Interview: How Investigative Journalist Scott Johnson Found the ‘Hollywood Con Queen’

The series is about a scam artist who's been impersonating female executives in an attempt to lure actors and other victims with the promise of huge career opportunities.

Investigative journalist Scott Johnson has spent years tracking down the mysterious scam artist known as the Hollywood Con Queen, first in the Hollywood Reporter then in his own book and now as a consulting producer of the new AppleTV+ documentary series of the same name. The three-part series is about a scam artist who has been impersonating female executives from Hollywood in an attempt to lure actors and other victims with the promise of huge career opportunities. “It took up a good chunk of time and it was really interesting for me and eye-opening,” he said recently. And if you know the story or had a chance to watch the doc, you’ll agree.

I talked with Johnson about how he uncovered the scam and the intricacies of it all and what it was like when he confronted the con artist on the streets of Indonesia. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve worked on a lot of stories, but with this, you wrote a book and did this documentary. How did this one grab such a hold on you to spend so much time with it?

Scott Johnson: At first, I didn’t really think much of it at all, I just got this random tip. I just thought, ‘well, this is going to be some random scam’, like any other scam in Hollywood. And then I started talking to folks about it, victims and the investigator, and it just was so strange, and it was also so complicated, it didn’t make sense. And so, I spent quite a bit of time just trying to wrap my head around it and I think that process of just really sitting with it and trying to understand how it worked. That sort of drew me in.

And the stories of these victims were so compelling. I mean, they were so scared, and they’d lost all this money. They were really just damaged and a lot of them were really messed up by this. It affected their lives, their families, their ability to trust other people, to trust themselves and it shook them to their core, a lot of them. And there were so many of them. Every week I would hear from another one and then another one, and the numbers kept growing. And as the weeks and then the months, and then the years went by, it just kept sort of evolving in all these strange ways.

And the layers would get peeled back, and then I would discover some new component of it, and so it just wasn’t a simple or straightforward story. I think that appealed to me as a storyteller, and it just provided so much of the engine to write the book and then do the doc, because there was just this sort of endless terrain to explore.

I’m an actor as well, and I just feel for those other actors… well, everyone who was brave enough to be interviewed for this. Did you ever find out how he was able to single out those people who he conned?

Scott Johnson: Well, there was a lot of research that went into it. For every person who wound up on the phone and in some kind of relationship with the scammer, there were many who didn’t, who didn’t sort of pass his initial cuts; either they were too skeptical, or they didn’t fit some criteria that he was looking for. They weren’t interested in maybe taking it to the next level in terms of racy conversations or they didn’t want to travel to Indonesia or whatever. So, there were certain parameters that people had to meet in order to make it into the final bucket of victims.

But there was a lot of research, and I don’t know if you’re like most people, but we put everything online. We’re on social media, we’re on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and IMDB, and we have websites, and we do photos and blogs and newsletters, and we’re just everywhere. There’s a huge amount of information about these people that often they themselves put out there because they’re trying to build their careers and make a name for themselves. So, it’s easy to mine the public register for information that can then in the hands of a skillful manipulator be used and crafted and sculpted in ways such that they can kind of develop a narrative that will be compelling to the person on the other end of the phone.

I’ve said this before, but I think there are a couple elements to the scam itself that make it kind of remarkable. One is the voice work, obviously, it’s impressive, but I think the more substantial and impressive feat is the persuasion that goes into crafting these really elaborate fantasies and these stories that once the hook is in, people want to believe, they want to go along on this ride, whatever it is, and it’s different for everybody. I think is the really ballsy bold step, if you sit with that a little bit I think it becomes clear.

Watching the documentary, I loved the videos of you talking to him on Zoom. He could talk, man, and as he was talking and talking and your face was equal parts fascinated and also like, “I gotta take out the trash. I gotta feed the dog.” What were you thinking just during those times?

Scott Johnson: I mean, you just nailed it. It was like, “I’ve gotta go to the grocery store. I’ve gotta take my kids to this or that thing. I’ve gotta go to the bathroom. I’ve gotta talk to my wife about something.” I’d be stuck up in that room for hours.

I don’t know if this comes through in the doc, but those weren’t the only conversations, I’d get called all the time. I’d be out with my kids or at the grocery store, or in the park or whatever and I’d be getting these calls, and I couldn’t always take them. So, for the period of time that we were in conversation it was a relentless, pretty much a full-time job all day, every day for many weeks.

Scott Johnson Hollywood Con Queen
Scott Johnson, investigative journalist, tracking down the Con Queen in Indonesia in “Hollywood Con Queen,” now streaming on AppleTV+

At one point you confronted him on the street, were you at all nervous about doing that?

Scott Johnson: I’ll be honest, it was. I’ve done that kind of thing a few times in my career as a journalist, it’s never particularly easy or comfortable, especially when you know people don’t want to talk to you. But yeah, it was scary. I didn’t know anywhere near as much about him in that moment as I came to learn over the subsequent weeks, so I didn’t know what his reaction would be, if he would lash out or be violent in some way or threaten me or run away or hit me. It was a little scary and my heart was going pretty fast.

Towards the end of the doc, when he was opening up about his life, do you feel like he was still trying to manipulate you or do you think he was being genuine? Because as I was watching, I started feeling somewhat sympathetic towards him, but then in the back of my head, I was like, “No, no, no, he screwed all these people.”

Scott Johnson: I have to say, in the moment, when I was filming that and when I was in the conversation, I had kind of the same reaction you did, which was the sort of wild swings between feeling like this was somebody who was looking for a human connection, and I was that connection in that moment and to listen and be empathetic and really hear what he was trying to tell me. And so yeah, it engendered a certain amount of sympathy on my part, and at the same time, like you, I had another narrative running in my head, which was saying, “Wait, but you did this, that, and the other thing.” I had sort of the victim’s voices on a steady loop, reminding me of all the other terrible things that had transpired.

I think I say in the documentary, there was a real kind of cognitive dissonance, trying to sort of in real time navigate that emotional landscape of feeling sympathy and kind of a desire to understand, and then on the other hand, a real, very sincere skepticism and a desire to push back and to question and to be a hard hitting journalist, and to get to the truth, because ultimately that was what was the most important thing to me.

And sometimes one strategy works and sometimes another strategy works, and it’s difficult to know from moment to moment, second to second, what’s going to work. If you’re too sympathetic, you’re going to get rolled over and lied to, and if you’re too pushy or whatever, you’re going to alienate somebody and maybe prematurely cut off the connection. And so, I was always trying to balance those and with an eye toward really trying to understand and get to the truth of what happened.

This con was so complex, you almost have to be impressed by how he juggled everything that he had going on.

Scott Johnson: Oh, totally. Yeah. I think that’s right up there at the top of the things that kept me interested, was just the complexity of it, as you said, the immense energy really required to simultaneously be handling all these phone calls with multiple people at the same time, all the people in Indonesia who were being drawn in to help in some way. And then being a food influencer, fending off people who were clamoring for money, it’s just sort of insane. We often joked about how… And I asked him this too, how if he had put his mind and his energy to something productive and good, he would’ve had immense success, I think. Because he clearly had energy and a kind of a weird work ethic, he just chose to direct it in this way.

The end of the doc doesn’t really close the story. But for you personally, have you gotten closure?

Scott Johnson: Yeah, I think so. I’d be happy to move on to something else. It took up a good chunk of time and it was really interesting for me and eye-opening. Making the doc was immensely rewarding and fulfilling, and writing the book, of course, was a real joy. So, all of those things, I feel good about and proud of, but yeah, I’d be happy to move on.

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