Ashley Terrill was in hiding the first time I heard her voice, splitting time between her Los Angeles home and a $600-a-night room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Terrill had locked her laptop and phone in a secret vault, and would only contact me on disposable phones—all because, she claimed, the estranged co-founder of Tinder was trying to destroy her. And that fear was mutual.
Whitney Wolfe and Tinder have been legally forbidden to speak ill of one another since September of 2014, when they settled a highly public and toxic lawsuit out of court. But the foes have never reconciled, and remain deeply suspicious of one another—though both say repeatedly and consistently that they’ve moved on, and that they are too concerned with their respective dating apps to worry about each other.
In the year since the settlement, the lingering feud has expanded to include a constellation of friends, executives, and gossips. With Tinder now part of a publicly traded e-dating conglomerate and its CEO admitting freely to opposition research against Nancy Jo Sales, the app’s inside history of spite and contentiousness remains relevant.
The accusations and speculations in this instance touch on parties ranging from Tinder’s communications desk to a Russian billionaire backer of Bumble who is also in the spyware business. At the center is Ashley Terrill, a Hollywood columnist on an obsessive, possibly unhinged pursuit of what she says is the truth about Whitney Wolfe. Depending on who’s doing the guessing, Terrill is the target of a secret harassment operation, the agent of a covert mudslinging campaign, or an outside observer caught up in a paranoid freakout. Whatever the case may be, in the miasma of mistrust surrounding Tinder, a lot of people with a lot of money at stake are staring into the shadows right along with her.
In June of last year, Whitney Wolfe, a co-founder and former vice president of marketing at Tinder, sued her former employers at Tinder, parent company IAC, and the two men who commanded the dating startup, CEO Sean Rad and former chief of marketing Justin Mateen. Wolfe alleged that after a breakup with Mateen she’d been subjected to a horrendous spell of sexual harassment and emotional bludgeoning by the company’s executives, then stripped of her status as co-founder of the wildly successful app and canned.
Her lawsuit described a litany of male awfulness, from being called a “whore” at a company party to repeated toxic text messages from Mateen (in one, he writes “you prefer to social climb middle aged Muslim pigs”). With Wolfe’s reputation and her multi-million dollar stake in Tinder both on the line, reporters in and out of the business world pounced. Wolfe was almost universally depicted as the victim and heroine of the episode (including in articles I wrote for Valleywag), with Rad and Mateen easily cast as the creeps and aggressors. The parties quickly settled out of court. It was thrilling, but ultimately tidy.
The major stakeholders were eager to act as if the deeply lurid scandal had just disappeared, and to the press, it had. We moved on. But to those who were actually part of it, the story has continued—so long as they’re both trying to help people have sex through a touchscreen, it probably always will. Both Whitney Wolfe and her former legal opponents appear deeply anxious about each other today, in a state of existential dread about their business and personal lives. They’ll always resent each other (or worse), but with a judge forbidding them from talking about it, what can they do but stew?
Caught in the middle of this standoff is Ashley Terrill, a Los Angeles-based freelance reporter, screenwriter, and producer who’s spent the bulk of her career on film junkets and celebrity interviews. She’s also in possession of an unedited, hour-long sit-down interview with Whitney Wolfe and Sean Rad, conducted before Wolfe’s lawsuit as part of a profile she delivered to Elle magazine in October of 2013. In it, claims Terrill, Wolfe spoke candidly about her office romance and early role in the company.
It’s this audio recording that Terrill says is proof that Whitney Wolfe is not who she says she is—neither a victim nor a co-founder, but a fraud who parlayed a sex lawsuit into a career boost and fame. Terrill’s claims range from dubious to absurd, but her exhaustive investigation into Wolfe’s background has pumped the submerged bile between the two camps up to the surface. Though not a business reporter, Terrill is at home among the connected and app-savvy souls who make up the Los Angeles startup vanguard in “Silicon Beach.” She’s also willing to dig for dirt about Whitney Wolfe as far back as high school.
