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Of Flab and Flimflammery

So Foer wrote the bogus article and Abel posed for the bogus picture of Leba (Leba is Abel spelled backward) wearing a cowboy hat and hideous mutton-chop sideburns. Meanwhile, Esquire set up a bogus Web site for Leba's bogus organization, the Institute for a Healthy America ( http://www.fattaxfacts.org/ ).

Writing a hoax is a subtle art, Foer says: "You need to have enough plausibility to pull you in and enough implausibility to make you say, 'Wait a minute . . . ' "

Perhaps Foer's mixture was too heavy on plausibility because he fooled Esquire's fact checkers. "We didn't tell the fact checkers [that it was a hoax] to see how they'd react, and they by and large bought it," says Vaughan. "Nobody came running into my office saying, ' This is an outrage!' "

In the magazine, there were some pretty obvious hints that the piece is a hoax. Like, for instance, a pull-quote in huge type that reads: "Leba's entire story -- the Brooklyn upbringing, the investment in McDonald's, the mansion in Texas and the fat tax itself -- is simply not to be believed."

In case that's too subtle, there's also a short front-of-the-mag Q&A interview with Abel that lists his "nonexistent organizations," which include the Institute for a Healthy America.

But the real tip-off comes when you go to the bogus Institute's bogus Web site to calculate your own personal fat tax and up pops this message:

"The good news is, the fat tax is not real. Neither is the Institute for a Healthy America or Irwin Leba. In fact, Irwin Leba is actually Alan Abel, probably America's greatest living hoax master. Happy April Fool's from your friends at Esquire."

Abel says the fat tax just might turn out to be one of the best hoaxes in his bizarre 40-year career as prankster.

"This has legs," he says, in his manic patter. "This is gonna be as big as my hoax about naked animals that fooled Walter Cronkite. People tell me that Walter Cronkite is still mad at me 40 years later. He's not mad at Hitler. He's not mad at Castro. He's mad at me because I fooled him with 'A nude horse is a rude horse.' "

The fat tax story isn't Esquire's first foray into hoaxing. In 1996, the magazine published a profile of Allegra Coleman, a ditzy starlet who turned out to be fictitious -- a parody of ditzy starlets. In 2001, Esquire ran a profile of rock star Michael Stipe and announced in the subhead that it was only half-true. Readers were instructed to go to Esquire's Web site to find out which parts were made up.

Do the editors worry that these hoaxes will cause readers to start wondering whether stories in Esquire are true?

"No, we don't have that worry," says Granger. "The Allegra Coleman thing was what? Ten years ago? That's quite a while between these things."

The folks at Esquire swear that the rest of their April issue is absolutely, positively 100 percent grade-A truth.

That's a little scary. It means that hipbones really are "the new cleavage." And that actress Rosario Dawson really was conceived when the condom her father got when he left prison broke at an inopportune moment. And that Dawson and her brother really did treat their mom to a nipple-piercing for Mother's Day.

Yikes! Sometimes you kinda wish this stuff was fiction.


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