The Lonely descent into QAnon: Part 1
Famously worn by Kylie Jenner & Lena Dunham, the founders of NZ brand "Lonely" have turned their mind to conspiracies, aliens & Star Seeds
This is the story about the founders of Lonely Lingerie, a much loved and lauded fashion label in New Zealand, which counts Lena Dunham and Kylie Jenner amongst its fans. This story is about how a rogue conspiracy theory crept into a core of a brand and now threatens to derail it entirely.
This was a complicated one to report, and I’m very happy to have worked on this piece with Zoe Walker Ahwa, the editorial director at Ensemble. I went to journalism school with Zoe, so it’s nice to know that 15 years later we get to work together on something. Full disclosure: Zoe’s colleague Rebecca Wadey used to work for Lonely.
Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals involved. These names are indicated with an *.
In the beginning.
Lonely lingerie is touted as one of New Zealand’s biggest fashion success stories.
Started in 2009 by Helene Morris and Steven Ferguson, Lonely’s praises have been sung far and wide, their ethos of body positivity resonating in the press and with their customers.
And not just any ol’ customers. In amongst them, Kylie Jenner — her photo in Lonely lingerie retweeted 25,000 times back in 2017. Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke also made the brand go viral.
But as 2020 unfolded, something strange started to happen. Its owners started talking about grand theories, agendas and plans. Staff didn’t know what to do. Some quit earlier this year. Some stayed.
Now Lonely’s legacy looks to be less about empowering women, and more about embracing QAnon conspiracy theories. And not just embracing them, but really sinking their teeth in:
Who is Lonely Lingerie?
Lonely was born from Helene Morris and Steven Ferguson’s other baby, Lonely Hearts Club (later known as Lonely Hearts) — a clothing label founded in 2003 in Wellington by Helene and then-business partner Aimee McFarlene. The brand and its founders - along with Steve - soon moved to Auckland, and opened beloved flagship store Myhart. In 2010, Aimee left the business; Steve became a co-director soon after.
Lonely was created in 2009 to focus on lingerie and swimwear, but the lingerie is what they became famous for.
Helene grew up in Palmerston North, and Steve on Auckland’s North Shore. They met in Aspen and they started talking fashion. They’re now married with three children.
A lot of their success has been down to careful and very strategic marketing, focussing on body positivity, using models that broke the stereotype of what models could be. It was good stuff, and it genuinely did help push the now commonplace ‘diversity’ and inclusivity conversations into the fashion mainstream.
“Unlike most lingerie brands, which offer a hyper-sexualised vision of femininity, its marketing tends to relate more to the 95% of the time when women are not being sexual,” wrote Rose Hoare for Stuff in 2017. “Lonely’s models are almost always photographed happily alone, but sometimes with their mothers or children.”
That article went on to describe Steve’s upbringing, which perhaps contains some hints of where his beliefs would eventually move:
His father was an artist, a yoga teacher and a surfer who was “a creative, spiritual sort of person”, and Steve says his parents largely left him to navigate the world by himself…”
Well, navigate he has:
There’s a lot to take in, and the format mirrors a lot of Steve’s Facebook posts since COVID-19 entered the global conversation. The Lonely Lingerie co-founder also questioned whether the Christchurch terror attacks which left 51 people dead were planned by Jacinda Ardern:
Like many who have fallen into the depths of QAnon conspiracy belief, his statements are posed as an endless list of questions (I’ve written about QAnon at length on Webworm, and you can find those pieces in Webworm’s conspiracy culture section).
As is the case with “Q”, there is no attempt by Steve at evidence, justification or context. Nearly all his comments on Facebook are deeply offensive, immature and misguided. He often goes into rants about the mainstream media, proclaiming “The Cabal owns nearly every single […] mainstream media outlet.” At one point he starts yelling in ALL CAPS: “BILL CLINTON RAPES CHILDREN.”