Terrill’s research is an anomaly in the saga of Wolfe vs Tinder, a rare attempt to discredit rather than lionize the plaintiff. Only once did the Whitney versus Goliath narrative turn backwards: In July of 2014, one month after news of the lawsuit broke, TechCrunch published an article titled, simply, “Burned: The Story of Whitney Wolfe.” In it, Wolfe was cast alternately as a liar, slut, seductress, drunk, and generally unreliable (if not unsympathetic) character by anonymous sources inside Tinder. It was a textbook return salvo by Tinder’s communications desk, a c-suite counterattack that laundered personal attacks against a former coworker through a news outlet. An hour after “Burned” went up, TechCrunch announced that Sean Rad would appear as a headline speaker at the site’s upcoming Disrupt conference.
Soon after, Wolfe and the men of Tinder abruptly buried the hatchet for an undisclosed (rumored to be seven-figure) sum and a mutual non-disclosure pact. Wolfe (and a fellow Tinder co-founder Chris Gulczynski) went on to found Bumble, a Tinder clone with a twist: Men can’t message women unless the woman has made first contact. Between this novel feature, the company’s employment of women at top levels, and Wolfe’s very public departure from Tinder, her new startup has enjoyed uniformly positive press as an underdog and feminist inspiration.
Media treatment of the mothership, meanwhile, hasn’t been so kind—after looking toxic for many months due to the lawsuit, Tinder has become synonymous with smartphone sleaze, and its psychotic response to a boring Vanity Fair article on its role in “hookup culture” earned it few new fans. But it’s also still the gold standard in app-dating, and remains one of the most popular smartphone downloads of all time, freshly spun off by IAC into a publicly traded company, Match Group. David and Goliath both won. Yet neither side is sure that things are really over.
Before Ashley Terrill ever told me her fears about being targeted by Whitney Wolfe, Wolfe told me her fears about being targeted by Terrill. After covering the lawsuit, I’d maintained a friendly SMS-based connection with Wolfe about her industry and her startup. Our text conversations rarely returned to the turmoil she’d faced at her previous company, and I’d had every reason to believe Wolfe no longer suffered over what’d happened to her at Tinder. When the subject of Tinder did come up, she’d say—just shy of performatively—that she wished Tinder only the best, in spite of it all. Wolfe’s hands were newly full with Bumble.
Then, one week this past August, Wolfe began texting me—at first seeming bemused, then nervous, then frantic—saying she’d heard from friends in L.A. (she now resides in Austin, Texas) that a writer by the name of Ashley Terrill was compiling evidence against her for some sort of of intricate character assassination. Even more frightening was the possibility that Terrill was building her case against Wolfe with cooperation from Tinder.
Wolfe received word a writer was “going to try to make me tech’s ‘Gone Girl’ or something,” she told me over the phone. The news had reached Wolfe through a social sphere she’s maintained that keeps Rad and Mateen in its orbit, a circle of children born into affluence and seeking more through venture capital.
A source close to Wolfe told me “[Whitney] was in New York City for a business meeting, and received an urgent phone message saying ‘call me immediately’”—from none other than Alexa Dell, Sean Rad’s ex-girlfriend and heiress to the Dell computer fortune. When she reached Dell, Wolfe learned “a book was being shopped around” about her legal battle with Tinder and personal life, and that she should expect a “takedown story” coming soon from Terrill. She didn’t know when it was happening, or where it would be published—only that she was once again a target.
By this source’s account, Dell had learned all of this straight from Tinder CEO Sean Rad, which would suggest he was at the very least aware of Terrill’s investigation. Dell warned Wolfe that Terrill’s article was drawing on unprecedented access to the very men who she’d said tormented her at Tinder—it immediately looked like a covert attempt to smear her (and her company) without breaking their mutual non-defamation agreement.
Text messages from Dell, obtained and reviewed by Gawker, show Tinder had put Terrill in touch with her. In one exchange, Dell wrote to Tinder’s head of communications, Rosette Pambakian: “What’s going on with Ashley... I think Sean [Rad] had her call me,” to which Pambakian replied “All Good things” and “She has evidence to nail WW [Whitney Wolfe].” When Dell asked why Ashley would want to talk to her, Pambakian responded “I think Sean just told her to call you.”
Rosette Pambakian and Sean Rad
In a later text exchange, Dell warned Wolfe: “they want me to give quote [sic]” to Ashley. Although Dell had ostensibly reached out to warn Wolfe, an on-again-off-again friend, she appeared deeply worried for herself as well: “Physically Sean is scarier but Rosette I feel like fucks up people’s lives,” she said in one text. “It’s scaring me so much,” as was the possibility that her attachment to any controversy would reach her “dad or something omg.”
