From trip of a lifetime to dystopian nightmare: how Fyre Festival unfolded

Party goers arrived at the Bahamas without realising the festival had gone very, very wrong
Party goers arrived at the Bahamas without realising the festival had gone very, very wrong - Alamy

The Fyre starter is back. Six years after his Hunger Games-style debacle in the Caribbean, the founder of the Fyre Festival is ready for seconds. Entrepreneur turned convicted scammer Billy McFarland has announced a Fyre Festival II, with ticket prices ranging from an early bird bargain of $499 to a head-spinning $7999.

The early birds have been quick to respond. The first tranche of tickets has already sold out – impressive given the lack of details around the event, and the fact that McFarland was sporting a prison bracelet just 18 months ago.

McFarland isn’t the only scam artist to have parlayed infamy into a megabucks second life of shameless celebrity. Anna Delvey, the German-Russian con artist and fake heiress whose story inspired Netflix drama Inventing Anna, is likewise cashing in on her notoriety. She’s producing a podcast, The Anna Delvey Show, while under house arrest in New York. She will also collaborate with fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone for a New York Fashion Week showcase. “This is not a joke,” Cutrone assured the New York Post.

Likewise weaponising their “cancellation” is Cambridge scammer Caroline Calloway. She blagged her way into the prestigious institution with faked American exam results and then created an Evelyn Waugh-esque fantasy of her university experience on her Instagram account. She signed a book deal based on that phoney portrayal of her life, before having to pay back her six-figure advance when the book was never written. Once ‘cancelled’, she chronicled her real-life struggles with drug addiction, sexual assault and public shaming in a new memoir, Scammer, which even earned her a New Yorker review.

Delvey and Calloway’s shamelessness has its match in McFarland. He seems not in the least embarrassed about Fyre festival, now a byword for calamitous planning and the gullibility of the mega-rich, who fell for his empty promises of a luxury weekend on a fantasy tropical island.

“It has been the absolute wildest journey to get here,” McFarland said in a video announcing a second Fyre Festival, to take place at an undisclosed date, with an unannounced line-up at an undetermined location in the Caribbean. “And it really all started during a seven-month stint in solitary confinement.”

He had been put in solitary confinement after secretly recording a podcast, Dumpster Fyre, from Milan Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan. McFarland was serving a six-year sentence for fraud for his part in Fyre – which had pledged high-end opulence only to descend into a war zone of makeshift tents, wild dogs, and cheese sandwiches passed off as fine cuisine.

It was a dystopian mix of catastrophic organisation, overweening ambition and down-right lies, which tarnished all involved. They included McFarland’s business partner and hype man, rapper Ja Rule. As Fyre descended into chaos, he set the record straight around his involvement by Tweeting: “I truly apologise as this is NOT MY FAULT,” before promptly vanishing into the sunset.

Fyre became instantly infamous and spawned two rival documentaries, Fyre Fraud on DisneyPlus, and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened on Netflix. But having received an early release from prison last year, McFarland has chosen to see the positives in his situation. He is ready to light this Fyre all over again.

In his video announcing Fyre II, he explained that he wrote a “50 page plan” detailing how he would “take this overall interest in Fyre” – i.e. its ongoing ill repute – and his “ability to bring people from around the world to make the impossible happening”.

What’s McFarland’s motivation? He is already world famous. Financially, moreover, he is unlikely to see a dime from Fyre II. As part of his fraud conviction for the original Fyre, the court ordered McFarland to pay back the investors and festival-goers whom he swindled – a figure estimated at $26 million.

He’s still on the hook for that cash. And while he has not directly discussed his debts, on Twitter he said moneys raised from Fyre II pre-sales  “will be held in escrow until the final date is announced”. Left unaddressed is the issue of how he is going to finance a second festival, even after raising an estimated $1 million from early bird buyers. Though his Twitter also suggests he’s been hired by various companies to make their messages go viral, something he does at least have experience in.

“He’s trying to make it look like you buy the tickets, and it’ll be a great event…Where is that money supposed to come from?,” wondered Jennifer Taub, author of the book The Big Dirty about white-collar crime, in an interview with US public broadcaster NPR. She continued: “This is looking a lot like a Ponzi scheme.”

“Guys, this is your chance to get in,” McFarland said in his closing remarks. “This is everything I’ve been working towards — let’s f--king go.”