From what I can tell, his wife and Lonely co-founder Helene doesn’t lean in as heavily in her posts, but never disagrees and often chimes in. She tends to post content like this:
I wrote to both Steve Ferguson and Helene Morris asking about their various Facebook comments. Steve is yet to reply, but Helene provided this explanation:
“This is interesting as Steve had his FB account hacked months ago and has since deleted it (btw Steves account was private and he only has about 20 friends hehe).
She went on: “Can you tell me more about what you read, when and how you got this information? Steve and I don’t fully support lockdowns amongst other thoughts we have to do with Covid/life but our Company has nothing to do with our personal beliefs and we don’t have any desire to share these with our staff or publicly, we are very private people for a reason and prefer it that way...hence the name Lonely lol!”
A hack can’t be ruled out, but looking at the way Helene and Steve’s accounts interacted in the comments, it would appear both their accounts were compromised at the same time.
Husband and wife — they’re in this together, and they’re in deep.
Buried on the Facebook replies to Helene Morris’ COVID-19 misinformation, I found Auckland chiropractor Craig Reynolds chipping in:
Craig was replying to a video Helene had posted of Dr. Stella Immanuel, a woman who believes David Icke’s theory about reptilian shapeshifters. I discuss the lizard shapeshifters on my podcast with Dax Shepard, Armchaired and Dangerous.
Up until now, I’d thought chiropractors mainly dealt with manipulating spines. Craig seems to have expanded into manipulating human souls. Orenda, the practice he runs with his wife Caroline, has this to say on their website: “A mystical force present in all people that can empower them to affect the world, or effect change in their own lives.”
He goes on:
“Craig and Caroline have completed degrees in Chiropractic and have now moved on to this evolving field of Reorganising.
Their Chiropractic education gives them an extensive academic foundation and a substantial skill set to call on when necessary, however they believe that in this reorganising process they are seeing the evolution of healthcare and human development beyond what any traditional approaches have been able to provide.
They are committed to providing the highest quality, sustainable empowering processes available to people at this point in time. At times this process is raw, but with that comes authenticity and a beauty that honours who we truly are and the gifts we have to contribute to the world.”
I’ve talked to those around Lonely, who told me their bosses — Steve and Helene — sent them to Craig for consultations. From what I can tell, Steve and Helene’s descent into wellness and eventual conspiracy territory started around the same time they started seeing Craig.
Former Lonely staff member Megan* had been working at the company for a number of years. She visited Craig after recommendations in the office.
“I made an appointment, and went along but nothing he said made sense at all, he was just talking gibberish about collective energy in the universe,” she says.
Before Craig entered the scene, Steve and Helene had also introduced staff to other therapy and “wellness” sessions.
“The team went to a group therapy session organised by the company. It was led by a woman who I later found out was a friend of theirs. I thought it was going to be about ‘positivity and happiness’, but for a few of us it was quite upsetting. One of the exercises brought up some deeply personal, and vulnerable memories I would never choose to experience in that environment,” Megan says.
“Although they projected an interest in our wellbeing and mental health, it was only in these superficial ways. They weren’t open to addressing the internal issues that would have alleviated our stress caused by the more toxic aspects of the company culture.
“Increasingly in the last year, Steve started giving us his unsolicited commentary and opinions on our personal growth and mental health in a way that was inappropriate for a work environment.”
From what I can tell, it was a case of Steve and Craig essentially trying to out-guru each other.
I reached out to Craig Reynolds to ask him about his work with Lonely. He immediately distanced himself from Steve’s personal Facebook posts on QAnon, while stating he has “kept an open mind”:
“I would like to make it very clear that I do not share the views you are suggesting in any form, but have always kept an open mind and overview of all that has been going on over last 9 months.
He went on to clarify their working relationship:
“My relationship with Lonely is purely professional and yes Steve and Helene have been my clients. There is nothing more I can share on this due to confidentiality issues.
“As for their staff visiting me, as far as I am aware those who visited chose to do that for a number of the health and wellness options I offer. They entered the system like any other client and received the same process and care like every other client. I was not involved in anyone’s decision to use my services I simply invoiced Lonely for the payment as I do with many other companies who offer the same wellness options to their staff.
