Note: This was a complicated story to report and we are happy to have worked on this piece about Kiwi-based brand Lonely lingerie with David Farrier of Webworm. David has a deep and well-researched knowledge of QAnon and conspiracy theories. Zoe and David went to journalism school together and, 15 years later, are thrilled to be collaborating on this story.
Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals involved. These names are indicated with an *.
(Full disclosure: Ensemble co-founder Rebecca Wadey worked as the head of marketing at Lonely from September-December 2017.)
Lonely lingerie is touted as one of New Zealand’s biggest fashion success stories.
Started in 2009 by Helene Morris and Steven Ferguson, Lonely’s praises have been sung far and wide, their ethos of body positivity resonating in the press and within the community they created off the back of these ideals.
Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke famously posed for a ‘Lonely Girls’ campaign in 2016, free of charge, such was their belief in the values promoted by the NZ-based lingerie company. Lonely has been loved, worn and promoted by an enviable list of fashion’s coolest and influential, including Paloma Elsesser, Petra Collins, Naomi Shimada, Kelly Oxford, Camila Mendes, Dolly Alderton, Alexa Chung, Barbie Ferreira, Gigi Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, Kim Kardashian and Kylie and Kendall Jenner.
Closer to home, the likes of Robyn Malcolm, Emily Barclay and Kara Rickard posed in Lonely underwear in the name of female empowerment, and under the brand’s feminist messages of inclusivity and championing of the female gaze.
But behind the scenes were allegations that the values the brand purported to be founded on were at odds with its internal culture, with concerns coming to a head in dramatic fashion earlier this year.
As 2020 unfolded, something strange started to happen. Its owners started talking about grand theories, agendas and plans. Staff didn’t know what to do. Some quit earlier this year. Some stayed.
Now Lonely’s legacy looks to be less about empowering women, and more about embracing QAnon conspiracy theories. And not just embracing them, but really sinking their teeth in:
Who is Lonely Lingerie?
Lonely was born from Helene Morris and Steve Ferguson’s other baby, Lonely Hearts Club (later known as Lonely Hearts) - a clothing label founded in 2003 in Wellington by Helene and then-business partner Aimee McFarlane.
The brand and its founders - along with Steve - soon moved to Auckland, and opened flagship store Myhart. In 2010, Aimee left the business; Steve became a co-director soon after.
Lonely was created in 2009 to focus on lingerie and swimwear, but the lingerie is what the brand became famous for.
A lot of their success has been down to careful and very strategic marketing, focussing on body positivity, using models that broke the stereotype of who could be a model. It was good stuff, and it genuinely did help push the now commonplace ‘diversity’ and inclusivity conversations into the fashion mainstream. They were not the first or only brand doing this, but they were near the front.
With no retouching or overt sexualisation, Lonely’s imagery and branding championed the female gaze, with the much-touted brand tagline, ‘for women who wear lingerie as a love letter to themselves’.
The brand’s apparent feminist leanings attracted a customer and audience that were hungry for authenticity, and who believed that the company’s values were in line with their marketing.
“Unlike most lingerie brands, which offer a hyper-sexualised vision of femininity, its marketing tends to relate more to the 95 per cent of the time when women are not being sexual,” wrote Rose Hoare for Stuff in 2017. “Lonely’s models are almost always photographed happily alone, but sometimes with their mothers or children.”
That article went on to describe Steve’s upbringing, which perhaps contains some hints of where his beliefs would eventually move:
“His father was an artist, a yoga teacher and a surfer who was 'a creative, spiritual sort of person', and Steve says his parents largely left him to navigate the world by himself…”
Well, navigate he has:
These screenshots, from Steve Ferguson’s personal Facebook account, are a lot to take in. The format mirrors many of Steve’s Facebook posts since Covid-19 entered the global conversation. The Lonely lingerie co-founder also questioned whether the Christchurch terror attacks which left 51 people dead were planned by Jacinda Ardern:
Like many who have fallen into the depths of QAnon conspiracy belief, his statements are posed as an endless list of questions (David has written about QAnon at length on his Substack Webworm, and you can find those pieces in Webworm’s conspiracy culture section).
Echoing the parlance of ‘Q’, there is no attempt by Steve at evidence, justification or context. Nearly all his comments on Facebook are deeply offensive, immature and misguided. He often goes into rants about the mainstream media, proclaiming “The Cabal owns nearly every single […] mainstream media outlet.” At one point he starts yelling in ALL CAPS: “BILL CLINTON RAPES CHILDREN.”
