The leader of the Vlog Squad built an empire on goofy pranks and wild stunts. Now he’s under fire for turning trauma into content. Can he make a comeback in a culture driven by clicks?
The YouTuber David Dobrik is driving his white Tesla through the verdant hills of suburban Los Angeles, explaining the challenges of selling thin-crust-style pizza in L.A., his assistant Natalie texting in the back seat and Billy Joel on pause on the stereo, when he abruptly stops talking. “I got this,” he says. “Don’t worry, guys.” He leaps out of the driver’s seat to help an elderly lady with a walker cross the street.
Just a few short hours ago, on the tail end of several controversies surrounding Dobrik and his YouTube collective, the Vlog Squad, squad member Jeff Wittek had released a video alleging that Dobrik permanently maimed him in an elaborate stunt gone wrong. All over social media, people were calling Dobrik a sociopath and accusing him of mining his friends’ trauma for content. And here he was, blithely chatting about his new pizza franchise and helping an old lady cross the street.
After a few seconds, Dobrik jumps back into the car, giggling. “We did that on purpose for you,” he says. “We wanted to have a grandma crossing the street, but I couldn’t keep my composure.” As we drive away, the woman, who Natalie and David tell me was an actor paid $200 simply to walk in front of our car, waves and grins.
When I ask Dobrik if this scene was staged as a way to distract from or counteract the effects of the Wittek video, he looks at me, confused and maybe a little bit wounded that I would so grossly misinterpret the intention behind a fun prank. “No, no, no,” he says. “We were just trying to do something stupid and silly.” And I laugh, partially because it is stupid and silly, but also because I’m in a $150,000 car in the Hollywood Hills with an extremely wealthy and charismatic stranger and his assistant, and I don’t want to seem like I can’t take a joke, even though I’m not entirely sure what the joke is.
Such is my initiation into David Dobrik’s world: where the lines are constantly blurred between fantasy and reality, what’s genuine and what’s content; where everyone is having fun, no one could possibly get hurt, and the rehabilitation of one’s reputation is just $200 and a call to a casting agency away.
Calling Dobrik a YouTuber is sort of like calling Batman a morose vigilante with a trust fund: While technically true, it’s far from the whole story. Dobrik is the leader of the Vlog Squad, a motley crew of aspiring comedians, Instagram sexpots, and other sundry influencers and creators who zip around Los Angeles filming gross-out pranks, stunts, and lavish giveaways, resulting in an aesthetic that’s a cross of Jackass, Entourage, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Dobrik has racked up more than 18 million followers on his main channel alone and, in 2020, was estimated by Forbes to have earned $15.5 million. His white Tesla has been a fixture on the streets of L.A., portending for unsuspecting passersby free iPads or cash or cars, or, if nothing else, the tantalizing promise of 36 million eyeballs on them.
Those who follow Dobrik’s slickly edited, four-minute-and-20-second vlogs are intimately familiar with the members of his crew: Jason Nash, a 48-year-old former comic turned co-host of Dobrik’s podcast Views; aspiring musician and straight man Scotty Sire; reformed bad boy Wittek; Corinna Kopf, a former Hooters waitress and tinder for dumb-blonde jokes; and Natalie Mariduena, Dobrik’s comely 24-year-old assistant and high school best friend, who’s perpetually rumored to be dating him. (Mariduena is actually dating fellow Vlog Squad member Todd Smith, but that doesn’t stop her and Dobrik from playing up a flirtation whenever possible, as she acknowledges: “People love seeing us together. They love us interacting with each other and doing funny stuff. Relationship stuff on the internet always is like good clickbait. It gets good views and whatnot.”)
Functionally, the Vlog Squad primarily serve as yes-men; when they’re not confronting one of their deep-seated phobias or performing some daredevil stunt, they’re on the sidelines, laughing uproariously at the action. “It’s kind of like the modern-day Friends, with a laugh track,” says Wittek of squad members’ roles. “It tells someone that this is a joke, that it’s OK to laugh at it here.” Many of the more popular recurring characters in Dobrik’s videos are his childhood friends, which helps to foster the gang-of-goofballs dynamic. His housemate Ilya, Mariduena, and Mariduena’s own assistant Reggie are all from Dobrik’s Illinois hometown. “He’s so attached to his childhood and his youth and his inner being as a kid,” says Mariduena.
In the center of it all is Dobrik with his camera, affable, puppy-eyed, and perpetually amused by everything and everybody. In person, he is just as unfailingly enthusiastic. “Everybody that has money, everybody that has success, hides all of it. It’s something you shouldn’t talk about, or like a secret,” he says. “And I like sharing all of it. I love showing people things. I’m obsessed with it.”
