LOS ANGELES — A growing chorus of clients and current and former workers at the social media management company Unruly, and an affiliated firm, Behave, say the agencies have engaged in deceptive recruitment practices that locked them into agreements threatening six-figure penalties for contract breaches and handing over expansive control of their personal lives, while demanding work they hadn’t realized they’d signed up for and, in some cases, publishing nude images of them without their consent.
Unruly, which manages OnlyFans accounts on behalf of content creators, has risen to become one of the dominant players in its industry, promoting itself as an advocate for women’s empowerment, offering entry-level workers a seemingly exciting job in the middle of the pandemic, and promising content creators explosive growth in followers and revenue. But interviews with 18 people and documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News reveal that company officials signed clients and hired workers under conditions that were not always clear, sometimes including details in their contracts that conflicted with or were absent from the terms workers and clients thought they agreed to in conversations with company officials, and which their lawyers say were illegal in some cases.
One document, presented as a COVID liability waiver for an event that workers were expected to attend, included on its third page a condition stating that anyone who violated the confidentiality provisions would owe the company $5 million.
“I don’t know what I signed with them,” said Alexis Marquez, who worked as an account manager at Unruly for a little over a year. “They pressured us on the spot to sign everything.”
Trying to survive as gig workers in a pandemic and locked into contracts they couldn’t get out of, clients and former workers said they faced a dilemma they hadn’t prepared for: tolerate conditions they didn’t know they’d signed up for, or face threats and retaliation ranging from losing their job to getting sued by the company.
Unruly’s founders, Tara Niknejad and Nicky Gathrite, declined to comment on specific allegations, citing pending litigation. The claims in the lawsuits against them “are broadly stated and not supported by any evidence,” they said in a statement provided by a PR representative. “Unruly is confident that it will successfully resolve these matters in court, and looks forward to disproving the claims through the legal process.”
In a statement, Unruly said that it is a separate company from Behave. But emails and text messages show that the two agencies often operate in tandem, sharing some staff and recruiting jointly. Emails soliciting a creator who later signed with Behave identified the pitch and contract as coming from “Unruly/Behave.” The pitch emails included both a Behave representative and Unruly owner Niknejad, who refers to “our agency” in the exchange. Another creator who signed a Behave contract communicated via text message with a man who identified himself as the head of talent at “Unruly/Behave.”
At a moment when the growing popularity of OnlyFans has created an intensely competitive market for online creators, Unruly and Behave present themselves as a promising pathway to more revenue.
Social media managers have been around for a long time, and as OnlyFans has become part of the repertoire of ways influencers make money online, content management services like Unruly and Behave are increasingly common. The specific arrangements can vary, but companies typically help them sell content, produce videos, promote their work, and respond to what can be an overwhelming volume of messages from fans.
Six creators told BuzzFeed News that they have struggled to get out of contracts with the Los Angeles–based agencies. Four contracts for clients of Unruly and Behave that were reviewed by BuzzFeed News included automatic renewal provisions that locked clients in for three years or more unless they provided written notice within a window ranging from two weeks to two months. The Behave contract included a provision that gives the company the right to take out life insurance on the creator and requires them to be available for medical examinations and share medical information with the company if the carrier declines to issue a policy.
“It’s almost like a Frankenstein of the worst provisions I’ve seen put together in one contract,” said Robert Tauler, an attorney who represents a former Unruly and a former Behave client suing the companies. “I think it’s an unlawful contract, and it’s used only to manipulate. … It’s used strictly as leverage to maintain dominion over the lives of young women who are in this predicament.”
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One former client, who requested anonymity because her family doesn’t know about her OnlyFans account, said after she signed up with Unruly hoping to monetize lingerie photos, company officials pressured her to post more explicit content, “trying to force me to be comfortable with things that from the start I wasn’t comfortable with.” Another, a mainstream model who planned to post bikini photos, is now suing the company anonymously after she discovered that Unruly sold an image that showed her exposed breast and had been taken without her consent or knowledge while she was changing during a photo shoot organized by the company. She said she had been clear with the company from the beginning that she didn’t want to do nude content.
