Teal Swan, a tall, Amazonian woman with piercing blue eyes and long, dark hair, is a well-spoken wellness guru for the Goop generation and a self-described "spiritual catalyst" who boasts a large and dedicated following (nearly 800,000) on social media. She is also the subject of Gizmodo’s The Gateway, an addictive podcast in which host Jennings Brown and lead producer Jessica Glazer spend hours talking about Swan, her viewpoints, and her acolytes. The podcast is well-made, thought-provoking, and very bingeable. But prior to listening, I'd never heard of Swan. Have you? What makes her worthy of a 6-episode podcast are her controversies and the allegations against her. Former followers and critics charge that she is running a YouTube-driven cult, which she adamantly denies — but that’s still up for debate.
Brown first discovered Swan the way many people do: "YouTube started recognizing her videos and recommending them [to me]," he told Refinery29 one recent afternoon, a week after the final episode of the podcast aired. "Her message was just very unorthodox. You see her, and she is this charismatic alluring person. It is easy to think that she has the success of life, but then the deeper you get, things start to get a little darker," he said. Cult or not, Swan is most certainly running a well-oiled machine. Her empire, which spans social media accounts and IRL meet-ups, represents a new Internet phenomenon in which “followers” become actual followers, and “influencers” wield actual life-altering influence. As a public figure, and self-described clairvoyant, she has been accused of promoting dangerous ideas around suicide and depression. Complicating her story even further: Swan claims she survived and escaped a cult herself as a young woman. In their investigative podcast, Brown and Glazer try to find the “gateway” into Swan’s world, to figure out this if this cultish figure is actually a threat, or a blessing, to her “Teal Tribe.”
Since January 2011, Swan has made her entire career on social media, using strategic search engine optimization to get ahead of her competition. With it, she has built a strong following — in the social media sense — on every social channel: YouTube (474K followers), Instagram (77.4K followers), Twitter (15.7K followers), and Facebook (160K followers). The "Teal Tribe" and "Teal Tribers," as the group and individual followers have been deemed, often found Swan while Googling phrases or searching for videos on sensitive topics like depression, addiction, and suicide. Like those in search of advice on their love lives or careers, many use the internet to seek help with their mental health, and because of Swan’s virtual reach, many end up on the curated gallery of her YouTube videos, which have garnered a over 60 million views.
It’s unclear how Swan makes money, but she does appear to profit from the dozen books she was written, her various events, and the “completion process” services (more on this later) offered on her website. Her ultimate goal, according to the Brown and Glazer, isn’t to be rich, but to be famous. “She says she wants to be like an Oprah or an Ellen,” Brown says. “I don’t think it is like a charlatan trying to make money or anything.” He contrasts her low income endeavors, like her “completion process,” to NXIVM’s pyramid scheme, noting the clear differences. “In NXIVM, they trained and processed people, and then there was a kickback to them. As far as i know, she doesn’t get a kickback [from the completion process practitioners]. Certification training costs $2,600, so she is making money, but it isn’t a largely scalable business.”
Unlike Oprah or Ellen, however, Swan can get very, very extreme in her discussions and teachings. Brown cited one example: A video called “The Secret Behind All Sexual Fetishes” that talks about fetishes with children and necrophilia. There is no trigger warning for the material, although YouTube does include an age restriction. Swan toes the same line on her Instagram, where she features memes mocking herself in between quotes about extraterrestrials, living in hell, and “orgasms to manifest” (sound familiar?). In the videos, her voice is hypnotic. She maintains eye contact with the camera, and easily transitions between psychological terms, spiritual language and casual slang. She’s not a knock-off Gwyneth Paltrow in a floral dress — she’s more like an Osho with very small pores.
Then there are her radical views on suicide. Swan, who addresses the subject with explicit and didactic language both in her YouTube videos and in live events at her Philia Center in Costa Rica, has been criticized for her teachings and beliefs on suicide.Some have suggested that at least two former Teal Tribers, Leslie Wangsgaard and another unidentified male, died by suicide because of the influence of her teachings. While no charges have ever been filed, The Gateway and multiple sites (“Teal Swan Exposed” and “The Truth About Teal”), videos, and groups continue to investigate her role in these deaths.
