The rodeo is violent but does that make it wrong?
At a week-long festival that advertises itself as the greatest outdoor show on earth, the rodeo is the main event. There are other things at the Calgary Stampede too—possibly safe carnival rides, fried foods stuffed will other fried foods, games in which you spend $40 to win something worth $4, fireworks—but I think people are probably more interested to watch a 160-pound cowboy climb atop a 1800-pound animal. In any case I was.
I don’t know very much about rodeo. Before I went for the first time last year I had a vague interest in bull riding but knew little more than a few random bits of trivia. Like for example, I heard that the rope the cowboy holds onto is fastened to the bull’s genitals. The harder the bull bucks, the harder the cowboy has to hang on which, in turn, tightens the rope, causing the bull greater discomfort so he bucks even harder. Makes sense right? Turns out this is a myth.
My university roommate, who we’ll call Tuf (after Tuf Cooper, a real cowboy whose real name was spelled with a single “f”), had transferred to the city earlier in the year to work as a manager for a company that shall remain nameless. He offered to host. I got in late one night in the middle of the week at which point we headed straight to a pub around the corner from his apartment. We caught up on the basic stuff—his soon-to-be-ex but now-current girlfriend, the zoo that was the American presidential race—while the highlights from the day’s rodeo played in the background.
“How do they get them to buck like that?” he asked, not really expecting an answer. I told him about the testicle rope so I could then tell him it was untrue and went on to explain the rules: The rider climbs atop a bull, which locked in a tiny enclosure, and lashes his hand to the bull such that the hand doesn’t always come out when he gets bucked off. When the gate opens the rider has to stay on for at least eight seconds to be eligible for a score. Half the score is awarded based on how well he has ridden (posture, poise, etc.), the other half is based on how “rank” the bull gets. The harder he is to ride, the more points awarded.
In the top tier of this sport, the bulls are bred to be nearly impossible to ride, and I have seen them do things that should be impossible for a creature of that size. There is no testicle rope or other cruel methods of man that can make these animals do what they do.
I went to my first rodeo expecting to be emotionally shaken by what I saw. I thought it would be a sort of self-reckoning, motivated by the same forces that drove me—someone who can barely stomach the prospect of gutting a deer but gets unnaturally excited to eat it—to go hunting for the first time. I wasn’t about to go drinking for four days straight in a cowboy hat and more denim than any human being should ever wear at once without witnessing the games at the heart of the city-wide bacchanal.
But I also knew that many people do not like the rodeo. Even the description of several events sound inhumane. Calf-roping, for example, requires a cowboy to chase down a young calf on horseback, sling a rope around its neck while it’s still at a dead sprint, and then slam it into the ground to tie its four legs together. Steer wrestling is similar except the cowboy jumps off a moving horse onto the young bull’s horns and twists it into the ground (see photo supra). The chuckwagon events, which are basically modern chariot races, are also famously dangerous though not as objectively bothersome to watch as the other two.
But I saw all of these things and, to be totally honest, they didn’t trouble me the way I thought they would. I became sort of obsessed with trying to understand why.
On day of the rodeo the rain was coming down hard and cold—like a bone-deep cold, which was particularly upsetting because it was July. We asked someone assembling hamburgers at a deserted stretch of food stands whether there was any chance the rodeo might get cancelled today. She said she doubted it.
“Cowboys are tough,” she said.
“What about the animals?” I asked.
“That’s the only reason they might. If it’s too slippery for them to run, they could break their legs. I don’t think it’s that bad though,” she said in complete earnestness while staring through a curtain of rain. Tuf tried to light about three cigarettes under his poncho which was tucked up under his cowboy hat. Each one was sopping wet by the time he fished his lighter out of his pocket. But she was right, the events were not cancelled. So we sat shivering in the open-air stadium through the whole goddamn thing, clutching beers in our numb fingers like idiots.
The show began with some lighthearted banter between the two commentators and the rodeo clown. Then the calf roping started. The very first cowboy caught his calf less than five steps out of the gate, dismounted, dropped the animal in the mud and tied him up, all less than six seconds. It was, in complete sincerity, one of the most impressive athletic displays I’ve ever seen. After a few seconds in the mud, the calf was untied and it popped up and trotted off to the gate on the far side of the arena.
Even when the cowboys struggled, twisting the calves into all manner of unnatural positions, the animals always seemed to react the same way. That is, they didn’t react very much at all. They were smaller than the cowboys, but they were hardy little fuckers and they seemed fully capable of withstanding even the clumsiest attempts to pull them down.
One of the primary arguments against these events is that you’d never choke slam a kitten or sling a rope around a puppy’s neck so why on earth would you do it to a baby bull? This is a dumb thing to say. Setting aside the physical differences, rodeo animals occupy a totally different space in our cultural imagination. If the day ever comes when a butcher in this part of the world can sell kitten chops without parades of people hitting the street with placards and megaphones, we can revisit this argument.
Still, I understand that my personal feelings after attending a single day of rodeo is not necessarily the best barometer of the ethical implications of these activities.
Between 1986 and 2012 nearly 90 animals have died at the Calgary Stampede, mostly as a direct result of injuries sustained during the chuckwagon and the steer/calf events. And there are thousands of rodeos that happen regularly throughout the Americas. I also think the anti-rodeo crowd—many members of which have been all too eager to rush to the defense of rodeo animals, using cuddlier pets as rhetorical stand-ins—does deserve some credit. It’s because of them that many basic animal safety regulations are now enforced at sanctioned rodeos.
All this to say: I understand the inclination to want to protect these innocent animals. I understand the events they are put through are violent and dangerous. The question I’m interested in here is whether something that is violent and dangerous is necessarily bad and ought to be stamped out of existence. I think that’s a more complicated question.
