In March 2021, an Austin-based man who goes by the name Joyous Heart posted a photo on Instagram of a group of extremely well-dressed, attractive individuals, beaming against the backdrop of a pristine sunset. “What a wonderful tribe of human being we have here in Austin… so grateful to be co-creating and experiencing life with these superheroes!,” the caption read.
According to the post, the event was in honor of the 46th birthday of Dr. Micah Pittman, the owner of a chiropractic practice in Lakeway, Texas, who regularly shares anti-vaccine content and Covid conspiracy theory memes on his Instagram page. Indeed, by all appearances, the event seems to have been a who’s who of people prominent in the Austin “conspirituality” community, a term used to describe the intersection between conspiracy theories and spirituality.
The conservative comedian, influencer, and entrepreneur JP Sears, who has built an audience of nearly one million Instagram followers with his anti-vaccine, anti-mask, and overall anti-mandate content, was in attendance with his wife Amber. (Sears spoke at the Defeat the Mandates rally on Jan. 23 in Washington, D.C., alongside other anti-vaccine luminaries such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) So was podcaster Cal Callahan, who has repeatedly platformed Plandemic filmmaker Mikki Willis on his podcast the Great Unlearn.
As Vice reported last year, Joyous Heart, who markets himself as a “transformation architect,” is also active in the Austin spiritual influencer community, having registered the website and LLC for Gold Star Oasis, a planned military-protected eco-resort for those looking to “reclaim sovereignty and co-create our world the way it was meant to be,” in November 2020. A planning meeting for Gold Star Oasis, as reported by Vice and the Conspirituality podcast and documented by multiple social media posts, was attended by Sears and Willis, as well as far-right figures like Trump’s ex-wife Marla Maples.
One eagle-eyed commenter on Joyous Heart’s Instagram noticed another notable individual in attendance. “Is that the actor from Dawson’s Creek?,” someone wrote. It was indeed, as confirmed by a repost of the photo on Pittman’s account tagging the Van Der Beeks, as well as the Searses. “Now that I’m back on the grams of insta I’ll post my bday and say some thanks for making it special,” Pittman wrote in the caption.
Pittman frequently appears in the Instagram stories of Kimberly Van Der Beek, wife of the former WB star an influencer in her own right with more than 230,000 followers on Instagram. Kimberly has garnered a robust following for documenting her picture-perfect lifestyle on the Texas ranch she shares with James, posting photos of their adorable tow-headed children (they have six) and their rustic adventures, such as catfishing or rattlesnake-wrangling. She has also amassed a following for opening up about her multiple pregnancy losses, one of which ended with a trip to the emergency room to receive blood transfusions.
For years, however, Kimberly has also used her platform to promote alternative and holistic medicine practices, which has included vaccine-critical or overtly anti-vaccine views, such as that vaccines are not adequately safety-tested or that they can cause harm to children. Some familiar with the Austin wellness community have reacted with alarm at the Van Der Beeks’ appearances in various conspiracists’ circles, as documented on Instagram. “I thought it was weird — how are these people hanging out with celebrities?,” one source close to the Austin wellness community says of seeing the Van Der Beeks’ show up on known Austin anti-vaxxers’ social media pages.
Van Der Beek himself has not openly discussed his views on vaccinations, and his representative did not immediately respond to questions regarding the Van der Beeks’ views on vaccines, or whether they are vaccinated against Covid-19. In one video titled “in loving support of bodily sovereignty,” in which he speaks out in support of abortion rights, he admits he “avoids getting political” on social media. In the past, Van Der Beek has publicly advocated for vaccines, partnering with AstraZeneca in 2014 for a flu shot awareness campaign. In 2021, the couple partnered with the Red Cross to encourage blood donation, after Kimberly lost two pregancies.
Yet he appears to at least be comfortable in Covid denialism and conspiracy theorist circles. One of the 127 accounts James follows on Instagram is Preston Smiles, an Austin influencer who has promoted the use of ivermectin to treat Covid-19. And in late 2020, James attended a men’s empowerment group led by Jordan Maurice Bowditch, a men’s performance and relationship coach who goes by @conscious.bro on Instagram. Bowditch received criticism in early 2021 for attending a New Year’s Party mask-free after publicly announcing he had tested positive for Covid, and made a video last October with his friend JP Sears mocking the vaccine.
