When former Wizards of Waverly Place actor Dan Benson found out that intimate photos he thought he sent to a woman he met on a dating app had actually been splashed all over the Internet, he was both extremely embarrassed and pretty sure he was going to get fired.
Thankfully, his boss at the time was very understanding and he remained employed, but "it was mortifying," the 35-year-old, who played charmingly goofy Zeke on the hit Disney Channel series, told E! News in an exclusive interview. "It was absolutely horrifying."
But he wouldn't be where he is now—racking up subscriptions on OnlyFans and having a blast making NSFW content—if events hadn't unfolded as they did.
"I wouldn't change any of the terrible things that happened to me," Benson noted, "because they made me who I am today."
Which isn't to say, he emphasized, that his decision to lean into adult entertainment was an easy one or that he expects everyone to applaud—or even understand—why he's doing it.
"It took a little while for me to gain the confidence, not only in my ability to go out there and put that together, but also in not being afraid of what other people would think," Benson said. "I think that was the biggest obstacle, because this is something I've wanted to do for a while."
However, the Springfield, Mo., native had admittedly been "out of the spotlight for a long time." He booked a few more roles after Wizards of Waverly Place ended in 2012, including some voice work on Rick and Morty, but, Benson said, he left "being a struggling actor" behind some years ago and moved on.
He went back to school, getting his BA in graphic design from Denver's Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design in 2018, and pursued a career in marketing. So he was "actually just working a normal job," he said, when those old photos surfaced.
And by the time he was considering posing naked on purpose, for money, he thought of the business relationships he'd formed. "I was aware," Benson said, "that they're all going to be like, 'Whoa! What is going on with Dan?!'"
What was going on with Dan was that he had developed quite the following on social media, both fans from his Wizards days ("I was a lot of young men's gay awakening," he noted, which was very flattering") and newer arrivals who had come across his nude pics online and started stopping by his regular, fully clothed Instagram to leave feedback.
"There were people commenting kind of obscene things," Benson said. "My Instagram was just, like, me and my dog, and then there were these really weird, awkward comments on there to the point I couldn't escape it."
He did consider deleting all of his social media accounts.
"But there was something inside me that was just, like, Don't do that," he recalled. "There is a way to take it and create a place for these people to go and enjoy this stuff, right? And it just made sense to me after I put all the pieces together."
Benson started "dabbling" in the adult space about six months ago, he said, first mainly just posting shirtless pics on Patreon.
Eventually, he recalled, "all my Patreon subscribers were like, 'What are you doing?! Please join OnlyFans, this is ridiculous, we love you!'"
Still, he knew that OnlyFans would be a whole new ballgame.
He counts Kaili Thorne—sister of Bella Thorne, who made headlines when she joined in 2020—as a good friend, "and I was constantly asking her questions about it." Including, what were his prospects as a straight male, on a site where, as of 2022, there were roughly 1.9 million content creators and 77.36 percent of 175 million subscribes were male?
As it turned out, his prospects were promising.
"I try to make content that lots of different kinds of people could enjoy," Benson said, "but the reality is, the significant portion of my followers are gay men. I don't know what it is about me, in particular, but I don't question it."
And, he added, "I'm comfortable with my sexuality. I have a ton of gay friends, I've been immersed in the culture for a long time, so [the attraction] never bothered me, the way it might other straight men in that way. I lean into it."
Subsequently, Benson noted, he always wants to be giving back to a community that has given him so much support.
"I have such a profound respect and admiration for the gay community and I'm working really hard at being an advocate for gay rights, trans rights," he said. Last year, he used his resurgent platform to help raise more than $60,000 for the Trevor Project, which aids at-risk LGBTQ+ youth.
"Those are the kinds of things that make it so I feel really good about the direction I'm going," he said. "I want to take that momentum and direct it toward fighting for the causes and communities that need outspoken supporters."
Meanwhile, he credits TikTok—which he also didn't join till last August—with not only jump-starting his new venture, but also for opening a whole other frontier of fandom and reviving the ardor of the Zeke stans who were just waiting for Benson (and the abs he's acquired since his Disney days) to drop back into their lives.
