The 23-year-old YouTube star-turned-cautionary tale comes clean about what exactly happened in that Japanese suicide forest, how his $13 million empire collapsed and the plan to earn forgiveness from his 24 million followers.
The first thing you notice about Logan Paul is his size.
He's 6-foot-2 with biceps like grapefruits. On YouTube, he looks smaller. But his hair is exactly as advertised on the internet, a big blond cirrus cloud blowing westward. "I don't gel it — it just goes," the 23-year-old says of his signature do during breakfast at a cafe near his Encino home, a 9,000-square-foot bachelor's paradise he purchased slightly more than a year ago for $6.5 million.
For a brief time in 2017, Paul was an online star with infinite possibilities.
Sure, his younger brother, Jake Paul, also a massively popular internet personality (Logan had 23 million YouTube subscribers, Jake 17 million), went through a rough patch, getting fired from the Disney Channel show Bizaardvark after making a public nuisance of himself in his Beverly Grove neighborhood. But Logan's career was on fire. He was worth $13 million, earned mostly through YouTube ad revenue and merch sales of his Maverick clothing line. He was getting pals like Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson to appear in his videos. He had a few movies in the can, including starring roles in MGM's Valley Girl remake and two YouTube features, The Thinning and The Thinning: New World Order, and was making his first late-night appearances, sharing an anecdote about damaging his testicle in a stunt mishap on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
But then, in December, he took a trip to Japan, uploaded footage from Aokigahara, a sacred suicide forest near Mount Fuji, and overnight became one of YouTube's most infamous cautionary tales.
In the 10 months since that fateful trip, Logan has kept a relatively low profile — though not always low enough. When his name does surface in pop culture, it's usually as a punchline (like when a character on Netflix's Big Mouth defended sex with a couch cushion as being "Logan Paul-level hilarious"). But Paul has had enough of that. Between forkfuls of egg-white scramble, he will spend the next several hours tearfully unloading about his horrible year, explaining what exactly went wrong in Japan. He will swear up and down that he's a new man. He will say things like, "The first question I asked myself at the beginning of the year was, 'How do we fix this?' — when the question I should have asked myself was, 'How do I fix me?"
That's right, Logan Paul is here today to ask for one more chance.
"I had never had a crisis before, ever," Paul says. "Everything had been a smooth-sailing ride to the top." But the descent was akin to the Hindenburg, with the Aokigahara incident catapulting Paul to a degree of notoriety that not even he was seeking.
Like his brother, Paul had built his army of loyal young followers, the "Logang," by posting an astronomical amount online — mostly personality-driven videos, first in catchy six-second morsels on the now-defunct Vine, then in longer YouTube dispatches. At his peak, Paul estimates he was documenting 90 percent of his life on the internet, posting a video a day, without fail, for more than 400 consecutive days. With each entry, his delivery grew a little more obnoxious, the stunts a little more outrageous — breaking plates, blowing up stuff, sending a friend to Paris inside checked luggage (that one turned out to be faked). Looking back, it was a recipe for disaster. "We have a show that's being watched more than some of the biggest shows on TV, with no budget, no producers, no actors, no writers, no review team," he says. "Something was bound to go wrong, and it did, for me, to the largest degree possible."
The idea for the trip to Japan came from his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Chloe Bennet, a 26-year-old actress on ABC's Agents of SHIELD, whom Paul had met on the set of Valley Girl. They and a small group of friends were to fly to Tokyo for New Year's Eve and shoot some travelogue footage while there. A week before the trip, Paul and Bennet had a fight. "She wanted to stay in one hotel, I wanted to stay in a different hotel," he recalls, adding that he "just wanted my space." Miffed, Bennet told Paul she wasn't going and delivered an ominous prediction. "She's like, 'Yo, this behavior is going to bite you in the ass. I don't know how, I don't know when, but you're going to crash and burn,' " he recalls her saying.