She seemed to be frightened for both her reputation and her safety. When Wolfe asked Dell “why and what” she was afraid might happen, she said “Them saying abusive things to me. Sean grabbing me and like physically forcing information out of me. Them talking bad about me to ruin my image and life like they’re trying to do to you” When I contacted Dell, to ask about her involvement in Terrill’s story, she replied “What Story? Hm Im [sic] not familiar.” A request to speak with Sean Rad for this story was not answered; there is no evidence that Dell’s fears were realized.
Wolfe’s panic was compounded by the fact that her role as a CEO required near-constant travel between New York, Los Angeles, and her home in Austin. She’d been told that Terrill’s takedown could appear as a magazine article, a book, or possibly even a film, all aimed at portraying her as the villain in the Tinder breakup. Wolfe was unsure of what could be used against her, but scoured a year’s worth of texts and emails for any time she might’ve self-incriminated.
All the while, she was emphatic that she was not intending to defame or disparage Tinder, its employees, or parent company IAC. It was a refrain she told to me over the phone so many times, it could’ve only been out of a lawyer-mandated abundance of caution. On multiple occasions I had to assure Wolfe that I wasn’t recording our phone calls, and to provide some reassurance for her, we soon switched (at my suggestion) to a variety of encrypted IM apps that would auto-delete our correspondence.
Jen Stith, Whitney Wolfe’s head of communications at Bumble, suggested one ulterior motive: Ashely Terrill is good friends with Tinder’s current PR chief, Rosette Pambakian, a connection Stith insinuated could explain the entire renewed interest in the truthfulness of Whitney Wolfe. “Given the information I’m aware of, it would be strange if there was no influence,” Stith told me cryptically in one phone conversation. “We don’t want to speculate, but the relationship between Tinder executives and Ashley Terrill is chronicled on social media, and not private information, and does suggest that they are more than business associates.”
Rosette Pambakian (center) and Ashley Terrill (right)
Terrill can be seen socializing with Pambakian on multiple occasions in several different Instagram postings, including one that includes a “#BFF” hashtag. When asked about her relationship with Rosette, Terrill told me via phone “we’re almost like sisters.” Pambakian agreed: “She’s a friend of mine,” but denied doing her any any favors as a reporter. Still, Wolfe believes their relationship was a factor—if not the sole reason—that Terrill decided to start writing about a lawsuit that ended over a year ago. “Ashley was [originally] covering a lot of fashion and lifestyle stuff, she started covering Tinder because of her close relationships with Rosette.” It was an insinuation heavy enough to no longer be a mere insinuation.
Rosette Pambakian (center) and Ashley Terrill (right)
Less than a month after Wolfe reached out to me about Terrill’s investigation, an acquaintance of mine contacted me with a strange story: This acquaintance had a friend in Los Angeles, a writer, who was being stalked and hacked while reporting. The writer was desperate for someone with whom to share the story—an ally, or at least an ear. The subject of her reporting, she said, and presumably the person behind this anti-journalistic intimidation, was Whitney Wolfe.
Over email, this acquaintance explained the situation—that her friend, Ashley Terrill, was researching a book about Wolfe, and that she had previously interviewed Wolfe and Rad:
There was never any mention of sexual harassment in the interview. The audio from the interview also states that [Whitney Wolfe] was transferred to Tinder and into the marketing department where she started dating her boss Justin and her position elevated. Ashley said she felt bad for [Whitney Wolfe] because she seemed so hung up on this guy who clearly didn’t want to be with her.
Ashley is scared and believes [Whitney Wolfe] to have a wealth of resources at her disposal between a billionaire business partner and a wealthy Russian boyfriend. She is not sure what they are capable of, but she is hoping that they are just trying to intimidate her. She is seeing people following her at all hours of the day and night and wants to go public to protect herself.