Tuf and I have been friends for over a decade. We went to high school together, played football together, roomed together through all four years in university. I remember one year, at a Halloween party, I challenged a person dressed like a wrestler to a wrestling match in the living room only to find out that his costume was actually a uniform, and that he was a regionally ranked amateur.
Following that beating, Tuf wanted a piece of the action, and in the ensuing tussle I was hit in the face until I bled all over the living room. Inconsiderate though it was to our host—a former-friend who, as far as I know, never forgave us for ruining her carpet—we agreed it was one of the best parties we ever went to.
Ordinarily, Tuf and I go out of our way to avoid confrontations with strangers (good-sporting wrestlers at parties excluded). And yet between us, even well into our adult years, there’s always been a rather vicious sense of competitiveness. We always get into these fights with one another, friendly and yet, in a lot of ways, not. I don’t have that relationship with anyone else and I don’t think I could. There’s an unspoken understanding that whatever reason or injury, these bouts end with a beer and a cigarette. It’s a primal way to measure and affirm our sense of ourselves.
To put it another way: the violence is something I cherish. I think Tuf does too.
I know this sounds like some macho psychobabble but you don’t exactly have to be Freud to see that this sort of thing: a) happens all the time, particularly in sports, and b) usually underscores a rather strong relationship. It is also, I think, the closest most of us will ever personally ever come to understanding the relationship between a cowboy and a rodeo animal.
There are a few key differences. One of the easy ones is that the animals can’t consent (refer to FN 4 for all I’m going to say on this). The other is that stakes are much higher. People and animals do die at the rodeo, but I also think that heightened risk generates a heightened form of respect—love, even. It is not a simple business transaction, where the animal is bred, fed, and turned loose. They have personalities, professional records, people whose job it is to stroke their flanks while they eat wheat. Even the humble calf is not just some prop to be used in the show.
There’s a reason “cowboys love their animals” has become a cliché. The rodeo is an evolution of ranching practices; it remains a way of life in which humans rely on their animals and their continued well-being. To forget that seems to demonstrate a willful ignorance of the spirit of the event.
Most of our stereotypes of cowboys portray them as tough, laconic, and even-handed. They have a steel grip on their values. They’re independent, apprehensive of strangers, polite, and fiercely loyal. These people—and by extension, their animals—are not to be fucked with.
I met a few people like this in Calgary. One of them was an older gentleman who castigated Tuf for flicking his cigarette on the cobblestone street, getting up from his huevos rancheros on a nearby patio to explain that that, buddy, is how forest fires start. Another was a police officer in a truck who—clearly sensing we were hungover—encouraged us to “get it in ya” while we were slurping Gatorades at a crosswalk. Another was a very bored bouncer me and Tuf were talking to about hockey and politics one night in what seemed to be the one of the few empty parts of town.
Tuf has long been in the habit of calling kind and good-hearted individuals “good people.” That bouncer was good people. Earlier that night we had met up with our friend’s mom, who was also in town for the Stampede. She was good people. But then Tuf said that by way of comparison my mom—who was sometimes known to be a little abrasive and mean—was not good people.
I did not accept this. I told him my mother was one of the goodest people I knew and, basically, where the hell does he get off making that kind of deep and cutting judgment about her?
He shrugged it off. Neither of us talked about it after that, but it brought out a strange contrast between us and the people I had come to associate with the culture here. It seemed totally obvious that someone like the bouncer, or the police officer in the truck, or even the old man talking about the forest fires would never make a passing judgment like that about someone who was not from here. They would not question their character or something they held dear. We who were not from here did that sort of thing all the time. We do it to stake out that moral high-ground.
And when I was writing this, I thought about that a lot, and all the judgments I would inevitably pass.
 This usually results in but one of a variety of truly difficult-to-watch injuries that bull riders suffer.
 For a case study, I give you the bull quite appropriately known as Air Time.
 Leashes are not the same thing…
 Though I do think that “innocence” and “consent” and similar concepts invoked to defend animals end up being inapplicable here. Rodeo animals are no more or less innocent than bull that seems hell-bent on goring you, or a wild steer that succumbs to sickness and hungry coyotes out in the prairies. They’re no more or less capable of consenting than some free-range beef that was raised with the utmost tenderness before it was painlessly slaughtered. These concepts are projections, useful only insofar as they make us feel guilty or gracious.
 My favourite example is Bodacious, the bull who to this day is viewed as the most dangerous in rodeo. He had a reputation for the way he bucked, where he would force the cowboy forward just as he whipped his head back. On one famous occasion he nearly killed a rider, crushing most of the bones in his face. Bodacious was never disqualified or retired because of this, and yet it was widely seen as a purposeful and malicious act, even though the perpetrator was an animal. You see, formidable as he was, in rodeo circles, Bodacious was an asshole.
On the horrible, embarrassing, incredible experience of trying to surf
I love surfing. Well, that’s not quite right. I love the idea of surfing. The exotic locations, the commitment to something so elemental, ephemeral, and violent: the wave.
I recently finished reading Barbarian Days, a story about two young men who drag themselves malnourished and broke to the other side of the world to chase it. They would camp out by the sea and gnaw on rotting fruit rinds just to get in the water at sunrise.
The truth is, I love surfing the way a sixth-grader loves the popular girl going into high school: with a combination of impossible longing and fear. And that uncomfortable crush has never been stronger than it was last summer, when I went to Hawaii for the first time with my family.
I don’t think I’m alone here. I’ll occasionally see photos of friends on vacation, crouched uncertainly atop a rental board or holding it underarm while they stand on the beach, looking wistfully out there.
I get it.
