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Promoting Anorexia: An Interview With Kenneth Tong. This Was No Hoax

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Women should "get thin or die trying," and you can "never start too young." It is better for a girl to "risk [her] life dieting than be sub-par by being a plus-size." Remember: "Hunger hurts but starving works." When an ultra-wealthy but forgotten former British reality show Big Brother contestant called Kenneth Tong started Tweeting these sentiments -- and worse -- a fortnight ago, a Twitter-storm broke. Everyone from Rihanna to Gordon Ramsay told their followers he was a dangerous fool, but Tong gathered tens of thousands of young girls who followed him. He became the most discussed subject on Twitter in the world for three days. His message? "The words lunch, breakfast, and dinner should now mean nothing to you, you have eaten enough for a lifetime. Stop. You are disgusting."

Then Tong claimed it was all a hoax -- just an hour after I interviewed him. In our long discussion he passionately defended every word he had said, but when I told him that his arguments could kill young girls and expose him to serious legal liability, he visibly began to panic. When I spoke to him on the phone later in the day, after his 'revelation', he said "it was dangerous ground we were treading on, I can see that now" and begged me not to publish his comments. So I don't believe it was a hoax at all -- but that he was finally scared off by the legal implications of what he was saying and doing. You can judge for yourself.

****

I meet Tong at a dingy restaurant in Chinatown in London. He is a short man in a gray suit who manages to look both baby-faced and wizened at the same time. He is lined with great wodges of bling: a sparkling silver necklace hangs from his neck and gold flashes from his wrists. He hurries up to me and smirks: "I am the most hated man in Britain!"

As we take our seats downstairs, I decide to start by asking the question that has racked Twitter for days: who is Kenneth Tong anyway? The 27 year-old who was born in Toronto to an extremely wealthy family, and raised in Hong Kong. Their cash comes from the fact his Chinese grandfather made an important innovation in plastic injection molding, and the family has lived lazily off the proceeds ever since. He says his father was "a renowned playboy" who "really didn't do much" until he died of "cancer or one of those other terminal ones" when Kenneth was "ten or twelve." His father treated women as "disposable," so Kenneth's mother was barely present during his childhood. "I did see her but just not that much," he says. "I raised myself."

He was dispatched as a small child to boarding schools in Hong Kong and New York, but he kept being thrown out for being "a juvenile delinquent." He says he was a "bad ass" and "a bully", who kept "getting involved with the wrong people." Who were the wrong people? He claims he spent his time as a 13 year old hanging out "in... uh... organized crime... the Triads." Really? Where did you meet them? "Um... Summer camps. And, funnily enough, there's some kinda more questionable kids at summer camps and stuff."

At the age of fourteen, he was sent to Fettes, Tony Blair's old school, in Edinburgh, which he "hated." He says he wanted to go to "the more brand name establishments, like Eton," but his mother thought it was too close to London and temptation. Tong hated Fettes, because "I think I was used to deal[ing] with a different calibre of people... I even remember a Ukranian friend of mine, who owns a chain of supermarkets, saying 'Wow, when I got here I thought all the kids would be somebodies. They're just nobodies.'" So a child without rich parents is a nobody? "No, no... I just think I was ostracized, me and the other - let's say - more liquid kids."

Tong's mother no longer speaks to him, except when "she has her financial interests and I have mine, and sometimes [those] personal interests cross and we have arguments." So you only talk to her to argue about money? "I found it very hard to open up and stuff... We're Chinese, we're a different breed... The dollar is everything."

****

He says all this in a relentlessly perky, upbeat way - every sad revelation about his family is offered with an enthusiastic grin and a boast about their riches. Like a tic, he mentions his family's wealth every few sentences. "Oppressive Tweets don't affect what Vintage of Chateau D'Yquem I drink", he smirks. He tells me the name of his private bank and the cost of his watch (£120,000) as if I'll be impressed, and says he hates Oxford Street because it is "full of the working class." When I point out that he has done absolutely nothing to earn his wealth, and it is pure chance that separates him from the "chavs" he disdains, he insists he has earned his money. Really? How? "I'm a prolific gambler. As in I gamble a lot." He says he gambled on who would win Big Brother and won. That's it? That's your job? He said on Twitter that his life consists of "eating and sleeping with models" (often by paying them, as he admits). That, at least, seems to be true.