The warning went unheeded. By Dec. 30, Paul had posted videos from the streets of Tokyo in which he did kung-fu moves in a kimono, tossed a plush Pokemon ball at locals and, in one clip, wandered around a department store wielding a dead fish (8.5 million views). More than 40,000 people commented, the majority of them expressing some version of the sentiment "Never come back to Japan again." Paul insists he intended no disrespect to Japanese culture. "I was disrespectful everywhere — U.S., Italy, France," he says. "The old Logan was plain old insensitive."
He set out with three friends and a security guard the following day for a New Year's Eve excursion to Aokigahara Forest, a two-hour drive from Tokyo at the base of Mount Fuji. The locale first hit his radar in a 2012 Vice video, which follows a soft-spoken Japanese geologist who surveys the region. Much of the geologist's job involves the grisly task of tagging the remains of suicide victims, as the forest is a popular destination for those seeking to end their lives. The video, viewed 19 million times, ends with the discovery of a long-dead victim. It's macabre stuff, but the geologist's contemplative narration somehow renders it palatable, even profound.
Paul's visit to the forest was neither. He arrived at the site sporting a Toy Story alien-shaped hat and a $7,500 embroidered Gucci denim jacket, the purchase of which was documented in a video titled "I Spent $12,000 on Two Bags of Clothes Nooooooo" (5.8 million views). He also brought along a carload of new camping equipment, a pair of binoculars ("so we can see the ghosts," he explains on the video) and, for reasons unexplained, a football. "Just a couple of dumb Americans going camping in a suicide forest," he cheerfully announces as the group stomps into the woods. The party ends about 100 yards in, when they stumble upon a male victim in his 30s hanging from a tree.
"My first feeling was just dis-fucking-belief," Paul explains. He realizes now that probably did not play well on camera. "I should have felt empathy. I should have been like, 'Hey, this is wrong. Let's not do what we're doing.' " (In fact, one of his cohorts can be heard on the video saying, "Turn off the cameras, let's go." Paul ignored him.)
He sent the footage to his editor in Paris and returned to Tokyo for a more somber-than-usual New Year's Eve. The edited footage came at 7 a.m. on New Year's Day. Paul had some reservations: The victim's face had been blurred out, but did they show too much of the body? Did the squeaky-toy sound effect that kept bleeping out his curse words hit the wrong note? But he brushed his concerns aside, christened his creation with a click-baity title — "We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest …" — and hit publish.
Almost instantly, the video elicited a tsunami of global outrage. Much of the condemnation came from Hollywood, with Game of Thrones' Sophie Turner tweeting that Paul was a "gargantuan arsehole" and Aaron Paul (no relation) calling him out as "pure trash" on Twitter before telling him to "go rot in hell." That tweet — which drew 380,000 likes — was the low point, what Logan calls a "stab in the back." The Breaking Bad star had always been friendly to him. "He came up to me at whatever event we were at, shook my hand, patted me on the back, 'Dude, love what you're doing,' " Paul says. "Then this shit happens, and Aaron Paul is telling me to go to hell? I'm like, 'You told me you were my boy when we met! It was all good! We have the same publicist!' "
Meanwhile, his phone was practically emitting smoke. "I'm getting texts from friends, family, colleagues, accomplices," he recalls of those frantic first hours. "I'm like, wow, I really fucked up, to a degree that this may be the only thing people remember me by, and that is my worst nightmare." For most of New Year's Day he "wobbled around [his] hotel room, not sure what the fuck to do." By 2 a.m., after the video had racked up more than 24 million views, Paul made the decision to take it down. He replaced it with a tearful apology in which he admits to a "severe and continuous lapse in judgment" (54 million views). "You could tell in the video, I'm like, fucking tired," he says. "It's horrible."
The next day, he boarded the longest flight of his life — in first class, mind you — from Tokyo to Los Angeles. "Just hood up, hat down, sunglasses on." He went directly from the airport to his home, where 10 of his handlers — including manager Jeff Levin, CAA agents Paul Cazers and Jack Whigham and other assorted lawyers and publicists — had gathered around a stretch dining room table for an emergency meeting. It lasted eight hours.