Thing is, I don’t think it’s possible to really convey what they’re feeling. In conversations (or an essay like this one) it’s very easy to come across like the guy who he caught a glimpse of the Virgin Mary in a piece of burnt toast. You might have and I’m sure it really was incredible, but I’m also having a tough time getting as excited about it as you are.
This difference—between actually experiencing this thing and trying to tell your friends about it—sort of mirrors the dissonance between watching someone surf and acknowledging who is, at least occasionally, doing the surfing. The dude. The burnout. The artist. The wanderer. The vocal fry sizzling, van-living, beachside-camping kid who’s going to get a real job soon he swears.
For example, arguably the best surfer in the world right now is a 23-year-old named John John Florence who is impossible to confuse with anyone other than a surfer. Bleach blonde hair, wiry frame. He’s sort of distractible in his interviews. Uses words like “gnarly.” He just came out with the world’s biggest budget surf film to date called View from a Blue Moon (for which I have watched the trailer well over a dozen times) and in that movie/trailer, he is another person entirely. Seeing him stuck in a chair for an interview is about as comfortable as watching a sea turtle drag its big, stupid body across a beach, but watching him in the trailer is like the first time you realized that thing is actually made to swim.
The difference isn’t just huge—it’s transformative.
For me, on the other hand, getting in the water had precisely the inverse effect. Surfers have their own term for beginners: they’re called kooks. As surfers know, and as kooks quickly learn, we do not belong in the path of the great forces at work in the ocean. The wave inflicts levels of physical and psychological humiliation, and other surfers compound this humiliation to scare us off and keep us out. If you ascribe to the belief that this is more sacred art than sport, then we kooks are obnoxious tourists in a holy place.
Which is to say, I’ve been a beginner at a lot of things, but never has it been quite as embarrassing as it was being a kook in Hawaii.
I had taken a surfing lesson once when I was in Mexico. We took a shuttle to a beachside hostel where we spent the first 10 minutes on the sand learning to pop up and down. That was the whole lesson. Just get from your belly to your feet as fast as you can.
So when we got to Hawaii, there would be no lessons. All I wanted was a board and directions to a spot where I wouldn’t die.
As soon as we got to our hotel on Waikiki beach I looked out through the open-air lobby and saw surfers in the water, bobbing like action figures way out at a distant break. Most had parked in this public lot up the side of the harbour where they launched off a rocky pier. Waves didn’t seem too intense. Maybe shoulder-high, I thought to myself. It’s just water for Christ’s sake.
I went out over there alone for a closer look. In the parking lot, there were vans with surfboards lashed to the roof and pickups with surfboards sticking out of their cabs. A few people were tailgating, sitting on cement parking blocks and huddled around charcoal barbecues, their white flakes rising on currents of hot air.
I walked out on the pier to where the surfers were going in and coming out of the water, stepping gingerly across the gaps in these immovable boulders while crabs scuttled over and around the slick contours. I saw a guy standing there with his surfboard under his arm, watching people who I imagined were his friends in the water. I asked him if he was going in. He said he was. I asked him if this was somewhere someone who hadn’t really surfed before could try and he said absolutely not. He was nice about it, but I got the feeling I had violated some social norm, like asking a stranger to puff on their cigarette. He said I should walk farther down the beach. Here the reef was too shallow and when I fell I would get knocked around pretty good.
I noticed he had an accent and asked where he was from. He said Israel. I asked whether or not he was enjoying his vacation and he told me (rather excitedly) that he actually lived on Oahu. After I walked back to the beach I saw him and the other surfers walking back across the pier, their silhouettes set against the sunset like something you’d see on a postcard. At that moment, nothing in the universe could dispel my impressions of how cool these people were.
Over the next few days I saw him hanging around our hotel’s courtyard, working a booth where he sold wind mobiles. I never approached him again.
In the four days I was in Waikiki, the guy at the surf booth urged me not to go surfing because the conditions sucked. But this was Hawaii, and I wasn’t about to let some surf booth operator tell me I shouldn’t go surfing in Hawaii.
Now I couldn’t say for sure whether that first outing was more a result of the shitty conditions or my overwhelming incompetence but I spent a solid hour paddling to spots where the waves just finished breaking (I would soon learn that this is very much a waiting game), trying to stand up on teeny waves that didn’t so much break as collapse into a mushy pile of whitewater, and confusing the shimmering reef under the clear water with what might have been a shark. I also learned what a rash guard is and why people wear them.
So that sucked. But only a few days later, we flew to the island of Maui and we heard about a surf spot close to our apartment complex called Whaler’s Village. It’s an outdoor mall on the beach with a sandy break just a short walk away from some of the hotels.
I rented a board from a hut on the beach, approaching the owner to ask about the conditions. He made a bunch of hand gestures and told me a bunch of things I pretended to understand. Then he handed over a big blue soft-top and I took off towards the water.
In Barbarian Days William Finnegan writes that once a wave exceeds 20 feet, the number of surfers who are willing to ride that wave drops off precipitously. He quotes one surfing scholar who puts the number ready to ride 25-foot waves at less than 1 in 20,000.
“I had surfed alongside a few big-wave specialists on the North Shore, but I thought of them as mutants, mystics, pilgrims traveling another road from the rest of us, possibly made from a different raw material,” Finnegan writes. He quotes an old-time big-wave rider who once said “big waves are not measured in feet, but in increments of fear.”
I saw in this passage a crucial revelation about surfing: fear is constant and there is a point when things get so heavy that talent doesn’t really matter.
This—and this is not an exaggeration—kept me up at night. Comparing the waves here to anything over 20 feet was preposterous, of course, and yet knowing this was no more comforting than your father’s perfunctory reminder that you would be safe riding a gigantic-seeming roller coaster as a kid. I wasn’t scared of drowning, exactly. When I imagine drowning I imagine a struggle, but there would be no struggle here. In the lizardy part of my brain, it seemed half possible that my body would be swallowed and washed into non-existence.