In short, Terrill had decided to dig into the legitimacy of Wolfe’s harassment suit against Tinder, and claimed she’d found vast inconsistencies that not only undermined the legal case, but Wolfe’s entire character. It was deeply personal:
Ashley saw [Whitney Wolfe] at an event where WW told her that she was so over Justin then heard from another source...that [Whitney] propositioned Justin later that evening and told me she was going to “fuck him tonight,” then showed up at his door naked underneath a coat. These sorts of stories led Ashley to follow WW and her Tinder lawsuit a bit more closely. She followed the case and obtained the court transcripts...It also contradicts her co-founder position and could potentially tarnish her feminist public image
Terrill had been writing pitches to editors and film agents seeking a book or movie deal. In them, she described the project:
[Wolfe’s] statements—captured in my never released audio—directly contradict key claims and timelines within her legal complaint. In discovering this discrepancy, I launched into a year of research to unearth the truth. To do so, I’ve been tracking down and interviewing key figures, uncovering documents, and diving into each claim wherever it takes me. I am now preparing to disclose my findings and discuss whether Wolfe is a heroine, femme fatale mastermind, or businesswoman who ruthlessly exploited every opportunity for her gain (even if unethically).
Terrill’s conclusion was that Wolfe is the last of those. It would be a feat of reporting, as she put it in one summary:
Wolfe’s Tinder co-founder claim seems nonexistent. Further, in promoting herself as the ‘sole female on the team,’ Wolfe eclipsed the recognition of other founding female team members.
When I eventually reached Terrill by phone, she sounded audibly alarmed—but though her claims look deeply paranoid on paper, she sounded more or less lucid, with the telephone manner of a celebrity interview veteran. She promised to relay to me a collection of her findings up to that point, backing up both accusations against Wolfe’s story and accusations of Wolfe’s intimidation tactics.
She didn’t disappoint. The next week, I was delivered three folders: One, labeled “#1 CURRENT SITUATION” provided a detailed timeline of vehicles and people Terrill believed had been following her, along with supposed evidence her computer and phone had been hacked. The other, labeled “#2 THE STORY” contained a bullet-point version of what Terrill says are inaccuracies in Wolfe’s case against Tinder, making the case that her lawsuit was a lie. The third folder, “DRIVE—FEMBOT 6,” contained a jewelry box containing a cassette tape case containing a USB stick. On the USB was a maze of folders, containing timelines of both Wolfe’s alleged stalking of Terrill and of the alleged fabrication of Wolfe’s claim to have been a co-founder at Tinder. There were audio recordings, screenshots, reproduced email threads, and, for some reason, dozens of photos of Whitney Wolfe at various lunches and parties. One photo shows her in bed with an old boyfriend.
Screenshot of file library on USB drive sent to me by Ashley Terrill
All of this came packaged inside a large plastic purse, which I’d been told was a means of ensuring that it wouldn’t be tampered with or swapped out in transit. The whole package led me to believe that Ashley Terrill is either completely out of her mind or caught in the middle of a plot ripped from a techno-thriller flick.
Terrill says that only days after Wolfe learned of her investigation, she became the target of patterned surveillance. For example, on August 27th at 5:45 PM (emphasis is hers):
While on the phone, a black Rav4 [sic] with a Calvin and Hobbes “piss” sticker in his back window (located in the lower right hand corner) noticeable passed me on either Dorrington or Ashcroft a total of 6 times...I called the police...West Hollywood Police Department responded...The Male officer expressed that he had seen the car do a portion of the loop before arriving.
A day later, Terrill describes being followed into a gas station and watched by a man in a Jetta:
I was at the gas station for approximately 10 minutes, before this individual arrived. As I had already re-fueled my car, I moved my car closer to the pay phone area. The individual pulled up next to my car.
His window was down and his hair covered the side of his face the entire time he was in close proximity to me. He did not get out of his car, nor attempt to pump gas, nor go into the station store. After my phone call, I got into my vehicle and drove in a loop. Upon my return back, the grey Jetta was leaving the gas station.
After this, she says he stayed near her at CVS parking lot for an entire hour, never entering the store. Other instances include multiple instances of cars parked outside Terrill’s apartment building that departed as she exited.