When he was 24, Tong went on the British TV reality show Big Brother for five days. He threatened another housemate who angered him by saying he knew "some of the most dangerous men in the world" and if she angered him on the outside he would "pay someone to deal with it." The show's psychologist, Geoffrey Beattie, described Tong as "a textbook sociopath", acting without conscience or remorse. To my surprise, when I ask him about this, he quickly agrees: "When Beattie called me a sociopath? I very, very much buy into that and I really do think that's true. What other people say doesn't matter to me." He says he believes he is "above the rules of society and should be given special consideration," and calls this "a God complex". Have you ever felt compassion for another person? He gives a long pause. "Not in a long time, no."

He says nervously: "You're looking at me in a very judgmental way." It's a heartbreaking thing to hear somebody say, I tell him - that they are sealed off from the rest of humanity's feelings and trapped in their own head. He seems unaffected and says in the same jaunty tone: "Why concern yourself with other people's problems?... When I had problems, who was there for me?" He says that being a sociopath is a good thing - it "can make you highly successful in business, and I am going to make a fortune with my Size Zero pill."

****

Ah, the Size Zero pill. Tong tells me that fat women are "disgusting", and any woman over a Size Zero is fat and therefore "worthless." (Men are different: men only have to be rich.) He leans forward, and says evangelically that all women should become "managed anorexics", and his pill will make it possible. I ask him which doctors and scientific studies he has consulted to make his claims. After a long pause, he says: "Um... I've had personal trainers since I was twelve." Kenneth, personal trainers aren't doctors. What medical personnel have you consulted? He says he spoke to the doctor in his gym when he hurt his hand. What's his name? "I don't know." What did he say? "He said 'Mmmm, yeah, all right'."

But he then adds this doesn't matter because anorexia is a "subjective" concept. No, Kenneth, it is an objective mental disorder - one that kills 20 percent of its victims. It is as real as the disease that killed your father. It is an illness, and every doctor in the world agrees that the concept of "managed anorexia" is preposterous and incredibly dangerous. Kenneth says "I firmly believe otherwise," that "people die everyday" anyway, and insists he knows better than all the world's doctors and psychiatrists. When I ask him if he knows the difference between stories he has heard and actual medical facts based on evidence, he says: "I don't know that many doctors in the sphere of my social circle," he says.

"If I wanted to back up my case, I could use some statistics," he says. Okay. Give me a statistic about "managed anorexia." He says: "I just coined the term! So, I'll need to get back to you!" So you have no statistics. "I think if, um, ten out of ten people listen to me with my views on managing anorexia, ten out of ten people will lose a lot of weight." That's not a statistic. You just made that up. Do you understand the difference between facts and making things up? "No, no, no, no. You could use, arguably, the statistic that if - there must be one somewhere - that if you eat less, you lose weight." Yes. And if you starve, you die.

Have you heard of the Advertising Standards Authority, Kenneth? He shakes his head. When you start to sell your pill, they will test your claims -- and if it doesn't work, you will be prosecuted. When the parents of 14 year old girls start coming forward explaining that their child died after following your Tweets and taking your pills, you will be prosecuted. How will you feel when you get the first call about the first dead girl? He smiles. "Corporate homicide is impossible to prove anyways," he shrugs. But he looks nervous now.

All through the interview, he keeps interjecting to announce: "This is a really tough interview. It's really good. People would say I'm bombing but I think it's good. I like it." But now Tong suddenly says, with a flash of strangely blank anger: "Why are you not respecting me?" Because, Kenneth, what you are saying isn't a game. What you are saying will have consequences. It will kill some of the girls following you on Twitter. He starts insisting that the girls who die are simply taking anorexia "too far", so I read him the quotes where he told girls to "starve." He wriggles on this point -- for hours.

****

Tong seems to genuinely believe now that women should starve to give him a hard-on. It appears to be part of a wider view of women where he views them, like his father, as "disposable." He denies having sex with prostitutes until I read him his Tweets about... having sex with prostitutes. So he tells me that, in fact, "a girl who has sex for free is an idiot," and "everyone" has sex with prostitutes. "The only women you should trust are your mother and your family," he says. Why? "She's the only one who will always be honest with you," he replies. But that's not true, I say. I know lots of women other than my mother who are honest with me. "But realistically she's the only one who cares... She'll be there for you." But your mother wasn't there for you. "Huh?" he says. She wasn't there for you. You said you hardly saw her during your childhood. "Yeah, but if I ever really, really needed her, she would have come back... If I ever really cried for her help she'd be there."