Models Elsa Hosk, Emily Ratajkowski, Bella Hadid, Lais Ribeiro, Gizele Oliveira and Rose Bertram were invited to the island in December 'to give feedback' on the Fyre Festival launch
Models Elsa Hosk, Emily Ratajkowski, Bella Hadid, Lais Ribeiro, Gizele Oliveira and Rose Bertram were invited to the island in December 'to give feedback' on the Fyre Festival launch - Instagram

The “let’s f--king go” part will chime a bell among season Fyre-followers. They echo the remarks of a member of the Fyre marketing team when it became clear in the run-up to the 2017 soiree that McFarland was criminally unprepared to host a festival. After technical crew outlined the many issues facing Fyre, the aforementioned marketing guy adjusted his baseball cap and said, ‘Let’s just do it and be legends, man.’”

They did do it and beacame legends, though not in the way McFarland or anyone else involved with Fyre could have envisaged.

Fyre had flickered to life in 2015 as McFarland, then 25, crossed paths with Ja Rule, a gruff-voiced rapper who had never quite lived up to the early buzz and comparisons to 50 Cent and Jay Z.

McFarland was at that point hyping his start-up Magnises – a sketchy-sounding credit card membership club promising exclusive access to celebrities and invites to the best parties. Magnises never fully delivered on those pledges. But the McFarland and Ja Rule friendship blossomed even as Magnises struggled.

In 2016, they were flying together from New York to the Bahamas when their plane made an emergency landing on Great Exuma, part of a chain of islands east of the capital, Nassau. “Both of us immediately fell in love,” said McFarland. As they soaked up the tropical vibes, they came up with the idea of a music festival.

They pressed ahead even as it became clear Exuma “didn’t have a great infrastructure”. How right they were: transport links to the rest of the Bahamas were poor. Oh, and there was a shortage of clean water and sewage facilities.

Thee 'luxury' tents were in fact disaster relief tents
Thee 'luxury' tents were in fact disaster relief tents

Iffy sewers or not, Fyre was burning ahead on all cylinders. In December 2016, five months before the festival, McFarland and Rule flew models and influencers Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski to the island so that they could “give feedback” around their plans – and post their experiences on social media. Around the same time, an article in Elle magazine painted a heavenly picture of an event where attendees could expect “yoga on the beach, water trampolines, seabobbing… music, art, food and… $1 million of real treasure and jewels hidden around the island.”

Hadid and Ratajkowski weren’t the only influencers tapped by McFarland. In January 2017, Kendall Jenner – part of the Kardashian dynasty – announced on Instagram that she was “so hyped to announce my G.O.O.D. Music [the label founded by Kanye West] family as the first headliners for @fyrefestival”.

A week later, Jenner’s contribution was followed by a two-minute video that hyped Exuma as a “remote private island…once owned by Pablo Escobar”. Escobar never owned Exuma and, if remote and beautiful, its waters were shark-infested.

Finally, in March, the headliners were announced. It was an impressive line-up, even with the eye-watering ticket prices (from $500 to $1500, with a luxury tent tier at $12,000). Cartoon punks Blink 182 would be joined by rappers Migos, Lil Yachty, and UK dance duo Disclosure.

But behind the scenes Fyre was already unravelling. Writing in New York magazine, the event’s talent producer, Chloe Gordon, revealed preparations on the island were shambolic – with just one month to go.

“Flying in, the water looked beautiful — but I was almost immediately warned not to go near it because of a rampant shark problem,” she recalled.

Rapper Ja Rule, with Billy McFarland
Rapper Ja Rule, with Billy McFarland

“When we arrived, my initial reaction was ‘huh’. This was not a model-filled private cay owned by Pablo Escobar. This was a development lot covered in gravel with a few tractors scattered around. There was not enough space to build all the tents and green rooms they would need. There was not a long, beautiful beach populated by swimming pigs. There were, however, a lot of sand flies that left me looking like I had smallpox.”

The artists were also picking up on the bad vibes – mainly regarding payment. When Gordon contacted the musicians’ tour managers, they all had the same question: where was their money? At this point, the festival’s event planners advised McFarland and Ja Rule to postpone Fyre until 2018.

They were told that getting the site festival-ready in a month would cost $50 million – cash the promoters did not have. At this stage, the marketing bro chimed in with his notorious, “Let’s just do it and be legends, man.”

