How Mormon women found an audience online – and hid abuse in plain sight

Ruby Franke and her business partner both pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse for physically and emotionally abusing her children
Ruby Franke and her business partner both pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse for physically and emotionally abusing her children - Ron Chaffin/AP

Not long ago, 42-year-old Ruby Franke had an audience of millions. The Utah-based Mormon mother of six was the host of a popular YouTube parenting channel called 8 Passengers. Before its deletion, it had amassed 2.5 million subscribers and one billion views. Now, Franke faces up to 30 years in prison for child abuse.

At the peak of her channel’s popularity, Franke was posting videos five days a week. They documented a wholesome but strict family life with her husband, a former engineering professor at Brigham Young University, and their six children. She dispensed parenting advice and shared strategies, such as what books she allowed her children to read.

In reality, she was not simply strict, but punitive, abusive and cruel. In 2020, a since-deleted clip that appeared to show that Franke had taken away her eldest son’s bed was widely criticised by viewers. “My bedroom was taken away for seven months and then you gave it back like a couple of weeks ago,” her eldest son says, while Franke sits by him, grinning. “I was sleeping on a beanbag since October.” An online petition calling for Franke to be investigated for abuse received more than 17,000 signatures. In 2022, she stopped posting.

Ruby Franke (right) ran the now-defunct 8 Passengers channel  with her business partner Jodi Hildebrandt (left)
Ruby Franke (right) ran the now-defunct 8 Passengers channel with her business partner Jodi Hildebrandt (left) - ABC4 Utah

It would take another two years for justice to be served. Last summer, her wounded 12-year-old son escaped through a window at her former business partner Jodi Hildebrandt’s house and asked a neighbour to call the police. Both Franke and Hildebrandt were arrested on child-abuse charges.

This week, at her sentencing, the prosecutor said she had been subjecting her children to “concentration-camp-like” conditions, forcing them to work outside in the sweltering heat and denying them food, water and entertainment.

Clips from her videos still circulate on social media, and they make for harrowing viewing. “I’m only going to say it one more time, and then you’re going to lose the privilege to eat dinner,” she says in one clip, to a young child out of shot.

Franke believed such punishments were necessary – even describing them as “acts of love”. She was a picture-perfect Mormon “mommy blogger” hiding her abuse in plain sight.

Franke started posting online in 2015, joining a fast-growing tribe of online parenting influencers who shared pictures and videos of family life. For the uninitiated, parenting influencers are mothers or, less commonly, fathers who post pictures and videos of their children on social platforms including TikTok, YouTube and Instagram.

For some, it’s a hobby, but those with a large following can monetise their posts through sponsorship deals and advertisements. Now, there are thousands of “mummy” bloggers across the world, from all walks of life, but in the beginning, this nascent industry had an unexpected epicentre: the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

It was an unlikely subculture to emerge from the now billion-dollar influencing industry, but the arid plains of Utah proved fertile ground for Mormon “mommy” bloggers. Their glossy portrait of perfect domesticity quickly took off.

LDS bloggers became so prolific their online community has a name, the “Bloggernacle”. Those posting on Instagram and TikTok now have a combined following of billions. You will likely never have heard of any of them, but Franke’s sisters, Ellie Mecham, Bonnie Hoellein and Julie Deru, are all parenting influencers with their own six-figure followings.

Nara Aziza is part of the Mormon 'momfluencing' TikTok community
Nara Aziza is part of the Mormon 'momfluencing' TikTok community - Gonzalo Marroquin/Getty Images

8 Passengers may have disappeared in 2022, but Franke did not. She attempted to launch a new career as a self-styled parenting coach, along with Hildebrandt, a counsellor and founder of a life coaching business called ConneXions. In court, Franke broke down and said she had been “led to believe that this world was an evil place filled with cops who control, hospitals that injure, government agencies that brainwash, church leaders who lie and lust, husbands who refuse to protect and children who need abuse”. Hilderbrant also pleaded guilty to four counts of child abuse.