The moment I step into his $9.5 million Sherman Oaks mansion, he does just that. First, he brings me over to his Hawaiian Punch water fountain, inspired by the Adam Sandler film Mr. Deeds. Next, he shows me his office, where he records his podcast, and which I recognize from one of his recent apology videos, where he was flanked by a Kids’ Choice Award and a potted Baby Groot. We end in the living room, which looks as if it’s been decorated by a 12-year-old with an unlimited budget: There’s a life-size R2D2 animatronic he bought via his friend John Stamos; a Buzz Lightyear portrait made of Rubik’s cubes; a framed photo of a text exchange referencing his losing $288,000 on GameStop stocks (“I wanted something out of that negative situation, like some kind of art piece,” he says. “I told the internet I only lost 80K, so if you could tell them I didn’t lose that much, that’d be great”); rows upon rows of hard candy. Mariduena and Dobrik’s other assistant, an amiable young blond woman named Taylor Hudson who also regularly appears in his videos, stay anchored to the kitchen island on their phones and laptops, the adults in the room, even though both are also in their mid-twenties.
Shaggy-haired and casually dressed in a Dodgers cap, track pants, and a T-shirt from the restaurant Jon and Vinny’s, Dobrik reminds me of Tom Hanks’ character at the end of Big, after he finds the Zoltar machine — a child cosplaying in an adult man’s body. At one point, his attention wavers and he starts casually roaming around his kitchen on a penny board. I half expect someone to come out and yell at him to stop doing that in the house; but, of course, he is 24, and it is his $9.5 million house, so no one does. In all, he comes off as someone who is constantly in awe of the cosmic ridiculousness of his own good fortune. “David hasn’t really experienced much pain in his life,” notes Wittek. “It’s been a pretty smooth upbringing for him. His life has kind of been just straight up and not really many downs.”
Dobrik moved to this new home in January, but he has not yet sold his old house nearby, allowing friends to use it for shoots. The next day I’ll get a tour of that one, too, with Dobrik pointing out the detritus of old stunts, videos, and branding campaigns: a Chipotle-burrito claw machine the company gave him after releasing a burrito in his honor; a miniature Tesla; a ceiling damaged by an elephant toothpaste prank. As we walk through the garage, he tells me about a time a few years ago when he found a homeless person asleep on his couch at 2 a.m., wearing his merch; the man had defecated all over his couch. I ask if he posted it to YouTube, and he says yes.
“Why was your impulse to film that?” I ask.
“Because I’ll never remember it better than if it was on film,” he says. “I just love filming things. I don’t get why people don’t film everything. Everything should be filmed.”
At the start of 2020, Dobrik was uniquely positioned for crossover success, something he is not shy about admitting he has always craved. “Right now, there’s almost like a caste system in the entertainment world, where if you’re a YouTuber or a TikToker, you’re just branded as that,” he says. “I’ve struggled with accepting myself because I’ve always wanted the respect of the traditional world. But I’ve always known that at one point, the traditional world is going to meet up with being here, and it’s all going to be the same.”
With the 2019 launch of his photo app Dispo, which mimics the look and the experience of developing disposable-camera pictures, Dobrik had crossed over into the tech space. Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian was a lead investor, and at one point, the app had a nearly $200 million valuation. Also in the works were a TV series and a pizza franchise called Doughbrik’s, as well as brand deals with corporate giants like HelloFresh, DoorDash, and SeatGeek. “He’s inherently entrepreneurial,” says Joe Gagliese, CEO of influencer marketing firm Viral Nation, who’s known Dobrik since he was getting started on the now-defunct platform Vine in 2013. “He was knocking on the door of being the face of major brands across the U.S. He was right there.”
And then, he wasn’t. In the spring of 2021, former Vlog Squad members like Seth Francois and Nik Keswani, a.k.a. Big Nik, started to accuse Dobrik of building a culture of bullying, cultural insensitivity, and consent violations. In March, Insider published the account of a woman named “Hannah,” who accused Dobrik’s longtime friend and Vlog Squad member “Durte” Dom Zeglaitis of sexually assaulting her in a 2018 incident that was partially captured by Dobrik on video. Major brands started to distance themselves from Dobrik, and he resigned from the board of Dispo. His fans, primarily zoomers who had come of age watching his energetic vlogs, also started to turn on him. He lost a total of 400,000 followers during March and April, according to SocialBlade data.
Then came the revelation, the day of our first meeting in April, that he had grievously injured Wittek in a stunt involving an excavator on a lake in Utah, inspired by an extreme-sports YouTuber named Devin Super Tramp. The footage reignited an outcry from people accusing Dobrik of exploiting Vlog Squad members and endangering them for views. And even though this is far from a rare phenomenon in the beef-driven, controversy-fueled, caps-lock-titled world of YouTube, the fact that Dobrik had amassed a reputation as something of a wholesome boy next door (despite the bulk of his content being fairly profane and fratty) made his fall from grace even more precipitous. “He wasn’t on such a pedestal anymore,” says Trisha Paytas, a YouTuber who was briefly in the Vlog Squad. Paytas, who goes by they/them pronouns, has frequently criticized the group on their podcast Frenemies.
