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Uncovering the dark side of competitive tickling

In the film, Tickled, reporter David Farrier discovers the seemingly innocent sport of competitive tickling, but after poking around things take a surprisingly ugly turn

Beneath the erotic sport of “competitive ticking endurance” lurks a multimillion industry with a sensitive underbelly. Fit young men from across the globe are flown to LA where they’re tied to a mattress and force-tickled by other fit young men. So far, everyone’s happy – or at least paid handsomely. But for several participants, this giggle-inducing activity has shattered lives and led to persistent blackmail threats from Jane O’Brien – a mysterious Keyser Söze figure no one has met in person.

The tickling world, it turns out, is rampant with homophobia, cyberbullying and scary lawsuits. David Farrier, an openly gay reporter from New Zealand, discovered the harassment himself when he sent an interview request to Jane O’Brien Media, the fetish’s leading producer, who rejected him with a slew of anti-gay slurs.

“To be brutally frank,” the company told Farrier, “association with a homosexual journalist is not something we will embrace.” Of course, the homophobic message bleeds with irony when you factor in the tight shorts of their all-male tickle-thons. As Farrier understates it: “It’s hard to take the insults seriously considering the sport seems slightly gay.”

In Tickled, the resultant documentary, Farrier embodies a Louis Theroux-type detective who tracks down key individuals, doorsteps guilty partners and exposes internet baddies. The subsequent twists, not revealed here, propel Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve from a light-hearted investigation into a conspiracy thriller that happens to involve tickling. You’ll never look at “competitive tickling endurance” videos the same way again. 

Have any private investigators followed you to London?

David Farrier: Not that I know of yet. But at this point, I’m expecting Jane O’Brien Media to turn up anywhere. Very early on, there was a private investigator outside my house in New Zealand. There were private investigators sent to a film festival in Missouri. The police had to escort them out of the cinema because they were trying to record the film. And we were told, very early on, there wouldn’t be a moment in the United States we would not be followed by a private investigator.

Do you consider competitive tickling endurance to be a sport? It isn’t part of the Olympics right now – not the televised version, anyway.

David Farrier: When I first saw it, I was confused. They were all in Adidas gear, which seemed to legitimise it. They weren’t in someone’s backyard or bedroom. They were in a professional photography studio. So I thought, “If there’s money in it, maybe it’s someone’s idea of a sport. Ultimate Frisbee is a sport. Why shouldn’t tickling be a sport?” But at the same time, when I was watching the videos, there inherently seemed to be a sexual element to it.

“The base rate is $1,500 to go to LA and be tickled. But we heard stories of some people getting paid $12,000.” – David Farrier

Why is there so much shame attached to tickling? There’s a performer who says he may as well have been naked in the videos.

David Farrier: There shouldn’t be shame attached to a tickling video. But it’s the way they’re spun. Some of the people in these videos find themselves part of this online harassment campaign, and a lot of that campaign is accusing them of being homosexual. So that in itself is weird. That shouldn’t be an insult. But a lot of the competitors are from parts of the world or from families where being called gay is an insult. So that shouldn’t be a problem, but for them, it is. If we lived in a world where people are accepting of homosexuality and that wasn’t a problem, I think a lot of the shame would drop away. Because that’s used against them.

I looked up Richard Ivey’s website, My Friend’s Feet. The tagline is: “If You Love Male Feet, Men’s Socks & Men’s Tickling, This Is Gay Foot Fetish Heaven”. That seems a lot healthier and more honest than pretending there’s nothing sexual involved.

David Farrier: Totally. Richard was important to have in the film because he’s completely transparent. He’s like, “I’m gay. I love tickling. I make erotic tickling videos. The models know they’re making erotic tickling videos. They’re getting paid for it. They know it’s going to be online.” Whereas with Jane O’Brien Media, there’s always a story around it. It’s for a reality TV project or it’s a competitive sport. A lot of these people go in not knowing the truth about what the videos are for.

When did you know this was a real story worth pursuing for a feature?

David Farrier: Around the point they sent those three guys from America to New Zealand to tell us not to make a film. That proved they had real money to spend. It was that, and also the legal threats from the New York attorney and the New Zealand attorney. We figured if they’re hiring lawyers to tell us to cease and desist, there must be more story.

“He attacked my feet with a hairbrush. My body hurt for days afterwards because my muscles had been so tight, trying to get away from it.” –  David Farrier

At that point, how far were you into the investigation?

David Farrier: We were only two weeks in. Once they shut down the idea of doing an interview for a TV story, I started blogging about their emails and personal attacks.

What kind of attacks?

David Farrier: They were based around my sexuality. It was a lot of them taking exception to anything gay. They kept calling me a gay journalist – that seemed to be an obsession for them. Then things got weirdly racist at one point. It was all very strange and personal. That made me think there was more going on.

I watched the video of you being tickled – it’s not in the film, but totally should be. How does it feel to be tickled by a professional?

