You may have recently come across a tautly muscled bearded figure on your TikTok For You page. Maybe you’ve seen him show off an obscene amount of meat, or heave hundreds of pounds of weights down a driveway while grunting heavily, or take an ice bath while giving the camera a pep talk. He is incredibly — almost painfully — jacked, and almost always shirtless. He looks right in the camera and tells you to do Tabata push-ups to “honor the struggle of our early ancestors” and “express your most dominant form.”
This is Liver King, an influencer encouraging people to embrace life like our cave-dwelling forebears.
Liver King is the persona of Brian Johnson, a 44-year-old from Texas. While the essence of the Liver King lifestyle, according to fans, is to reconnect with nature, his most viral posts feature extreme versions of the principles, such as strenuous weighted workouts or the wooden planks he sleeps on in his mansion. And, of course, the food. Whether it’s a protein shake of blended animal organs, raw animal testicles, or his daily pound of raw liver and sea salt, Johnson’s viral carnivorous diet — like his bulging physique — has been the subject of great discussion online.
There’s both a marketing and entertainment quality to Liver King. He’s memeable — weird enough for a non-bro to follow but charming enough to actually inspire people. And conveniently, he’s also the CEO and owner of four businesses that sell supplements and protein powders aimed at people who want to live and look just like him, which a follower can purchase by just clicking a link on his Instagram or TikTok.
On a call with BuzzFeed News from Tanzania, Johnson said he did not know what a TikTok creator, an influencer, or a meme was, despite fitting all of those categories himself. His goal is to show everyone that “liver is king” and preach his lifestyle in the hope it can help others, he said. The supplements, he added, are just a happenstance business that supports his message.
This is not exactly a new phenomenon, as brands become increasingly dependent on social media platforms — and influencers — to find viral success. Particularly in the wellness space, nonregulated products like detox teas that advertise a flat tummy have played the algorithm in order to cut through the saturation of marketing. And inversely, many influencers have used their growing following to sell questionably researched wellness products. But rather than the traditional influencer-to-sponcon pipeline, Johnson joined social media as a ready-made brand promoting an “ancestral” lifestyle and the products that can help you attain that lifestyle.
“I’m an evolutionary hunter, so I have a few businesses — all of them are exactly the same,” Johnson said. “The same story brand, the same mission.”
Johnson seamlessly merges the Liver King persona with the products he sells. For instance, taking Ancestral Supplements, one of Johnson’s brands, supports one’s journey to the “ancestral lifestyle,” which is achieved by following nine “ancestral tenets” revolving around positive lifestyle habits, such as eating unprocessed foods and getting a good night’s sleep.
While the nine tenets can be applied to anyone (any gender, and even vegans), Johnson largely related the practices to optimizing testosterone levels. “If you have your cellphone next to your fucking dick and balls, that’s going to change your testosterone,” he said.
Underneath it all, Liver King is selling a version of untamed, unfettered masculinity. “People say, ‘Liver King says eat liver and get jacked,’” Johnson said. “You know what Liver King says? Start with liver, get some really good sleep, move like Liver King, eat like Liver King, shield like Liver King. Live like the ancestral man, and you’ll have the hormone profile that’s double or triple of the manicured modern man.”
Lisa Stollman, a registered nutritionist and diabetes specialist, strongly pushed back on the Liver King diet. She disputed Johnson’s suggestion that it will make you big and strong, even in the short term, and said it could be dangerous in the long term. “There’s a big problem with bacteria when you’re eating raw foods like this,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Common pesticides and hormones fed to animals now all accumulate in the liver. This is a diet where you’ll increase your risk of heart disease, as well as many types of cancer due to the content of saturated fat. To be on a diet because you want to look a certain way is not right — we need to think more about long-term health.”
Stollman stressed that including whole foods and plants into your diet is crucial to decreasing inflammation and increasing longevity, and she questioned Johnson’s qualifications to be sharing nutrition tips. When asked if he had any certification in nutrition sciences, Johnson, who says he is a health coach, told BuzzFeed News that he has a degree in biology and chemistry.
Johnson claimed he has never used enhancing drugs to achieve his physique. “This is what I think is crazy,” he said. “We live in a world where people who are muscular, fit, and ripped have to justify their fitness. And in the same world, people who are obese, metabolically deranged, or skinny and osteopathically deranged, they don’t have to justify their level of fitness.”
There’s a specific set of vocabulary associated with the brand as well. Liver King addresses his wife as the “Liver Queen” and his sons as the “Savage Liver Boys.” Liver King’s fans are addressed as “primals.” Cardio workouts are translated to “simulated hunts,” while strength workouts are “training barbarian.” Now, when corporations using memes and voicey language is considered unbearably cringey, the Liver King persona slips past the trappings of a faceless company and user-created jokes to formulate his own ecosystem.