"Can you imagine," Paul says. "We [were] building the biggest fucking brand in the world. We're on the verge of, like, product launches. We were about to create the next Axe! And here we are just trying to wrap our heads around what happened." His agents laid out the damage points to his career: "Valley Girl is being pushed," they told him. "YouTube's not releasing the Thinning sequel." Plans for his Axe-like Logan Paul body spray were put on hold as well. The best strategy the team could come up with was for Paul to film a suicide-prevention PSA. Paul sat there stunned, absorbing the new normal. "I was so used to people liking me," he says. "But being hated? I hate it. I hate being hated!"
The bad news kept coming. On Jan. 10, YouTube removed Paul from Google's preferred partner program, where the site's top talent draw the highest ad rates. Paul estimates the punishment cost him $5 million, but he gets it: "I mean, YouTube had to take a stance. They're not going to let some kid fuck up their ad platform." After a three-week hiatus, Paul launched the PSA, "Suicide: Be Here Tomorrow" (30 million views). Whatever goodwill it elicited was squandered, however, when he uploaded a video Feb. 9 in which he used a taser on a dead rat found in his backyard, a move that led the streaming giant to yank his ads completely. (They've since been reinstated.)
"One of the dumbest things I've ever done in my life," he says of the rat video, which drew PETA condemnation. "I thought, 'I don't know what to do right now. I'm already hated. I guess I'll give them a reason to dislike me.' "
As if to demonstrate that he bears no ill will toward God's creatures, Paul later introduces me to the menagerie at his Encino home. There's Maverick the parrot, Pancake the albino soft-shelled turtle and Kong the Pomeranian frolicking in the backyard with the newest addition, Pearl the spotted pig. Then he gives me a tour of his house, which includes a wine cellar, recording studio, trampoline ("Girls love trampolines"), pimped-out school bus in the driveway and full-scale boxing ring.
Paul is still vlogging on YouTube, but not as outrageously as he used to. One recent video is about buying a pumpkin for Halloween (2.3 million views). His most flamboyant online adventure since the Aokigahara scandal was a pay-per-view YouTube boxing match in August with KSI, a trash-talking British vlogger, that drew 800,000 viewers at $10 a pop. Paul took home between one and two million of the profits, though he says that after expenses he broke even. When asked if he'd ever leave YouTube for another platform — say, Snapchat — he shakes his head. "I don't want to be a Snapchat star," he says. "I barely want to be a YouTube star."
Podcast star, on the other hand, has a nice ring to it. Paul's new life plan is to taper off from YouTube and focus on a podcast he's preparing to launch in the near future. He named it Impaulsive — "a play on my last name and my tendencies," he says — and had a broadcast studio installed in his home. "If I'm going to do something," he says, "I might as well go for it."
There are signs, however faint, that things might be turning around for Paul. On Oct. 17, YouTube released The Thinning: New World Order after all, suggesting his stay in vlogger jail may be ending. And then there's the fact that, since the suicide forest video, his follower count has actually increased by a million.
Seated on a sprawling leather couch, snacking on homemade granola bars prepared by his personal chef, Paul contemplates his chances for a second chance. I suggest a new direction he might take — one that might lead to redemption — is to encourage the Logang to get motivated politically. They now number 24 million, enough to sway, say, a presidential election.
"It's tough," he says, almost as if the notion had never occurred to him. "I try not to get too political." I point out that these days, even apolitical stars like Taylor Swift are taking stands. "You know what I found, though," he replies, "and this is unfortunate, but a lot of viewers are brainwashed, oftentimes by their parents." After a little more thought, he adds, "Maybe it is my responsibility to force these kids to think independently, which is what I always try to do. There comes a time when you have to grow up and start thinking for yourself."
In our final moments together, I mention a New York Times Magazine article I read that listed Paul among a number of stars who'd been "canceled" by the internet — alongside Bill Cosby, Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr. For a brief moment, the browbeaten goofball disappears, replaced by a flash of the pay-per-view warrior. "Good luck trying to cancel me," he says with a sniff. "It's so easy for anyone to be like, 'Logan Paul just ended his career, he's done.' But the only person who will ever decide whether that's true is me. Like, if I sleep for the rest of my life, maybe. But, like, dog — I love this shit. This creating? It's my passion."
This story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.