Art by Geoff Kim
“Why do some of these blogs refer to Benedict Cumberbatch’s children as … Pilo?” I ask, reading from a Tumblr post on my phone. On my first try, I pronounce it “peel-oh” and get a confused look in response, so I spell it out instead.
“Oh, pillow,” Patty laughs, once she realizes what I’m looking at. “That’s our joke. We call them Pillow One, Two, and Three.” She laughs again. Then she blushes, as she does each time something cracks her up but doesn’t register with me as funny. I first knew Patty as “Gatorfisch,” her username since 2013 on Tumblr, where she goes for photos of cute animals and discussions of liberal politics, among other things. She is 49, and has a 15-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old grandson. Her husband, she wrote to me a few days before we met in person, would not be allowing me to come into their home, in case I hacked his computer. (“Nothing personal,” she assured me—he deals with highly sensitive information at his job.)
So I’m sitting in a coffee shop near her house in Reno, Nevada, just a few days before the coronavirus started closing businesses like these. And I’m asking her this question because, for the past five years, Patty has been one of the most prolific and well-known Tumblr bloggers making the case that Benedict Cumberbatch’s wife, Sophie Hunter, is a criminal, who has been blackmailing him for years to stay in a sham marriage.
Patty works in the operations department of a mortgage company, but she hasn’t updated her LinkedIn page in years, because she doesn’t want people on Tumblr contacting her current employer. (I granted her request to use only her first name in this piece because, in the past, she’s received a threatening letter at her home address, and she says her personal information has been published online repeatedly.) Having spent her youth living in several southern states before moving to Nevada 20 years ago, she has a sugar-water southern accent that soaks normal conversation with charm but makes caustic accusations sound even more ominous. Such as when she tells me that she spotted cocaine stains on Hunter’s jumpsuit in a photo taken days after she “supposedly” gave birth, at a party for the opening of an Annie Leibovitz exhibition.
“Even if it’s only on Tumblr, I want her to know that she’s not getting away with it,” she says warmly, as if sharing a family recipe. “I want her to know that somebody knows what she’s doing.”
Hunter and Cumberbatch’s first son was born in June 2015. This was just two months before One Direction member Louis Tomlinson announced that he would be having a baby with a former fling, Briana Jungwirth—a child that has also been declared “fake” by bloggers on Tumblr, some of whom still reject the idea that he is Tomlinson’s real child, even now that he is 4 years old. Before then, in 2011, the heady early years of social media produced the theory that Beyoncé faked being pregnant with Blue Ivy to cover up use of a surrogate; the same speculation dogged Kim Kardashian’s second pregnancy in 2015. (Through her publicist, Beyoncé called those rumors “stupid, ridiculous and false.” Kardashian addressed the rumors about her on Instagram, with a naked photo of her pregnant body.) More recently, conspiracy theorists have decided that Meghan Markle faked the birth of her son, Archie. Many of them refer to him as “Darren,” a reference to a model of hyper-realistic baby doll that could be used in photo ops in place of a real baby. “People are not stupid,” one wrote on Twitter in January. “She is sick!!”
The primary evidence for these claims is usually a blurry photo or two in which a baby bump appears “deflated” or “shifted.” A visible wrinkle in a shirt can be deemed evidence of a prosthetic. An expecting mother who disappears from the public eye during her pregnancy can easily be accused of hiding something. Many of the images that purport to reveal the truth are doctored or taken at a strange angle, but can be convincing enough if you’re looking quickly and looking to believe. In the case of Hunter’s first pregnancy, amateur sleuths doodled over images of her in a bikini on vacation, making the case that her bump was, somehow, upside down.
One of the most influential voices in celebrity gossip is a blogger and entertainment lawyer who goes by the pen name Enty. Since 2006, he has been running the website Crazy Days and Nights, serving a devout audience who email him tips every day, and frustrating publicists who know it can be more dangerous to refute a story than to ignore it.
“I don’t like hypocrites. People magazine and TMZ are owned by film studios, record labels. They have an agenda; they’re giving you a sanitized view of celebrity,” Enty tells me. “They call it gossip, but we know what gossip really is. That’s the thing that keeps me obsessed and the thing that makes me want to keep writing—looking for these holes.”
He goes down the list for me. It’s “pretty obvious” that Beyoncé used a surrogate with Blue Ivy. It’s “pretty obvious” that Tomlinson didn’t write the tweet announcing the birth of his son, so who did? Liam Payne, another former member of One Direction, may or may not be the father of the singer Cheryl’s baby (“Cheryl is just a master of fake relationships; I never really trust anything that she does. But there’s not enough interest for me to dig around in Cheryl’s life and find out.”) Markle was “cradling a baby bump when she was supposedly less than two months pregnant, and it just didn’t make any sense.” And then, Hunter. No opinion on the first two kids, but “there’s supposedly this third kid named Finn, born in 2019, and nobody has ever seen the child.” (Although media outlets reported in 2018 that Hunter and Cumberbatch were expecting their third child, the couple haven’t confirmed it publicly, and they are known for being extremely private.)
