Zardulu is the the artist who says she's behind some of the Internet's biggest viral stories, including "Pizza Rat." In her first video interview, she shares her take on "fake news" and reveals yet another hoax. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — The performance artist who calls herself Zardulu told us where we were to meet: a quiet stretch of Prospect Park next to a pond, which she’d circled for us in red on a map. She approached in a full purple robe, wearing a turban, her face covered in a bearded mask. Zardulu looked a little bit like an old animatronic fortune teller, recently escaped from a carnival machine.

We were there to talk to Zardulu about “fake news,” a topic that went from the Internet’s fringes to one of national concern in the days after Donald Trump was elected president. Zardulu, whose expertise in fabrication will become clearer in just a moment, wanted to tell us a different kind of story, one a lot less partisan. It was about a raccoon and an alligator.

“You may remember the news item. Or perhaps not,” Zardulu began. “A raccoon spotted riding an alligator in the Everglades.”

In case you don’t remember: In 2015, there was an incredible viral photograph, a “lucky” shot, that showed a raccoon perched on the back of a swimming alligator. A man named Richard Jones told the local news that he’d snapped the picture himself, and a lot of Florida news outlets ran with it. The story spread to larger publications. It went viral.

There were plenty of doubters, of course. But also many believers, people who would prefer to live in a world where a raccoon could use a predator as a ferry. And that preference is exactly what Zardulu understands so well.

“I staged the raccoon and the alligator,” Zardulu said. The animals are taxidermied; she sprayed each with a commercial product used to waterproof leather to protect them from the water. Zardulu showed us photographs of the setup, and some of herself, in costume, clutching the animals.

Courtesy of Zardulu (Courtesy of Zardulu)

“I consider it a great success by my standards.”

The moment that particularly pleased Zardulu happened when two very different men talked about her work: “Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher. On the exact same night,” Zardulu said. “Two men with as opposite opinions as they have audiences, momentarily captivated by the same image.”

She added: “So that’s a pretty good myth.”

***

The story of Zardulu begins like this: The anonymous artist, who closely guards her identity, once worked in secret, staging scenes such as the raccoon and the alligator, never revealing to the world what she had done. She refers to her creations as “myths,” their purpose is to be “pearls of merriment for the world to enjoy.”

The philosophy behind her work is Zardulism. There is a manifesto

Earlier this year, the New York-based blog Gothamist talked to one of her collaborators, who revealed that Zardulu had trained at least one rat to perform incredible feats — such as taking a “selfie” on a sleeping subway commuter’s cellphone, and dragging a slice of pizza down the stairs. (Yes, Zardulu has said that Pizza Rat was performed by a trained rat as well).

She was reluctant then to reveal any of the secrets of her work, asking the Gothamist reporter, “Why wake the world from a beautiful dream when the waking world is all so drab?”

Zardulu now feels a little differently. She believes that Zardulism “will be more effective, and will last longer, and will inspire greater participation in others, if occasionally the veil is lifted.”

The Zardulu mask disguises the identity of its wearer, but it is not opaque. Her real eyes are visible from a short distance, as is and just enough of her mouth to know when she smiles. Zardulu speaks slowly, either as an affectation of mystery, or because she carefully chooses her words. To meet her, we agreed not to reveal who she is — and, for that matter, we do not know her real name, or whether Zardulu is the work of one artist. She has said before that she was born in Manhattan in 1971. That is as lifted as the veil gets.

She has recruited others to help with some of her myths, but the most important collaborator is one who doesn’t know she’s there at all. The photograph of the raccoon and the alligator, she suggested to me, came from a “naive collaborator,” someone who believed what he saw and documented it. As for Pizza Rat, “I don’t believe that anyone who saw Pizza Rat knew what they were seeing,” Zardulu told me. (Matt Little, the man who filmed Pizza Rat, insists that the video was not staged.) She’d rather not say whether the person who filmed Selfie Rat worked knowingly with her to create the myth.

“Many of my stories exist only for the people who see them,” she said. “Or the people who have access to those people’s iPhone camera rolls.” She said there are several dozen Zardulu myths in the world, only a small portion of which have become fully realized viral stories.

Of course, Zardulu’s most reliable naive collaborators have been journalists, the ones who unwittingly help the rest of the world find the stories she’s told.

When Zardulu and I began to speak, first through Twitter Direct Messaging, she asked me: “Do you like fairies?”

***

Arthur Conan Doyle desperately wanted to believe that the Cottingley Fairies were real. He’d heard of the five photographs taken by two young cousins, appearing to show them playing with the mystical creatures. In 1920, he wrote about the fairies for Strand magazine, convinced that they were genuine.

He wrote: “The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth-century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and a mystery to life.”

Some, like Doyle, believed it. Others were skeptical, but the girls maintained that the photos were genuine for quite some time.

“It was decades before anyone used the term hoax,” Zardulu told me, “when eventually the girls came forward and admitted what they had done. I think that it is delightful. Absolutely delightful to have given the world such a gift. And it does indeed resonate with me particularly that the truth [did come out.]”

“Fans of the artist Banksy love his work because they don’t know who created it. Fans of mine love my work because they don’t know it was created,” she said.

***

As Zardulu began to talk more about her myths, she created a new one about herself: that Zardulu is always capable of more, of feats you haven’t even yet imagined. See her once, and suddenly Zardulu is everywhere. Talking to her in Prospect Park convinced me to never look at a subway rat the same way again.

I asked someone who knew Zardulu’s mythmaking better than most to help me figure out what, exactly, that means. “Anytime something impossibly weird happens, we get a rash of emails and tweets,” said Alex Goldman, the co-host of Reply All, a podcast that focuses on Internet abnormalities. The show had an entire episode on Zardulu. “When something feels incomprehensible, people think it could be her.”

It is true that Zardulu’s work is very different from the sort of “fake news” that became a post-election object of fury — the latter often seek to profit, no matter the harm it causes, while Zardulu says she only wants to brighten the world.

But there is one parallel: Once the sleight of hand becomes visible, it is easy to move from thinking a story has been fabricated to a mind-set that makes you question the legitimacy of everything you see. In Zardulu’s case, I wondered whether it was possible to have a truthful conversation about fabrication. So I asked her whether, or why, I should believe the story she told to me.

“I’m not in the business of telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t do or what they should or shouldn’t believe,” Zardulu answered. “Just offering up one possibility.”

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