Worse, this feeling didn’t even really go away after the first day surfing in Maui. Even in bed, I could still feel in my limbs and my gut a faint sensation of being tossed around, like I was being shaken in the cradle of a giant’s massive palms. Oddly enough the only time this feeling went away was in the water. In the moments I turned my head to paddle, I didn’t have time to think about how big the wave was going to get before it came down on top of me.
Getting out there was probably the toughest part. The first few sets were were easy to paddle through, but as I got farther out, the roiling whitewater rushing towards shore became taller and too difficult to push over. So, I went under.
Given that my board was probably buoyant enough to float a refrigerator (beginners all get these huge clumsy boards because they’re easier to ride) this was also a challenge. The first few times, I thought I would try to hold onto it, barrel-rolling under the water and hooking my hands and my heels over the rails. This was dumb. The force of the wave would rip the board away from me and send me tumbling back towards the shore. Trick was let go and dive deep, letting the rubber ankle leash hold on as it bounced through the waves.
I did make it to the break where probably six or seven other surfers were waiting. I sat up on my board maneuvering by twirling my legs in the water like eggbeaters. The fact that many of these surfers were, by my estimation, ‘legit’ was actually comforting. I tried not to crowd them while acknowledging that where they were was probably the best place to wait. I stood up on a couple waves briefly but when I fell and came up I was battered repeatedly by the next sets (a phenomenon known as getting caught inside). Every time I tried to climb on my board, the next wave was right there to sweep the board right the fuck out from under me. The whole experience conjures the image of a drill sergeant, throwing buckets of water in your face while you gasp for air. The ocean might as well have been asking why I’m such a pussy.
After about 30 minutes of this, I crawled ashore for a break.
After reading Finnegan’s book, I wondered for a long time whether or not I should write anything about surfing, mostly because I’ve been told it’s difficult-to-impossible to write about surfing well if you actually surf, let alone if you’re a goddamn tourist.
In an essay-style review of Finnegan’s book for New York Magazine, Jay Kang writes about some of the cringeworthy first-person accounts of surfing in Hawaii: the long rides in to shore, the “ecstatic bliss,” the wipeouts (there are invariably more examples in this piece you’re reading, I’m just too green to know what they are). “(They) were writing about the sport in the way they might have written about eating ahi poke for the first time in a Hawaiian hotel,” Kang writes. The kicker was that this “kook bait,” as he calls it, was penned by Mark Twain and Jack London.
Which brings us to the obvious question: what am I—a writer unfit to sharpen Mark Twain or Jack London’s pencil—trying to do here?
The honest answer is that I don’t know. All the reasons I’ve run over in my head—to distance myself from this romanticized notion of surfing (“the sunbaked spiritual pornography,” as Kang calls it), to describe the not insignificant physical and psychological toll of actually doing something that seems so graceful--now sound stupid.
I’m sure that as a landlocked Canadian, I’ll never learn to really surf, and despite my absolute best efforts, I don’t think I’ll ever be much better at writing about it.
But you’ve made it this far so if you’ll indulge me for just a little while longer, I’ll try to tell you what it is like to stand up on a wave.
You begin paddling, hard, and long before you can judge whether you should be trying to catch this wave. Soon, your board will begin to tip forward as the water rises up behind you, but unlike the other times, the nose will not dig into the water. The wave will not pass under you. It will not curl overtop of you. It will begin to carry you.
You’ll pop up, not really expecting to be able to stand but you’ll stand anyways. You will feel like you’re hovering above the water, like you are defying physics. You are not defying physics, though. That big dumb board could probably carry a second person, but this thought will never occur to you—not if you rode a thousand more waves like this.
You’ll become lucid, piercingly aware that you are now doing exactly what you were trying to do since you got in the water—that the other times when you made it half this distance aren’t like this; not even close.
You’ll remember something you saw when you were watching the other surfers and you begin pumping your legs to gain momentum. You are now slightly more surprised you haven’t fallen off but, like a bicycle gaining speed, your balance is more assured.
Now the wave is beginning to die under your feet. You don’t just want to jump off. You want to stay in control. So you fall forward onto your board, bracing yourself with your arms. This is when you finally slide into the water. You climb back on, calmly.
You paddle back towards the beach. But in your goofy reverie, you forget about the ocean behind you. The undertow pulls you into a breaking wave and smashes you hard into the steep sandbank. Your body is full of sand and shame. You’re suddenly very aware that the beach is pretty crowded and you scramble to pick yourself up.
You see kids running with boogie boards straight into breaking waves, doing backflips as they shoot off the water like a ramp. You wonder if the people at the hut are going to check if your board is damaged. You think it is definitely damaged.
It was incredible and ugly in equal parts. But you also know that when you leave this place, you will not regret having failed.
 I actually got these from a list of surfing stereotypes that were published in a surf magazine. They are, of course, not exhaustive and I already feel bad about lumping massive numbers of talented surfers into these not-so-flattering categories.
 Even just his name…
 I know a lot of this has to do with things like production value, but I can’t imagine the effect is greatly diminished when you watch him surf in person.
The first time I read John Saward’s column for VICE, I remember laughing so hard I had to stop to catch my breath. Here’s the opening paragraph from his piece “Why I Love Watching Ron Jeremy Fuck”:
To witness Ron Jeremy have intercourse is to witness a grizzly bear eat a flamingo, or an orphan try to break into a vending machine. He is a manifestation of the grotesque male id, jamming fingers and genitals into every orifice at every opportunity, doing all of these things simultaneously, not making sense, not following some plan, just a man bludgeoning the human body with his sexual impulses. It is like watching a chimpanzee try to open the package of an Xbox controller.