A gossip site is not what we would typically call a dark corner of the internet, but a deliberately concocted air of mystery surrounds Enty and his “sources,” not unlike the one that surrounds, say, QAnon. His podcast, which comes out with at least 20 episodes a month, is paywalled on Patreon and advertised with a warning: “Welcome to my world. Enter at your own risk.”
In the summer of 2014, the year after Patty joined Tumblr, Cumberbatch and Hunter were spotted together for the first time. By November they were engaged. The Cumberbatch fandom was in chaos.
“Tumblr blew up. You couldn’t not see stuff about it,” Patty says. Some fans were thrilled by the whirlwind romance, but others doubted it could be anything other than a PR stunt, and combed the internet for evidence. They reblogged GIFs of Hunter seemingly stomping out of rooms or scowling at her fiancé, and they raised alarm bells about Hunter fan blogs that seemed to spring up overnight.
After Hunter revealed a baby bump at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January 2015, Cumberbatch fans quickly pointed out that the two had arrived separately, and latched onto video frames in which it seemed as though he was surprised to see the bump. “The look on his face... And the look on her face. I was like, Uh-oh. I was like, Oh, somebody’s trying to trap him.” At that point, she says, she didn’t think Weinstein was behind it anymore. Hunter, she believed, had gone rogue. “That’s when I stopped just being a bystander and started making posts.”
Patty’s following grew to just over 1,000, and “sources” began approaching her each time information was lacking. “Every time I start to question it, one of my sources comes to me or something happens and it kind of drags me back in,” she says. “I just kind of fell down the rabbit hole and haven’t really come out of it yet totally.”
Not everyone who blogs about the imagined misdeeds of Sophie Hunter imagines those misdeeds to be the same. Among the self-named “skeptics” are those who believe that Hunter and Cumberbatch’s marriage is a PR stunt gone wrong, or merely classically unhappy, but that all of the children are real. There are those who believe that one or two of the children are real and the others aren’t. There are those, like Patty, who believe Hunter to be guilty of various felonies and cinematic criminal conspiracies. (To be clear, there is no evidence to support any of these claims about Hunter’s marriage, pregnancies, or supposed criminal activity. Representatives for Hunter and Cumberbatch declined to respond to multiple requests for comment.)
“There’s word on the street she was an escort at one point, and might still be escorting,” Patty says, adding that she’s also been told that in the beginning of their relationship, Hunter kept Cumberbatch hooked on drugs to control him. Patty believes she knows Hunter’s IP address, and says she tracked it flying to Osaka, Japan, for a day, then flying right back. “I was talking to one of my sources, and I was told she’s also in with some really nasty people who are in with human trafficking,” she says, by way of explaining the purpose for this supposed trip. “And that’s how I put it. I didn’t necessarily say she was a human trafficker, but she was hanging out with people who were part of a human-trafficking network. And I showed that. I said, Make of it what you will.”
Though the pop-culture image of a conspiracy theorist is a man in his mother’s basement, or an Alex Jones devotee typing himself into a sweat on Reddit, women have always had their own remarkable and terrifying ideas about how the world may secretly work.
As the political scientist Michael Barkun explains in his 2003 book, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, it’s possible that hardly anyone in the United States would ever have heard of the Illuminati had it not been for the efforts of the British conspiracy theorist Nesta Webster, a foremother of American conspiracism. She wrote extensively about the Illuminati’s efforts to create a Communist world government led by a Jewish cabal, and also blamed the group for World War I. Barkun’s book credits her and another female conspiracy theorist, Edith Starr Miller, with “the concept of a kind of interlocking directorate of conspirators who operate through a network of secret societies,” which has since informed decades of American conspiracy theories.
“There hasn’t been much focused study on women and conspiracy-theory belief,” says Erin Kempker, a history professor at the Mississippi University for Women and the author of Big Sister: Feminism, Conservatism, and Conspiracy in the Heartland. “I think there is a perception that it’s a largely male world. I didn’t find that to be the case.”