Ja Rule echoed those sentiments. At dinner that night, he gave a toast: “To living like movie stars, partying like rock stars, and f--king like porn stars.”

Whatever Ja Rule’s priorities, Fyre was all about building the brand for McFarland. He had conceived of the festival as the ultimate promotional tool for a separate Fyre app, which would streamline the process of booking musicians for private gigs (he had first met Ja Rule when trying to arrange for him to play at a Magnises event).

Finally, April 28 came around: day one of the Fyre Festival. But cracks were appearing. Twenty-four hours previously, Blink 182 had pulled out. “Regrettably, and after much careful and difficult consideration, we want to let you know that we won’t be performing at Fyre Fest in the Bahamas this weekend and next weekend, “the band tweeted.

By  now, the estimated 5,000 festival-goers due to attend the festival were making their way to Exuma. Which is the point at which the Fyre Festival became a can’t-stop-looking social media phenomenon. The warning signs flashed as attendees arrived in Miami for the flights to the Bahamas.

“It was very weird,” recounted Vogue writer Amanda Brooks, who attended the festival with friends. “There were cardboard boxes on the ground full of wristbands, VIP wristbands, the platinum wristband, the general admissions one. There were three very stressed-out, hungover-looking people. Yeah, they had an iPad, and they were activating it . . . but I think they were faking it because there was no activation. [I think] they knew 1,000 per cent it wasn’t happening.”

“On the plane, they didn’t even make people put on their seat belts. People are playing music from their own speakers. There’s no flight attendant, not really. No announcements. It was like a party bus but a plane. We were freaked out. We were wearing face masks, drinking our water, and watching people take shots and listen to their music really loud on speakers.”

At Exuma, the festival was turning into a hellscape. The site was in a condition of disarray. The “luxury glamping” were a field of “half-finished” disaster relief tents.

The tents were unallocated – triggering a Lord of the Flies-style stampede. One festival-goer admitted to slashing the neighbouring tents, the better to ensure a quiet night’s sleep. Confronted with this apocalyptic vista, many festival-goers headed immediately to the airport, only to find it shuttered. Nor was alternative accommodation available: the nearest hotel was hosting a business conference and fully booked. Those influencers were conspicuously absent,too. Kendall Jenner, Hailey Baldwin, Emily Ratajkowski, and Bella Hadid had all been quietly advised by the organisers to stay clear.

The horror unfolded in real-time on Twitter and Instagram, where the schadenfreude was uncontainable. McFarlane’s tech bro vibes made him easy to hate. There was further glee at the thought of all those rich kids and influencers hoodwinked into spending a weekend in the real life equivalent of a survival horror video game. One image epitomised the debacle: a sorry-looking cheese sandwich in a styrofoam box. So much for the promised: “local seafood, Bahamian-style sushi, and even a pig roast.

Billy McFarland leaving Manhattan Federal Court on Saturday, July 1, 2017
Billy McFarland leaving Manhattan Federal Court on Saturday, July 1, 2017 - Tribune News Service

At this point, even McFarland could see the writing on the wall. “As amazing as the islands are, the infrastructure for a festival of this magnitude needed to be built from the ground up,” he and Rule wrote in a joint statement. “So, we decided to literally attempt to build a city. We set up water and waste management, brought an ambulance from New York, and chartered 737 planes to shuttle our guests via 12 flights a day from Miami. We thought we were ready, but then everyone arrived… “we were simply in over our heads.”

Fyre sputtered out, festival goers were evacuated back to the United States. Then came the lawsuits and complaints from Fyre staffers that they weren’t getting paid.

McFarland assured his employees all was well: there was no money to pay them – but at least he wasn’t laying them off. “We’re not firing anyone, we’re just letting you know that there will be no payroll in the short term.”

With Ja Rule beating a hasty retreat, McFarland was left carrying the can for Fyre. In March 2108, he was convicted of fraud. Fyre took on a life of its own in his four years behind bars. It became a byword for grift, weaponised hustle and the gullibility of the influencer class.

Now he’s back and wants to do it all over again. Who would join him on so crazy an enterprise? With those first tranches of tickets already sold out, there is no shortage of individuals willing to give McFarland the benefit of the doubt. It is an experience he shares with Anna Delvey and Caroline Calloway. The world may love a winner. But in the 21st century, it seems that what we truly cannot resist is a shameless scammer.