“I don’t even know how much they sold it for, who they sold it to — if it was just the one person or thousands of people,” she said. “I was crying for so long.”
A lifestyle influencer with about 100,000 followers on Instagram who signed with Behave said the company shared one of her nude videos on the main feed of her OnlyFans page, even though she’d informed them she typically required an extra fee and ID from anyone who wanted to view it. After she told the company she wanted to leave, she said in a lawsuit that the company shared a second private photo of her on another person’s account. Since then, Behave has demanded that she pay them around $400,000 for breach of contract, she states in the lawsuit, which she also filed anonymously.
“I would never wish any other girls or guys to go through what I went through,” she said.
Another former client, who goes by the stage name Amia Miley, signed on with Behave in October 2020 after a company executive told her that it would increase her income to at least $25,000 in their first month working together “in order for the contract to be in force,” according to an email reviewed by BuzzFeed News. After her income failed to hit that mark, according to OnlyFans account statements reviewed by BuzzFeed News, she left. But Behave said that she owed the company nearly $300,000 for breaking her contract, according to a letter reviewed by BuzzFeed News. The company cited a three-week period from late January to early February 2021 in which they said she earned more than $25,000 — Miley said the calculation was accurate but unfairly cherry-picked specific dates, and that her monthly income never reached that number.
“They have such a big company, I just would have never imagined that they’d be so desperate to trap anybody,” Miley told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t know how they’re still in business, probably because they just scare so many girls who don’t speak up or know who to say something to.”
Miley and the lifestyle influencer said that they had raised concerns about some of the provisions in their contracts, but company representatives assured them the documents were formalities rather than binding terms, so they signed them.
“They were just like, ‘Oh don’t worry about that, this is what our lawyer makes us do,’” Miley said.
The lifestyle influencer said a company recruiter told her that if at any time she wanted to leave, “We’ll find a happy solution for the both of us.”
"They have such a big company, I just would have never imagined that they’d be so desperate to trap anybody."
After joining OnlyFans in 2016, Miley developed a loyal following that netted her around $10,000 to 15,000 a month just before she signed with Behave, she said. But Niknejad projected that the company could help her earn five times her revenue, according to emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News — an income boost that would more than make up for their 25% fee. Miley, who was pregnant at the time and glad to lighten her workload, thought the offer sounded good.
But things quickly turned sour. Behave’s first move was to make her account free, effectively erasing the reliable paid-subscriber base she had spent years building. Her income would be dependent on tips and sales through direct messages, which can be much more labor intensive. The company had told her that they typically structure their accounts this way, she said — and two workers corroborated this. But the result, she said, was that she ended up losing money for the duration of her time working with the company.
“I said I’m not comfortable with that. I’ve spent years getting these numbers up, and this is residual money I count on,” she said. I’m gonna have a baby any second, she recalled thinking at the time. These people are ruining my life.
Without warning, the company switched out the banking information on her OnlyFans account, replacing Miley’s bank details with their own, she said. One other former client said in a lawsuit the same thing happened to her. Rather than receiving the income on their OnlyFans accounts and paying Behave for their services, the women would now rely on the company to pay them the money they had earned, they said.
“They put me in a position where I was like, ‘I can’t leave now — you have my money, you haven’t paid me yet,’” Miley said, noting that the company was regularly late with payments. A former account manager for Behave said that she often got messages from other models saying their money was also late.
In response to the lawsuits, Unruly and Behave have sought to avoid judgment in court by activating the arbitration clause in the former clients’ contracts. The lifestyle influencer’s case is scheduled to go to arbitration in January. The mainstream model’s case remains pending. The companies have not admitted wrongdoing in these cases and there have been no court findings against the companies to this point.
"We were working over 100 hours a week. From when we started, in 2020, I only had 3 full days off."
Workers are accusing Unruly of exploitative practices too. Six current and former workers who were paid to run accounts on behalf of creators are suing or have hired legal representation in preparation to sue the company for wage theft. The company has not yet responded to these claims in court.