During my visit, Dobrik was on a self-imposed social media hiatus; though he’d previously spent most of his time shooting, editing, or ideating content, now his days consisted of little more than the occasional pizza-franchise meeting. (He resumed posting on June 15th, with a video titled “SURPRISING MY FRIENDS!!!” which showed his squad on vacation in Hawaii and made no mention of the controversies.) Our meeting had been in the works for a while, before the Insider story broke, and in the days leading up to it, as his sponsors fell away and the social media mobs swarmed, I became more and more sure that he was going to cancel. But he didn’t, and as we sat by his infinity pool on a sunny Friday afternoon, it was clear why: He was still struggling to make sense of what he had done to warrant such ire.
“I didn’t understand that what we were making had such power. I didn’t understand it,” he says, looking smaller than his five-foot-10 frame in an oversize sweatshirt. “So when [the Insider story came out], I was like, ‘What? I’m responsible for someone making a bad decision?’ I didn’t get it. But it was all because of this environment of wanting to put on this show.”
As a child growing up in Košice, Slovakia, Dobrik was reserved and “highly sensitive,” his mother, Kristina, says. He’d slept in his parents’ bedroom until he was five, and would cry every morning before he went to preschool. Once, she recalls, she brought him toys to play with in the sandbox, and some bigger kids came over and took them. But David didn’t get upset. “He just sat down and was just very happy watching how they played with his toys,” she says. “I was happy he didn’t make any fuss about it, though I didn’t want him to be a pushover. But he was just so happy he could share his toys.”
When he was five years old, Dobrik’s parents moved to Toledo, Ohio, where Kristina had previously lived for a year with an elderly relative after graduating from high school. Kristina had learned some English from watching Full House reruns and loved how friendly people were in America. “It seemed like a good idea to go overseas, to make a better life for David,” she says. When the family relocated to Skokie, Illinois, outside of Chicago, David followed them there, flying on a plane from Slovakia all by himself. They later moved to nearby Vernon Hills, an upper-middle-class suburb, where Dobrik’s father started a real-estate-photography company, while Kristina stayed at home with David.
Kristina says David underwent something of a metamorphosis in America, blossoming from a shy kid to a gregarious class clown; his first words in English, she says, were “good boy,” which is what his kindergarten teachers called him. At his home, Dobrik shows me an essay he wrote in high school, in which he recounts his journey from Slovakia and expresses his joy at having left the country. Because of his DACA status, he has not been back to the country of his birth since he was seven years old, but he has little interest. “I was obsessed with America. I thought it was like the coolest fucking place in the world,” he says. “From how I remember it, Slovakia is very much like if you were to watch a documentary about the Soviet Union or Russia that shows kids in a line with trays and an old lunch lady putting beans on a tray. I almost see it, like, in a different filter, like in sepia. It’s so cliché, but here is like the land of opportunity, and you can become anything you want.”
Dobrik didn’t have a girlfriend in high school — he was “too squirrel-brained” for that, says his former tennis coach Shannon Etnyre — but he was friendly and generally well-liked, the type of kid who’d randomly offer hugs to students in the halls. “He was perfectly right in the middle and friends with everybody,” says Mariduena. He was also a mediocre student, putting in just enough effort to pass his classes. “I just couldn’t wrap my head around why it mattered,” says Dobrik.
Yet even though he spent the majority of his time arguing with teachers over doing work, many of them, like his English teacher Jeff Killinger, couldn’t help but like him. “His philosophy was, ‘If I can cheat or in some way get this work done in a way that doesn’t require effort, then that’s fine,’” says Killinger, who became a mentor to Dobrik after graduation, fielding FaceTime calls and requests to help with Dobrik’s taxes. “[Every day] I’d say, ‘I’m not gonna let this kid do this to me tomorrow,’ and every day he would. He was just that charming and funny.”
Dobrik took an equally laissez-faire approach to tennis, which he started playing as a young child and continued throughout high school. Etnyre remembers him as an “awkward-looking freshman with a Justin Bieber haircut” who was nonetheless “just destroying on the tennis court.” Ultimately, Dobrik was good enough to become all-state and be scouted by various universities. “I liked that if you fuck up, that you’re to blame,” he says of his attraction to the sport. “I hated the pressure of letting the team down. It’s so much easier when you’re just playing by yourself and then you fuck up. It’s just on you.” (Despite this aversion to pressure, Dobrik has an indisputably competitive side: When I watch him play at Mulholland Tennis Club a few hours later, he is intensely focused, chiding his doubles partner Mariduena for missing shots. “We’re just having fun right now,” Jason Nash, who was in recovery from hip surgery, calls from the sidelines. “Nothing fun about this,” Dobrik retorts.)