Terrill’s dossier cited over ten vehicles’ plates she said were involved in her stalking. Also included was a complaint filed with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center after Terrill thought her laptop was illegally breached—in it, she values her research files at $1,000,000. The complaint fingers Wolfe, her attorney David Lowe, and Andrey Andreev, Wolfe’s Russian billionaire business partner in Bumble: “I believe [they] have either directly hacked or hired a third party to hack the two computers in my office...the repeated attempts have continued up to the present day.” The five pages of allegations say Bumble or Wolfe specifically tried to derail Terrill’s story by remotely infiltrating her home WiFi network to tamper with files on her MacBook:
“I believe the party that victimized me wanted to illegally obtain the data and files on my computer to potentially use them, or release them without my permission...to potentially use them as a means of retaliation for the story I have been researching and plan to publish about Whitney Wolfe.”
Terrill also speculates that by obtaining her files, Wolfe might have ammunition for a new lawsuit against Tinder.
If Whitney Wolfe, or Bumble, or someone in the world wanted to push Ashley Terrill away from publicly calling Whitney Wolfe a liar and manipulator, it had at least worked for the time being. Terrill was in a state of absolute terror and perpetual anxiety—it hung on her voice as she mentioned each electronic device she’d locked in a vault, each email address she’d abandoned, the friends she could no longer contact, and the people she could no longer trust. I decided to buy her a burner phone so that she could talk to me for purposes of this story, but even that had to be relayed to her by a trusted concierge at the Beverly Wilshire. At the time we started speaking, a friend told me Ashley “was carrying a basket (seriously, an actual basket) full of documents related to her research that she does not want to leave out of her sight for fear someone might break into her car to steal it.” If this was all an act, it was a devoted performance.
But the actual evidence for all this alleged hacking and stalking is on the thin side: Terrill described slowness and “buffering” on her laptop, and recounted times when “files and documents that had been moved to the trash bin and cleared from the trash bin, reappeared.” This wasn’t evidence that she hadn’t been hacked, but it wasn’t really evidence of anything at all. After being told by a “Samsung specialist,” by her account, that a smartphone provided to her by PR firm PMK BNC had been compromised as well, she put all of her digital devices in a “security locker,” though the only evidence she furnished of a phone hack was a generic security warning message.
Nonetheless, Ashley Terrill was off the grid—on the day we first spoke, she was trying to gather enough cash to buy a new “burner laptop” without a paper trail. As for the shadowy cars, I had little to go on besides Terrill’s word, police complaints, plate numbers, and some blurry photographs of an SUV that are all supposed to fit into a pattern.
It’s exactly the kind of pattern that’s easy to map onto the world when you feel nervous and threatened—we usually call it paranoia.
Terrill made it clear that she’d come to Gawker not because she wanted to me to cover what was happening to her (although she certainly put that on the table), but because she wanted me to know what was happening to her in case something worse happened. Terrill never explicitly told me she feared for her life, but when you go into hiding and trash your phone because you think you’re being tailed through Los Angeles by a team of strange men, that fear isn’t hard to surmise. She eventually asked me to not contact her from my cell phone, in case I too was being surveilled.
Wolfe and Stith vehemently denied all accusations of stalking, hacking, and all other intimidation techniques “This is so false and so far-fetched, I couldn’t even think up a scenario like it,” Wolfe said, alternating between laughter and gasps on the phone. Wolfe denied that she’d ever had Terrill tailed or contracted a private investigator at any point: “Absolutely not. One hundred percent. We would never do that.” This was repeated multiple times. No. Definitely not. Absolutely not. Never. Ditto on the computer hacking allegations (“Would never do that, have never done that”) and remote phone tampering, which prompted laughter: “Absolutely not, no. [Terrill] has a brilliant future in creative writing.”
I asked Wolfe if Andreev could’ve been involved in some digital foul play—part of his software stable includes SpyLog, a service that tracks a web browser’s behavior across the internet. Though it’s possible he’d have the knowhow (and resources) to break into Terrill’s MacBook on the other side of the world, Wolfe dismissed this as preposterous: “Absolutely not. I don’t even think he’s aware of this.” Although Wolfe wouldn’t disclose exactly what Andreev’s role in Bumble is, she noted they’re in “daily contact,” and “he would never do anything like that to anyone.”
Then again, everyone else denies virtually everything else, too. Reached by phone, Rosette Pambakian told that although she does have a personal relationship with Ashley Terrill (“She’s a friend of mine”) she was only “vaguely aware” of her investigation—but made it clear to me that she believed her friend was in actual danger. And, despite being just barely aware of Terrill’s work in progress, Pambakian told me she’d lose her job if “linked” to it, and that inside Tinder, “no one is allowed to help with the project.”
