One man reigns as hoax king

Pranks: Joey Skaggs ranks high among an elite band of jokers who orchestrate elaborate schemes to fool the media and the world.

April 01, 1999|By Dru Sefton | Dru Sefton,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Be forewarned: What you are about to read may or may not be real.

Today is, after all, April Fools' Day. And this is an interview with an expert fooler.

That would be one Joey Skaggs, New York painter, sculptor and satirist. For 30 years he has been duping the media. He sees it as effective social commentary.

Not to mention huge fun.

A few of Skaggs' more infamous pranks:

* Hippie tour, 1968: After tourists started cruising the East Village to gawk at hippies, Skaggs put 60 hippies in a bus for a tour of suburban Queens. His "passengers" snapped photos of folks mowing lawns and washing cars. Dozens of journalists, including a crew from the "Today" show, followed along, clueless.

* Celebrity sperm bank, 1976: An auction of "certified and authenticated rock star sperm" triggered coverage by national TV, radio and Ms. magazine -- not to mention calls from hundreds of eager women.

* Fish condos, 1983: As a commentary on the gentrification of affordable New York neighborhoods, Skaggs created "aquariums for upwardly mobile guppies" with intricate rooms and tiny furniture. What started out as a hoax covered by Life magazine, "Good Morning America" and CBS News morphed into reality: Real fish condos became available in 1996 for $5,000 in the Neiman Marcus holiday catalog.

* Dog meat soup, 1994: Skaggs sent 1,500 letters signed by a Korean name to animal shelters throughout America soliciting all dogs for 10 cents a pound. When reporters called a contact number, they heard an answering machine message in broken English with dogs yelping in the background. The hoax was covered extensively by the media and denounced by animal rights protesters. (Interesting aside: A May 24, 1994, story by a Kansas City Star reporter began with the phrase "Although it might be a hoax ... ")

* Stop BioPEEP, 1997: Skaggs' most complex hoax to date. BioPEEP (Biological Protocol for Enhanced Economic Production) is the fake code name of an international conspiracy to genetically alter and addict humans who eat certain products. Skaggs worked with dozens of actors and actual scientists around the world, launched a Web site -- it's still at http: //www.stopbiopeep.com/ -- held press conferences and prompted protests as far away as Australia.

Professional pranksters

There's just a handful of these pro pranksters, and every so often one is outed. Just last week HBO changed the identification of a subject on its "Men Exposed" special from "Bruce, 57, musician" to "Bruce, 57, impostor" after producers learned that "Bruce" actually was Alan Abel. The same Abel famous for once fooling the New York Times into running his own obituary.

Talking to Skaggs is unnerving. Was it really Skaggs, as he claimed, speaking from the New York office of Skaggs Inc.? After all, in 1988 he gave an on-camera interview to "Entertainment Tonight," then telephoned producers to say that wasn't really him on TV at that moment but a buddy of his. Skaggs was 2,000 miles away laughing his head off.

Oh, come on. Why do something that mean?

"The media is my medium," replied Skaggs. Or whoever it was on the phone.

Skaggs said he started out 33 years ago "as a much younger and angrier artist." He longed to make strong statements for civil rights, against the Vietnam War but found creative limitations in his artwork. When he marched in public protests he'd get arrested or beaten up.

"I realized there had to be a better way and that was humor, satire," Skaggs said. "Make 'em think and laugh."

Doing that can be complicated.

First, Skaggs comes up with a concept, what it is he wants to speak out about, how to pull off the hoax. This early planning is similar to making a movie: "At that point I'm handling production problems, budgeting, time restrictions, actors and props," Skaggs said.

Phase 2: Performing the hoax. "In the process I document the phenomenon of miscommunication. I track where it goes, who does what with it. I collect recordings of interviews, newspaper clippings, TV spots. Then I have archival documentation of what the media did and how the public reacted."

Final phase: Reveal the truth. "Then I have a platform to speak out on the issue," Skaggs said.

In addition to social commentary, his hoaxes are "media literacy lessons," he said. One example was the "Fat Squad" in 1986.

In that prank Skaggs played Joe Bones, a former Marine Corps drill sergeant determined to wipe out obesity. For "$300 a day plus expenses," Bones told host David Hartman on "Good Morning America," commandos would stand guard near a dieter, keeping the client from breaking his or her diet. A commando would even keep watch in the client's bedroom all night.

Duping the press

Several newspapers with lofty national reputations latched on to the story. Wire services hoisted it worldwide, sparking coverage in Japan, Australia, England, Italy, Germany and France.

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