Though Dobrik had murky aspirations of joining the entertainment business in some capacity, he was always fascinated by the idea of making money. “A lot of people that come from overseas that are immigrants and first generation are really, really hungry to be successful, and that was definitely his case,” says Dobrik’s best friend and housemate Ilya Fedorovich, who was born in Belarus. “His family and my family, we’re not the richest. We survive by our means. I think that one of the reasons that he’s supersuccessful now is that he didn’t have much when he was growing up, but he wanted a lot.” In high school, when Dobrik was working as a waiter, he and his friends would discuss their incomes with one another in the school cafeteria. “People say money doesn’t buy happiness. And I completely get that,” Dobrik says. “But I think you can alleviate so much stress and so much burden from money, so it helps you to the road of happiness.”
When Dobrik was 16, Mariduena introduced him to the social media outlet that would change his life forever: the short-form video platform Vine. At the time he joined, Vine was starting to become a launching pad for creators like King Bach, Nash Grier, and Dobrik’s future girlfriend Liza Koshy. Even though he only had a few thousand followers early on, Dobrik saw the potential. “I saw the people making money on Vine and actually getting brand deals and moving out to L.A., and I was like, ‘Holy fuck, I think I could turn this into a career,’” he says. He won his first brand deal, $50 for a to-do-list app called Do!, in high school, and celebrated with his friends at Buffalo Wild Wings.
What’s notable about Dobrik’s early Vines is not just how young he looks — he has braces, wears rubber bracelets, and mugs for the camera with his trademark puppyish enthusiasm — but how much darker they are than his more aw-shucks YouTube presence. In one Vine, he pretends to be a disabled person in a wheelchair; in another, he chides a friend for making an Asian joke, saying, “They have enough on their plate. Like cats and dogs”; and in another, he says the n-word. He issued a vague apology for these offenses last summer.
In speaking about his earlier content, Dobrik blames a combination of the freewheeling climate on Vine and his youth. “I was a fucking 16-year-old idiot,” he says. “That was just chaos. And it was just the way Vine was. It was so much darker, and no one batted an eye when you did stuff like that.” But even though he pivoted away from explicit edgelord humor once he started blowing up, there is an element of his vlog persona that has remained consistent. Much of the humor is contingent on knowing the identities of the people in his videos: the skeevy older man (Nash), the slutty girl (Kopf), the heartthrob (Smith), the fat kid (Nick Antonyan, a.k.a. Jonah), the bad boy (Wittek). Even though it’s his channel, Dobrik is rarely the butt of the joke.
A semester into his first year at College of Lake County in Illinois, Dobrik visited Los Angeles to network with other Viners as a trial period for potentially moving out West. On the plane ride back to Chicago, he says, he had the distinct sense that L.A. was his home. “It was a dramatic, Troy Bolton, High School Musical-type scene. Like, ‘This is my dream, I have to pursue it,’” he says. With two of his high school friends, including Dom, and a third friend he’d met on Vine, he moved into a small apartment in West Hollywood. His father was a guarantor on the lease because the boys did not have any income. His decision baffled his parents, who had given him an ultimatum: Get a college degree, or move out so as not to set a bad example for his three younger siblings. “We didn’t understand how he could make money out of [Vine],” says Kristina. “You need an education to do something in your life.”
When Vine collapsed in 2017, many creators had to scramble to other platforms, having lost their subscribers and brand deals overnight. But Dobrik had already started his own YouTube channel two years earlier, where his quick-cut editing style and goofy antics featuring the Vlog Squad (the name came from a fan) swiftly won over hundreds of thousands, then millions, of viewers. “We were all trying to transition from Vine to Facebook, and David started making money and making views,” says Todd Smith, a former Viner who became a Vlog Squad member. “From there, everyone tried to make a vlog.” Killinger says that at one point, while Dobrik was visiting home, he got a phone call from a company that offered him $5,000 to drink a particular brand of water in one of his videos. “He tells me this as he hangs up the phone and says, ‘Should I go to college?’” Killinger says. “And I said, ‘Well, clearly not. No college is gonna offer you $5,000 to drink a bottle of water.’”
It helped that Dobrik had started collaborating with, and then dating, Koshy, a Viner-turned-YouTuber with manic energy whom he had met at a party during his first days in L.A. Together, they filmed sketches, pranks, and #relationshipgoals content. “Liza was a big turning point in his career,” says Gagliese. “She was amazing for him. They were both exploding around the same time. Their relationship and their personalities jibed so well. When they started vlogging together is when they both kind of catapulted to the moon.” (Through a representative, Koshy declined to comment.) When the couple split in 2018, fans were devastated, yet, ever the consummate content creators, Koshy and Dobrik figured out how to use it to their advantage; their tearful breakup video garnered more than 60 million views.
Though some in the media, including Stephen Colbert, expressed bafflement that the pair would broadcast such a private moment, it was on-brand for two people who had chosen to convert their entire lives into content. “My reaction was, ‘This is the only way to do it,’” says Killinger. “They both have such enormous fan bases who are so invested in their personal lives that there was no way to break up without that kind of video. I sent him a long text and told him it was the right move, and I told him it’ll be important for young fans of his to see that people can break up while still expressing their care for each other.”