From what we can tell, his partner and Lonely co-founder Helene doesn’t lean in as heavily in her posts, but never disagrees and often chimes in. She tends to post content like this:
David wrote to both Steve Ferguson and Helene Morris asking about their various Facebook comments. Steve is yet to reply, but Helene provided this explanation:
“This is interesting as Steve had his FB account hacked months ago and has since deleted it (btw Steves account was private and he only has about 20 friends hehe).
She went on: “Can you tell me more about what you read, when and how you got this information? Steve and I don’t fully support lockdowns amongst other thoughts we have to do with Covid/life but our Company has nothing to do with our personal beliefs and we don’t have any desire to share these with our staff or publicly, we are very private people for a reason and prefer it that way...hence the name Lonely lol!”
A hack can’t be ruled out, but looking at the way Helene and Steve’s accounts interacted in the comments, it would appear both their accounts must have been compromised at the same time…
They’re in this together, and they’re in deep.
To those who have had exposure to the inner-workings of Lonely, this may not come as a surprise. Ensemble co-founder Rebecca Wadey, who worked as head of marketing at Lonely from September to December 2017, said she realised very quickly that the external brand values were not reflected internally. “On numerous occasions I tried to address with the owners how they treated their staff. It was an incredibly toxic work environment and I saw staff – including myself – bullied, manipulated and abused. I eventually told them that I found the external company values so at odds with the misogyny and bullying happening internally that I couldn’t continue to perpetuate the lie that they cared about women, and I resigned”.
We’ve spoken to numerous other former staff members with similar experiences.
Buried on the Facebook replies to Morris’ Covid-19 misinformation, David found Auckland chiropractor Craig Reynolds chipping in:
Craig was replying to a video Helene had posted of Dr. Stella Immanuel, a woman who believes David Icke’s theory in reptilian shapeshifters. David (Farrier) discusses the lizard shapeshifters on his podcast with Dax Shepard, Armchaired and Dangerous. (In brief, believers of the ‘lizard people’ conspiracy think that many of those in power, including Queen Elizabeth II, the Clintons, George W. Bush, are actually lizards who are behind the Freemasons and the Illuminati.)
Up until now, we had thought chiropractors mainly dealt with manipulating spines. Craig seems to have expanded into manipulating human souls. Orenda, the practice he runs with his wife Caroline, has this to say on their website: “A mystical force present in all people that can empower them to affect the world, or effect change in their own lives.”
It goes on:
“Craig and Caroline have completed degrees in Chiropractic and have now moved on to this evolving field of Reorganising.
Their Chiropractic education gives them an extensive academic foundation and a substantial skill set to call on when necessary, however they believe that in this reorganising process they are seeing the evolution of healthcare and human development beyond what any traditional approaches have been able to provide.
They are committed to providing the highest quality, sustainable empowering processes available to people at this point in time. At times this process is raw, but with that comes authenticity and a beauty that honours who we truly are and the gifts we have to contribute to the world.”
We have talked to those around Lonely, who told us their bosses - Steve and Helene - sent them to Craig Reynolds for consultations. From what we can tell, Steve and Helene’s foray into wellness and eventual descent into conspiracy territory started around the same time they started seeing Craig.
Former Lonely staff member Megan* had been working at the company for a number of years. She visited Craig after recommendations in the office.
“I made an appointment, and went along but nothing he said made sense at all, he was just talking gibberish about collective energy in the universe,” she says.
Before Craig entered the scene, Steve and Helene had also introduced staff to other therapy and ‘wellness’ sessions.
“The team went to a group therapy session organised by the company. It was led by a woman who I later found out was a friend of theirs. I thought it was going to be about ‘positivity and happiness’, but for a few of us it was quite upsetting. One of the exercises brought up some deeply personal, and vulnerable memories I would never choose to experience in that environment,” Megan says.
“Although they projected an interest in our wellbeing and mental health, it was only in these superficial ways. They weren’t open to addressing the internal issues that would have alleviated our stress caused by the more toxic aspects of the company culture.
“Increasingly in the last year, Steve started giving us his unsolicited commentary and opinions on our personal growth and mental health in a way that was inappropriate for a work environment.”
From what we can tell, it was a case of Steve and Craig essentially trying to out-guru each other.
David reached out to Craig Reynolds to ask him about his work with Lonely. He immediately distanced himself from Steve’s personal Facebook posts on QAnon, while stating he has “kept an open mind”:
“I would like to make it very clear that I do not share the views you are suggesting in any form, but have always kept an open mind and overview of all that has been going on over last 9 months.
