A little after 1 a.m. this past Saturday morning, Martin Shkreli did what he does more or less all the time now: he turned on his computer and began livestreaming on YouTube to his small but feverish fanbase. Normally Shkreli might strum his guitar or engage in inane conversations with his viewers, but this time, at least at first, something was different: a woman was sitting on his lap, and later she would use several needles in an attempt to drain a cyst above his elbow.
That woman appears to be Helen Donahue, a social media editor at Vice. The evidence, such as it is, connecting Donahue and Shkreli was first collected by a blog called Webcam Woodshed, but Donahue doesn’t really appear to be hiding her relationship with the pharmaceutical industry’s walking publicity stunt.
This was taken at 11 p.m. on Friday, about two hours before Shkreli began a livestream with a faceless woman in a black-and-white striped shirt dangling off his knee. Though YouTube doesn’t say when an archived livestream began, a Chrome extension that feeds you YouTube videos from your subscribed channels shows that this livestream was posted to Shkreli’s channel when it concluded at 1:19 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. The livestream is 11 hours long, and the woman appears at the very beginning.
Though she hides her face, tattoos on the woman’s arms appear to correspond with those visible in photos posted to Donahue’s social media feeds. An old Twitter avatar also showed Donahue in the same Commes Des Garcon shirt—with its distinctive red heart—being worn by the woman in the livestream, who 10 minutes or so into the recording starts poking at Shkreli’s cyst as Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy” plays.
When reached via DM, Shkreli didn’t deny that Donahue is the woman in the livestream. (He also confirmed that they were trying to get rid of a cyst and not, as the eventual hypodermic needle might insinuate, shooting drugs.) When I asked Donahue via email if she could elaborate on their relationship she asked if I was inquiring “for an article or curiosity’s sake,” and when I said it was for an article she replied “what kind of article...”
The thing that complicates whatever is going on between Shkreli and Donahue is that Vice recently ran a long packaged story on Shkreli. Shkreli has given plenty of interviews but Vice was the first to receive access to his apartment, to interview him on camera, and to hear his multi-million dollar Wu-Tang album. Vice, as you would expect, has pushed the story hard on its social media feeds.
If you think that Vice might be concerned about one of its editorially-adjacent employees subsequently, and publicly, showing up in Shkreli’s bedroom, it doesn’t appear to be. In an emailed statement, a Vice spokesperson said:
The vice.com profile of Martin Shkreli and the accompanying video piece were conceived and created by a small number of our editorial staffers—and the individual whose name you brought to us, who is not a writer or producer, had no involvement in the piece. As a matter of policy, we don’t keep tabs on the social lives of our employees, or comment on them in the press.
Vice fancies itself as the company carrying the baton of ambitious journalism into our brave new media future. The profile of Shkreli was thorough—writer Allie Conti gave Shkreli his ink, but also talked to those whose lives were severely complicated by his price-gouging schemes—and Vice does plenty of other good reporting, especially in the relatively expensive realm of video. But it is a specific function of Vice that an employee who works closely with editorial could carry on a public flirtation with Shkreli, down to showing up in his feted livestreams, apparently without anyone there batting an eye. It is acutely Vice-y to publicly canoodle with one of the most notorious men in the country, but when that man is also a very recent subject of your company’s serious journalism, the calculation involved gets especially tricky.
Anyway, this is the defining internal tension of today’s deeply influential, investment-rich Vice. Vice wants to maintain its edginess, and with good reason. The company attracts billion dollar investments specifically because the fusty corporations with that money desperately need to glom onto the sort of (young) people that Vice’s attitude attracts (or at least says it attracts). But as the company gets ever-more-serious, that spirit of rebellion will continue to rub up against its high-minded, traditionally-legislated journalism.
Even more to the point: If Vice suddenly decides that it no longer desires the residual benefits it receives when its millennial employees publicly perform the edginess they have made integral to the company’s brand, it won’t be Vice that’s left holding the bag.