Though Koshy eventually faded out of the Vlog Squad, Dobrik’s popularity only grew. The group embarked on college tours, where they would be unable to leave their cars when they parked because crazed fans would be climbing on them, Mariduena says. And watching Dobrik’s videos, it’s not hard to see the appeal: Whether he’s gleefully stalking around his mansion with a flamethrower, gifting his childhood best friends with Teslas, or surprising them with visits from celebrities, he always comes across like an overgrown five-year-old who loves sharing his toys. Though, his friends say, that persona belies an intense work ethic. “He is obsessed with his craft,” says Wittek, citing one instance in which the Vlog Squad waited in Dobrik’s backyard for hours while he attempted to nail one basketball shot for a video. “There’s certain things that keep you human, and you kind of lose touch with that when you get too obsessed with one thing.”
The Marvel character Iron Man is one of Dobrik’s obsessions, too. He has various Iron Man memorabilia (including a $10,000 fully functional suit) on display throughout his home. It doesn’t take a psychology degree to unpack the appeal: The character starts out as a devil-may-care billionaire who gives no thought to the effect his work as a weapons manufacturer may have on society. “Then he finds that his creation was actually hurting people,” Dobrik says. “And then he figures out that he can use his talents to help people, which is fucking cool.” There is one part of the narrative he’s forgetting: In order to save the universe, Iron Man has to destroy himself.
As 2021 kicked off, Dobrik was one of the top-10 highest-earning YouTubers, according to Forbes. Having been dubbed “Gen Z’s Jimmy Fallon” by The Wall Street Journal, he was uniquely poised to achieve his dream: breaking into the world of mainstream entertainment. He frequently told interviewers of his ambition to host late-night TV.
Then came allegations from Seth Francois, who was often the sole black person in Vlog Squad videos, of racism and assault (he was tricked into kissing Nash in a prank video). Big Nik, who has dwarfism, also claimed he was bullied. (Francois and Keswani declined to comment. In a video, Dobrik apologized to Francois for “missing the mark.”) And, most damning, the Insider story, in which “Hannah” alleged that she had been plied with alcohol by Vlog Squad members and raped by Zeglaitis. In the video, which has since been deleted, Hannah and her friend enter a bedroom with Dom, who’d begun the night hoping to have his first “fivesome.” Dobrik and his friends lurk outside the room but do not record the encounter itself. At the end, Dobrik says, “Dom just had a threesome and I think we’re all—” Smith interjects, “Going to jail,” and they all laugh. (Through an intermediary, Hannah declined to speak with Rolling Stone about the incident; Zeglaitis did not respond to several requests for comment, but posted an Instagram story in April saying, “I want to sincerely apologize directly to the women involved in this incident…. As far as I am concerned, everything that occurred during the night in question was completely consensual.”)
When we discuss the alleged assault, Dobrik is reluctant to speak fully on the record, fearing further ire from the internet. “I hate confrontation. I’d rather take a beating than argue,” he says. But in parsing the incident, he seems to vacillate between taking responsibility for whatever role he may have played and absolving himself of it. “I knew where I went wrong, but I was not in the room, I was not aware of what was going on,” he says. “None of my friends were. They would have kicked that fucking door down if anybody knew what was going on, allegedly.”
As Insider reported, Hannah initially provided Dom with consent to post the video, but she later revoked it, prompting Dobrik to take it down. Dobrik says he confronted Zeglaitis, and when Zeglaitis insisted that nothing nonconsensual had happened, Dobrik believed him. It wasn’t until months later, in 2019, after, he says, he received a call from a different woman who had a complaint about Zeglaitis, that Dobrik says he officially severed ties. “That’s where I was like, ‘I’m done. I can’t film with him.’ And what I didn’t do is, I didn’t do a good job of communicating that with him, and I didn’t do a good job of going back to these girls and apologizing. I let this guy live with me, and I was blinded by the fact that he was from my hometown. No one can do any wrong when they’re from your hometown. I was just stupid.”
Dobrik says the Insider article was the first time he started “putting everything together” and understanding “this was a real thing that happened.” But it was not the first time someone in his inner circle had expressed concern about Dom — Killinger says that when Dobrik bought his first home, he cautioned him not to let Zeglaitis move in. Nor was it the first time someone had publicly come forward accusing Zeglaitis of assault.
In 2017, YouTuber Ally Hardesty made a video alleging that Zeglaitis had forcibly groped her at VidCon. In that video, and in an interview with Rolling Stone, she alleged that Zeglaitis pinned her down, reached into her shirt, and forcibly kissed her, and that he filmed the entire encounter (the footage, she says, was never posted). Following Hardesty’s post, Zeglaitis posted an apology video on his channel. Dobrik wrote in a comment, “Proud of you Dom. Being an idiot is easy. Owning up to it is tough! Glad you made this!!!”
Hardesty says seeing Dobrik’s comment “really hurt.” While she didn’t initially blame him for Dom’s actions, “when you keep that company and enable that sort of behavior, I think you’re a huge part of the problem,” she says. “If [David] had taken a different approach to it, maybe Dom wouldn’t have assaulted other people.”