That’s just the beginning. The rest is just as densely packed with that. Upon finishing my teary-eyed second reading, I dropped whatever it was I was supposed to be working on that day and read everything else he’d published.
If you read VICE, you’ve likely come across something he’s written. He’s mostly known for his meditations on masculinity from his column “We Are Not Men” and, more recently, for his takedowns of various media/celebrity blowhards.
Probably his most popular post entitled “This American Bro: A Portrait of the Worst Guy Ever” appeared continuously in every one of my social media feeds the day it came out. One person who shared it said it was “required reading.”
But beyond sheer incisiveness and wit, the writing also has incredible heart. Last father’s day he wrote about his dad and this Valentine’s Day he wrote an essay on being in love: a series of descriptive scenes that were actually lucid in the same way your own philosophical arguments seem lucid when you’re talking about really impenetrable shit at the bar.
Easily my two favourite pieces, though, are about boxers. His piece on Mike Tyson is one of the best things VICE has ever published and his piece on Joe Frazier might be even better. After I read the Frazier piece I felt, for the first time, like I needed to tell the author how great I thought his story was. I emailed saying I wanted to be able to write like him and asked if we might be able to talk about his work, what he reads, etc.
His response remains one of the most cherished emails I’ve ever received. You can read it in full below.
In my early-twenties self-loathing had become a sort of recreational activity. I had just graduated from college and could not determine whether it was a period of growth or decay or stagnation. I suspect now that this is an affliction shared by many creative people (those who are immune to this are robots who need to be destroyed), but at that time I struggled to detach myself from it. I still wrote, but for purposes I could not identify. It was on the backs of receipts and in messages typed into my phone while riding the subway and on sprawling, unstructured Word documents. Writing was a messy, violent ejection of fractured ideas that I couldn’t assemble or refine.
The bodybuilder as a tragic figure
Near the end of the 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron there is scene where a few men—who to this day remain some of the most famous bodybuilders of all time—are gathered to celebrate the conclusion of the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the de facto leader of the great bodybuilders is lying supine on a couch, smoking a little pot and wearing a t-shirt that says “Arnold is numero uno.” The other contestants are milling around the tiny room including a freshly defeated Lou Ferrigno. They’re eating fried chicken and—because it’s Lou’s 24th birthday—cake.
Up until this point, the filmmakers had been showcasing the psychological warfare of the recently concluded spectacle, even taking some creative liberties to stage some of the more camera-friendly moments themselves. Throughout the movie, the steely and seemingly untouchable 5-time champ, Arnold, has been carefully working Lou, not so much softening his already fragile psyche as much as dismantling it. The final jab comes in that moment with Lou standing off to the side, as alone as a 6’4” 280-pound mountain of muscle can be in a room of that size.
After a happy birthday song, led by the possibly stoned Austrian, the group starts chanting for a speech, unsympathetic to the fact that Lou—who’s been nearly deaf since childhood and is, in all likelihood, having a pretty shitty birthday—probably doesn’t much care to give one.
Lou smiles: “I got nothing to say, I just want to eat my cake.”
I love that scene and while it might be oversentimental to say it’s heartbreaking, it is surprisingly moving. It’s not tough to imagine it was scripted and used by the filmmakers to put the proverbial bow on everything they had been wrapping up to that point. If that’s true, it worked. Some might argue the events of the film culminate the moment the judges announce the results, but they’d be wrong.
There is only one moment, and it’s when Lou utters those words.
While Pumping Iron, is, at it’s core, just a flick about gawking at fleshy statues, Lou and Arnold make it something more. Lou is denied the win, but he’s also denied any real closure, fading into the background amidst the celebration. This film is very clearly meant to be a comedy but if you reacted like I did to the cake-eating scene, it is also a tragedy.
For the entire movie it seems obvious that Arnold is being set up to be the man who’ll win the Olympia. His journey to the title seems almost effortless, fated, and punctuated by laughs, photo-ops and various homoerotic frolicking with his gym buddies in the sun-kissed city of Venice Beach (he compares ‘the pump’ one gets from lifting to coming, enough said). Lou stands in sharp contrast, training in a dimly lit gym in Brooklyn with people who are definitely not bodybuilders, working—no, struggling, loudly, painfully—to build a body that will beat Arnold. In a follow-up documentary made years later, the filmmakers would describe the bigger and younger Lou as the dark prince that would threaten the golden king.
He finished third.
What you may not have known about Lou is that, as a bodybuilder, he was paid next to nothing and worked as a sheet metal worker for $10 an hour until a friend cut his hand off. Lou left after that. His father, who is depicted in the film as his overbearing coach, was deployed as a character by the filmmakers and wasn’t nearly as involved in Lou’s training as he was made out to be. Even after Arnold retired from bodybuilding following that competition, Lou never won an Olympia.
Yet, the film almost manages to convey all this—gesturing at it through darkened shots, laboured screams and futile resolve—without betraying its tone. In other words, you’re clearly meant to feel Lou’s pain but you’re also meant to root for Arnold. What’s jarring is the conclusion, the feeling that all is right while what is essentially a poetic injustice hovers just below the surface. Catharsis there is not.
That may sound ridiculous since this film catapulted Lou into the acting role that would eventually define his career. Yet, when we take a step back to consider how the only real non-CGI’d human being to portray the Hulk made his way into the public eye, it’s not only ironic, it’s downright sad. He’s reduced to the kid standing in the corner, watching the others smoke pot and eat cake.
He just wants to eat his cake, but in that moment they even manage to deny him that.