Kimberly, who also did not return requests for comment, has a well-documented history of promoting vaccine misinformation on her social platforms. As early as 2016, she posted content propagating the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism. In 2019, she was one of many Hollywood celebrities who praised actress (and her husband’s Rules of Attraction costar) Jessica Biel for her involvement in lobbying against SB 276, a California bill that ultimately passed limiting medical exemptions to mandatory vaccinations. And in August 2019, a Venmo account under Van Der Beek’s name made a payment for food and drinks for what appears to be anti-vaccine activists who protested the bill at the California Appropriations Assembly Committee in Sacramento. “Food and drinks for our protesters! Thank you <3,” the caption to the payment read along with the praise-hands emoji.
Like many lifestyle and wellness influencers, Van Der Beek seems to have ramped up her rhetoric since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. In April 2020, she interviewed Dr. Pejman Katirei, a Beverly Hills pediatrician known as @holistickids on Instagram. He has promoted the idea that vaccines can cause adverse effects for some children, such as autism and autoimmune disorders, and has advocated for colloidal silver, intermittent fasting, and essential oils as preventive measures against the coronavirus.
The nearly-hour-long discussion touched on the topic of a prospective Covid-19 vaccine (which would not even be approved for FDA use for several months). In the conversation, Van Der Beek claims she has a “family history of vaccine injury,” a term frequently used by anti-vaccine activists in reference to the harms they allege are associated with childhood vaccines. (In April 2021, Van Der Beek again used the phrase in her Instagram stories, reposting a tweet stating, “How can we say ‘believe victims’ without including victims of medical/vaccine injury?”. Serious vaccine side effects are very rare and public health consensus is that vaccines are safe and effective.)
“Every pro vaccine person would probably agree they’d love to have the safest vaccine,” Van Der Beek says in the Live. “But this rat race to get out a vaccine and not telling us to get vitamin A, C, D, and all that, is concerning. And not all vaccines are widely tested.” In the Live, Van Der Beek also questions the statistics surrounding the Covid-19 death rate: “I put a red flag on anyone who talks about death rates, rates increasing,” she says.
Van Der Beek has also pushed Covid-related conspiracy theories on her Instagram Stories, though it appears that she often deletes them after receiving backlash. Following the April 2021 death of rapper DMX, she republished an Instagram post falsely suggesting that DMX had died due to complications from receiving the Covid-19 vaccine. “DMX’s family is being silenced by the news as they are calling his death an overdose,” the post reads. “His family was saying he’s been clean and he literally just got his shot.” (DMX was later found to have died of a cocaine-induced heart attack, according to an autopsy.) It also included the caption, “Rest in love DMX, I won’t let your family be censored.” She later took the post down “out of respect for the family,” according to her follow-up Instagram story, though she added that she did believe the true cause of DMX’s death was being suppressed due to media “censorship”: “if you know, you know,” she added cryptically. She has continued to promote misinformation on Instagram, reposting content promoting the largely baseless belief that 5G can cause negative health effects as recently as a few weeks ago.
Within the context of the greater Austin community, Van Der Beek’s views are not unusual. Over the past few years, the city’s free-thinking ethos has meshed with the burgeoning “medical freedom” movement to create a toxic blend of strong anti-vaccine sentiment. “Austin is the new seat for the holistic practitioner,” says Derek Beres, who has documented the overlap between right-wing ideology and spiritualism on his podcast Conspirituality.
The emerging anti-vaccine climate is largely a result of “overlapping philosophies and ideologies — a hyperindependence fused with a slightly prickly, ‘don’t tread on me, don’t mess with Texas’ [ideology], with elements of new thought and new-age woo,” Jamie Wheal, an author who has written about his general concern over Austin’s growing anti-vaccine scene, previously told Rolling Stone. Wheal characterized this strain of thought as “not the SJW left. It’s more like the psychedelic alt-left. It’s largely apolitical and hyper individualistic. I’t s a specific thread of uniquely American political spiritual thought, the Great Awakening gone badly sideways.”
The Van Der Beeks are part of a larger cadre of celebrities and influencers who relocated to Austin during the pandemic, such as Haylie Duff and Jamie-Lynn Sigler. In interviews to publications like People inviting them to tour their rustic 36-acre compound and with the local magazine Austin Life, the Van Der Beeks framed their move to Austin as a way to escape the tumult of the big city. “We wanted to get the kids out of Los Angeles,” James said. “We wanted to give them space and we wanted them to live in nature.”
“They were so open and honest,” Rae says. “I admire so many things about them. But I also passionately believe in keeping our neighbors safe.”