CULTURE & ARTS
02/28/2019 08:30 EST | Updated 02/28/2019 11:23 EST

Inside The Rabid Fandom Community That Keeps '90 Day Fiancé' On Air

“90DF” has everything we love and hate about contemporary entertainment in one place, like a grotesque smorgasbord of reality TV survival tropes.

Ji Sub Jeong/HuffPost
"It’s really trash TV at its finest, and it gets worse every season," one fan says of "90 Day Fiancé." 

There are two subreddits associated with the TLC reality show “90 Day Fiancé.” There’s the primary account, /r/90DayFiance, and then there’s /r/90DayFianceUncensored.

The former group, now comprising over 51,000 subscribers, hosts relatively innocuous threads comparing the resemblance of current cast members to minor celebrities, for example. The latter group, as its name suggests, provides rawer, unedited analysis of the show for its 9,000 active users. Case in point: this post theorizing that cast member Angela was previously a sex tourist in Nigeria.

Despite the tonal differences, the subreddits have at least one thing in common beyond their obvious subject matter: User Katie Not Holmes is banned from both.

Katie is a massively controversial figure in the “90DF” worlds. She has a thriving Instagram account focused on the show, but it’s fair to say she is hated by a large chunk of the Reddit community. And that community is fervent. It’s the reason a blandly premised “documentary” TV franchise on a network formerly known as the Learning Channel has captured so much of the internet’s attention.

“This is Britney Spears 2007,” Katie said of the fandom world that has shunned her, which she describes as not unlike the downright bloodthirsty tabloid mania that hounded Spears in her head-shaving days. Our interview took place, unsurprisingly, over Instagram messages, during which Katie declined to reveal her real name.

“[‘90 Day Fiancé’ is] the ultimate shame-watch,” she added. “You don’t want to admit watching it, so you cloister in Facebook groups or Reddit.”

For those of you who have just gotten into the show ― or, bless you, have yet to watch an episode ― here’s a little crash course on “90 Day Fiancé”: It’s a television program, in its sixth season on TLC, that follows international couples who met on the internet or occasionally while traveling and are applying for or have received a U.S. visa that would unite them. One partner always resides in the U.S. (usually in a state like Ohio, Florida or Pennsylvania), while the other partner hails from a foreign country (like the Philippines, Nigeria or the Dominican Republic). Together, the visa they seek is of the K-1 variety, which gives the foreign individual 90 days after entering the U.S. to marry the American citizen petitioner or face deportation.

The show is problematic, to say the least, as are its spinoffs “90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After?” “90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days” and “90 Day Fiancé: What Now?” In each, stereotypical culture clashes, clunky language barriers and all shades of mail-order-bride paranoia provide a drumbeat for drama. Ignorant Americans willfully embarrass themselves when they exoticize their partners’ basic habits for the camera; foreign visa seekers willfully villainize themselves when they abandon their spouse post-nuptials. When true love doesn’t arise, the potential for exploitation and xenophobia abounds. And yet audiences can’t look away.

“The show is so amazingly bad that few people openly admit to watching it,” Katie said. “‘It’s a show about immigration visa marriage’ is not exactly the selling point. When you find that one person who also watches it, it almost feels conspiratorial.”

The act of savoring “90DF” feels conspiratorial because you’re never quite sure whether you should look away from the very real humans performing State Department–approved love and letdown for a camera or hunker down and root for them. “90DF” has everything we love and hate about contemporary entertainment in one place, like a grotesque smorgasbord of reality TV survival tropes: the fairy-tale romance, the cutthroat fight for advantage in a competitive world, the humiliation that comes with failing at both.

Consider Chantel and Pedro, a “90DF” couple who audiences generally agree are in it for the right reasons. They met in the Dominican Republic and quickly got engaged, leading him to drop everything and come to America to meet her family members, who are unapologetically xenophobic instigators with a bloodlust for drama. He and her family (affectionately referred to as “Family Chantel” on Reddit) quickly learn to despise each other, in part because she lied about her engagement status early on. Their latest season ended with a seismic blowout in which the entire family engaged in a physical fight that ended only when producers stepped in.

Watching “90DF” raises the question so many reality TV shows do: Should I feel bad watching this?

“I watch it because it makes me feel better about myself,” Reddit user purrson explained, saying that she’s attracted to the fact that “90DF” cast members don’t look as though they’ve walked off the pages of a magazine. “It’s really the only reality show I’m interested in.” 

“It’s a total train wreck of entertainment,” said Reddit user bitchassslutasswhore (a name based on one of the finest, trashiest moments in “90 Day Fiancé” history). “I think there are a bunch of fans that are going through a K-1 visa process and they relate to the situation. Others are like me and enjoy the things some of the people are willing to do for a green card. Some of the couples are endearing, and you actually start to root for them. But it’s really trash TV at its finest, and it gets worse every season.”