The energy drink company Vemma is being built by a fleet of charismatic young people, but is its business model ethical?
There is something about the combination of money, caffeine and fraternal support that wrestles hopes and dreams up out of the benign depths of the adolescent imagination. In this student house in uptown Toronto, that’s as true on a Sunday night as it is on any work day. Cars fill the driveway and line the curbs for a few hundred metres on both sides of the street. People are constantly walking in and out of the front door which is just open enough to make you feel ridiculous for knocking. Inside, the walls around the entrance are plastered with the same sort of hideous wallpaper you’d see on the set of a 70’s sitcom. The meltwater from the pile of shoes is soaking the carpet. After a quick “hello” with an acquaintance on his way out, I notice a young man on his cell phone in the living room, pacing like a caged bull while he recites a well-rehearsed sales pitch. It soon becomes obvious that everyone in the house is either giving or receiving this same pitch.
This is the hive. There was supposed to be a big meeting here today—“a house event,” as they’re known—where two very successful young people from Michigan would drive hundreds of kilometers to personally deliver this pitch to anyone interested in Vemma, a nutrition company best known for its healthy energy drinks and multi-level marketing business model. It was cancelled after they were turned around at the border—“some shit with their papers,” I was told—but people are still showing up.
Instead, I’m here to meet Emilio Nafarrate, a friend and former highschool classmate of mine. He is a Vemma affiliate; someone who both sells this drink and recruits new affiliates. Back when he was still relatively new to the company, he offered me a chance to join, pitching me some variation of what I was now overhearing in the living room.
It begins with a claim that with some elbow grease, a can-do attitude, and the proper guidance from the now wealthy young people who recruited you, it will be within your power to achieve the financial freedom known only to movie stars and professional athletes. They’ll tell you you’ll make residual income after you’ve done enough legwork to establish yourself; like how Donald Trump makes money when you play on his golf course without actually joining your foursome. They’ll tell you when (rarely “if”) you hit a certain rank, the company will provide you with a leased Mercedes Benz or BMW. They’ll tell you this is a product that you—a young person who presumably drinks Redbull, Rockstar, Coke, Sprite, Powerade and Gatorade—should be drinking. They’ll tell you it’s been on Dr. Oz and is the official drink of the Phoenix Suns.
If you don’t know any better, you’ll start looking for the dotted line on which to sign. If you don’t know any better, you’ll see the piddly getcha started fee as a worthy investment. And if you’re like me, before the end of your first meeting, you’ll be deciding whether to personally pick up your first batch of product or get it ordered to your house.
Like many businesses though, the reality is a little different than the pitch. It’s all right there in Vemma’s annual affiliate earnings. Last year over 90% of active affiliates earned under $12,200 which is less than one would make working 20 hours a week at minimum wage. These affiliates were also required to order a certain amount of product every month—about $150 worth—which means that only about 12% made any money at all.
For this reason, Vemma has drawn fire from critics saying it’s a pyramid scheme, an illegal business model where no new money is brought in and members within the company are paid with money that comes from those who are losing money. The truly discomfiting bit is that in these models, people are paid based on how well they can recruit others into the business. But, for reasons that have been enshrined in economic law and common sense, the vast majority cannot make money. People caught up in pyramid schemes will tell you that some new recruits will succeed and, in more sophisticated models, even make more than some of those above them in the hierarchy. That’s true, but the fact remains that the entire framework would crumble if everyone could succeed as promised.
In other words, the problem is not that there are more losers than winners, it’s that the winners unknowingly stand on the backs of the losers.
William Keep is the dean of the New Jersey business school. He has served as an expert witness in the prosecution of pyramid schemes for several years and has co-authored a number of papers with a Peter J. Vander Nat, an economist employed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. While he has not personally taken an official stance on the Vemma’s legitimacy, he did issue a warning to his college students about Vemma, saying that they “should know that some MLM companies have been identified as illegal pyramid schemes where almost everyone who joins loses money.”
He says that Vemma “has a tendency to rewrite history” insofar as it “presents some logical arguments that have some huge logical flaws.” With a very tiny bit of digging, I learned that these arguments were equally common in the $8 billion MLM giant Herbalife. For example, both Herbalife and Vemma have partnerships with professional sports teams and according to one member of the hive, “organizations like the NBA just don’t partner with scam companies.” It is treated as bulletproof fact that because David Beckham has Herbalife pasted across the front of his L.A. Glalaxy soccer jersey, the company must be legitimate. Or there’s the well-perpetuated myth that any company with a viable product—or a good product, even according to non-affiliates in Vemma’s case—cannot possibly be a pyramid scheme. Not so.
“Even though the company is selling a viable product and their message is one of developing a retail customer base, companies found to be pyramid schemes were operating businesses where buying in involved purchasing the product and the purpose was to be rewarded when you got people to buy in,” says Keep. While Vemma has approximately nine different methods of compensating its affiliates, the business model is built around those two fundamental points: affiliates must purchase the product on an ongoing basis and they are rewarded when their recruits do the same. There is nothing that requires any of these purchases come from people outside the company.
And Herbalife? The company recently came under intense scrutiny when Wall Street hedge fund manager Bill Ackman made a $1 billion bet that the company would collapse. As of the time of this writing, it hasn’t and the company has mounted a defense. But even after operating for 34 years, Herbalife has been unable to shake the claims that their business model is—to put it politely—questionable. Vemma has been operating for only 10.
