It was October 2020, at a tented venue in Waynesville, North Carolina. Andrew Wakefield was set to present his documentary 1986: The Act, the latest in his anti-vaccination cinematic oeuvre, to a group of acolytes. This kind of personal appearance has long been the platform of choice for the handsome, charismatic Englishman, who connected the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism in an infamous, retracted paper for the medical journal The Lancet. For years now, parents—mainly mothers—of children with autism and other perceived vaccine injuries have lined up to feel the touch of his hand, share their stories, take a selfie, even though he’s been exiled from the medical establishment.
On that October night, supermodel Elle Macpherson, whom Wakefield introduced as “my girlfriend,” was called on to attest to his wonderfulness. “We walk down the street together and more people recognize him than me,” Macpherson told the crowd, her tall, slim frame draped over a director’s chair facing Wakefield’s. She was going casual, in dark pants and white sneakers, hair tousled over her shoulders. He was in a daring ensemble—an acid-wash jean suit paired with a black turtleneck. She continued, “I first heard about Andy in 1998. I just had my first son…. And who would have thought that after reading about this doctor who said there’s a problem with the MMR [vaccine]that I’d be sitting here talking to you about movies you’ve made.”
Like his previous movie, vaxxed, which drew Robert De Niro into its press orbit, Wakefield tried to establish celebrity cred. The previous May, he’d attended a fundraiser in Los Angeles. “At that fundraiser was Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel,” said Wakefield, in grave, professorial tones. Justin Timberlake got up and he said, ‘We’ve got to get behind this film. We’ve got to do whatever we can to get this film out there.’” (A source close to Timberlake says he has no affiliation with the film or filmmaker.) And of course, “Elle was intimately involved in the making of this movie. And…I’m enormously grateful.”
Wakefield and Macpherson had in 2017 at an event called “Doctors Who Rock,” a gala in Orlando honoring “thought leaders and paradigm shifters” in the trillion-dollar-plus global wellness world. Macpherson, who moved to Miami from London in 2014, had become successful with her company WelleCo, which offers powdered shakes that “nourish on a cellular level.” The 45 ingredients in “The Super Elixir,” she says, keep her skin glowing and her body in “an alkaline state.” (She sells a urine-testing kit that checks one’s pH balance.) After splits from two business titans, Arpad Busson and Jeffrey Soffer, she found in Wakefield a man who possessed riches of a different kind. Sure, the Lancet paper, of which he was the lead author, had been debunked, retracted, dismissed by the British Medical Journal as an “elaborate fraud” that caused him to lose his medical license. And yes, he was reviled by some within the medical establishment as well as the mainstream media. But to his fans, his downfall was a sinister plot to destroy a man who knew the dangerous truth. To them—and there are many of them—he was a rock star martyr. “Jesus Christ and Nelson Mandela rolled into one,” as one supporter put it to The New York Times.
Their time together was very moving to Macpherson. That the making of the film coincided with COVID was “such beautiful, sacred timing,” she told the audience. “It’s so pertinent and so relevant…in this sort of divine time where vaccination and mandatory vaccination is on everybody’s lips.” At the conclusion of the evening, Wakefield paced the stage and continued his call to arms. “The most important thing of all [is] the extraordinary power of maternal intuition. This ancient wisdom…It is why we are here on this earth today…There has been a concerted effort by the man in the white coat to say, ‘I know your child better than you do.’ No, you don’t. And that ancient wisdom is far more important than what medicine has done, what vaccines have done…It is time to take that back…to defer back to that inner authority…not Tony Fauci…telling you about how you should run your life.”
Macpherson and Wakefield are now broken up. But lucky for him, the movement is bursting with ever more celebrities, demi-celebs, and influencers. The prominent names fighting the Man in the White Coat Apocalypse have, or claim to have, distinct ideologies, and some categorization is in order. Category One is a rather select few who admit outright to being anti-vaccination. Category Two includes those you might call vaccine skeptics, squishy in which beliefs they’ll publicly own. Category Two is the most formidable, subtly crafting its image. Its members take pains to claim that they are “not anti-vaccination”—but rather “pro-science” or “pro-vaccine safety.” And their science shows that the vaccine du jour could be dangerous, or perhaps deadly. And then there’s Category Three, a bucket that runneth over. Here, vaccine opinionators concede that vaccines can be helpful—maybe they’ve even gotten their COVID shots. but mandate vaccines, or mandating masks, isn’t merely a complex question, as most Americans would agree; rather, it’s akin to modern slavery, the Holocaust. As a group, you might call members of the three categories Vaxsurgents—angry, loud, exhausting.
The celebrity Vaxsurgents come in a variety of cultural flavors. There are the hardcore MAGA champs—Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and an array of Republican demagogues, many of whom are surely vaccinated themselves but must daily bow to the red-hot base, and thus they won’t divulge their status, many emphasizing that they are purely anti-mandated. Two of the loudest Vaxsurgents hail from the coastal-elitist fields of environmentalism (Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) and feminism (Naomi Wolf). Hollywood boasts a high profile in the Vaxsurgency. Jenny McCarthy laid some crucial early groundwork. Ice Cube, Russell Brand, lost actor Evangeline Lilly, and others have taken up the torch in different ways. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will require two negative PCR tests to attend the Oscars, and audience members (including nominees) must be vaccinated, but performers and presenters will not be required to be vaccinated. Industry reporters have speculated that the partial mandate means that certain influential actors and industry players are unvaccinated and would otherwise not participate in the show.