This story begins with innocent-sounding tickle-induced giggles, emanating from a group of athletic young male models in colourful work out gear.
Welcome to the world of Competitive Endurance Tickling: the so-called sport that sees grown men strain against the gym issue crash mats to which they are tied, as their fellow participants tickle them until they cry with laughter.
But one journalist uncovered the dark underbelly of a pursuit that looked like fun and games on the surface. By the end, ‘all hell broke loose’, the FBI got involved, and absolutely no one was laughing.
When David Farrier stumbled across a video of grown men tickling each other online, being somewhat of a connoisseur of the unconventional, he immediately wanted to know more.
An innocent email enquiry was met with ‘bizarre hostility’ and a ‘really defensive’ slew of homophobic and racist protestations from the PR person of video creator, Jane O’Brien Media.
David told UNILAD he was initially ‘annoyed’ by the company’s homophobic retort, ‘but because the insults were so over the top it was sort of hilarious!’
I mean, here you have this company making videos that are clearly a little homoerotic – and suddenly they are insulting my sexuality? There’s some Curb Your Enthusiasm level surrealness to that. I had to laugh.
And then I had to share it on Facebook – which just made them even more annoyed. And made me more curious as to what the hell was going on.
Assuming Jane O’Brien – whoever that may be – doth protest too much to the investigation into this touchy subject, Farrier dug a little deeper.
Subsequently, a trail of deceit, emotional blackmail and psychological torture was uncovered by the journalist and his co-director Dylan Reeves, leading to a confrontation with the shady and since-deceased alleged ringleader, David D’Amato.
Each step was documented in their award-winning documentary, Tickled:
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By the curtain call, David had endured abuse, an untold number of painfully awkward Louis Theroux-style silent stand offs, and an ongoing lawsuit that throws up more questions about the ethics of Jane O’Brien’s tickling videos than it answers.
The mystery that unfolds during the following 92-minute feature documentary is beyond belief. So much so, I solemnly swear to uncover no spoilers.
What I can say, is what David told me via email from his New Zealand base, beginning by recalling his initial reaction when he stumbled across the competitive endurance tickling video.
David told UNILAD:
This was very naive of me at the time, but part of me did wonder if Competitive Endurance Tickling was a real sport. Not as in a ‘legitimate, can’t wait to see this at the next Olympics’ type sport, but just some oddball thing dreamt up by someone with too much money. The Adidas uniforms helped sell that idea, too.
I mean, if ultimate frisbee can be considered a sport then why not tickling? It’s not that ridiculous. Rich men racing around in boats is considered a serious sport. The America’s Cup is huge in New Zealand. I mean, come on, that’s not a sport. Pull the other one.
So when David came face-to-face with three Jane O’ Brien representatives, ‘the most oddball group’ he’d ever seen at what Farrier dubbed ‘the strangest airport welcome’ he’d ever done, the documentary-makers knew they had a film on their hands.
Farrier is reluctant to call Jane O’Brien’s controversial tactics blackmail, as no money was extorted from their victims.
He did recall what some of the unassuming male models were subjected to, adding:
What happened was, to some participants, is that if they annoyed Jane O’Brien, or tried to stop coming to the tickling events, then all hell broke loose. Suddenly these tickling videos were taken out of the context of a ‘sport’ and would be put up on gay porn sites and all over the web with their full names attached.
A lot of these boys were straight and from fairly conservative backgrounds – you know, military backgrounds, small towns, the south – those stereotypes. And suddenly these videos were all over Google results, and were being sent to their coaches, and principals and teachers and grandmas. And other things happened – which I detail in the documentary. It wasn’t pleasant for them.
I think it’s hard to watch those tickling videos without going ‘Er, someone is perhaps getting off on this’. Thing is – many of the participants didn’t think that when they did it. They thought it was for a weird gameshow, or an audition for a show or a sport. That’s the issue.
Some people came and went and had a great time. Others had their lives totally derailed by it. It turns out Jane O’Brien had a very vengeful side. Certain people felt the full force of that. I mean – we’re talking about a story that stretches back 20 years, and had the FBI involved. That gives some idea of how serious this got.
But not all competative tickling facilitators work in the allegedly underhanded and wily ways of Jane O’Brien, and far be it for us to censor people’s fetishes when they’re tickled responsibly.
Take Richard Ivey, who creates ‘tickling erotica’, David explained:
The difference is his models know what they are signing up for. They know their tickling videos are going on an adult site. It’s all in the open. Everyone knows the truth. Oh, and Richard is a really, really nice guy. We’ve become friends during the making of this documentary, and he’s come to some Q&As. He gets a standing ovation.
His models are happy as Larry. Tickling is a huge scene. Lots of people want to watch people getting tickled. With Jane O’Brien Media – it wasn’t really about tickling – as odd as that sounds. It was about power, control and manipulation. Tickling just happened to be the vehicle.
Having been professionally tickled by Richard himself, in a follow-up documentary called The Tickle King, David dubbed the experience ‘awful’.
He described the feeling of restriction, saying:
There is no escape. You can’t run away or punch back like when your older brother tickled you when you were a kid. He knows where to get you. At one stage, Richard found out how ticklish my feet were, so he lubed them up with Vaseline, and then used a hairbrush on them.
Then he noticed I was curling my toes in to project that area… so he tied them back with shoestrings. And then he lubed my toes up and went in for the kill. Awful. But I was laughing the whole time. But laughing in pain. It’s a strange thing, this tickling business.
He addressed further letters he received from lawyers since the release of Tickled in The Tickle King and told UNILAD: “It’s an ongoing thing; a background noise. Despite all that has happened I am still feeling the effects of it.”
Due to the ongoing lawsuits, when prompted David is unable to elaborate on the finer details but he does still ‘talk to some of those involved’.
The situation has changed for many of them involved since the film – some of them have now seen the truth about Competitive Endurance Tickling. But there have been no more private detectives turning up at my house. As far as I know.
— Tickled Movie (@TickledMovie) March 5, 2017
For more information, and other ways to watch, go to TickledMovie.com.
A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you’ve never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.