Swan is very aware of the “Teal Truthers,” as The Gateway calls them, who seek to expose the allegedly cult-ish power she has over her followers. It’s Swan herself who brings up Wangsgaard’s name during her first interview with Jennings. She says her “haters” believe she is responsible for Wangsgaard’s death, a claim which she finds laughable and untrue. When Refinery29 reached out to ask Swan about the podcast and the allegations against her, Swan’s team sent back a link to a video titled, “Teal Swan Answers To The Allegations Made Against Her (Exposed, Fraud, Fake, Scam).” The nearly 1 hour and 48-minute long reaction video was posted in October 2017, months before The Gateway’s release. In it, Swan says that she felt “guilty” after Wangsgaard’s death. It was early in her career, about “4 to 5 years ago” when she was seeing clients individually that she met Leslie and her husband. She calls the accusations that she “wants” her clients and followers to die “completely outrageous.” But Wangsgaard’s death is mentioned multiple times on the podcast because of its profound impact on her tight-knit community, and Swan remarks that key members left because they felt she was spreading a toxic message. But despite the backlash, she says in the video that “I have confidence that I have the strategy to help people out of suicidal thoughts.”
A few days after her team shared the video with Refinery29, they also shared a new blog post on Swan’s website, titled “Their Lives In My Hands, My Life In Their Hands.” In the post, Swan addresses the podcast, its portrayal of her, and speculation that she is a cult leader encouraging suicidal thoughts and actions. “To put it mildly,” she wrote, “if I first heard about me from his podcast, I would think I was a monster.” She argues that the podcast simply sensationalized the juiciest parts of her life and her practice. She compares herself directly to Osho aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the cult leader depicted in Netflix’s popular documentary series Wild, Wild Country, writing that “people, like myself, who are leading a spiritual movement, we live in terror of situations like Osho got himself into. We live in terror of being unable to control what other people in our following do and don’t do, but being made responsible for it.” In the same blog post she compares her followers, namely those with suicidal thoughts, to “stray cats” and “orphaned children” who need her help. It’s these highly-triggering comments and extreme views on suicide that trickle into almost every piece of content Swan produces. The claims that Swan is directly encouraging suicide are unsupported, but it’s clear from quotes like this that her view on suicide is potentially harmful.
In response to the recent blog post, Jennings shared the following statement with Refinery29: “We were transparent with Teal and her team throughout the production of the podcast, and we engaged with them until the end. They responded to many requests for comment on our reporting. I believe the podcast has a balanced presentation of Teal's approach, showing both the potential value and harm of her spiritual teachings.”
From her blog, it appears that she wants the influence and power over her followers, but not the responsibility that comes with it. So is she dangerous? The answer isn't clear, but in Brown’s words: "Teal probably would not have the influence or the global reach and following that she has if it weren’t for the internet. She could have been a charismatic, spiritual leader. But I think she thrives around people who are suffering and afraid to go get help.” This tendency to appeal to the vulnerable isn't new. While members of a cult don't have to be completely brainwashed to follow their leader, they do have to value and prioritize them more than other people in their lives. Considering the number of people who post and share images of themselves with custom Swan tattoos, featuring her quotes and even drawings of her face, she is admired and revered to a degree beyond the typical wellness vlogger. What also makes her so charismatic is how she presents herself on Instagram. "If you look at her Instagram, it looks very adjacent to something you would see on Goop,” he says. “It is in the wellness spectrum. Her followers take photos of her, like an influencer and her boyfriend."
According to Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus at California State University and research psychologist with a specialty in the psychology of technology, many people, especially teens and young adults, suffer from what he calls “technological dependence.” “You’re probably spending well more than half your day with some sort of screen in front of you,” he tells Refinery29. This, Rosen says, could create “an almost altered sense of reality … you’re not really driving your own behavior.” Marketers, Influencers and, yes, spiritual gurus like Swan, could thus exploit our obsession with our phones and social media, “You’re honing people into specific niches, and that can be problematic,” he says. “You may get roped into things that you don’t necessarily want to.”
Brown agrees, and thinks it’s a factor in Swan’s success. “I write about subcultures online and how religious movements and spiritual movements are evolving on the internet,” he says. “I thought [Swan] was doing something really unique using the rules of the internet, and I thought it would be really interesting to show how the internet allows new spirituality ideas to form and spread.”