Lizzie Machabeli and another former account manager suing Unruly jointly allege in their complaint that the company misclassified them as independent contractors and illegally underpaid them while pressuring them to work around the clock on accounts that they said were bringing in tens of thousands of dollars each month. The two former workers, who said they were fired after they retained lawyers, told BuzzFeed News that they struggled to pay bills and at times had to choose between paying the rent and buying food.
“We were working over 100 hours a week,” said Machabeli. “From when we started, in 2020, I only had 3 full days off.”
Machabeli said that at one point she was answering around 300 messages every few hours, and that account managers were prohibited from telling the clients they had a day off or were even at lunch. Part of the dispute over classification stems from California labor law which says that workers cannot be considered independent contractors if their work — including their schedule — is subject to the control or direction of the company. Three former workers said that supervisors often closely monitored their schedules and, according to former account manager Marquez, sometimes transferred commission-based account managers from high-earning accounts to lower-earning ones when they weren’t meeting expectations. One former account manager said she was pressured to work while she was at a wedding. Another said she was reprimanded for taking time away for a Black Lives Matter protest. Marquez said a supervisor questioned why she wasn’t doing more work while she was attending an aunt’s funeral.
In the lawsuit, which was filed in November, Machabeli and the former account manager allege that company officials recruited them with promises of five-figure checks and lavish trips, but once they started, they found that their pay structures and job duties would change without notice, often in ways that shrunk their income. Machabeli said in the lawsuit that she was missing $500 from a paycheck at one point, and one current and one other former worker said in interviews that they also encountered errors in their paychecks. “It was so manipulative,” Machabeli said.
Ten days after Machabeli raised concerns about her status as a contractor with the company in an email to executives in April, she and other workers received a document described in the subject line as Unruly’s “commission structure,” but which included an independent contractor agreement that would lock them into arbitration for any dispute, make them liable for third-party lawsuits, and disavow their claims to be Unruly’s “employees.”
The workers “were never given the opportunity to understand that they were signing away very important rights under California law,” said Courtney Abrams, a lawyer representing them, describing the allegations in the lawsuit.
Abrams described parts of the arbitration clause and elements in other documents that workers were asked to sign — including the COVID liability waiver with the $5 million in damages and a noncompete clause that included $100,000 in damages per violation — as illegal under California law.
“They’re bullies. They really freaking break you.”
In the months since Machabeli disputed her status as a contractor, the company has transitioned the account managers from contractors into employees who qualify for health insurance coverage, according to two current workers, but they say that hasn’t resulted in higher pay.
The two former workers' lawsuit seeks payment for overtime they say they were owed had they been classified as employees. Company officials and bosses have asked current and former workers to sign a settlement release, agreeing to forgo any claims against the company over their work status in exchange for $100, according to two current workers and one former one. Two workers say Niknejad approached them to negotiate a price.
Current and former Unruly workers describe an environment in which workers fear raising issues internally out of concern for losing their jobs or facing legal repercussions.
“They’re bullies,” said one current employee. “They really freaking break you.”
“I couldn’t sleep, I would have breakdowns,” said the former account manager in the lawsuit with Machabeli. “I remember I would just stand in the shower and start crying. … And I just felt trapped, like I couldn’t get out of it because … we were terrified of not having the income, even though this income was so slim.”
Marquez, who was working full time for Unruly while also taking a full course load for her undergraduate degree during the pandemic, said that the pressure became so intense that she suffered an anxiety attack and wound up in the hospital.
A few days later she posted on TikTok singing about how she wanted to quit her job without naming the company. An account with the handle “thebossatyourjob” commented on the video: “You quitting wasn’t the subject of your performance review next week, but it can be. Or, should I just consider this your resignation <3 Your Boss.” Marquez noticed that the account had the same profile picture as another one operated by Michael Eisman, Unruly’s chief operating officer. Eisman did not respond to a request for comment.
Hours later, Marquez said, she found that she had been locked out of her work email and group chats and fired without any notice. ●
This story has been updated to include an additional response from Unruly sent after publication and more information clarifying the relationship between Unruly and Behave.