On March 16th, Dobrik posted a two-and-a-half-minute apology video, “Let’s Talk,” on YouTube. Wearing a hoodie branded with the logo for the Max album Colour Vision, a somber Dobrik said, “I don’t align with some of the actions, and I don’t stand for any kind of misconduct,” before distancing himself from Durte Dom: “I’ve been really disappointed by some of my friends, and for that reason I’ve separated from a lot of them.”
Dobrik’s apology was poorly received, with many labeling it insincere and stage-managed. He’d posted the video to his podcast YouTube channel, which has the fewest subscribers of all his YouTube channels, and he’d turned comments off. “The comments are always such a hostile place,” he says. “I didn’t want to be reading and hearing what conclusions they were coming to, because I knew they weren’t true.” He did not address the allegations against Zeglaitis in the video, he says, because “I couldn’t see how they were connected to me.” Dobrik says part of him still feels that way, though he claims he cut ties with Zeglaitis in 2019, well before this apology video came out. (Social media posts that show them at the same party in early 2020 suggest the timing of their split was later.)
Dobrik and those in his inner circle have tried to position the controversies as a matter of him simply trusting the wrong people. “In the world of social media, someone gets really big, and people are drawn to them because they want a piece of that audience,” says Gagliese. “Imagine having a friend who had a plant that grew $100 bills. Do you know how many people would come over there for parties? The real meaning of friendship in the influencer world gets lost between the lines.”
Yet the allegations against Dobrik have also raised questions about power imbalances among members of the Vlog Squad. While they are all uncompensated for appearing in Dobrik’s videos, they do reap financial rewards indirectly by gaining exposure through his channel. “It’s such a blurry line because we’re friends, but we also work together,” Dobrik admits.
Indeed, Dobrik has built an ecosystem where he is surrounded by friends who are also beneficiaries of his largesse. Often, his philanthropic gestures are fodder for content. Videos like “SURPRISING MY ASSISTANT FOR HER BIRTHDAY!!” in which he gifts Mariduena with a baby-blue Bronco, rack up more than 21 million views. At one point, Dobrik describes to me an elaborate prank he is planning to pull on a friend who had recently been laid off. In the prank, which would be filmed for the vlog, Dobrik would pretend to be a job interviewer reaching out, then show up at the interview to give a PowerPoint presentation as to why the friend should move to L.A., all while a moving truck packs up the guy’s furniture to take it to an apartment Dobrik has already paid the rent on. When I ask if he’s concerned about raising his friend’s hopes for a job, Dobrik says, “It’ll be more exciting this way.”
Many of Dobrik’s friends see these gifts as nothing more than heartfelt generosity. “He cares about everybody else more than he cares about himself,” Fedorovich tells me. “That’s why I’m friends with him, because he’ll step out of his way to help you.” In Fedorovich’s case, that means being anointed founding partner and operations manager of Doughbrik’s — a job offer that prompted him to move to L.A. from Chicago, where he’d been running his own plumbing company. But former Vlog Squad member Paytas says such munificence creates an environment in which Dobrik’s inner circle is fully dependent upon his continued success. “They all have David’s back because they’re all invested in him,” says Paytas. “‘Whatever it takes to help David helps us make money.’ That’s, like, their mantra.”
It’s hard not to wonder whether the squad feels pressured to perform for Dobrik in the name of creating good content (and increasing everybody’s bottom line). In a February interview on the H3 After Dark podcast, Big Nik said the group was “toxic” and “like a cult,” and that Dobrik’s mockery of his dwarfism in his videos gave the rest of the group tacit permission to treat him “like a punching bag.” Former members have also alleged that they felt coerced into doing certain things on camera or bullied into keeping content up. Paytas claims Dobrik initially refused to take down a video featuring jokes about Paytas and Nash having a threesome with influencer Tana Mongeau. (Dobrik, who eventually took down the video, says he always removes videos once a subject revokes consent.) Paytas also claims Dobrik paid them to do things on camera they had been reluctant to do, such as sucking Kopf’s toe.
Even Dobrik’s defenders concede that he can be compelling to a fault. Though Killinger says he believes Dobrik has a high emotional IQ and “very, very strong empathy for people,” he acknowledges that he is “definitely a persuasive person. I don’t think it’s ever occurred to him to be mean-spirited, [but] the allure of being seen by 15, 20 million people, and the charm of his own persuasiveness, I can see how an environment can develop that makes it seem like bullying was a result of that.”
Dobrik acknowledges that, despite his YouTube golden-boy persona, people close to him have long pointed to a manipulative side. “My friends call me a sociopath,” he says. “That’s kind of like the ongoing joke. And, yeah, I think now people have more of a reason to be like, ‘Oh, they weren’t kidding about the sociopath stuff.’” This has actually been a running bit in Dobrik’s content — in a 2017 episode of Views, he takes a psychopath test, though he does not end up fitting the criteria — but when he mentions it, he’s not smiling.
