jane was pretty tickle-obsessed and owned hundreds of websites that were tickling-related; she also seemed to have a history of lashing out at people who spoke out about it — including the people who were in the tickling videos. It was around that point when I said, “This is amazing. We need to do a Kickstarter to get some money to go to America and start investigating what the hell is going on.”
The irony here is that the intensity of their response is what piqued your interest.
Completely. If they’d just responded at the beginning, “Thanks for inquiring, but we’re busy,” or, “We’d rather keep this private,” I probably would’ve moved on because I was in a daily newsroom where I needed to turn around daily stories.
How much of this was a personal crusade, after they insulted you personally? And how much of it was you acting out of a professional journalistic impulse?
The main driver for me was curiosity. I wasn’t particularly insulted by their responses, because they were so extreme. Hiring lawyers and calling me a “faggot” was so over-the-top [that] it was almost entertaining. Especially because it was a company that made videos that were so homoerotic. I was just curious about what was going on. It wasn’t like, “You guys are lashing out at me so I’m going to lash out at you.” It was more, “What the fuck is going on here?”
We started talking off-the-record to a lot of people who’d been involved in the tickling competition who hadn’t had a great time. They were all pretty scared. That spurred us on as well.
Eventually, three representatives from Jane O’Brien Media come to New Zealand after you tell them you’re doing this documentary. It’s amicable at the start, but it quickly turns contentious, because you’re recording them when they show up at the airport. What do you think their intention was during that initial meeting? To scare you away? To settle?
I still don’t know. They wanted us to stop making the film. And to do that they wanted to tell us that the good outweighed the bad — the good being that some people are getting paid great money to get tickled. That was one of their lines.
And that somehow justified all of the terrible things they were doing?
Essentially. The general gist was that for my own good I shouldn’t pursue this because their boss would come after me. People don’t get dangled out of buildings anymore, but they don’t have to, because a lawyer will ruin you financially. It was fairly explicit. I have to be careful about what I say because there have already been two defamation lawsuits and I don’t want to be sued again.
I can assume that if journalists in New Zealand make anything similar to what they do in the U.S., you couldn’t have afforded a protracted legal fight with somebody with very deep pockets. But were you willing to risk your livelihood for this story?
Yes, because the worst thing that could happen is that I’d go bankrupt. But I don’t have anything anyway. I make enough to pay the rent and to have a nice life in New Zealand. But I’m not going to lose my house, because I don’t have a house. Eventually, we sent out a tweet saying we were having legal issues with this tickling story and asking if there was anyone out there who could help. A lawyer in America and someone in Wellington in New Zealand offered to help pro bono. So we had some people come on board who were like, “We’ve got your back.” So it wasn’t like Dylan and I were standing alone; we felt like we had people cheering us on, which helped.
So you come to the U.S. and the movie goes from this weird quirky thing to something very dark when you start interviewing people who have appeared in these films. Whenever they asked Jane O’Brien to take the films down, they were subject to bullying and character assassinations.
It’s funny because we say the movie is about bullying, but bullying seems too light a word. We found people whose lives had been completely derailed by these tickling videos, which seems ridiculous. But if you didn’t return for a shoot or you said something in an email that Jane didn’t like, it was game on.
Calling your employers, calling your family members…
Yeah, emailing, tickling videos everywhere. You’re being doxxed, so you’ve you got multiple websites made up about you, with your personal details and your tickling videos — basically making you out to be a sexual deviant of some kind. And using stereotypes against people. A lot of these young people are from conservative parts of the world and America, so to suddenly be called a homosexual tickler is a really bad thing. Plus, there were multiple other lies made up about them that were emailed to their employers, their girlfriends and their parents. Suddenly, you Google your name, and the first 50 sites are about you being a dirty fetishist.
So you start to unspool this thread about who Jane O’Brien is and it takes you to this other name — Terri DiSisto, which takes you to another name, David D’Amato. And you learn that he’s the one financing the operation; he’s the one sending these emails; he’s the one responsible for this cyber-bullying. I couldn’t believe it was just one person behind this international ring.
Neither could we. We found out there was this character online called Terri DiSisto aka “TerriTickle” in the ’90s who exhibited all the same behaviors of Jane. She was a young woman who loved tickling and recruited young men to make tickling videos. But if those people annoyed her, all hell broke loose. Terri was eventually exposed as David D’Amato, who was an assistant principal and guidance counselor at a number of schools. But what we found in the film was that behavior never stopped. It morphed and more money became involved; now we’ve got this tickling competition that funds it all. Various other people help him, but generally, it does come back directly to him.
Honestly, at some level, Dylan and I both thought it was probably a guy. The responses didn’t seem like they were from a woman. They were so aggressive and crazy. But I didn’t know why they were being homophobic. Nor could I figure out if they were into these tickling videos. The only thing we suspected early on is that maybe part of the fetish involved the guys being straight, which I think does end up being true. Part of the appeal is finding this elaborate way to get straight men to tickle each other. I think if they were gay men tickling each other it might not be as appealing for this person.
What did you think about this person when you discovered everything?
He just seemed to be someone who enjoyed having this control and power over young men. Tickling as a whole is about power and control, right? You’ve got the tickler who completely has power over someone who is completely submissive. And for people who are into this fetish, that’s part of the appeal. But it seemed like with D’Amato, that power play takes on another form, where his enjoyment of the harassment goes hand-in-hand with his enjoyment of the tickling.
The film ends with you speaking to D’Amato’s stepmother. She reveals that he was bullied himself as a child, and he was very lonely kid who didn’t have any friends. Did you have sympathy for him?