How then, if there are potentially legitimate legal issues with these businesses, do they continue to operate unfettered under the proverbial noses of massive government bureaus like the Federal Trade Commission? Keep wrote a piece for CNBC where he explained that MLM companies “could be legitimate” if they placed an emphasis on its true retail customer base and limited rewards for recruitment. Yet it’s very difficult to prove Vemma affiliates aren’t selling to unaffiliated customers, even though there is zero incentive to do so. According to the numbers released by the company last year (see above), there was an nearly exact 30/70 split between affiliates and customers respectively. No other information about these particular figures was released publicly, and the only other information the company offered after being pressed is that “at no time were customers ever affiliates.” In other words, the company was less than forthcoming about where the money is coming from.
None of this has stopped Internet commenters from trying to hash out this dispute in a predictably mean-spirited manner. Even the more articulate blog, article and video comments are just regurgitated spiels, copied and pasted from elsewhere on the Web. And any commenters that don’t feign cool indifference viciously attack anyone who dares question company wisdom. Here, as in real life, everyone who encounters the business model—and thus, the sales pitch—is swept up in the debate, forced to believe that they are either being duped or presented with a great opportunity. There is no in between. Apathy is alien.
It’s getting late and I’m sitting across from Emilio in Andrew Hood’s bedroom. Hood is Nafarrate’s upline, the young man several levels above him in the company or, as Emilio first introduces him with a sarcastic smirk, the “pyramid leader.” He is an unexpected listener for the first part of the interview, leaning against the back wall while he absently plays with earbuds hanging around his neck. At first, the baby-faced 20-year-old is both quiet and unimposing: someone who wouldn’t seem out of place playing the voice of reason in an American Pie movie. Emilio, by contrast, sounds like a sped-up recording (I know because when I slowed down the recording, he didn’t sound like he’d been shot with a tranquilizer dart). This would be surprising if I was meeting him for the first time or didn’t already know how much product he’d consumed.
They give me one of the drinks to try, just to get a sense of how it stacks up against more ubiquitous pick-me-ups. It’s one of the company’s original products, Verve, a red-bull sized can of orange fizz with a slightly sour medicine-y taste. It brings to mind like a chewable multivitamin for kids. I enjoy it and when I tell Andrew and Emilio this they seem unsurprised. When Emilio leaves to take a call, Andrew sits in his place and begins answering questions, “educating” me in defence of the company.
Both are a part of a movement known as the Young People’s Revolution or the YPR which includes all Vemma affiliates under the age of 30. In a news release from January 2013, the company publicly credited this massive body for being “one of the driving forces behind the [30 per cent] increase in sales” in 2012. Last year, that increase jumped to 89 per cent with sales rocketing from $117 million to $221 million. If you’re a young person and you’re a part of Vemma, you’re part of the YPR. It’s made very clear to every potential recruit that success is impossible without the help of your upline. Opting out is just another avenue to failure.
“There are three aspects for enrolling somebody in Vemma,” says Hood, “knowledge, credibility, and trust. You and your friend trust each other, but what you lack is the knowledge and credibility.” Hood reckons that at first, any potential affiliate will ask the recruiting affiliate two questions: “how does [the business] work and how much money have you made?” If you’ve just signed up, odds are you don’t really know how the business works nor have you made any money, at which point the pitchee will promptly tell you to fuck off. But, if you can coax them into a house event, where they will meet people who have made money and who do know how the business works, then they’re likely to change their minds. “In fact, I’ve had literally hundreds of people come to my events thinking it’s a pyramid scheme and left enrolling,” Hood says. Here at the hive it’s easy to see why: the heartfelt camaraderie, the promises of mutual success, and dreams of making more money at 25 than the vast majority of the population could squeeze out of their savings at 50, people (like Emilio) have a tendency to “dive right in” with a resounding “fuck it!” That’s just the effect the YPR has.
Of course, following these caffeine-fuelled gatherings, it’s hard to imagine these young people ever consider the more labour-intensive route to success: getting out there and actively selling some drink rather than waxing poetic to other impressionable adolescents about Rolexes and company cars in hopes of cashing in on their recruitment bonus. The YPR fosters this outlook. Plain and simply, their purpose is to put the dream on display. A more cynical reader might see that and say the YPR’s membership has grown fat feasting on the insecurities of young people, luring them away from jobs they don’t want to do, misrepresenting a long shot as a viable means of dealing with mountains of student debt. But such a conclusion is not for the journalist to make.
There is one young man who has recently become the Internet’s foremost authority on all things anti-Vemma. He is a self-styled pariah of the YPR who runs a blog that brings in over 1,000 views a day. In his posts, he methodically dismantles claims made by the company and its affiliates citing research, personal experience, and anecdotes from defected corporate employees. His articles routinely appear near the top of Vemma-related web searches and he says that veteran affiliates have instructed the newbies to avoid his blog. He himself left the company after a friend and mentor confided that many must fail for a few to profit. “You know what I’m talking about man,” YPR pariah later wrote of their conversation, “some of us hit gold the rest pay up.”At the time of his remarkably civil break, he was positioned atop a team of a few hundred affiliates making several hundred dollars a month.
But not all members of the YPR have the same constitution or wherewithal to leave like he did. And that’s not their fault. In fact, this blogger maintains that he’s still friends with many affiliates.
While some newcomers approach the business with a Machiavellian mindset, ruthlessly cutting down those in their way in hopes of achieving success, the consensus among successful affiliates is that those people fail even more often than everyone else. They can’t function in the system. Most of the successful people in this business are well-intentioned and hardworking young people who’ve come to believe that this drink is the key to their financial freedom and are actively committed to evangelizing (or “educating” as they prefer to say) other people. They aren’t trying to fool or mislead potential recruits. Each of them is tangled up in a web of distant promises where the only hope for their own success is to embrace others into the sticky warmth of the fold.