He went on to clarify their working relationship:
“My relationship with Lonely is purely professional and yes Steve and Helene have been my clients. There is nothing more I can share on this due to confidentiality issues.
“As for their staff visiting me, as far as I am aware those who visited chose to do that for a number of the health and wellness options I offer. They entered the system like any other client and received the same process and care like every other client. I was not involved in anyone’s decision to use my services I simply invoiced Lonely for the payment as I do with many other companies who offer the same wellness options to their staff.
David also asked Craig about the comment he made about COVID-19 survival rates and the “lamestream media”:
“Regarding the comment I made Facebook page about Covid (which I cannot remember and do not have a record of) was probably made at the time out of frustration as my business looked like collapsing and was under significant stress. My entire database is connected through Facebook and as you know we have many contacts on Facebook these days who are part of our lives in some ways and not necessarily intimate friends or those who views you share.”
Lonely on Black Lives Matter
As Steve and Helene went down the rabbit hole of QAnon, and embraced various New Age ideas, their personal beliefs started to be reflected at Lonely.
While it’s impossible to know what Steve and Helene actually know about the origins and principles of QAnon, it’s important to note that it’s a racist and bigoted far-rightwing baseless conspiracy theory. One of its main tenets is that Jews control the world, which ultimately leads to children being drained of their blood in underground tunnels – trading on ancient anti-Semitic blood libel accusations that have been around for centuries
QAnon’s racist undertones (the undertones of most major conspiracy theory ideas) spiral out in all sorts of ways, including the belief that the Black Lives Matter movement is a mass media distraction. QAnon believers think George Floyd’s death was staged in order to start a race war, so that further lockdown restrictions could come into action.
Whatever Steve and Helene think about the BLM movement, their reaction was to ignore it. This did not go unnoticed, with various commenters pointing out their silence. These criticisms were swiftly deleted by Lonely.
Remember, this is a brand that became famous for being inclusive and using people of colour to sell their wares.
It’s worth noting many other fashion brands were also ‘called out’ for their silence over this period. But deleting critical comments or questions, and blocking those who offer critique, has become something of a common occurrence for Lonely. They also did so last year when they were questioned by customers about their size offering which wasn’t as ‘inclusive’ as their marketing suggested.
The brand’s response to BLM - or lack thereof - also became a major issue with Lonely staff, who felt the company needed to make a statement because of its continued profiting off inclusivity as a marketing tool and the bodies of Black creatives who regularly featured in their much-lauded imagery.
Former staff we’ve spoken to also felt that the brand’s silencing of its audience reflected on them, particularly those working in public-facing retail stores. Former employee Nicky*, who worked in store and had been with the company for under a year before leaving in June, had this to say:
“I didn’t like the fact that they were profiting off Black and brown bodies and had outspoken models who were very much for the BLM movement and commenting on it publicly. And their bodies were being used to sell lingerie for two people who refused to comment on it.”
Olivia*, who also worked in store and also left the company in June, was particularly upset. As a woman of colour working in-store she felt let-down and misled. She shared a message with senior management expressing her disappointment.
“When I sent out my concerns, I was ignored and instead was told to take a few days off work, instead of actually addressing what I wanted to talk about in my letter.”
“Grab a Tree and Hold On”
We have spoken to former staff who say Black Lives Matter wasn’t the only contentious issue this year.
There was also huge angst in store about policy around the pandemic. Remember, Lonely founder Steve indicated on his personal Facebook page that he thinks Covid-19 is fake, just like the Christchurch terror attacks.
On May 29th, as the NZ death toll sat at 22, Lonely posted “Can we Hug? Are we brave enough?” on Instagram.
The comments were flooded with criticism, which were quickly deleted, before comments were disabled completely.
Behind the scenes, several staff members felt the company was not taking Covid-19 health and safety seriously within the brand’s Takapuna head office studio and three New Zealand stores in Ponsonby, Newmarket and Wellington.
Prior to the initial lockdown, Megan continued to ask senior management about the company’s plan for having staff work from home; a recommendation from the Government at the time. They received no reply so followed up with another email sent about two days before lockdown - with a response from Steve saying “just keep calm and carry on”.
At later alert levels, directives were given to retail staff from senior management that they were not required to limit people or impose social distancing.
“We asked absolutely valid questions that involved health and safety and it seemed like they never considered the health and safety of the people coming into store and the people working,” says Olivia.
