Photo by Bobby Viteri. Clothing courtesy of Steelos.com
Sons of Essex is the kind of SoHo restaurant where high-powered New York City publicists host celebrity press junkets, but I didn't visit the place a few months ago to interview a pop star, actress, or athlete. I was there to speak to a man who makes his fortune spreading gossip about celebrities like Beyoncé and The Real Housewives of Atlanta—Fred Mwangaguhunga, the founder of MediaTakeout.
For those of you who aren't one of MediaTakeout's reported 16 million readers a month, here's the dirt: It's a gossip site focused on black celebrities that has become notorious for its ugly (but charming) homepage design and salacious headlines filled with exclamation marks, ellipses, and allusions to celebrities' dick pics. Headlines like "NUH UHHHHHHHHHH!!!! Some School In New York Is SO RATCHET . . . . That They Hired ERICA MENA From Love And Hip Hop . . . As Their GRADUATION SPEAKER!!!"
But Mwangaguhunga is nothing like his headlines. When I met him, he wore a sleek black shirt and trendy glasses, and his life sounds more like a Horatio Alger success story than that of a gossip columnist. After growing up in Queens, he studied law at Columbia University and then worked as a lawyer on Wall Street for a few years. He saved his earnings and used them to open an online-based laundry service with his wife. The business succeeded, he sold it, and then, in the mid 2000s, he used the profits to create MediaTakeout because he saw a huge business oppourtunity.
"There was no one that would give a real interview at the time. Other than Wendy Williams, there was no one on the radio that would give real interviews and just really going in," Mwangaguhunga told me. "This lack of authenticity just got kind of left this huge hole in the market. I wanted to [create a site that sounded] like you and your friends are sitting around having a conversation about Beyoncé."
Since the site has transitioned from small blog to competitor of TMZ, Mwangaguhunga has been accused of being anything but authentic. A notorious GQ profile showed him socializing with celeb and MediaTakeout subject LaLa Anthony. Last month, the Dirty accused Mwangaguhunga of stealing their content. The site's owner, Nik Richie, who published Anthony Weiner's dick pics, claimed Mwangaguhunga stole leaked screenshots that showed Jennifer Lopez's then boyfriend Casper Smart flirting with Sofie Vissa, a transsexual model, on Instagram.
"We reached out to [MediaTakeout], and we asked them kindly, 'You know there's a code of conduct—there's an unwritten code that you know—if someone breaks a story, you give that person credit,'" Richie told me. "You don't steal their story and try to take credit for it thinking it is what it is."
I sat down with Mwangaguhunga to learn more about the drama with his rivals, the site's connection to black history, and Kanye West's dick pics.
VICE: How did the laundry business give you the idea for MediaTakeout?
Fred Mwangaguhunga: Initially it was really slow, but we got a bunch of good PR and some celebrity clients and the business really took off. The celebrity clients were the key to getting the press, and the press was key in getting them. We had all these celebrity clients, and our publicist was cool with a bunch of other publicists, and so she'd call up like Mariah's publicist and say, "Hey, can we say that we did Mariah's laundry?" And she'd be like, "OK, great." She would send us one piece of Mariah's laundry, and we would do it, and then we'd be able to say that we did Mariah's clothing. The whole thing was kind of a manufactured process. I was just like, "Wow. This is how it's done," because before that I was a total novice to everything.
At the time I sold the laundry service, I had been advertising on a bunch of different blogs, so I knew the industry. I was actually reading these blogs, and there was a big hole—all this African American gossip was just falling through the cracks. There were the paparazzi photos, and nobody even sold them. The paparazzi wouldn't take the photographs, or even if they did, they wouldn't have anybody to sell it to. I remember going up to a couple of paparazzi people early on, and I was like, "Any African American celebrities you see, I'll buy all your photographs." And they sold them to me for half price.
How much did you pay?
For a photo, it was like $25.
How did you create the site's trademark headlines?