That’s why when Andrew says the only way for him to really succeed is by helping others below him, he’s telling the truth. When Emilio punctuates his sentences with business-building aphorisms—like “we’re not hunters because then people feel hunted, we’re farmers because we grow relationships”—he means it. It’s not that they are being intentionally misleading; it is that misrepresentation has been built into the business model, obscured by the same hopes and dreams that brought these young people onboard in the first place.
When I first signed up for Vemma, I told Emilio that I wanted to do some research before I ordered $500 worth of product and became an active member. Like a good salesman who believes in his product, he didn’t break eye contact and he didn’t get discouraged.
“You’re just going to see a bunch of stuff about it being a scam and shit.”
The gap in viewpoints between Vemma’s supporters and critics essentially comes down to odds of success. If you ask Andrew Hood, there is nothing wrong with selling the opportunity to make substantial sums of money, no matter how unlikely. After all, everyone has the same compensation plan.
“The only X-factor is you,” Emilio says repeating a well-worn cliché of the self help genre. It means if you don’t succeed it’s your fault rather than that of any business model that may or may not depend on the failure of the vast majority of its members. Here’s another analogy often used to expound this mantra of personal responsibility: “It’s like if you go get a gym membership but you don’t go into the gym and a month later you go back and say ‘you guys scammed me, I bought this gym membership and I’m not jacked.’ No dude, you didn’t work out, you didn’t run on the treadmill, you didn’t lift weights,” Hood says.
Alex Morton is this viewpoint personified. He’s become the unofficial poster boy of the YPR and at 25, is among the ten highest earners in the company. If you have the pleasure of listening to Alex speak (he’s on YouTube) or perusing his YPR Facebook feed, it will become painfully obvious that he has no time for losers. He’ll belligerently scold laziness, stopping just shy of outright telling his wide-eyed, mouth-breathing audience that he don’t give a fuck if you sign up for Vemma or not. He makes it very clear that hardworking people “will” get rewarded—not “may.” He says it with the same certainty one would use to assert a scientific law. His Facebook feed is peppered with posts that can be crudely summarized as “luck is bullshit” and he’s fond of reminding people that he was once just an Arizona State student getting kicked out dorms and being put on academic probation. My personal favourite post, though, is an image of him in sunglasses and a hoodie posing alongside big bold letters that read: “All dreams are crazy, until…they come true.”
Ill-placed punctuation aside, there is one hypothetical scenario that could undermine this the-only-problem-is-you outlook: What if there were no quitters? What if the company was full of keen, ambitious, young people like him? Would they all, at the very least, make some profit? I tried to get in touch with Morton as well as four other high earning affiliates to ask them just that. I got one, “msg me on fb,” one unfollowed-up “how are you” and one “not interested.” I also got the run-around from the PR company connected to Vemma HQ which, apparently, couldn’t find a single person in a building of more than 200 people who had time for a ten minute phone call or written statement. They had several weeks to do so.
By the end of the night, it becomes clear that Andrew would not be happy if I used his name in the article, a sentiment he shares with at least one other affiliate I spoke to. While Andrew made it clear that every word attributed to him should indicate his full support of the company he has good reason to be nervous. YPR pariah says missteps and bad words about the company usually result in names being “dragged through the mud” and even when the Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto, got in touch with Vemma HQ, the spokesperson did not reveal her full name.
The reality is that this business is a controversial one, and few are willing to go out of their way to embroil themselves in that controversy. It simply isn’t worth it. They have their audience and, in the case of the successful affiliates, that audience hangs off every word they say. Morton has more than 22,000 Twitter followers. Why would he step away from that audience to answer a few questions for an article he knows isn’t changing any minds? After all, he’s walking proof that the dream can be a reality. The business model incentivizes people like Morton to bring all your insecurities screaming to the surface, because even if you do think this business is a whole bunch of baloney, you cannot possibly argue with the fact that he makes more money than a lot of us do.
But what if the opportunity he was selling was not only very likely to fail but financing the golden bait he was dangling in front of you? What if the truth was that the dream would never be more than that? If you were about to become one of his customers, wouldn’t you want to know?
 These are privately released numbers and to my knowledge have not been verified by any external bodies.
 It’s not that this ‘vast majority’ will not make money. The problem with this model is that the vast majority must lose money in order to function as it does.
 This itself is suspicious considering the Federal Trade Commission’s “70 – 30 rule.” That is, “70 per cent of product must be sold to customers outside of the distributor chain for a company to qualify as legal.” Vemma Canada’s numbers are almost the same at 71.4 per cent.
 The most popular comments are all some variation of: “I’m driving a BMW thanks to Vemma so fuck y’all.”
 See note 1.
 I should make it clear that despite the tone of this piece, there is absolutely zero ill-will directed at Emilio, Andrew or the other affiliates. I am not one of the YPR’s frequently cited examples of a young affiliate who had signed on and failed. I never paid for the product and never attempted to sell it, I simply signed up to secure a spot in the pyramid-looking network but decided not to go ahead after I began researching.
 Revealing his identity would have compromised his ability to collect information about the company.
 I am obligated to admit here that when This accepted a similar article (several months after the one you’re reading here was already written) Vemma COO Brad Wayment did send me an email. He gave me the familiar “results aren’t typical” spiel that you find in tiny disclaimers at the bottom of all their bolded success stories and cited some obscure term and/or condition which says affiliates can say how much money they make but must also tell the person on the receiving end of that information that they must look at the Vemma income disclosure statement. I know I’m going to catch some flak from those of you who read your terms and conditions top-to-bottom (probably the same people who read footnotes) but I’ll go ahead and say very few affiliates know of that condition and even fewer follow it, meaning this information doesn’t merit anything other than a footnote on it. Also, Vemma fucked off as soon as the deadline for the magazine passed, leaving several unanswered questions in this humble—but more thorough—piece.