I also asked Craig about the comment he made about COVID-19 survival rates and the “lamestream media”:
“Regarding the comment I made Facebook page about Covid (which I cannot remember and do not have a record of) was probably made at the time out of frustration as my business looked like collapsing and was under significant stress. My entire database is connected through Facebook and as you know we have many contacts on Facebook these days who are part of our lives in some ways and not necessarily intimate friends or those who views you share.”
Lonely on Black Lives Matter.
As Steve and Helene went down the rabbit hole of QAnon, and embraced various New Age ideas, their personal beliefs started to be reflected at Lonely.
While it’s impossible to know what Steve and Helene actually know about the origins of QAnon, it’s important to note that it’s a racist and bigoted movement. One of its main tenets is that Jews control the world, which ultimately leads to children being drained of their blood in underground tunnels.
Those racist undertones (the undertones of most major conspiracy theory ideas) spiral out in all sorts of ways, including the belief that Black Lives Matter movement is a mass media distraction. At its worst, QAnon believers think George Floyd’s death was staged in order to start a race war, so that further lockdown restrictions could come into action.
Whatever Steve and Helene think about the BLM movement, their reaction to BLM was to ignore it. This did not go unnoticed, various commenters pointing out the silence. These criticisms were swiftly deleted by Lonely.
Remember, this is a brand that became famous for being inclusive and using people of colour to sell their wares.
It’s worth noting many other fashion brands were also ‘called out’ for their silence over this period. But deleting critical comments or questions and blocking those who offer critique has become something of a common occurrence for Lonely. They also did this last year when they were questioned by customers about their size offering, which wasn’t as ‘inclusive’ as their marketing suggested.
The brand’s response to BLM — or lack thereof — also became a major issue with Lonely staff. Former staff we’ve spoken to also felt the brand’s silencing of its audience reflected on them, particularly those working in public-facing retail stores.
Nicky*, who had been with the company for under a year, had this to say: “I didn’t like the fact that they were profiting off black and Brown bodies and had outspoken models who were very much for the BLM movement and commenting on it publicly. And their bodies were being used to sell lingerie for two people who refused to comment on it.”
Olivia*, who left the company in June, was particularly upset. She shared a message with senior management expressing her disappointment.
“When I sent out my concerns, I was ignored and instead was told to take a few days off work, instead of actually addressing what I wanted to talk about in my letter.”
For her — that simply wasn’t good enough. And things were about to get worse.
Part II: Lonely’s response to COVID-19, and its co-founders new focus on communicating with intergalactic aliens.
If you want to learn more about conspiracy theory culture and where this belief comes from — and how to deal with it — Webworm has a whole section here. I also do a monthly podcast about this topic with Dax Shepard and Monica Padman called Armchaired and Dangerous.
There is so much that is troubling here. Speaking as a therapist, I find Megan’s description of the company organised ‘group therapy’ sessions very disturbing. It’s great when companies genuinely want to empower their staff and used trained facilitators or counsellors for team-building - I’ve done that kind of thing in the past myself and it can be really beneficial to team and individual satisfaction - everyone wins. It’s an entirely different and profoundly unethical practice if that company arranged work includes any kind of exercise that brings up personal disclosure or trauma which it clearly sounded like this did. That puts the employees is a really difficult position which is not OK at all. It would be a breach of both of the NZAP and NZAC code of ethics and the Health and Disability Code https://www.hdc.org.nz/your-rights/the-code-and-your-rights/ Any service offered by someone that claims a therapeutic benefit falls under the HDC code, whether the counsellor or facilitator thinks so or not.
For next semester at uni I have a class called "The Deep State: Conspiracy Theories About Power, Evil And Democracy From JFK To 9/11, Trump and QAnon" with one of the leading conspiracy theory professors in the world, and I feel so lucky that you, David, are doing half my work with this blog. Keep it up, and I'm not just saying that because you're gonna make my course easier 😌