Kempker’s book focuses on the second wave of feminism in the Midwest in the 1970s, which conservative women insisted, partly successfully, was part of a conspiracy to create a one-world government, homogenize the sexes, and eradicate Christian family life. “What I found were women absolutely immersed in a conspiratorial worldview,” she says. “They had newsletters where they shared conspiratorial ideas with one another. They had book lists. They would write articles. These were women’s organizations. I would say we need to rethink the stereotype. Women are definitely capable of creating conspiracy theories and spreading conspiracy theories and believing conspiracy theories. I don’t think there’s a gender divide on this.”
The difference between theories about famous women and their babies and theories about supposed political conspiracies isn’t form or sentiment, it’s proper nouns. Some bloggers on Tumblr refer to believers in the fake-baby theories as “birthers,” with the aim of invoking all the dangerous disavowal of truth that word implies. Though the women Kempker studied feared government intervention, not manipulation by Hollywood stars, the basic pattern holds: Conspiracism of all kinds is about identifying a powerful cabal and creating a narrative around it as a means of grasping some kind of control over the mysterious events of the world.
And it’s often about anger, too. Modern theories about “fake” celebrity babies come with a cocktail of resentment toward the hypocrisy of celebrity, the dishonesty of the media, and the unflappable confidence of the elite, who get away with whatever they want. “Cheryl will literally milk this until we all turn to dust,” a One Direction fan who believes that Liam Payne’s son is not really his wrote on Tumblr. “Unless I was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning or had a head wound, I wouldn’t believe Cherliam was a real relationship.”
Self-identified "skeptics" of Cumberbatch’s marriage call the fans who defend Hunter “nannies”—because of the way they coddle him—and the six most powerful nannies “übers.” Patty also calls them stalkers, and says they’re the type to collect Cumberbatch’s “snotty tissues” and fantasize about being in love with him. (Romantic interest does not play into Patty’s personal fascination.) According to Patty, the “nannies” have threatened to tell her employer about her online activity, and suggested that she kill herself. She shows me a few anonymous messages, and then she shows me another that she believes is from Hunter herself. (It is very obviously not.)
Patty sees her work as fundamentally humanitarian: She believes that by identifying Hunter as a “narcissist,” she’s helping other people see that they’ve been manipulated. She’s known narcissistic women throughout her life, she says, including a college roommate and a former co-worker, as well as her brother’s ex-wife, who she claims left him penniless, and her father’s ex-wife, who she says tried to murder him.
“Anytime I do think maybe I will stop, the bullying starts again and I’m like, You know what, nah, I’m going to still be here to be a thorn in their side,” she tells me. “I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and say, Oh my gosh, because of you bringing all this to our attention and commentary of what we’re seeing in these photos, it made me realize that I have that person in my life too. Or I’ve always felt like I was losing my mind and now I know I’m not.”
Though Cumberbatch himself has been clear that he hates what people on the internet are saying about his family, Patty has been undeterred. He’s obviously not happy with her, she says, but information still gets out. It’s almost as though he’s dog-whistling, and letting people know it’s okay to bring things to her. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he just ignore it? (As with most conspiracy theories, everything is part of the narrative—even things that would seem to disprove the narrative.)
She isn’t sure that he has personally read her blog, but she thinks a couple of his friends probably have, and she’s “99.999 percent” sure that Hunter has. The Department of Justice has as well, according to another of her IP address lookups. This is the kind of attention that comes with special work, as one of the few who can understand and is willing to expose the secret machinations of the elite—though Patty also expresses some humility and says she’s mostly a mouthpiece for other people’s research and information. She has the temperament to put up with harassment; not everyone does. She does it for them.
“I was told by two different people that they heard [Hunter] say things to [Cumberbatch] that made them want to hit her, because it was just so horrible,” Patty tells me, when I ask if there is evidence that Hunter is abusive.
She returns to it later, saying that one of those people was a friend of Cumberbatch’s who wanted to punch Hunter, even though he’d never wanted to punch a woman before. Though she brings up the idea of violence against Hunter, she never expressly advocates it. But it’s not only Hunter—telling a story about a former co-worker, she says, “When she’d walk out of the room, people would go, I just want to grab her by the head and just slam her up against the wall.”
When I ask her if any of this sounds misogynistic to her, she says no. She identifies as a feminist. To her, it’s Hunter who is “setting women’s rights back [and] making everybody look bad.”
This is the thread that ties Tumblr conspiracy blogs to the dominant conversation of the broader internet—in the age of Instagram artifice and personal brands and image above all else, what do we spend more time doing than policing the self-presentation of women?
The internet didn’t invent conspiracism, but it did make spreading conspiracy theories easier and more fun. “You’ve got a lot of crackpots contacting you saying they’ve got inside information,” says Ted Casablanca, who wrote for E! News for nearly two decades. “You didn’t have to take the time to make a phone call or write a letter. You just pushed a button. And you know, it created a frenzy.” The tips he started receiving after the rise of social media were much weirder than before, he says, but not only that. “More sanctimonious. Much more She’s doing this and she’s wrong, or She’s doing this and I hate her.”