He continues of The Gateway: “I knew there was a lot of controversy, especially because of the subversive things she says, sort of like politicians, celebrities who say things that will purposefully cause controversy like our President or [YouTuber] Logan Paul. We wanted to understand what she is building and how she is developing her brand of spirituality, but then it evolved to also include the harm she is causing.”
In the final episode of The Gateway, Brown asks Swan if she considers herself to be a cult leader. This is the central question we, the listeners, have been waiting for. The first five episodes have taught us that Swan satisfies a lot of the checklist for a cult leader: charismatic, confident, spiritual, mysterious, persuasive, defiant, and virtually present at all times. Does she consider herself, and her followers, to be part of a cult?
"What do I say to people saying I run a cult? Here's the thing: a lot of people are going to demonize me because of my honesty. I have the perfect recipe for a cult, and I fucking know it... I have a demographic of people who are miserably isolated, and who need belonging, desperately. That's what makes me safe...These people are desperate. They need my approval. They will do whatever the hell I say. The only reason that it is not steered there is because of my ethics. I've lived in a cult —"
This backstory is the focus of episode 5, in which Brown and Glazer dig into Swan’s past. In her teens, Swan says a man she trusted, a veterinarian, recruited her to be in a satanic cult. While she was in it, she claims she witnessed the sacrifice of at least two young children. These are heavy claims, and the details of her alleged experience were left out of the final version of the podcast.
“No one should hear about these horrific things on their daily commute,” Brown said. “That was hard, because it was a big part of her story, but they were too explicit for our radio audiences. And that is saying a lot.” But we do know this: her memories of the alleged cult were uncovered during a therapy session with Barbara Snow, a controversial figure in her own right. Snow specialized in “recovered memory” from one’s adolescence, and according to a 2007 article about a government investigation about her, she “allegedly imposed on them false memories about being sexually abused and being subjected to military testing.” The government eventually dropped the allegations against her after she agreed to go on probation. Swan has modeled a version of her teachings after recovered memory, and she calls them “completion processes.” (According to her website, Snow is still a practicing individual and group therapist in Salt Lake City.) Swan appears to have been so influenced by this repressed memory work that she has even developed her own version of Snow’s process by combining it with Carl Jung’s shadow work, and has deemed it the “Completion Process.” This process has a person reenacting a moment or interaction from their childhood in to uncover the root of one’s “current pain” and resolve it. In the podcast, Brown undergoes a completion process treatment, and it’s as bizarre (and personally unconvincing) as it sounds.
"There is nothing worse than being accused of leading a cult when you grew up in one that is incredibly horrific, which is why there is no financial buy-in like there is in a typical cult. There is no consequence for leaving. People do it all the time,” she vehemently tells the host. “I teach people to follow their own internal guidance system. That is probably the worst thing you could ever do if you want to have a cult. So no, I think it is complete fucking bullshit that people say I have a cult.” She may not have followers locked in a house, demanding their praise and worship, but it could be her influence may still verge on toxic.
"'Is it or isn’t it a cult?’ is beside the point,” says Glazer “Whether or not we label it a cult doesn’t matter, because what she is doing is still there." And by "there" she means that device in your pocket, or on your desk, in your hand right now. That little electric brick that connects you to your family, friends, coworkers, and...someone like Swan. Her combined 727,000 online followers are avidly watching and listening, waiting to hear whatever she says next.
Since the podcast has aired in full, Brown and Glazer say a few former Swan followers have reached out to thank them for shining a light on her, and her practice. “A former Teal follower who was in the car while she was listening with her mom, and our podcast helped her mom understand her daughter’s time in this dark place, and what this woman was saying about suicide and how it impacted her.” Brown adds that the point of the podcast was not to criticize Swan, but to highlight the work of a polarizing and influential figure in the wellness community. ”Until now, if you Googled Teal Swan there was blind criticism and praise.”
The Gateway wasn’t created to criticize Swan, but to draw attention to a new type of Internet guru — one who, whether she calls her movement a “cult” or not, exploits the Internet to make herself constantly available to followers. Ultimately, she isn’t that different from the beauty blogger who tries to sell you her favorite night cream, or the TV personality who teases clips of their new show on Instagram. She’s a part of a pantheon of public figures who have a great deal of power — power that can be used for good, or evil.
All summer long, Refinery29 will be examining cults from every angle: pop culture, fashion, food, beauty, and their controversial origins. Let’s dig into the fascination behind this fervor with "Cult Fridays."