• Entertainment
  • Television

Fake Movie Projects and Phone Sex: The Story Behind Apple TV+’s Hollywood Con Queen Documentary

6 minute read

The new documentary Hollywood Con Queen, out May 8 on Apple, details a scam in which a man is believed to have impersonated various female and male Hollywood executives and lured freelancers in the entertainment industry with fake projects and phone sex for more than a decade from 2010-2020.

Hollywood Con Queen reveals how Hargobind Tahilramani caused at least 500 victims to lose about $2 million, including makeup artists, chefs, martial artists, stunt actors, and former military folks doing private security for high net-worth individuals. The docu-series is based on reporting by Scott Johnson, whose articles for The Hollywood Reporter since 2018 raised public awareness of the scam and prompted hundreds of victims to come forward. The show is also based on his 2023 book The Con Queen of Hollywood: The Hunt for an Evil Genius.

The Hollywood Con Queen filmmakers had a wealth of evidence to work with: interviews with victims, email exchanges that the victims saved with fake producers, and calls with the scammer that victims started recording when they realized things were getting suspicious. Nicoletta Kotsianas, a corporate investigator initially hired by Hollywood executive and former Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal, who was one of the people impersonated by Tahilramani, said tracking email domains was like a game of whack-a-mole; every time she got one shut down, a new one would come up. On top of that, the scammer went by different names to different people. Kotsianas spent six months looking through what people called him in social media comments and comparing those to Indonesian name constructs before she figured out that the impersonator must be Hargobind Tahilramani. In the documentary, he’s mostly known as Harvey, his childhood nickname.

How the "Hollywood Con Queen" operated

One reason so many people fell for the scam for so long is that for freelancer workers, it is relatively normal to get called out of the blue with an opportunity. And the people who were thought to be behind the phone calls, but were actually being impersonated, were all easy to search on Google.

In 2017, filmmaker Will Strathmann got an email from someone he thought was Pascal, asking him to go to Indonesia to find characters for a storyboard for a pilot they could pitch to Netflix. Because it’s common in the freelance industry to get reimbursed later, he didn’t think twice about footing the bill for interpreters and travel costs. The person Strathmann thought was Pascal could never meet him in person—despite always calling him at 2 a.m. to talk business. Featured in the documentary are recordings of some of the most erratic calls. But he started to get suspicious when he kept being asked to go to Indonesia and Bali, draining his savings. Overall, he says, he lost $54,452.

Some of the victims fell for the scam during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. With productions stalled, the prospect of something in the works gave freelancers hope. An actor who goes by the pseudonym John Taylor in the doc said he thought he was paying for martial arts posture exercise classes and so that he could appear in a film directed by Doug Liman, who does a lot of action films. He received text messages with a list of movies to watch and assignments to write character analysis essays on each one. “I was bored and this was such a weird exciting thing going on in my life,” as he describes what it was like to do the homework. “This served as a really welcome distraction.”

But the most disturbing part of the scam is the phone sex. One night, Taylor got a call at midnight from someone claiming to be Barbara Ellison, ex-wife of Oracle magnate Larry Ellison. She was supposed to have property with a gym where he could train and wanted to get to know him. Then Taylor was asked to pretend like he was licking her, and then listen as the person had an orgasm over the phone. In what he thought was a Skype networking meeting with Donna Langley, head of Universal Pictures, the fake executive asked him to kiss the camera, take his clothes off and touch himself (which he did not do).

Confronting the "Con Queen"

It is rare to watch a true-crime documentary in which the perpetrator is interviewed, so the most surprising part of Hollywood Con Queen is the conversations that Johnson recorded for his book with Harvey—a window in which his identity was exposed, but before his arrest in 2020. Johnson even had someone film him confronting Harvey in Manchester, after pretending that he was in London on social media. Instead of avoiding Johnson, Harvey welcomed Zoom interviews and regularly called him.

“Imagine if something great happened to me after this,” Harvey told Johnson at one point. In one particularly telling exchange, he rattles off his favorite movie characters, like Ursula, the villain in The Little Mermaid, Meryl Streep and all of her different accents in Sophie’s Choice, and Glenn Close who plays a con woman in Dangerous Liaisons. “There’s so much you can do as an actor, eh?” he told Johnson.

It’s clear that Harvey always wanted to be famous, always wanted to be a Hollywood writer or director, so these fake movie projects were his way of trying to make that dream come alive. Johnson tells TIME it’s still an open question what exactly led him to scam so many people, but says one theory is that it’s grounded in “resentment” for “his own failed attempts to to become a person of significance in Hollywood himself in an earlier point in his life.”

Harvey’s fate is still to be determined. Since he was arrested in November 2020, he remains in the U.K. On June 6, 2023, a British judge ruled that he be extradited to the U.S. where he could be put on trial for his crimes, so he’s currently fighting extradition. It’s believed that Harvey is the only person impersonating the Hollywood executives in this case; no other actors have been associated with these schemes.

To avoid falling for such schemes, Kotsianas points out that people should be suspicious if they receive constant phone calls, especially about urgent tasks. It’s important to pay attention to email domains, and be able to call a person back instead of always having to be called by a person. The “Hollywood Con Queen” scam “is a very extreme version of what is happening every single day across the internet for millions and millions of people in these scams,” as she puts it. “This could happen to anyone.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com