He boasts that he has slept with hundreds of women. But he complains that he has only ever dated "porn stars and strippers", who are "bitches" and "a deceitful race." He says he "never" uses condoms, except with "paid companions." When I ask him how he feels about risking a woman's health, he says: "If anything, they are risking my health, because I don't know where they've been." He adds that he "admires" pimps, for their "focus, single-mindedness, control and will power," but that "the business has become a bit sullied now."

I ask Tong if he knows what the word 'misogyny' means. He says no, and when I explain, he shakes his head and insists he "loves" women because "a beautiful girl could be the most picture-perfect thing I've ever seen" - which seems to capture it: he loves women, inanimate, in pictures. Real and eating and in the flesh? Not so much. Whether of not he was hoaxing, this is the psychology of the men who demand women become anorexic distilled. It sees women not as self-determining individuals but as objects who must be prodded and starved and drained of personality to fit a template of the man's choosing.

****

But it is as I am mulling this that we get to the most disturbing part of the interview. As the blogger Jack of Kent uncovered, in September last year, Tong declared on Twitter: "Truthfully, when you are as wealthy as I am, you can say, do and think anything without penalty, as you have no one to be accountable to." He made similar brags all through his short stay on Big Brother. A woman called Ella Jose then responded to him with a Tweet saying: "Break the law [and] let's see what happens." He replied - with a link to a news story explaining he had been tried and acquitted of rape in 2009. What did you mean, Kenneth? He says it is "not a confession at all." So what is it? "It was kinda a funny little gibe for me," he says, and laughs.

It's almost over. I can't take any more of this. I have a final question. When somebody compared him to Hitler on Twitter, he said he "considered it a compliment." Why? "Because he was effective." How? "He believed in something and he went for it.. He believed in himself and he didn't let anyone tell him otherwise." So you admire somebody who pursues a cause, even if that cause is systematic mass murder? "I don't understand enough all about the World War Two. All I know about that guy is that he's this historical figure, he set out with something to do and I guess he went for it."

As I get up to leave, he says pleadingly: "Why are you angry with me?... What can I say that will mean you are not angry?" He seems genuinely bewildered. He says "I don't want to leave it like this." I ask him if he will agree to meet with three psychiatrists who treat victims of anorexia, and Tweet what they say to his followers. After much faffing and insisting he is about to go to the South of France - I offer to find psychiatrists there - he agrees. "Do you think I have a mental problem? You can be honest with me," he says pleadingly. Yes, I say, I do. You should urgently seek help for your sociopathy. "Sociopath's all right though," he says. "What's bad about it?" It means you have no sense of compassion or kindness, Kenneth. "It's, it's, it's not profitable. There is no tangible value to it," he says, and looks confused. "If it doesn't make money, it doesn't make sense. And I really do think this aspiration to be all world loving and everything, it doesn't mean anything."

****

Then, an hour later, comes the "revelation." He declares on Twitter that he was conducting an experiment to see "whether it was possible, to go from nowhere to be a globally recognized figure within a week harnessing the power of the internet and specifically Twitter... My honest personal opinion on managed anorexia is it is an disgusting and illogical idea. It is a mental illness. It cannot be managed." These are almost exactly the words I had used to him.

I phone Kenneth, and he immediately pleads with me not to publish my article or anything he said. "It was a hoax all along! No, no, no, no, I didn't mean it! That's why I was confused when we spoke... That's why. I'll be honest with you. I've made a great gesture. I've said it was a hoax. It was dangerous ground we were treading on, I can see that now. But it sounds like you're still going to vilify me. You're going to bring up everything in my past. The whole negativity of it. I'm doing the right thing now. Can I appeal to your human side to do the right thing?" And what would that be? "Don't publish what I said. I just want it all to go away. I don't want people looking at my past. It was a hoax, all right? It was a hoax."

So what can we learn from the twisted Twitter-parable of Kenneth Tong? It seems that of you drill down into women's insecurities and men's misogynies, even a talentless, spoiled little sociopath can catch the attention of the world, for a few days. It may be new media, but it's an old, old story.

Do you want to be kept updated on Tong and what becomes of him? Then follow Johann on Twitter at www.twitter.com/johannhari101

A full transcript of this interview is up here. You can also read more of Johann Hari's interviews - with everyone from Dolly Parton to George Michael to the Dalai Lama - there.

A version of this article appeared originally in today's London Evening Standard.

If you need help or advice on dealing with anorexia please click here. If you'd like to donate to the groups fighting back against pro-anorexia websites, please click here.