Journalist Jessica Wapner was researching body heat when she first came across the mention of 2,4-dinitrophenol, known as DNP. The chemical had been linked to several deaths during World War I; it changes how cells expel energy, spikes body temperature, and, essentially, cooks people from the inside out. Wapner continued looking into the drug, and what she learned was as fascinating to her as it was disturbing. DNP’s toxicity had been well-established for a century, and yet it was sold online, and a small but significant number of young people continued to experiment with — and die from — it.
Why, then, would anyone take DNP? Before killing people, the drug could help them lose weight.
Wapner wrote an article about DNP for The Daily Beast, entitled “The Deadly Internet Diet Drug That Cooks People Alive.” Soon after, Elle Fanning was sent the article. The actor had recently launched her production company, Lewellen Pictures, alongside her sister Dakota. The pair wanted to experiment with podcasts in addition to movies and TV projects, and Wapner’s article seemed like a perfect fit.
“It just struck me. It's also so well-written,” Fanning tells Refinery29. “So I came on, and Jessica and I and everyone involved had such amazing talks — we all kind of opened up about all of our struggles that we have with body image.” Because ultimately, the podcast, called One Click (as in: one click on the internet can change your life forever), has as much to do with society’s uneasy relationship to weight and unhealthy fixation on weight loss as it does with DNP. “Obviously there are so many drugs like this out there that are so harmful. People were preying on other people’s insecurities — that’s really what’s happening here,” Fanning says. “The internet or whoever wants to keep us insecure and hating ourselves so they can profit off of it. And I think that was such a chilling idea.”
To create the podcast, Wapner expanded her original article, which she now calls “an overture,” by re-investigating DNP’s past and present. “We've done so much more investigating about how DNP entered the world in the first place — and repeatedly over time. Like, how did a banned substance come back again? Those stories have been very surprising and I feel very excited about the reporting that we did to that end,” Wapner says.
Fanning narrates each episode. “It’s been really thrilling,” the actor says. “Even though it’s investigative, there's a mystery to it — but then also we're dealing with real people. This is really happening. So it has to be handled with care.” At the bottom of the first episode, Fanning notes that some listeners may be curious and compelled the drug themselves, and implores them not to. After hearing about how DNP kills people — painfully and quickly — it’s almost inconceivable that anyone would be tempted by it, until you realize that many of the young people who took the drug knew that an overdose would be fatal; the promise of easy weight loss still won out.
That deadly desire to lose weight will be explored in depth in future episodes. “There's a lot to do with body image, and understanding why certain thought patterns can have such a grip on us,” Wapner says. “You think, ‘Well, gosh, I'm a smart, thoughtful, capable, human being. Why do I fall prey to this? Why do I still feel this way about my body?’” she says. “We have a lot of voices coming up in upcoming episodes that really blow the doors wide open on the history of these kinds of thought patterns and why you can't just say everyone should feel good about their bodies, you know? Because then it's like, ‘Well, what's wrong with you for not feeling that way?’”
“I compare myself to others all the time,” Fanning adds. “I compare my body to others... Especially growing up in the public eye, when you’re looking at yourself in photos and going through puberty and your hips are widening, and you’re like, God, my thighs are bigger than this person’s thighs. It can be so all-consuming, you know? You can go down that rabbit hole of just constantly harping on what you’re not.” She points out that the internet perpetuates these issues in more ways than one. Our social media feeds show us image after edited image of unattainable bodies, priming us to be vulnerable when a targeted ad pops up to sell us a quick-fix weight loss product — like DNP.
But Fanning says that one of the most surprising things she’s learned while working on this project is how difficult it is to catch the people responsible for illegally selling DNP. “People can't wrap their head around how hard it is to catch the people that are doing this. It’s frustrating because you can't necessarily lead it back to just one person; it's become a global situation,” Fanning says.
Wapner says there are many parts to the story they’re telling on the One Click podcast: why it’s so hard to stop the sale of DNP in particular; the role the internet plays in the sale of dangerous products like this; and the factors that can warp a person’s body image and make them turn to a deadly drug. The podcast does not shy away from the heaviness of the subject matter; early in the first episode, one family member of a person who died after taking DNP breaks down crying, and asks to stop recording. But, that only confirms how important the message behind One Click is, and how it goes beyond the story of this specific diet drug. “If it’s not DNP, it would be something else,” Wapner says. “So what brings people to it in the first place?”