These conversations happen all over the internet, but Tumblr is a particularly serviceable platform for intricate, “evidence-based” theorizing because of its nesting-doll reblog structure, which allows groups of bloggers to build on one another’s work layer by layer in rapid succession. It’s also insular—far more difficult to search than Twitter, less immediately comprehensible to outsiders than even Reddit. Users are allowed to identify by pseudonym, they are allowed to change that pseudonym whenever they like, and they are allowed to have multiple identities at once. This facilitates all kinds of expression, a lot of which is beneficial to society—the platform became a cultural force because it created a secluded place for LGBTQ communities and young people of color. But these can also be the conditions for gossip and suspicion—what spirals out from them is impossible to hold anyone in particular accountable for.
Before social media, it was also less possible to “prove” a celebrity conspiracy. An early example of the practice of ordinary people gathering “evidence” and publishing it online occurred within the Lord of the Rings fandom in the early aughts, which used screenshots from behind-the-scenes DVDs and easily accessible paparazzi photography to make the case on LiveJournal that various combinations of co-stars were in love. Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan, in particular, followed by Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom. These theories were often teased by gossip columnists like Casablanca, who wrote at the time, “You’ve heard the stories, right? All that ferocious frolicking those Lord of the Rings riders have been getting up to?”
In 2014, a Lancaster University doctoral student, Anna Martin, wrote about these stories as “star texts,” and described their allure: “Star texts allow for fantasies not only of wealth and leisure, but of a life in which love is the only concern.” To her, the switch point at which a fan-fiction writer strives to transform into a documentarian was far more intriguing than the stories themselves. The Lord of the Rings shipping community pushed over the line of fantasy and into “proof” because of the wealth of information and imagery the internet made possible. The entertainment industry’s embrace of behind-the-scenes extras; elaborate, fan-focused marketing campaigns; and expansive franchises with “universes” of their own—which happened alongside the rise of social media and a new golden age of celebrity gossip—“produced audiences who are primed to follow complex storylines across different delivery platforms, and who are familiar with narrative deliveries that require them to do the work of piecing storylines together.”
Tumblr “masterposts” and “archives” also lend projects like these a feeling of gravitas and scholarship. Conspiracy theories here, as everywhere, tend to interlock, and Patty has a passing interest in Markle only because she believes she and Hunter share nefarious connections through the elite club Soho House. Another major Hunter-skeptic blogger who goes by Aeltrileaf writes about Markle often, and refers to her as “Maggot.” She posts about political conspiracies as well, including QAnon, which Patty doesn’t agree with but defends, saying that Aeltrileaf’s family is from Mexico and has good reason to mistrust the United States government.
This is a nonsensical point, but there is some truth to the idea that even the worst conspiracy theories say something about the systems of power and the moment in time they emerge from. The faux-feminist language around hating Hunter not because she is a woman but because women should be criticized as freely as men seems clearly born of a culture and media environment that have a perverse idea of what it would mean to take women seriously, and still struggle to discuss them without dissecting, primarily, their status as wives and girlfriends and mothers.
“The women I researched would certainly never agree that they were misogynist, or that they were anti-women in attacking,” Kempker says. “They would say it’s these women who give other women a bad name. And there’s an idea that they have to be deployed to handle other women, because they see the truth. You can snow these other people who don’t know your game, but you won’t pull that over on me.”
The manipulative celebrity is, in fact, the only category of conspiracy theory Patty is interested in. She takes care to draw lines around what is appropriate to speculate about and what isn’t. She finds it preposterous that Michael Sheen’s relationship is a sham, or that Keanu Reeves’s is. It’s dangerous to suggest that the coronavirus was created just to take out a global pedophile ring, and it’s dangerous to say that Hillary Clinton eats babies, or that Meryl Streep is the high priestess in a Satanic cult. It’s dangerous to say that the U.S. government orchestrated 9/11, or that vaccines cause autism. But still, it’s her responsibility to talk about Hunter, because no one else will. Journalists who have tried in the past have been threatened into silence, she says. Everyone is scared.
“I’m actually kind of surprised that you haven’t been already contacted or told to drop this, to be honest,” she tells me as I get ready to leave. I remind her that I’m not going to prove that Hunter has done any of the things that she claims, and she nods. “I get it. I completely and utterly get it. We don’t have the proof to truly out—Oh, there’s no kid—and I get that.” Then she continues. “But I think there’s enough out there to show why we’re questioning it.”