Hoaxing 101: How to Fake a Celebrity Death

E! News has the scoop on the guy behind the rash of online celebrity death hoaxes

By Josh Grossberg Apr 01, 2012 2:01 PMTags
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Editor's Note: In honor of April Fool's Day, we thought it would be a perfect time to take a look back at this story originally published in 2010.

Remember when Jeff Goldblum fell off a cliff in New Zealand? Or Charlie Sheen, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson all died in separate snowboarding mishaps in Switzerland? Well, reports of their deaths have been greatly exaggerated...thanks to one enterprising prankster.

E! News pulls back the curtain to reveal the man behind the death hoaxes that send fans into fits and make publicists apoplectic...

Turns out an operation called Global Associated News is responsible for the majority of the false reports.

The site is the brainchild of Atlanta-based web entrepreneur Rich Hoover and a front for Fake a Wish, which allows users to plug an actor's name into a generator that creates their own celebrity death headlines, such as the one about Goldblum's alleged hiking misadventure.

"It started off as a practical joke machine seven years ago," says Hoover. "People can just plug in anybody's name so then they'll prank their friends. But people don't read the fine print, and sure enough, it spreads like mad."

Hoover says he used to get hate mail and cease-and-desists letters from non-boldfaced types who got pranked, but he noticed that celebrities never seemed to complain. So for fun he created Global Associated News as a front to spread rumors of a star's demise and help maximize hits to his cluster of entertainment sites.

So far, says Hoover, he's only had two famous folks who actually threatened a lawsuit.

"One cease-and-desist came from [NFL quarterback] Michael Vick when he was with the Atlanta Falcons and the other from Sergey Brin, the founder of Google, his lawyer sent a letter," says Hoover. "His name was used in the masturbation world champion template."

As in "Sergey Brin Is New Masturbation World Champion!"

The problem—or in Hoover's case, the publicity—comes when gossip blogs and mainstream media outlets pick up snippets of the fake reports from search engine optimizers or when people blindly retweet the ersatz news, then they become memes.

But the prankster insists it's not all bad for the not-really-dead celebs.

"If you saw Goldblum on The Colbert Show, who had heard of him in the past six years? Suddenly he's on Colbert grabbing headlines further pushing his name out in front and he used that as an opportuntiy to mention some of his projects," says Hoover. "It's free press."

He points out that he's careful to make sure the deaths are on the outlandish side—i.e., they don't involve drugs or alcohol but usually are "unfortunate accidents" that occur in some faraway place that gives it just a hint of plausibility. So don't credit him for spreading that false rumor of Aretha Franklin's passing this week.

"That didn't come from me. But I think it was done with a higher degree of poor taste," Hoover says. "When I craft these templates, you're not gonna find a suicide template and things like that."

The businessman doesn't have regrets about causing such consternation since the celebs usually ignore them and he does it for laughs (for those who find such things funny).  Naturally, it's the fans who are the most upset by them.

"It is dark comedy, done in poor taste, I'm guilty of that but the intent is not to be hurtful to one's character," he says. "I try to make it very easy to dispel the myth, like, 'hey I'm alive and I'll be on Letterman tonight or attending my movie premiere.' The fans do get upset and get their feathers ruffled more than the celebrities."

(Originally published Dec. 30, 2010, at 10:01 a.m. PT)