David Farrier: It’s difficult, man. I didn’t know this about myself, but I’m so ticklish. When you’re tied down and you can’t get away from it, it’s painful. He knows how to get you. He had my feet lubed up. He tied my toes back with shoelaces, so I couldn’t curl them in. He attacked my feet with a hairbrush. My body hurt for days afterwards because my muscles had been so tight, trying to get away from it.

That was for 10 minutes. How long do the performers in the Jane O’Brien Media videos go for?

David Farrier: They swap every 10 minutes. The videos are about an hour long, but they swap during that time, so the tickler becomes the “ticklee”.

They get paid well though, right?

David Farrier: The base rate is $1,500 to go to LA and be tickled. But we heard stories of some people getting paid $12,000. And I should reiterate, some people go and do a Jane O’Brien shoot and have a great time; then they fly home and nothing happens. It’s this certain percentage that have a terrible time.

“They kept calling me a gay journalist – that seemed to be an obsession for them. Then things got weirdly racist at one point. It was all very strange and personal.” –  David Farrier

Your LA premiere’s Q&A was ambushed by key figures from Jane O’Brien Media. I watched the 50-minute video. It’s like the court room scene of A Few Good Men with this intense back-and-forth in front of a crowd.

David Farrier: It’s really strange, right? So I was in NewYork, and (co-director) Dylan was in LA. We split up. We thought if anyone would turn up, it’d be in NewYork because of where they live. But they all turned up to LA, and it was the strangest confrontation. They told us the lawsuits aren’t over and that things will escalate.

What’s the latest with the lawsuits?

David Farrier: There were two defamation lawsuits. One was filed in Utah, where Sundance was. One was in Missouri, where the True/False Festival was. They got dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. There’s no ongoing suit at the moment, but as you’ve seen in the video, we’ve been told they haven’t been dismissed; they’re going to be refiled. So we’re just in standby mode, waiting to see what happens.

Is it a potential Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan versus Gawker scenario?

David Farrier: Maybe. It’s funny – we screened this film at the Gawker office. That was a very surreal place to be, because all those Gawker staff were like, “Holy shit, this feels very familiar to us.” It’s money, man. That’s the joy of America. People can sue and sue and sue.

You say they’ve got lots of money; they’ve also got lots of time. I was reading www.tickledmovie.info, a certain truther website set up against you. It calls you worse than a “garden variety snake”.

David Farrier: Yes! They call Dylan “the Tool”. Yeah, there’s some pretty colourful language on that website. I find it quite intriguing. It feels like a response to a Scientology film. When Going Clear was made, Scientologists made a website and tweeted at reporters and did a similar thing. I’m actively encouraging people, after they’ve seen the film, to read that website and make up their own mind about what’s going on.

Are the Jane O’Brien Media staff – the ones flown to New Zealand to scare you off – actually into tickling stuff? Or just people lured by how much money is in it?

David Farrier: That’s another thing that’s unusual. To my knowledge, they’re three gay men. So this company was really homophobic towards me but had hired gay people. I don’t know if they’re into tickling. A lot of people think they’re lawyers. They’re not lawyers. Kevin is a director of the videos. Marco, the quieter one, is a stills photographer. People leave with a headshot, so he takes photos for them. Adam, the younger guy, is a production assistant. He’s basically there so that when the boys arrive… if they met Kevin, they might think, “Oh, I’m not so sure about this.” But instead they meet someone their age and think it’s cool.

From what I know of New Zealand – basically watching Flight of the Conchords and meeting you – the culture is very much about keeping to yourself, whereas in America it’s about money and power. Is Tickled a very American story?

David Farrier: Big time. It’s definitely a story that could only happen in America. You’ve got a culture in America where people sue. If you’ve got money, that’s what you do. Donald Trump, potentially the President of the United States, is openly proud about the number of people he’s sued.

Do you think Donald Trump is into tickling stuff?

David Farrier: I don’t want to think about that!

I noticed you used the music from Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color.

David Farrier: Do you like that film?

I love that film.

David Farrier: I’ve watched Upstream Color so many times. I just fucking love Primer and Upstream Color. When we were cutting Tickled, we used some of Shane’s music because I love his films and tonally it’s perfect. We asked him if we could use it. He watched the film and said yes. For me, I love Shane Carruth. The fact he watched it makes me feel amazing – let alone the fact he said we could have the music for it.

The people who work for Jane O’Brien Media – what’s their deal? Are they paid so well that they just overlook the company’s blackmailing?

David Farrier: I don’t know. Their whole argument was that there’s a lot of good and only a little bit of bad. Their argument is some people are being paid so well for this – these young people who don’t have a lot of money are being paid great money, and it’s helping them. “We know that some of these people may be not having such a good time. But there’s so much good being done, we can ignore it.” Dylan and I were very much like, “No, your boss is doing some stuff that’s really abusive to these young people. Even if it’s a tiny percentage of the people involved, that’s bad and needs to be called out.”


Tickled opens in cinemas on August 19.