It’s really trash TV at its finest, and it gets worse every season.a Reddit user

TLC is aware of the perverse fervor among its fans. The channel has introduced a seemingly nonstop stream of “90DF” spinoffs starring even wilder characters as a result. Take Angela and Michael from “90 Day Fiancé: Before The 90 Days.” Michael is a 30-year-old Donald Trump–loving Nigerian who persuades 52-year-old Angela (who bears a striking similarity to our president) from Georgia to visit him in Nigeria. What follows is a whirlwind trip during which Michael describes his soon-to-be-fiancée as “fat” and “old.”

Strangely enough, their saga is one of the few in which Trump or his administration is mentioned on the show. Instead, his brand of rampant xenophobia is expressed through the ignorant American friends and family members who insist on propagating their own cartoonish ideas of U.S. supremacy.

Katie compared the combination of cringe and keenness stirred by “90DF” to that of “Teen Mom.”

“It’s a similar concept of how many adults would actually admit to caring about a teen mom. And the answer is: a lot,” Katie said. “When it comes down to it, it’s the cast. That’s what was really out of control on ‘Teen Mom’ ... what really sucked fans in to an unhealthy level.”

Like all reality shows, TLC takes some liberties with its presentation of cast members. Sometimes “90DF” fudges the timeline of a wedding, and sometimes it exaggerates a couple’s meet-cute story. For example, one of the most infamous couples of the series, Annie and David, allegedly met at a bar in Thailand, after which he took her back to Kentucky to start a life together. In the U.S., she learned that he was financially inept and possibly homeless, rendering him incapable of providing the hefty dowry her family demanded (which included a water buffalo). It all sounds like typically absurd “90DF” fodder, but it didn’t satisfy suspicious fans, who surmised that David actually met Annie when he sought her services as a sex worker.

Here’s the thing: the fandom community is rarely satisfied with TLC’s version of events onscreen. In fact, it’s fans’ ruthless taste for the whole story ― the real story ― that makes Katie’s saga so interesting.

But let’s back up. Before her “90DF” days, Katie had her own international relationship. “When I was 29, I was dating a French guy who was in NYC for his MBA,” she wrote. “He had to move back to London after graduating. We were long-distance for maybe a couple months before I found out I have the BRCA1 mutation [an indicator of higher breast cancer risk], and then a month later, stage 0 breast cancer. Three days after my last mastectomy surgery, he ended it. I found ‘90DF’ on Amazon and it was so on point.”

Her initial reverence quickly turned into an obsession. She began posting memes and hot takes on Reddit, which members of the community upvoted every day. She graduated to co-moderator on /r/90DayFianceduring the third season of the show and eventually took control of the subreddit’s design work, continuing to post popular content to the space daily.

“Finding the fandom was actually kind of healing,” Katie said. “I went into it a complete hater with no outlet, but ended up with some really great friends and a community that enjoys my work. I started modding at 7,000 subscribers, it was 35,000 a year later when I left.”

Her Reddit problems started, she said, when she exercised her right as a moderator to ban “people [in the subreddit] who went totally toxic.” The classic redditor-moderator relationship is fraught, especially when non-mods believe the people with banning abilities are abusing their powers. Katie said she banned only the type of people who had to be banned ― those who referred to certain “90DF” cast members as “money-hungry whores” or “human Fleshlights” ― but others disagree, calling her the “most hated Reddit moderator ever,” who unjustifiably banned people who threatened her digital reign.

“I think of it more as janitorial work,” Alex, another longtime moderator of /r/90DayFiance, said of the job. “It gets toxic.” Like Katie, he has been accused of censorship after banning users for racist comments. After a particularly large-scale banning bout, Alex half-heartedly suggested angry fans start their own subreddit where they could talk and post without the oppressive oversight of moderators. And thus /r/90DayFianceUncensored was born.

Katie did a lot for the original “90DF” group beyond banning unruly members. She regularly communicated with cast members and shared unfiltered tips from other sleuthing fans, cementing herself as the authority on “90DF” gossip. So it was unsurprising when,in September 2018, she said, she received an Instagram DM out of the blue from a woman who claimed to know Ricky, one of the stars of “Before the 90 Days.”

His storyline on TLC revolved around a Colombian woman, Melissa, whom he said he fell for online. But when he arrived in Colombia, cameras on, it was clear she had no intention of pursuing a romantic relationship with him. So he conveniently met with another woman he had been communicating with, Ximena, and instantly proposed.