It wasn't until Jan. 7, though, that he decided to open up a bit more on TikTok about what he was up to on OnlyFans and the traumatic experience that brought him there.
Like joining OnlyFans in the first place, it wasn't an easy decision to open himself up to the inevitable judgment, but he finally reached the point where he thought, "I'm ready to go for this and people are gonna react how they're going to react. But at the end of the day, I just got to where it was, like, I don't really care anymore. And that was so freeing for me."
Not to mention, the reaction, he said, was "completely different than I anticipated."
For starters, he got so many kind responses, including people who cheered him for taking his power back. But also, he said, "I was shocked at how many people replied in the comments, 'Yeah, this happened to me as well.' It feels therapeutic to have someone else bring this to light—because you feel so embarrassed to have that kind of thing happen to you."
And while he expected to cause a ripple, he made quite the splash. "I couldn't believe it," he said. "I feel like I'm more famous now than I was back then." He said it had been six or seven years since Wizards fans would recognize him out in the wild, but "now I'm walking through the mall and I go into Vans, and the girls are like, 'Excuse me, are you Dan Benson?' I'm like, 'What?! Yes! This is weird…'"
He admitted he's loving the attention—especially since it isn't the kind that prevents him from living an otherwise normal existence—but "fading out of the spotlight," he said, "and then being back in the spotlight gives you a different perspective on it. I'm really appreciative, and I will take time with anybody to sit and talk and get to know them. But I also know it's fleeting. This is not real."
Benson's been touched by the OnlyFans experience, though, because not only are his thousands of subscribers paying $20 per month to see what he's putting out there, "they want a connection," he observed. "But really, it's what everyone wants. I can relate to that, being single for a long time."
He once thought being happy at 35 would mean being married and having a couple of kids, but for now, he's enjoying being unattached—though he's still navigating the tricky business of explaining to women he meets what he does for a living.
"It has affected things," he acknowledged. "But I'm just upfront and honest when I'm starting those conversations, like, 'Look, this is just something that's part of my life and if you're not comfortable, let's get that out, early on.'"
In the meantime, Benson shared, he has "an unbelievably supportive" family, whom he kept in the loop as he prepared to embark on this journey.
And once a Disney alum, always a Disney alum: He shared that he's reconnected with Wizards star Jennifer Stone, who played Harper, BFF of Selena Gomez's Alex and Zeke's eventual love interest—and while he preemptively apologized for the "weird questions" he assumed she'll be getting about him, Stone sweetly told him to shut up. Whatever was making him happy, "'that's totally great and everything else is just noise,'" he recalled her saying.
"Most people that are close to me and care about me, their only reactions have been nothing but supportive," Benson said. "They just want me to be happy, they want me to be healthy—and they want me to be safe."
Which, at times, in addition to being wary of who's lurking out there online (and IRL, for that matter), does involve stepping back from the camera and the comments section when need be. (Even amid all the positivity, he'll focus on that one negative jab, just like the rest of us.) At the same time, he knows he's signed up to give the people what they want.
While he posts when it feels right, going more the improvisatory route than sticking to a set schedule, "it comes down to consistency, it comes down to marketing, and constantly providing the people that like your content with things that continue to make them interested," he said.
And even though he doesn't expect to regret this X-rated chapter of his life, he thinks about the future while he's at it.
"I've been really diligent about staying in touch with how I feel," Benson explained. "In this industry, you can get pulled in the direction where you're doing things that you didn't want to do, but you're doing it because you think it's what people want."
So, he continued, "I'm being cognizant as I'm going through this process to put things out there that I feel comfortable about. I'm fully aware that there will be long-lasting repercussions from the choices I've made right now."
But Benson wants people to know that, while obviously this business isn't for everybody, he thought long and hard about it before diving in and it was something he really wanted to do.
"It's very exciting and fun," Benson said. "But I'm also not afraid to go back and be a normal guy. I also had a great time doing that."