This horrific case will put the parenting-influencer industry – which has always proved controversial – under far greater scrutiny. So how did we get here?

“The whole Mormon ‘mommy blogger’ phenomenon really started about 15 years ago,” says Stephanie McNeal, a journalist at Glamour magazine, who has spent years reporting on internet culture and trends. She is the author of Swipe Up for More!: Inside the Unfiltered Lives of Influencers. 

“A big question a lot of people have is, why Mormons? I think it was kind of a confluence of factors. Way before TikTok, there were a lot of young Mormon women who were in their early 20s; raised in a Girl Power era, but within this very conservative culture where it’s expected you’ll marry young and devote yourself to being a mother. Most Mormon women don’t work outside the home, typically,” McNeal says.

“I think the first couple of people who did it, it was accidental. They were just having fun. But then they started to see the value in essentially monetising motherhood. And for people who work in the commerce space around motherhood, these women were very attractive – these would be perfect candidates for selling baby stuff.” At one point, there were a lot of people who swore the Mormon mommys were “a straight-up conspiracy… something the church was encouraging,” McNeal continues.

Most of Nara Aziza's TikTok content is her making food for her children and husband, Lucky Blue Smith
Most of Nara Aziza's TikTok content is her making food for her children and husband, Lucky Blue Smith - Darren Gerrish/Getty Images

Now, they live on TikTok – and they don’t actually talk much about Mormonism. Any Gen-Z girl you know will likely know the name Nara Smith (2.1 million followers). Smith is a beautiful German-South African model who married into Mormonism and now spends her time painstakingly crafting meals for her husband, Lucky Blue Smith, also a model, and two toddlers, Rumble Honey and Slim Easy – usually while wearing cashmere loungewear or a feathered robe. She even makes her own cocoa puff cereal from scratch.

Or they may have heard of Taylor Frankie Paul (“Utah Mormon mom”). This 29-year-old mother of two is the ringleader of the next generation of Mormon bloggers (the “MomTokkers”) and has four million followers. She became famous for posting co-ordinated dance routines with two other young Mormon mothers, Camille Munday and Miranda McWhorter, whom she jokingly referred to as her “sister wives.” Then there is Ballerina Farm, AKA Hannah Neeleman, the Aga-loving, home-schooling Utah mother of eight with almost seven million TikTok followers. She has drawn criticism for the fact that her humble, homespun online persona belies the fact that her father-in-law is a multimillionaire.

Utah-based Taylor Frankie Paul has over four million followers on TikTok
Utah-based Taylor Frankie Paul has over four million followers on TikTok - @taylorfrankiepaul

They all have a key few things in common. All are young, beautiful stay-at-home moms – they usually have three or four children by age 30 – with seemingly flawless families and marriages that make perfect social media fodder. In key ways, the Mormon moms overlap with the online “tradwife” movement, which promotes a return to traditional, conservative family values and homemaking – the 1950s housewife ideal.

But Paul has had a similarly shocking fall from grace, which has split the “MomTok” tribe in two. In 2022, she posted a cryptic lip-sync video alleging that she and her husband, Tate, were getting a divorce. After initially saying she wouldn’t share any further details, she went on to explain that her friendship group had been “soft swingers”. She had broken their “agreement” and had developed feelings for another husband. This revelation rippled through the internet and even broke headlines in the mainstream media. (“What on Earth is going on with Mormon MomTok?” read one headline in New York Magazine.) The other influencers in her circle rushed to distance themselves from the claims.

Things would get worse before they got better. Embroiled in an argument with her new boyfriend, Dakota Mortensen, at home in a suburb of Salt Lake City last year, Paul threw a chair which accidentally hit her five-year-old daughter Indy in the head – an incident she has since described as her “rock bottom”. She was arrested for domestic violence and pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, and will now be required to attend counselling and receive substance-abuse and domestic-violence evaluation. The couple subsequently reunited and Paul is now pregnant with her third child.

There is something else all these women have in common: as with so much of online life, nothing is ever quite as it seems.