Fresh off four years in prison, barred from ever serving as director of a public company, and buried beneath $26 million in victim paybacks, Billy McFarland, founder of the fraudulent Fyre Festival, wants to make a comeback.
“I was talking to somebody yesterday and they’re like, ‘You can crawl in a hole and die, or you can go and try to do something and just like not promise any results,'” McFarland said in a recent interview with NBC News.
It was, basically, the promises that got him last time. McFarland went from obscure New York City entrepreneur to world-renowned fraudster after the collapse of his festival became a cultural moment: an event promoted on social media by high-profile models and celebrities overpromising a Coachella for the Bahamas with luxury villas and decadent dishes. The festival instead imploded, leaving many attendees in FEMA tents and eating packaged sandwiches — and none of the promised entertainment. Attendees’ desperate posts went viral, and the disaster spawned two documentaries and dozens of podcasts.
In October 2018, McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud.
His new venture, PYRT (pronounced “Pirate”), launched on social media in October and is supposed to kick things off by hosting, yes, a remote island extravaganza — one that McFarland insists is not a festival. Featuring a slew of influencers and creators, the purported tropical experience will include virtual reality technology that the company says will allow users to participate and control what happens on the island in real time from home.
If that sounds familiar, some are already ringing the Fyre alarms. NBC News spoke to two of McFarland’s former associates who were worried that his new venture already shows similarities with his previous ones.
“Billy’s still Billy. He’s using different words, but he’s selling the same thing,” said Shiyuan Deng, a former product designer at Fyre Media, the company behind Fyre Festival. Deng resigned from Fyre Media shortly before it collapsed.
Another former Fyre Media employee who asked to withhold their name out of concerns of retaliation also said PYRT reminded them of Fyre Festival.
“The similarities are there around the vague mysterious promotion,” said the former employee of Fyre Media. “PYRT appears to be an exercise in smoke and mirrors, buzzwords and empty promises of lavish trips to the Bahamas,” they said.
“As a previous employee who trusted Billy’s leadership in the past, new customers, investors and employees should all proceed with caution,” they said.
McFarland joins a wave of made-famous fraudsters who are in the process of making a comeback in part by leveraging their notoriety. Socialite scammer Anna Sorkin, who was the subject of a Netflix drama that portrayed her swindling banks and stealing a private jet for which she was convicted of multiple counts of grand larceny, launched a collection of NFTs while serving time in an ICE detention center and recently announced a monthly dinner series, according to Eater, hosting a dozen VIP celebrity and influencer type guests out of her apartment while on house arrest. Kari Farrell, who was labeled the “hipster grifter” for a variety of scams and frauds including writing fake checks, is also on the comeback trail.
McFarland’s new venture has already garnered plenty of attention, with articles in The New York Times and Vanity Fair. He said that this time around he’s trying to temper expectations and how he markets his new company — although PYRT’s online promotion contains global treasure hunts and luxurious footage of the Bahamas. Although he’s pledged to try to change his ways, McFarland has still at times looked to build hype around his new effort.
“This time, it’s a little crazier but a whole lot bigger than anything I’ve tried before,” McFarland said in an October TikTok video.
McFarland said he believes PYRT will look considerably different from Fyre Festival. There is no urgent timeline, no contribution from outside investors, and the intention to host only dozens on the island at a time, he said.
It’s still unclear which island that will be, despite a heavy push from McFarland to return to the Bahamas, where he defrauded islanders in 2017.
In McFarland’s October launch video, he underlined the word “Bahama” on a Caribbean map taped to a whiteboard saying, “I’m working on something new.”
A couple of weeks later, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism said in a statement that no application had been filed by McFarland for an event in the Bahamas. The statement, verified by NBC News, listed him as a “fugitive” and asked that his whereabouts be reported to the national police. It did not detail any charges against McFarland.
“The Government of The Bahamas will not endorse or approve any event in The Bahamas associated with him,” the statement added.
Not long after that, McFarland once again posted to TikTok with a Bahamas map as the backdrop, pointing at an island and calling it one of his favorite in the Exumas while noting that PYRT was open to other destinations as well.
Despite the videos he posted, McFarland told NBC News there are currently no plans for PYRT to be in the Bahamas. He said he believes the relationship with the island nation is fixable.
“I think that once everybody is paid back, I’d love to have a conversation to see if that relationship can get repaired,” he said.
When pressed about the contradiction between his TikTok video and interview claim of lowering expectations, McFarland said that specific criticism was fair.
“It’s still a journey for me and I’m not perfect in terms of marketing,” he said.
McFarland said he has taken on several consulting jobs focused on marketing and branding for startups, serving as a source of funding for PYRT, along with his newly launched Cameo account, merchandise sales and selling archival footage to an upcoming documentary focused on McFarland’s next move. “After the Fyre.”
The similarities between Fyre and PYRT so far are notable, and after sidestepping a question to clarify the difference, McFarland argued this go-round he’s got time on his side.
“My answer is there’s no rush,” said McFarland. “And I’ve had four or five years to really understand what I suck at and try to get help there,” he said.
Since McFarland’s release from prison in March, he has made the media rounds — carefully teetering the line between a public plea of forgiveness and a speedy push to PYRT.
McFarland told NBC News that during his time in prison he served two separate turns in solitary confinement: a three-month stint for sneaking a USB drive in with him containing notes for a possible tell-all book, and later a seven-month stretch for calling into a podcast about Fyre via payphone. Prison officials declined to discuss McFarland’s time in solitary.
Now attempting to forge ahead, McFarland said he is refocusing on what he lost sight of during Fyre: his emphasis on technology and product design.
“Really kind of getting back to tech, which I think is where my unique skillset lies,” said McFarland.
Deng, the former product designer, said the opposite.
“He was really good at pitching but had no technical skills,” she said.
McFarland is now building out what is to come, inviting those interested to come work for PYRT in a “high risk” role.
Despite over $25 million in restitution, restrictions limiting him from ever serving as director of a public company, and a nationwide Bahamas ban, McFarland still sees a festival in his future — even if it’s not yet on the horizon.
“I’d love to do that. I feel like I have to at some point in the future. It’s not happening right now.”