The woman who reached out to Katie was neither Melissa nor Ximena. She was, she told Katie, Ricky’s wife, which meant that he was not eligible to petition for a K-1 visa for someone else.

(It’s fair to surmise that TLC doesn’t conduct as detailed a background check as one would hope — something all too familiar to those aware of “The Bachelorfranchise.)

That weekend, Katie caught wind from her sources that Ricky was reportedly trying to fly a woman to the U.S. from Montreal using his “90DF” fame as leverage and sending nude videos of himself to other members of the cast. “He had this super elaborate story about his life in Hoboken,” Katie said. “Turns out he lives in his parents’ basement in Bumblefuck, New Jersey.”

So she outed Ricky on her Instagram. He didn’t take it well. According to her, he began incessantly harassing her ― through texts, through Instagram and on Reddit. And then came the alleged doxing.

As a result, Reddit banned Katie for life. She could no longer operate either of the '90DF' community subreddits she used to moderate.

Before things went south with Ricky, Katie said she helped him set up a Reddit account for an Ask Me Anything interview with fans. But Ricky never did the AMA. Instead, Katie said he used that account to reveal personal information about her and her family online.

“He knew there was a separate ‘90DF’ subreddit dedicated to stalking me, [created by] toxic people who felt I shouldn’t have banned them, so he posted a now-deleted YouTube [video] there with my family’s address and names and info, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to remove it very quickly,” she said. “I escalated it to Reddit corporate and they saw that Ricky’s account had the same IP origination as mine.”

As a result, Katie said, Reddit banned her for life. She could no longer even post in the “90DF” subreddit she used to moderate.

(Reddit did not respond to a request for comment. I have not seen the doxxing video to which Katie referred, nor had any of the sources I spoke to for this article.)

“Everything is true besides the doxing part,” Ricky told me in a message over Instagram, acknowledging that he was secretly married but rejecting Katie’s claim that he shared her family’s personal information online. “I have so much screenshots on my phone that if I were to ever release people can call bullshit on her story.”  

“Frankly, [Katie] intimidates me,” Alex said, while declining to comment on the alleged doxxing. “I’m not sure what to believe from her. … She’s not someone I can say I trust anymore. I had to block her because I was waking up to super mean text messages and stuff.” 

That’s the risk of joining a community bound by conspiracy: At some point, the subterfuge can turn on you. 

“I think this situation opened up a door for some of the individuals that dislike her,” Ricky conceded. “I don’t think people realize that this show is made for entertainment purposes. As for the fans, everyone I’ve met on the street are super nice and friendly. On the internet is a 50/50 split ― some are really nice and some are just plain assholes.”

After the ban, Katie focused her attention on her Instagram account, which serves as a landing page for a fandom she described as much stabler than her former Reddit community. There, Katie remains the go-to source for all things “90 Day Fiancé.” Only she would notice a tiny mouse crawling up the side of a chair in the background of one episode and post about it.

Cast members still approach Katie, and they still answer her prying questions about just how real TLC’s storylines are. “They get that fans don’t just go away in the off-season,” she said. But according to her, TLC has asked cast members, some of whom are rumored to be paid to participate in the show,to “stay away from super-fans like Katie Not Holmes” and refrain from sharing behind-the-scenes information. (TLC did not respond to a request for comment.)

Katie’s hardly the only person with whom cast members interact these days. “Before the 90 Days” star Paul answers just about anyone’s questions on the “90DF” Facebook group. And cast member Kalani released a statement on Instagram, accusing TLC of shoddy editing, whitewashing and race baiting.

Without taking sides, Katie added, “The cast’s animosity and disregard for the fourth wall” can be “toxic” too.

“90DF” remains a ratings bonanza. Last August’s premiere of “90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days” brought in the highest ratings in the franchise’s history, helping TLC become the No. 1 cable network at the time. In 2019 fans are awaiting a new season of “90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After?” which promises to continue the beloved Chantel and Pedro saga ― and likely up the ante in both of Katie’s former Reddit communities.

Ultimately, the question “Should I feel bad watching this?” feels like a pointless one. People are watching the “90DF” franchise, and they show no signs of stopping. Whether they classify the shows as guilty pleasures makes no difference; pleasure has far outweighed guilt at this point. Like its reality TV cousins “Survivor,” “Say Yes to the Dress” and the extended “Bachelor” universe, “90DF” and its bloodthirsty fandom are here to stay.

“I didn’t ask for any of this,” Katie said. “I just wanted to make funny things on the Internet.”

Jeremy Glass is a writer in the uncool part of Brooklyn, dabbling in advertising, branded content and other junk. Follow him or die trying: @candyandpizza.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article identified Melissa as Brazilian. She is Colombian.