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Of Flab and Flimflammery
Veteran Prankster Behind Esquire's 'Fat Tax' Spoof

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006

A fat, rich Texan named Irwin Leba has devised an ingenious idea that could solve both the federal deficit and the obesity epidemic: "Balance the budget by taxing the obese." And Leba is spending his millions -- earned in the fast-food business -- to lobby for his "fat tax."

Leba's plan was unveiled in Joshua Foer's article "The More You Weigh, the More You Pay" in the April issue of Esquire. The eccentric millionaire would require all Americans to step on the scales at a federal weigh station so they can be taxed based on their body mass index.

Under his plan, Leba himself would have to pay an extra $70,000 to Uncle Sam -- a stiff penalty for his love of deep-fried Twinkies.

"You ever had a deep-fried Twinkie?" Leba asks. "If you condensed all the goodness of Jesus Christ into one of those plastic wrappers, you'd have something that would be almost -- but not quite -- as divine as a deep-fried Twinkie."

Leba is outspoken, outrageous and very funny. He's also completely fictitious. So is the Esquire article. It's a fake, a fraud, a hoax -- or as Esquire's editor in chief, David Granger, puts it, "a little April Fools' bit of funnery."

"We've been waiting for reporters to pick up on it," says Foer, "and you're the first."

There you have it, folks: another scoop for The Magazine Reader!! That's why we're running this column today instead of Tuesday -- so we don't get beat by other, lesser reporters, if they ever manage to rouse themselves from their torpor and figure this out.

Some Esquire readers recognized that they were being hoaxed, says Brendan Vaughan, the magazine's articles editor. But others were fooled, writing in to praise or attack Leba's plan. Most of the angry e-mails came from weightlifting readers whose buff, muscle-bound physiques give them a body-mass index that would raise their taxes under Leba's plan.

"A lot of these guys clearly did not get the joke," says Vaughan. "They'd write in, saying, 'I appreciate your story and I agree that fat people are costing us money, but I go to the gym five times a week and I have a 32-inch waist and I'd owe $6,000 in fat tax.' "

The hoax was born last year when Foer, the Washington-based 23-year-old brother of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and New Republic editor Franklin Foer, proposed to Esquire that he write a profile of Alan Abel, America's most famous hoaxer. Abel, 76, is the impish prankster who has appeared on countless TV and radio shows since the 1960s with his bogus crusade against breast feeding and his even-more-ludicrous crusade to clothe naked animals: "A nude horse is a rude horse." In 1980, Abel bamboozled the New York Times into printing his obituary, then held a news conference to gloat about it.

Esquire's editors decided that they didn't want to profile Abel, but they did want to collaborate with him on a hoax.

"We thought it would be nice to do something with Abel," says Vaughan, "and he came up with the idea for the fat tax."

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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