“It was still pretty fresh coming out of Covid, like the full lockdown. And whenever we would bring up something they’d be like ‘okay, we’ll get back to you’. No one really set up any processes or wanted to be transparent about why they didn't want to implement processes. And the response we got was like ‘it's not a legal requirement to social distance or to limit the amount of people coming into the store. You don't have to wear masks. That's not the Lonely way, that's not on brand. That's not how we're going to do it’,” says Olivia.
Steve seemed to particularly not like the idea of contact tracing.
“We were also told that we do not need people to sign in because it's a breach of their privacy,” says Nicky. “There was no sort of example of how many people we could have in the space at one time or anything like that.”
At head office, there was also regular pushback from management against contact tracing. Amanda* worked in the studio before resigning in July.
“There were a lot of times where he [Steve] would say things like, ‘I go into a store and they asked me to write down my details. You know, I'm not writing down my details, man. That's invasion of my privacy. Like, you know, that’s human rights!’” says Amanda.
Megan recalled a comment from the co-owner at a studio social event.
“He said casually that he would never go into a store that forced him to write down his details, or use hand sanitiser. This is while the staff are concerned about there being no clear Covid protocol for the retail stores and no PPE provided at the studio.”
Screenshots from work Slack chats seem to confirm what staff have told us.
Staff also say there was confusion over the supply of masks, gloves and hand sanitiser. Some simply ended up purchasing their own, but were then made to feel awkward for choosing to wear them.
“We were made to feel uncomfortable for wearing PPE,” says Megan
Amanda told a similar story, saying staff were told PPE is only necessary for frontline medical staff and that Lonely wouldn’t be providing masks or gloves.
“When I went into the studio at level three, there was a lot of confusion in terms of masks and gloves and hand sanitisers. […] Steve would come into the office and see us in masks and gloves and not say anything, but just give us weird looks and then would fire off an email saying that we didn't need to be wearing them and why were we wearing them. And that they, Lonely, weren't going to provide them. And so my manager bought some with her own money so that we could have them,” says Amanda.
Two staff members recalled that when hand sanitiser was brought into a store, it was soon taken away because it wasn’t on-brand. “They had to wait for Aesop hand sanitiser to be restocked so they could have on-brand hand sanitiser,” says Amanda.
Several former staff members also referenced an email they received from Helene that they felt downplayed the virus, in a reply all to a health and safety email sent in March. The co-owner shared a story by Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller about the benefits of nature in strengthening the immune system for prevention, titled ‘The Coronavirus is Heading Your Way. Grab a Tree and Hold On’.
By the time June rolled around, staff were so concerned about Lonely’s response to both the Black Lives Matter movement and Covid-19, they wrote a letter to Steve and Helene.
Thirteen former and current staff members signed their names to the letter, which included the concerns below:
“As a company that has built a brand on and profited from the creative work of many womxn of colour, silencing people’s comments and refusing to use a social media platform with such a large reach to condemn racism is completely unacceptable to us [...] On top of this, the refusal to listen to and engage with your own staff’s concerns on the above shows a blatant disregard for your workers.
“As a result, we are becoming distressed at work. We are ashamed to be representing the company and its values at this time. Many of us dread coming into work”
“There needs to be transparency and consultation across the company regarding the values of the brand. Regardless of personal opinions on the current issues (COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter), the refusal to address these publicly has put us in a difficult position and created an uncomfortable, unpleasant, and unsafe working environment. The lack of clarity and community action via Lonely’s social media activity has put frontline retail staff at risk - as it is these staff who are forced to deal with resulting questions from the public.
“Staff who believed they were being made vulnerable to catching or spreading Corona Virus by working were denied the appropriate protective gear. Concerns around the lack of social distancing and zero limits to customers in the store were ignored. Being told not to protect ourselves when we felt unsafe is unacceptable”
They also raised their concern that Steve is running Lonely’s Instagram account, which is widely considered to be a safe space. As Amanda described it, “We hated that he was running the Instagram account and potentially seeing really personal messages from women all over the world who had no idea that it was a guy behind that. So we felt we owed it to those women, to say something about that too.” So they added that to the letter, too:
“We strongly believe that the Instagram account should be run by a female team member. We feel as though the community is currently being misled, as they assume they are engaging with other womxn [..] Consequently they would feel comfortable sharing incredibly vulnerable material with this account.”
Steve and Helene replied. They opened with: “Lonely has taken all of the concerns raised in this letter very seriously”.
They stated they currently did not have a Health and Safety representative, but were looking to nominate a new one. They also said they “acknowledge that our message was unclear in regards to safety around Covid and social distancing […] We are happy to work with staff to have a covid response that everyone is comfortable with should we need this in the future.”