When you look at the way to build a website right now, everyone that does it, they put everything up in the cloud. Seven years ago, when we started, there was no real cloud that was there. So if you actually had a website, and it's getting millions of people, you actually had to have enough servers out there—you had to have a database architecture. You had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get it right, and sometimes even millions. Obviously we didn't have the money, so we did everything on the cheap. We were able to have this site and had millions of people on it, which is incredible. But when we did that, there were a lot of bugs. It was basically being held together with chewing gum. People would just write in, "This site is so ghetto." In the beginning this hurt me. I was like, "Oh, man. This is my baby, and they called it ghetto." But then I was like, "Let's just embrace that for a second. Let's just be a little ghetto." Yeah, they'll say we're ghetto, and we'll just kind of accept that—and [that's] kind of where the craziness of the site came about.
What's the definitive Media Takeout Story?
Probably when we leaked Kanye West's dick pics. That was probably pretty big. The reason why leaking dick pics is so good is because, with every other story, people will steal it from you. But nobody's going to steal the dick pics because they can't. They can't put them up there.
You talk a lot about dick pics and authenticity, but at the same time, you've been accused of stealing photos from Nik Richie.
Accusations like this come about so frequently in the tabloid world. If I wanted to, I could claim the same about them and hundreds of other websites. Pay attention to how many times you see a story on MediaTakeout and find the same exact story somewhere else a few hours later or the next day. The fact of the matter is, the people who leak these items aren't likely to service just one outlet, unless they are under an exclusivity contract, and even then you run the risk of a "friend" getting a hold of it and sending it out as well. In this instance, we were sent text messages, without any company logo attached or imprinted, from a source. There is no way we could have attained the messages without a watermark, unless we received them from the same source that serviced it to them or someone from their internal team who had access to them. We actually ran the text in attachment to one of our original stories where we show a photo of Casper entering a gay strip club. We never claimed the post to be exclusive, as it had already been covered by numerous other outlets. We simply added facts, which we previously reported, to the speculation. As an attorney, I'd be insulting myself by taking part in what in this case is being called "stealing." Smaller websites looking for exposure from ones with a high audience will usually try to latch onto ours in any way they can. Some would say it's a desperate cry for attention, but to me it's actually a compliment that means they understand our power and either fear it or desire it. The day people stop falsely accusing us or attempting to tie themselves into our press and visibility is the day I'll actually have a real problem to worry about.
Previous gossip tycoons like Perez Hilton lost prominence because they became too famous, befriended celebrities, or sold out. Do you worry about facing similar problems?
At the end of the day, especially as you get bigger, you get all sorts of opportunities—people tell you things. People say, like you know, "If you could just calm down a little bit it'll be different." And then you get celebrities that want to be friends with you too, which is another thing. I don't really want to because I know all the crazy things that they do, and I'd love to be able to report on them, but I can't if I'm friends with them. So you have all this other pressure that's trying to pull you in. I think maybe Perez kind of fell into that.
That's fair. Your site has become one of the biggest gossip sites. What's the competitive business advantage of running a site that rarely speaks about white people?
There are very few advantages that you have being African American in this world, but the one thing that you do have is an understanding of black culture that nobody else really could have. You can't take a couple of college courses and listen to some Wu-Tang albums and really understand black culture. You have to live it. It's like if all of a sudden I was like, I'm going to run a gay website. Anyone who's gay who reads it, they're going to start seeing little holes and discrepancies. So this is the advantage that you have, and you've got to kind of use it. Also, there's something about entertainment that, being African American, you can kind of get in that area.
Historically, white entertainers have appropriated black culture, though.
There's always that, but they'll kind of let you in [the entertainment industry]. I was talking to a very senior guy at a tech company that we all know, and I was just like, "You know, I think it's bizarre that you have no black people towards the top." Of course, he's talking to me about programmers and all the other crap that you hear from other companies. And I was just like, "Most of the people that you have that are really making a lot of money, they're not programmers. You get your programmers from India or whatever. Then you got your business guys, senior guys." My point to him was more that you're running a website, and there are going to be black people on it—and you have no [black people] over there.
It's a bad business decision.
It doesn't make sense. You couldn't run a business and say, "OK. I'm running a network, and I expect to have 30 percent women and then have no women there. It doesn't work, and you lose a lot of people. I guess I thought it made sense [to create a gossip site focused on black celebrities], and we leaned on it, and we don't run away from it. And that's our competitive advantage.
Special thanks to Sons of Essex.
Follow Mitchell Sunderland on Twitter.