Brow Beat

How Sacha Baron Cohen’s Team Lures Unsuspecting Who Is America? Interviewees Onto the Show

Meet “Alexis,” the alias used to communicate with potential subjects.

Sacha Baron Cohen, in disguise with a shaved head and beard, stands in an art gallery with Christy Cones. Snippets of text from an email appear in front of them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Showtime.

Christy Cones, the fine-art consultant tricked on the first episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Showtime series, Who Is America?, has proven to be a better sport about being duped than many of the politicians who have appeared on the show. In the weeks since her segment was broadcast, she has documented her side of the story under the playful hashtag #ChristyLeaks, including reading a letter sent to her by Baron Cohen’s character, Rick Sherman, after their interview finally aired. More recently, however, she is offering a glimpse into how, exactly, Baron Cohen’s team tricked her into doing that interview in the first place, illuminating the production’s surprisingly sophisticated methods for persuading subjects to participate.

In an email exchange provided to Slate by Cones, someone named “Alexis McKinnon” claims to be reaching out to Cones on behalf of a production company called Truemedia Entertainment regarding a docuseries for the (real) British TV broadcaster Channel 4. “I Googled [Truemedia Entertainment], of course,” Cones said in a phone interview. “But nothing came up, and that was the first red flag that maybe something weird was going on.” It was not until more than a year later that Cones would learn that she had been deceived and that the supposed convict-turned-artist she met was really Baron Cohen in disguise.

Here’s the full text of the email, sent from a now-defunct email address to Cones on May 23, 2017:

As I mentioned I am working on behalf of Truemedia Entertainment and are shooting a docu-series for Channel 4 London about a story of struggle and redemption, hopefully leading to worldwide fame. 

There is a bright new star in the art community, and we have the good fortune of capturing his rise to fame. Rick Sherman hasn’t always had it easy in life. Growing up on the streets of London he learned how to survive on his own. He made his mistakes, it was all a learning process for him. But, what is past is now prologue (even the time he spent behind bars) because Rick Sherman’s story is just beginning.

Now, he is on a mission to make his dream a reality. And with rave reviews from renowned critics in the art field gauging his work as a sharp social criticism, boldly original, and surprisingly emotional, we offer you an exclusive chance to meet the man on his rise to stardom. As discussed, we would need about two hours to shoot a segment of an expert within your gallery reviewing his work. 

Best, 

Alexis

After that email, not only did Cones speak to “Alexis” on the phone for a pre-interview to discuss her background and her views on art, she was also asked to send “Alexis” a short video of herself—which Cones now believes was only used by the production to prepare a portrait of her in advance, so that “Rick Sherman” could pretend to paint it in the bathroom during their interview.

The mysterious “Alexis McKinnon” appears to be an alias used to dupe other potential Who Is America? interview subjects as well, though Showtime declined to comment. Tim Donnelly, formerly a member of the California State Assembly, penned a cautionary Breitbart post in June 2017 warning that he had received an email from someone with the same name from a production company called either America First Television or TrueMedia Television, and that they were “running a sophisticated scam to trick outspoken conservatives to appear as guests on a brand new television show they’ve dubbed a ‘conservative version of Sesame Street.’ ”

The email from this “Alexis” to Donnelly strikes a similar tone to the one sent to Cones:

Currently, we are in pre-production on an exciting series aimed at our nation’s youth, tentatively titled LIBERTY LANE. It’s our take on Sesame Street, and will feature puppetry, songs, animation and important life lessons. The show will air nationally – we have a distribution deal in place with CBS Corporation – and is currently eyeing a late 2017 air date. The left’s perspective tends to permeate all aspects of adult and children’s programming. We hope to encourage and inspire the next generation of leaders.

We are approaching prominent individuals in a wide variety of fields – politics, sports, arts – to make guest appearances and help us instill the values this country was built upon. As one of our state’s/nation’s most prominent politicians, and someone who has children, we would be thrilled to have as an honored guest on the show. Other potential guests that we are currently in talks with include Bruce Willis, Tom Brady, and Mitt Romney.

Donnelly wrote that he initially agreed to participate but walked off the set after 20 minutes. The segment has yet to air on Who Is America?, but the invitation hits all the same notes as the email Cones received: the appeal to Donnelly’s sense of self-importance, the promise of being part of something new and innovative, even bolstering the offer’s legitimacy by mentioning a connection to a real media corporation, CBS.

Other Who Is America? dupes have also fallen victim to this pattern from “Alexis,” although the persona’s last name apparently changes depending on the circumstances. Joe Walsh revealed in July that his interview with Baron Cohen was coordinated by an an “Alexis Rothe” from “Yerushalayim TV” and that an “Alexis Sampietro” was cc’d on the email thread. Emails obtained by Politico show that Walsh was manipulated using the same methods that worked on Cones and Donnelly. “Alexis” approached him, pretending to be from an organization that he was unable to verify (in this case, because the website for Yerushalayim TV was in Hebrew). She then dropped the names of a few famous, well-established entities, writing that the interviewer had “already sat with Tony Blair, Rupert Murdoch, Larry Ellison, Bono, and Steven Spielberg” to establish credibility. And the interview request came with a healthy dose of flattery: “Alexis” told Walsh that he was one of 70 people being honored as part of a celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary.

That careful formula for getting subjects to appear on Who Is America? is every bit as artful as the accents Baron Cohen puts on or the disguises crafted by the show’s hair and makeup team, and “Alexis,” whoever she is, should be congratulated. Cones, who has called Baron Cohen a “genius,” considers the email she received a work of art, right down to the choice of name for the fake go-between. “The names Alex and Alexis are from the ancient Greek word for captain, essentially. The captain, the ringleader, the helper,” she mused. “I’m sure they weren’t thinking about it that much, but like the email that was so carefully crafted, the name is a kind of art.”