Nowhere was this dynamic put into sharper relief than with the stunt that injured Jeff Wittek. A ruggedly handsome 31-year-old barber from Staten Island, Wittek has always been positioned as the roughneck of the Vlog Squad, which he says was very much by Dobrik’s design. “I had a different type of past and experiences than most members of the group because of my run-ins with the law,” he says. “And he just got a kick out of that.” While Wittek was initially hesitant to publicize his criminal record, fearing it would hurt his career, Dobrik persuaded him to allow him to post his mug shot on his blog, arguing that it would make him more relatable to the average viewer. He was right, and Wittek soon became a fan favorite. “[David] is the most successful in the group, so a lot of the time I will take his word on that stuff,” Wittek says.
Last summer, the Vlog Squad flew to Utah to make a triumphant return to vlogging after a hiatus imposed by Covid-19. After wakeboarding, the group had planned to perform a stunt in which they would swing on a rope dangling from an excavator while Dobrik drove it. There was no medic on site, nor, according to Dobrik and Wittek, did they consult with a lawyer beforehand. Mariduena says Dobrik had obtained permission from the excavator owner to operate it after an hour and a half of training, but that was about it.
Wittek was hesitant to participate but says he was trying to be a “team player” by doing so. “Nobody wants to do this stunt, and we’re on the beach for six hours as David’s driving this thing, and I’m just like, ‘All right, whatever — you want me to get on it, I don’t care,’” he says. “We’re all flown here to do a job, and the job is to help him make the best video he can possibly make, which will in turn help all of us as a group.” In video of the incident, Kopf swings on the rope first, dismounting when Dobrik spun her around too fast. “You take things too far, David,” she can be heard saying. Then Wittek takes a turn, only to smash his head into the excavator and fall into the water, suffering multiple contusions on the side of his face and a life-threatening eye injury that required him to undergo multiple surgeries.
Dobrik says his “fucking world stopped” when the accident happened. He couldn’t even watch the footage: “It was so horrifying and so shitty.” (Though Dobrik admits this was not the first time someone in the Vlog Squad had been hurt during filming — Dobrik cut his hand, Antonyan and squad member Zane Hijazi have each been taken to the hospital.) He paid for Wittek’s surgeries and showed up at the hospital in full Joker-nurse costume at Wittek’s request. Still, Wittek says that he felt betrayed when Dobrik failed to follow up with him in the immediate aftermath of the accident. “I was dealing with brain damage and serious mental-health issues, and I would just look at my phone and see that he’s hosting a new Discovery Channel show, or had bought a new [multimillion-dollar] house,” Wittek says. “These things made it a lot harder for me to forgive him.” (Dobrik says he didn’t check in because he didn’t want Wittek to think he was pitying him.)
In April, Wittek went public about the incident with a YouTube series called Don’t Try This at Home, selling uncensored images and footage of his accident on his Patreon account for $5 a pop. Online, some wondered why he would attempt to profit off such a horrific event instead of seeking legal recourse against Dobrik. Wittek insists that he never considered suing his friend, and he balks at the suggestion that he posted the videos for any reason other than to inspire others going through a difficult time. But it’s also clear that, in deciding to monetize the incident, he didn’t have much of a choice. Wittek’s injuries have prevented him from working, and he’s lost brand sponsors in the fallout from the Vlog Squad controversies. Part of his recovery has included trying to regain some source of income.
In addition to the accident footage, Dobrik and the rest of the Vlog Squad are also interviewed in Don’t Try This at Home. In the penultimate episode, Dobrik and Wittek go skydiving together — Wittek’s idea. “I don’t want a fucking car,” Wittek says in the series. “I don’t want money. I want you to risk your life and not be in control for once.”
By the final installment, Wittek forgives Dobrik, though, like much of the Vlog Squad’s content, and by Wittek’s own admission, it’s not entirely clear how genuine that resolution is, or if it was merely inserted for narrative reasons. “It’s always up and down. You never have it figured out,” Wittek says. “But at the moment, yes, I have forgiven him.” He says the ending “was a gift to the audience for them to see that [Dobrik] is willing to try and make things right. He just might not know how at this time in his life.”
Dobrik says Wittek’s accident was the first time that he considered the “power dynamics” at the heart of his content. In discussing the incident with Vlog Squad member Todd Smith, Dobrik says, Smith confessed that he’d actually been jealous of Wittek, because his own wakeboarding stunt that day had been less extreme. “You want to be able to put on a bigger show, and it can get really dangerous because you get lost in it,” Dobrik says. “It was just like, ‘How can I make this bigger and better than the last thing?’”