Pambakian was eager to believe all of Terrill’s convoluted accusations, or at least to make me think she believed them. It didn’t really matter. “I felt really bad for her, it sounded like a very scary thing for her, she said she was concerned that she was being followed, that people are hacking her devices, everywhere she goes... it sounded pretty scary.” Aside from the risk of violating the terms of Tinder’s settlement, Pambakian said that “another reason why I wanted everyone to stay out of it [is that it] sounds like a very dangerous position.” When I asked her if she’d contacted anyone about providing a quote for Terrill, or facilitated Terrill’s sourcing in any way (as Alexa Dell’s text conversations and Ashley herself suggests), Pambakian categorically stated she had not: “I have not put anyone in touch or suggested anyone provide a quote.” She added of Tinder: “as a company, we know not to speak to journalists.”
The last time I spoke to Ashley Terrill she had fled Los Angeles, scrambling through her back door and up a steep hill behind her house with her two dogs to a spot where a getaway car was waiting for her—she was afraid to leave by the front door. At first she wouldn’t tell me where she was, or if she even had a final destination—only that she’d left L.A. out of an ongoing fear for her safety. She later disclosed her new redoubt to me via email on the condition that I never publish it. The email also contained some statements for the record in oddly alternating fonts, as if she’d been copying and pasting from different sources.
The most interesting part was a denial that she’d been put up to her project by her friend at Tinder, nor been compensated for it:
You asked if I have received any help from Tinder during this time. I have not received any help — neither monetary aid nor any other form of contribution, good or service from anyone at Tinder. During this time, I have received support (financial and otherwise) from my family and friends. On several occasions since August 18 2015, I have told my friend, Rosette Pambakian, of my situation and she has repeatedly expressed concern for my safety. However, I have not received any support or aid from her (other than her concern).
I want to be clear: my pursuit of this story has been of my own volition. I pursued it because I did not feel all of the details were reported and I felt it was worth reporting.
She also said she’d only spoken to a single source within Tinder, post-settlement—even though when we first spoke, she’d told me there were more, and while pitching her article to editors, she’d claimed “I’ve been tracking down and interviewing key figures.” It’s hard to imagine who a “key figure” in a story about Tinder would be, if not people at Tinder.
In our last phone conversation, I asked Terrill about this discrepancy. She admitted she’s conducted “several off the record interviews” (she later said it was 40) with people inside the company, including “women who were on the floor when Tinder first started.” Terrill denied that any of these interviews were with Sean Rad, but said “I talk to Sean all the time.”
In this last conversation, I pressed Terrill on her motivations—even with no evidence that she’s been paid or persuaded in the slightest to retell the Whitney Wolfe story, she’s still making a very charged claim about someone from whom she has little objective distance. Why call Wolfe a liar, a year later? But Terrill was adamant that she was doing no such thing: “All I’m pointing out is there are discrepancies,” she said.
But isn’t “pointing out discrepancies” in someone’s claim as a victim of sexual harassment and co-founder of a company more than a simple act of pointing? Terrill wouldn’t cop to any larger judgment of Wolfe, or even say that she thinks Wolfe deliberately misrepresented herself in court and the media: “I think everybody does that...you [subconsciously] select the facts that work for you and deselect the facts that don’t.” In other words, Hey, I’m just asking the questions—but the questions just happen to center around the business nemesis of her friends.
Ashley Terrill is right about at least two things: “I don’t think I’ll ever get to the truth.” No one will. Neither Tinder nor Whitney Wolfe are legally permitted to speak about what happened, and since the suit never went to trial, most of the evidence will remain hidden. She’s also right that odd occurrences, “discrepancies,” strange patterns—whatever—look stranger and stranger the longer you stare at them. If you spend enough time propping up one thought with what looks like data, there’s no limit to what you can convince yourself is true.
The other thing she’s right about was something she told me during our last chat: “I think,” she said, “everybody has their own perception of what happened and what the truth is.”
Update, 11/26: A spokesperson for Andrey Andreev sent the following statement: “On behalf of Mr. Andreev I wish to refute all of the allegations made to you by Ms. Terrill relating to Mr. Andreev. Such allegations are untrue and without foundation.”
Illustration by Jim Cooke