They stated they were re-looking at its HR protocols, before ending with “all other concerns expressed in the attached letter will not be addressed with a response, however Lonely will be seriously considering all suggestions outlined.”
Following the letter of concerns being sent and the response from the owners, several staff members resigned.
We understand at least 15 people have resigned or been made redundant this year, including four members of senior management and the company’s longest standing employee.
Of her time with the brand, Olivia had this to say: “At the beginning I really fucking loved Lonely. And so did all the girls working there, it was such a privilege at the time. You really think that they were there to make women feel amazing and to empower women and to empower all shapes and sizes - but they really don't practice what they preach, it’s the exact opposite.”
Long-time operations manager Keya Matthews, a public facing figurehead of the brand who had been with the company since 2009 (her handwriting literally forms the brand logo) also left in June, at around the same time as several other members of Lonely’s senior management.
Keya was unable to comment, saying that to do so would be a violation of the terms of conditions under which she left the company.
Prior to resigning, she’d voiced concerns with other team members about the contradictory nature of the projected company values and the behaviour of the owners, and failings in their duty of care to staff regarding Covid/PPE.
When David approached Lonely for official comment about this story, he received an email from Lonely’s firstname.lastname@example.org:
“Lonely as an employer does not have official religious or political affiliations. Employees of Lonely including our Directors have their own personal beliefs, however personal beliefs are not reflected in the work we do and we do not ask any employees to hold the beliefs of others.
As a responsible employer we followed all NZ government guidelines around the Covid-19 Health & Safety requirements in the workplace and ensured our staff had the resources necessary.
While we did not publicly comment on the Black Lives Matter movement, the majority of staff attended protests during paid work time and our physical spaces were closed to allow retail staff to do this.
As your other points are not relevant to the company there is nothing further we can share.”
It wasn’t attributed to a spokesperson, just “Lonely”.
(Some staff confirmed they did attend BLM marches on their lunch breaks, and that it was their own decision to do so)
The Future of Lonely: We Are All Stars
At some point, Steve and Helene’s minds increasingly drifted from Q to more spiritual matters. The posts here get confusing, and there is some crossover - but it appears at some point during the pandemic Steve became focussed on the idea that he is a “starseed”.
This is part of a New Age belief called ‘star people’ or ‘starseeds’. As described in 1976’s Gods of Aquarius, science fiction writer Brad Steiger posits certain humans are actually aliens, or are possessed by aliens.
At times starseed adjacent content was also posted on Lonely’s official Instagram account, which boasts 379,000 followers:
Although this was soon edited to just contain the rainbow emoji and nothing else.
There was also concern among staff about the brand account’s spiritual language and positioning.
Steve and Helene left New Zealand during August’s Level Three lockdown. Their social media posts - locked to the public - indicate they’re in the United States.
Lonely’s next big move was to be opening a store in Los Angeles. When co-founder Helene Morris replied to David’s earlier questions about Steve’s statements on social media, she wanted to pivot this story in that direction:
“We are currently trying to open a store in LA so that could be a much needed positive news story! or even something lighthearted could be good right now like ‘Who would want a small business in 2020!?’ ha!
We are just here trying to support our 20+ team and three kids through very trying times, while trying to make a positive difference amongst all the negativity... something we always strive to do. We feel more love and acceptance is what the world needs right now.”
But as far as that store goes, it’s been radio silence for months. It sits unopened on Melrose Avenue, nestled amongst stores from luxury brands like Diane von Furstenberg, Isabel Marant and The Row.
There is the possibility that their presence in the United States has other motivations.
After Steve posted about Covid-19 being fake, the mosque shootings being planned by Jacinda Ardern, and Bill Clinton raping children, the pair posted a photo from the US with the text “This is what ‘2 dangerous conspiracy theorists’ rejected by friends and family for opposing the NWO living in Love look like”:
According to Steve, the photo was taken at Mt Shasta. Located at the southern end of the Cascade Range in Siskiyou County, California, Mt Shasta is synonymous with the starseed movement.
“It is widely believed that there are civilizations of highly evolved beings residing within the mountain. Some are believed to be in another dimension that are not not currently visible,” writes website Star Seed Gatherings.
Talking to those around Steve, he is allegedly focussed on the date of December 21st. For starseeds, this date not only marks the start of the Winter Solstice, but the beginning of the “Age of Light”, a time to reunite with both creatures hidden inside the hollow earth, and galactic alien forces in outer space.
Wherever this path leads, the end game for Lonely seems very different to where it started over a decade ago. In Steve’s own words, “What is coming will shock the world.”