Dobrik frequently uses the term “power dynamics” to describe the culture he’s built — specifically, whether the nature of his brand or his audience has led people to doing things they would otherwise not feel comfortable doing. He says that when he started his career, he was uncomfortable asking people to appear in his videos. Then he saw it was the other way around: “People wanted to be in them, and they would do anything they could to be in them, and almost lose their sense of what’s right in front of the camera. Their eyes would glaze over, and they’d be like, ‘I’m down for whatever.’ And I didn’t realize that. The power dynamic is really real, and it sucks that I realized it this way, and I wish I’d learned about it in a different way.” He stares off into the distance. “I don’t know,” he says. “It could’ve been so avoided.”
The absence of regulation or accountability is an issue that does not apply to Dobrik alone, but to the creator ecosystem in general. It is a large and sprawling industry with few safeguards and little oversight, dominated primarily by very young people whose livelihoods depend on their ability to monetize their increasingly outrageous behavior. “I’ve represented hundreds of influencers, and the public expects them to have a more advanced moral compass, but the reality is a lot of these guys are still learning,” says Viral Nation’s Gagliese. “It troubles me that sometimes they get into situations where they [could] use advice from someone who’s been through it and understands having that power, and a lot of times that’s not available. Everything they say, they get a yes to, because everyone benefits from their social media or wants to be their friend because they’re famous.”
In the aftermath of these controversies, Dobrik intends to implement a system to ensure no one gets hurt doing his vlogs. He will start having people sign consent forms and appearance releases, which his mother told me she’d been begging him to do all along. He’ll also hire something akin to an HR department, so people can go to them with complaints if they are uncomfortable with something they are asked to do. Of his channel, he says, “it was just like a backyard production that got really serious and really big pretty quickly. And [then] it was no longer a backyard production, and had the eyeballs of the network show without the network backup.” Now, he hopes to institute that backup.
During his hiatus, Dobrik says, he has also reached out to Zeglaitis’ alleged victims, including Hardesty, who says Dobrik apologized to her in person in April for continuing to publicly support Zeglaitis after she made her video. She says his apology seemed sincere. “I told him he has more power than he realizes, and the things he does people look up to him for,” she says. “I do think this has been a huge lesson for him.” Going forward, Dobrik plans to lean away from the pranks and stunts (with an exception, apparently, reserved for Rolling Stone reporters). He says he wants to come back, though he understands why many people may not want him to. “I’d want me to go away too if I knew I was a bad person,” he says. “But I do think I’m a good person who’s made mistakes.”
But all the HR systems and appearance releases in the world will not solve the central problem of Dobrik and others like him making money off a platform that rewards those who are motivated by the central question of how to make something bigger and better than the last thing. Giving away Teslas, blasting flamethrowers, staging fivesomes for your horny friend — these are all, thematically, very different types of videos, but they are essentially multiple sides of the same Rubik’s cube, all bombastic gestures intended to capture the attention of an increasingly distractible online audience. And not even the cancellation of David Dobrik can change the fact that his brand of content — the pranks, the stunts, the thrill of knowing someone is going to be genuinely surprised, or the schadenfreude that comes with knowing someone is genuinely uncomfortable — is one of the motors that keeps YouTube up and running.
“It’s this weird scenario where us, the audience, thrives on that type of content,” Gagliese says. “Which is an interesting dynamic because [we] as an audience shouldn’t be interested in that type of content. But it’s what makes people watch…. [YouTubers’ lives have] been consumed by creating these opportunities to film content, and the prank culture on social puts people in a bad position. So as long as there’s demand, even if David Dobrik doesn’t do it, there’ll be 20 other YouTubers lined up to do that stuff right after.”
On the way home from Dobrik’s old house, we pass a young girl standing in the road, maybe about nine or 10, panhandling to raise money for her cancer treatment. For a split second, it occurs to me that, in light of the elderly lady prank, Dobrik may have planted this girl in order to give her a Tesla or an iPad or an offer to pay for her treatment. But this turns out not to be the case. Dobrik drives off, and no one comments on it.
Later, by Dobrik’s infinity pool, I ask if he saw the girl. “I wanted to give that person money, but I didn’t want to do it in front of you,” he says. “It’s so easy for me to give somebody cash, so easy, so easy. [So] whenever I can, I do that…. I did that thing with you, that was supposed to be cheesy and goofy,” he says, referring to the old lady stunt, “but I didn’t want to look like I was putting on some kind of a performance.”
I tell him that it’s incredibly disorienting to view everything someone does as performance, and offer that it must be exhausting to have that calculus factor into all of your decisions. “That’s the entire internet,” he says. “Every move now is like, ‘I don’t want people to think I’m doing this for this.’ You’ll never, ever get people to believe that your intentions are 100 percent pure. You never, never will. And they can be 100 percent pure, and you’ll make fucking mistakes, and maybe it’ll look like they weren’t pure. But you’ll never convince anybody of that.”
“Everyone likes to look at a car crash,” he says later. “That’s just like a guilty pleasure that everyone has. You drive by. You’re like, ‘Is that fucking person dead? What’s going on?’ That’s what the internet is. People love to see chaos. And it’s all fun and games till you’re in the car crash.” Then he tears up. And I have no idea whether or not to believe him.
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