Alyx Weiss wants to apologize. “I understand why people were and are upset that I disappeared, planted a seed that I may have joined a cult, and then didn’t explain myself for a while,” the Youtuber tells TIME. “That’s completely fair, and I’m really sorry.”
But let’s back up: more than a decade before the apology, before the so-called cult she didn’t join, Weiss got her start on YouTube in 2009. She found her stride about five years ago, with a video series called “Revealing Your Secrets.” In her 14 years on the platform, she has amassed a following of 1.7 million subscribers and over 200 million views, the “Secrets” series boasting over 30 videos with more than one million views apiece. In June 2022, the series became a podcast produced by Kast Media, uploaded weekly with snippets shared on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok—until Dec. 16, 2022, when Weiss went dark across her social media channels.
Her unexplained absence was peculiar, in part because YouTube creators usually tell fans ahead of time if they are taking a break. But it also raised alarm bells because just before she vanished, Weiss told a strange story on her podcast to her guests for that episode, Vlog Squad members Carly Incontro and Erin Gilfoy. “I escaped a cult yesterday,” Weiss said. She explained that she was invited to a meditation retreat on the app MeetUp, and when she arrived at a compound in Pasadena, something felt off. So she drove away, but said she planned to meet with the group again for a potluck. She uploaded the podcast episode, then ghosted her fans.
First, they got worried. Then they got upset. A TikTok video raising alarm about her unknown whereabouts got 1.6 million views. More speculation followed. For four and a half months, she remained dark on social media and offered no explanation for her disappearance.
Then, on April 30, Weiss returned to social media with a 40-minute video explaining her absence. In it, she explains that the constant stream of uploading videos for 14 years had caused her to burn out. She got word that her podcast was being canceled and knew her December episode would be her last. “I didn’t maliciously want people to be concerned about my well-being,” she said in the video. But the rumors “got out of hand.” Her disappearance and resurfacing, and the clamoring for information that bridged the two, raised a worthy question in an age of shifting relationships between influencers and their fans: What, if anything, do content creators owe their audiences?
“It can be hard to figure out boundaries”
In an interview with TIME in early May—her first since she resurfaced online—Weiss appears visibly nervous. Her body language is stiff and she chooses her words carefully. “The nature of what we make is so intertwined with our personal lives and our personalities that it creates a much more intimate relationship than most public figures have with their audiences,” she says of her profession. “It can be hard to figure out where boundaries or privacy come into play when part of what you’re making is perhaps letting people into your bedroom on camera.”
Weiss had a few things to clear up, off the bat. “This is the first time in my 14 years of being on the internet that I have received so much backlash, so I’m navigating how to handle it,” she says. First, she wants to clarify that she did not meet up with a cult. Reiterating what she said in her video, she explains that she went to Peru for several weeks, engaging in a “master plant dieta,” a “mental, physical, and spiritual transformation” that involves ingesting ayahuasca (among other plants that are not psychoactive), 12 days of isolation, and abstinence from caffeine, dairy, alcohol, drugs, sex, spicy food, and more. Weiss said she wasn’t fully cut off from the world but she was advised to try and disconnect.
Second, she wants to address those who were critical of her April video. Some thought the lighthearted tone of her explanation was flippant considering fans’ months of genuine concern for her. Others felt she simply waited too long. “People were upset that it took me so long to speak out,” she tells TIME. “I was worried about revealing this part of myself to my audience and rightfully so, it didn’t necessarily go well.”
Still more felt it was unfortunate that she joked about cults alongside discussion of an indigenous culture. “I, unfortunately, made the mistake of addressing the cult rumor in the same video that I talked about going to Peru,” Weiss explains. “I introduced a large amount of people to something they had never heard of, next to the conversation around cults, and I think I muddled the conversation a bit.” Weiss plainly states, “What I was doing in Peru is not a cult; it is an indigenous culture.”
But there was something deeper she wanted to address, too, and that was the question many posed to her about her unexplained disappearance: “Why didn’t you just put out a tweet?” After all, it would have been so easy to avoid all of this backlash—a tweet or an Instagram story dashed off in 30 seconds. She says that while her friends told her about the cult rumor, she was unaware of fans’ concerns. While she was in Peru, she deleted all social media apps from her phone for months and was not looking at anything her followers were saying about her disappearance. “By the time I did see what was happening on the internet, I was having a really hard time speaking up,” she tells TIME. “But ultimately, we really never know how hard or easy something is, in the context of someone else’s human experience. To get on the internet and say anything to thousands of people felt very intimidating for me at that time.”
She was alerted to the rumors swirling around her when her friends texted her during the retreat. Did she think that none of her 1.7 million subscribers would worry about whether she was OK? “I never intended to make anyone worry,” she tells TIME. “I know I am simply trying to be as authentic as possible. I have nothing to hide, and I’m more than willing to admit where I went wrong during this whole journey.”