And Johnson has been wildly successful at this. He now has more than 1.8 million followers on TikTok and 1.2 million on Instagram; just seven months ago, Liver King had no digital footprint at all.
“He approached us because he wanted guidance,” said Sam Parham, a director at influencer marketing and management agency 1DS Collective, which specializes in video production and brand development for social media. 1DS began filming the brand of Liver King, creating short-form video content to capture Johnson’s extreme lifestyle. A 1DS representative initially told BuzzFeed News that Johnson had ambitions to create “multiple business endeavors around the nine ancestral tenets.”
Johnson and 1DS have maintained that their primary goal in building a Liver King social media brand was to “spread the ancestral message,” rather than to sell Johnson’s products. 1DS called Johnson “the leader of the ship” and “solely responsible for his likeness and his brand.”
“If you have millions of people struggling with modern-day living conditions, and you're convinced there's a simple, elegant solution — you're a piece of shit if you don't make it your life's purpose,” Johnson said. “You can’t just be informative or educational; you have to be entertaining if you want to make a difference in this world.”
The first Instagram and TikTok post introducing Liver King are the same, a trailer-style sizzle reel to launch the alter ego. There was no mention of the supplement brand (although it was clear he was selling something — meat? Personal training?), and it resembled a business brand video more than his posts do now.
“Brian Johnson AKA Liver King has made a fierce debut across social platforms this month. Led by yours truly, the team at 1DS Collective. It's been an honour to set the stage for Liver King,” the team wrote on Instagram in September 2021.
According to data provided by TikTok, at the time of Johnson’s first post in August 2021, the hashtag #AncestralLiving had only been used in 1 video on TikTok and had under 200 views. Since then, it has garnered over 3.7 million views in the United States — and it has continued to grow.
“I first saw Liver King on my FYP, and thought, This guy is really smart and has some good ideas, underneath his barbarian looks,” said Nick Vitello, 23, a civil engineer.
Liver King’s most active fans have become brand ambassadors for Johnson’s supplement companies as a way to support his message. Layne Gusler, 26, told BuzzFeed News that one of the most exciting things about being an ambassador was the direct contact he had with Johnson himself, who sends personal emails to those in the community.
“I wanted to learn more about training barbarian and reached out to him to learn more,” said Gusler, a personal trainer. “He responded really promptly with lots of information. … I feel like I’ve developed a pretty good relationship with him over the past eight or nine months.”
The language Johnson uses has also sparked its own insular meme format in the comments, with users writing “does liver queen liver queef” under most videos. “daddy liver king I just went to the elementary school close to where I live and completed a successful simulated hunt, came back with 43 pieces of bone marrow,” one user wrote.
Johnson said he doesn’t understand the comments, but he does read them.
“I love it. I don’t know what it means. But I’m in their ecosystems, and that’s my goal — to dominate your environment and do it at the highest level,” he said. “If you don’t remember anything I said, it’s not about what you say, but how you say it. In case you get off the phone and you’re like, This Liver King guy is crazy as fuck. I don’t believe anything he says, but this guy is passionate, and I believe he wants to help people.”
Social media has helped spread his message, and Johnson said his businesses have grown consistently, but he cannot quantify that growth. “I don’t concern myself with those details,” he said.
“I don't give a shit if I change one person's life,” he said. “I give a shit about changing millions of lives. The narrative we're faced with today, whatever's happening mainstream, is not working. I'm convinced there's a better way to do life.”
Johnson’s latest string of trips to Latin America and Africa to visit what he calls “primitive culture tribes” has been both for filming content as well as validating his lifestyle, he told BuzzFeed News.
“When you hang out with primitive culture tribes who don’t know how to open a bottle of water or even know what a phone is, you are seeing people laugh more than you ever have in your life,” he said. “In the Amazon, my cameraman was hit with an arrow at his chest during a hunt. He wasn’t injured, but do you know how hard these hunters laughed? They laugh at everything. Everything is so hilarious to them.”
Johnson remained evasive when asked how he was able to enter Indigenous communities. “It takes some finessing to let us come in, but you know how it is,” he added, praising BuzzFeed News for getting him on the phone for an interview. “You got Liver King to talk to you before he came back from Africa. My guy told you no, but did you take that as is? Of course you did not. People like us, evolutionary hunters, if they have a cause, they will find a way no matter what.”
Liver King’s viral journey may be indicative of a new age of influencer — one that already comes with a host of products to match the message. To Johnson, every moment is an opportunity to remind people who he is. He signed off of his interview with BuzzFeed News with one of his catchphrases: “Liver King out.”