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Not Even Tiger King and Fyre Fest Could Prepare Chris Smith for The Hollywood Con Queen

Smith and EP Scott Johnson grapple with the scammer who took Hollywood gig workers for a ride.
  • Scott Johnson in The Hollywood Con Queen (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Scott Johnson in The Hollywood Con Queen (Photo: Apple TV+)

    It’s always been incredibly difficult to make a steady living in entertainment. This remains true to this day — as Hollywood weathers industry-wide contractions in the post-peak TV era, many gig workers, including producers, actors, and writers, are struggling to get by. In such a competitive industry, it’s easy to understand why people might jump at an invitation to work on major projects without taking a beat to vet the opportunities first.

    In 2018, investigative journalist Scott Johnson at The Hollywood Reporter broke the unbelievable story of the “Hollywood Con Queen,” a scammer who allegedly targeted hundreds of entertainment industry gig workers for years. The Con Queen reportedly would impersonate high-profile, primarily female Hollywood executives (including Amy Pascal, Kathleen Kennedy, and Stacey Snider) and lure victims to Jakarta under the guise of working on major projects. 

    Once in Indonesia, the workers would accrue excessive “business expenses,” which the con artist would promise to reimburse. But of course, the payments never arrived. The scammer also allegedly made sexual advances toward some of them and attempted to lure them into acts like phone sex. Not only did the scheme cost the victims a lot of money, Johnson explains, it also deeply scarred and “traumatized” many of them.

    Although the Con Queen was long assumed to be a woman, the suspect turned out to be an Indonesian man named Hargobind Punjabi Tahilramani (who also goes by Harvey). The alleged impersonator was arrested in Manchester in 2020; a UK judge later ruled that he could be extradited to the U.S. to face charges. 

    Johnson detailed his years-long investigation into the elaborate scheme in his 2023 book, The Con Queen of Hollywood: The Hunt for an Evil Genius. Apple TV+’s The Hollywood Con Queen now brings the “uniquely twisted” case to life.

    Directed by Chris Smith (Tiger King, Fyre), the three-part docuseries follows Johnson (who also serves as a consulting producer) and private investigator Nicole Kotsianas as they try to hunt down the Con Queen. It also features in-depth interviews with victims and harrowing recordings of Johnson’s intense conversations with the scammer. Beyond just breaking down the facts, the series aims to understand the Con Queen’s mind and what could drive him to run such a cruel scheme.

    In an interview with Primetimer, Smith and Johnson discuss making The Hollywood Con Queen (which premieres May 8), the perpetrator’s possible motivations, and why this case, which “continues to baffle” them, is ultimately unlike anything they’ve ever seen before in their careers.

    What drew you both to the Con Queen case?

    Chris Smith: Oh, for me, it's easy. I took a phone call with Scott, who broke the story and was doing further research, and it was Scott that convinced me. 

    Scott Johnson: I first came across the scam in 2018 [through] a tip that had come across my desk about a scam running through Hollywood. I didn't think much of it at the time. Then I started talking to victims, and they were all really quite disturbed, and in some cases, actually traumatized by what they'd been through. They'd lost a lot of money, of course, but it had changed them in some profound ways. 

    That really drove me to try to understand what lay at the root of the scam. How did it happen? Where did this whole thing come from? Who was responsible? And most importantly, why? Trying to sort through all those questions over the coming years was an endlessly fascinating exercise, because at every twist, there seemed to be some new discovery. 

    Other than the obvious answer of money, what do you think ultimately drives people to run elaborate scams like this?

    Johnson: I think it's obviously different for every scam. With this one, it's probably a combination of things, [like] the particular personality and pathology of the impersonator, which is something we go into at length in the doc. But also, this is probably somebody who, at one point in time, harbored ambitions and illusions about making it in Hollywood [and] about being a powerful, influential person in the mold of a Kathleen Kennedy or Victoria Alonso. 

    I think it's legitimate to speculate about what sorts of resentments might have arisen that would have driven the scammer to undertake this kind of an enterprise. And then there's just the question of the background of this person. What was their childhood like? What were their teen years like? How did this person evolve and grow and develop in ways that would lend themselves to becoming the Con Queen? And those are all questions that we ask, and I think, to a large degree, answer, or at least try to answer, in the doc.

    One thing I found really interesting in the documentary was comparing the Con Queen to Joaquin Phoenix's character in The Joker — you know, questioning whether someone like this is sort of “born twisted” or if it’s society that makes them this way. Do either of you have any thoughts on that?

    Smith: I felt like this was someone that … There's no way to know completely what somebody is thinking, but from the conversations that we had, it felt like [the Con Queen] might have held similar dreams to the victims that he was targeting.

    Chris, you've worked on some other very high-profile documentaries —  Tiger King and Fyre — which also involve deception and scams. How did those projects help prepare you for this?

    Smith: I don't think anything prepared me for this story, because it was so radically unique in terms of the con itself, the complexity, [and] the sprawling nature of it. The scam spanned the globe, [for] many years [with] hundreds of victims. It was very different from anything I had been a part of, and what attracted me to it was that it was so unique. It spiraled in so many different directions. It was something that I think captivated Scott and I for the almost four years that we've been working on it, and it's still something that you could talk about infinitely. It feels resolved, yet there's still so many questions.

    If you had to pinpoint the most surprising aspect of this case, what would it be?

    Johnson: I think it's not one thing, really. It's more, when you take a step back and contemplate the journey of this particular individual, where it all began and where it all wound up. And what the arc of that journey looks like. And all the phases that it went through, and the places — literally, like the buildings and the different locales that this particular person traversed on this absolutely surreal journey toward becoming the Con Queen. The arc of that life continues to surprise me and baffle me, and leaves me sort of reeling.

    Scott, what was it like to be in contact with the Con Queen so often for so long?

    Johnson: Exhausting, frustrating, compelling, maddening, hilarious at times, [and] terrifying. He would sometimes veer off into threats and very, very dark places, and that was really disconcerting. But ultimately on the whole, I found it endlessly compelling, because it was a peek into a uniquely twisted mind, which is not something that one wants to do necessarily all the time, but [also isn’t] something that one has the occasion to do very often, and in such a concentrated way. So, I'm actually glad that I was able to do it. I feel like it was a real learning experience.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

    The Hollywood Con Queen is now streaming on Apple TV+.

    Kelly Martinez is a TV Reporter based in Los Angeles. Her previous work can be found at BuzzFeed and People Magazine, among other outlets. She enjoys reading, spending time with her cat, and explaining the plot of Riverdale to people.

    TOPICS: Fyre Festival, Apple TV+, The Hollywood Con Queen, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, Chris Smith, Scott Johnson, Documentaries, True Crime