“I realized she’d probably gotten herself into something”
Successful influencers often amass their large followings thanks to their conversational tones, relatability, and willingness to share both mundane and major moments from their lives. This gives fans a feeling that they know them personally. It can also create a perception among fans that they are owed a certain amount of content or, as in Weiss’ case, explanations for their whereabouts, behaviors, and decisions. In the same way that creators can sometimes reduce their fans to numbers that impact their bottom lines, those fans can sometimes view creators as content machines without feelings. They fill in the gaps of knowledge about their lives and hold their own idea—or ideals—of who those influencers are.
A parasocial relationship “is an imaginary, symbolic, one-sided relationship with a celebrity or media figure or just someone who you don’t actually know,” Dr. Sally Theran, an associate psychology professor at Wellesley College, tells TIME. And though they tend to get a bad rap, conjuring up images of normal people who have deluded themselves into imagining a closeness that doesn’t exist, that’s often not the case. “The vast majority of these relationships are healthy and not harmful, but we’re familiar with really extreme versions when someone actually believes they have a relationship with this person,” says Theran.
Still, even if these relationships aren’t exactly two-way streets, Theran says she believes that the fact that Weiss is interacting with her followers directly with the “Revealing Your Secrets” series changes the equation. “When you solicit to engage with your followers, you have kind of an implicit responsibility to be connected to them and not disappear.”
In Weiss’ case, the hubbub didn’t start right after her disappearance. It began in earnest in February, when one of Weiss’ listeners, Bridget Rutkoski, uploaded a video to TikTok. “There’s this YouTuber and podcaster I’ve been listening to that said they were going to meet up with a cult, then dropped off the face of the Earth, and nobody’s talking about it,” Rutkoski said. She said she noticed something was off when Weiss hadn’t uploaded a new episode or posted on social media. The video got over 1.6 million views, and rumors began to swell.
Once TikTok, a breeding ground for conspiracies based on one morsel of truth, caught wind, the comments section of Rutloski’s video reflected a mixture of worry and suspicion. “Certain cults are ballsy enough to kidnap an influencer,” one comment read. For months, the silence continued. Then, in March, Hunter March, a YouTuber and TV personality who had appeared on Weiss’ podcast, replied to a worried fan’s comment, “Alyx is fine. She’s just taking some time for personal reasons.” The remark quelled some suspicion, but not everyone was convinced. TIME reached out to Weiss multiple times following Rutkowski’s video, as well as to March, Kast Media, Incontro, Gilfoy, three of Weiss’ friends, her agent, and her manager. The majority did not respond, and none agreed to be interviewed.
Despite having uploaded the video that started this firestorm, Rutkoski tells TIME that once Weiss explained her absence in the April 30 video, she was in the camp of people who enjoyed it. “I just feel like it’s getting all blown out of proportion when she’s just actually like doing some zen, healing stuff.,” she says. “But because she alluded to it being cult-y in the first place, I think that’s why everybody’s running with the whole cult thing.” Eros Grey, who has been a fan of Weiss’ for six years, was in the worried camp. Grey tells TIME, “She’s talked a lot about her spirituality. When she was gone for so long and as time went on, I realized she’s probably gotten herself into something that she really doesn’t realize is quite serious and less spiritual but more cult-y.”
In a recent episode of the H3 Podcast, hosts Ethan Klein and Hila Klein discussed Weiss’ April video with a healthy dose of skepticism. The podcast uploaded a TikTok on May 20 which has already amassed over 4 million views. Weiss was also the subject of a different podcast called “Do We Know Them?” in which the two hosts, content creators Jessi Smiles and Lily Marston, said they were put off by her comments about sort of liking that her fans were worried about her.
“Something about people being concerned made it feel safer to be gone for longer because I had something to come back to,” Weiss said in April. “People were looking for a return and there was safety in that.”
“I owed it to myself to find peace again”
Weiss is not the first YouTuber to decide to take some away from constantly churning out content. But the high-profile creators who have left have typically shared a goodbye video to explain why they are pivoting to something different. At the very least, they’ve remained active on social media. Take Tyler Oakley, who has had a channel since 2007 with over 6 million current subscribers. In December 2020, when he decided to take time away from making videos, his “See Ya Later” video included text in the thumbnail that reads, plain and simple, “Why I’m leaving.” Ricky Dillon and Alex Wassabi have done the same, albeit for different reasons—even if they end up coming back to content creation one way or another.
Weiss is still grappling with how much she feels her fans deserve. “My answer may not be totally satisfactory because it involves a lot of nuance,” she tells TIME. While it’s true that she couldn’t make the living she does without her followers, when she took time away from the internet, she felt, “I owed it to myself to find peace again before I owed it to anyone else.”
Surely, the next time Weiss decides to take some time away, she will do things differently. She says she still feels like she’s in the middle of this ordeal. “I’m not sure the lesson is quite crystallized for me just yet,” she tells TIME. One thing the YouTuber wants to do for certain, though: reconnect with her audience. “In order to feel connected to them, I need to remain true to myself first and make what feels good,” she says. And after that? “Trust that the audience that aligns with that will show up.
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