Yes, after that conversation, both Dylan and I had sympathy for him. Because up until that point, we’d been dealing with this individual who seemed to just be lashing out in random ways at people and destroying their lives. It was almost like a cartoon villain. So hearing someone that knew him talk about him humanized him at some level. That was incredibly important because I believe that there’s a reason why people become who they are.
You also find out that D’Amato inherited a lot of money. Does this make the documentary about class as well? And how these poor kids who signed up to be in these tickling videos for the cash ended up struggling because of it.
Part of what D’Amato seems to take pride in is threatening people legally. You can’t help but think that was probably instilled from his upbringing. D’Amato Lynch is a fairly prominent law firm. It’s not the biggest, but it’s a big organization. And that definitely plays into it. It’s an extreme example of where money and power can go.
But also when you grow up with that type of wealth, it’s easy to have a sense of entitlement.
He seems to be very entitled. There’s a fearlessness about it. He turned up to a screening that Dylan was at in L.A. a couple of weeks ago. At the end of the Q&A, Dylan genuinely says to D’Amato, “Do you want to say anything now that you’ve seen the film?” He was very calm, deliberate and measured. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said, “This isn’t going to stop. You need a better lawyer. We have a lawyer, and the cases you thought had been dismissed have been refiled in another court.” This was to Dylan and an audience of a couple hundred people. He was being filmed and streamed over Facebook. It was a very bold move. I don’t know why he chose to do it so publicly. Nor do I know where it’s going to lead from here. But we’re standing by preparing ourselves for what comes next.
What facts in the film does D’Amato dispute?
Everything. He will even still deny he has anything to do with Jane O’Brien Media.
Was anything re-enacted, or is there any potential gray area?
Nothing. It sounds like a default expression, but it’s the easiest thing to say: Dylan and I stand by this film. We didn’t just release it at Sundance on a whim. There were a lot of checks and balances. We knew we were dealing with an entity with a shitload of money, and we wanted to check that what we were saying was accurate, so we did that.
Are you scared about what’s going to happen legally?
I’m not entirely happy about the situation. I’d rather there weren’t legal threats floating around about me from someone with a lot of money. But at the same time, it’s not entirely unexpected. Again, we were told by Jane O’Brien’s representatives that they don’t have to dangle you out of buildings because they have lawyers.
How much of this film is about obsession? Both with D’Amato himself and with you as filmmakers pursuing D’Amato.
A big part of it. Everyone in this film has an obsession of some kind. Whether they’re trying to free themselves of the harassment, whether they’re obsessed with clearing with their name or whether they’re obsessed with tickling videos. I don’t know that Dylan and I were obsessed, but we were probably close to it. I’m still chasing various leads daily. There are so many people coming out of the woodwork now that have had something to do with the story.
You’ve made a career covering odd stories and profiling people on the fringe. Was that always a natural interest of yours?
I had a conservative upbringing so I originally wanted to go into medicine. But I realized during my first year of health science to get into medical school that I didn’t enjoy it that much. That’s also when I started writing for the local paper. Eventually, I enrolled in journalism school, which is when I got obsessed with meeting people who had different stories to tell — whether they were Satanists or survivalists. I’ve been lucky to find a gig that pays me a small sum to meet all these interesting people. It’s the dream gig actually.
What exactly do you mean by conservative upbringing?
I had a great upbringing, but I was from a fairly conservative Christian home. I hung out with a lot of people who were likeminded — at church and everything. Nor did I take a great interest in what a lot of the rest of the world was up to. I was happy in my Christian bubble. As many people do, I probably strayed from that during university when I started meeting other people with different views. Suddenly, I discovered that the world was a lot less boring.
That’s interesting, because with D’Amato, you get the sense that he’s somebody who’s never gone outside his bubble.
That’s why I was excited to feature Richard Ivy in the film, who was this other person that was everything D’Amato wasn’t. He’s this incredibly happy gay man and tickling fetishist who runs his own tickling website. We didn’t make the point all that strongly in the movie, but we definitely alluded to it — if you’re accepting of yourself and other people and you’re not hurting anyone, whatever you’re into is fine. The second you try to hide or deny something you’re interested in, that’s when you run into problems. It seems really obvious, but I think sometimes people forget.
What’s the current status of the lawsuits D’Amato filed against you?
The two defamation lawsuits were filed in Missouri and Utah. In Utah because that’s where Sundance was, and in Missouri because that’s where the True/False Film Festival was. Those are, at least to my knowledge, being dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. But as I said, according to David D’Amato in that theater a couple of weeks ago, they will be refiled somewhere. I’m just standing by on that.
Has it occurred to D’Amato that if he didn’t file these lawsuits, he might bring less attention to the film?
I don’t know if that’s crossed his mind or not. I do know we’ve been accused multiple times online that not only is the film fake but all these people turning up to screenings and the legal threats are just an elaborate PR campaign.
Why do people assume that?
I think because the story is so outrageous. I mean, even in the trailer. I watched Weiner on my own at a cinema, and the Tickled trailer played, and the couple next to me immediately started saying, “This is like Catfish. It’s all fake!” I wanted to reach out to them and yell, “It’s real!” I can’t say it enough: It’s not fake. But simply because of all the misinformation that’s on the internet these days, there’s this assumption that nothing is real.
On the flip side, there’s also this weird thing where everyone also assumes everything is real. Donald Trump will say something completely false, and there’s a large portion of people who believe it. So people believe everything, and don’t want to believe everything at the same time. It’s a strange line and a strange time we’re living in.
Say D’Amato follows through on his threat and sees this through to the bitter end legally and, at the very least, makes the next few months or years very painful for you. Would it all still be worth it?
I think it will always be worth it. I may change my tune if, you know, this drags on for another 20 years and there’s another lawsuit. But yeah at the moment, it feels like it was worth it. I’d like to keep thinking that way, but talk to me in 20 years and we’ll see.