“[Smith] sounds like an incredible bad-ass, fighting the man at every turn. [But] he comes across as kind of a chump. He paid for a tour that thousands of people go on,” said Abrahamian, who sees Smith’s whole trip as part of his general “hyperbole and self-aggrandizement.”
“[North Korea] is a strange culture, so he can get away with it. It suits his vision of himself,” Abrahamian said.
“It’s easy to see why Shane loves North Korea,” said a former employee. “He’s a cult leader who has built a Potemkin village where everything is smoke and mirrors.”
Smith’s integrity issues have extended to his personal life, as well.
He told an artist ex-girlfriend at her gallery opening that he was dying of a mystery illness and maintained the story for over a year.
“He would repeatedly tell her that any level of stress could kill him,” says a former VICE employee. “He kept using the phrase ‘doctor’s order’ to excuse whatever he was doing, like taking phone calls, or spending time with her would kill him. In reality, he was messing around.”
Reached for comment, the ex-girlfriend, who asked not to be named, confirmed the story and said that she eventually found out through social media that Smith was seeing other women when he said he was going to the doctor’s office.
Smith told Charlie Rose that he ran away from home at age 13 — instead, he moved in with his father after getting into a fight with his step dad, say longtime friends who knew him at the time. He also told Rose that his father “built an electric car that won the first—one of the first electric car races,” but that, too, wasn’t true. The first electric car races were decades earlier and in the United States, not Smith’s native Canada.
A Canadian journalist, who also asked not to be identified, described Smith telling her that he had been in a gang in his teenage years, which she later discovered from interviewing family and friends, was “bogus.” The piece she was working on was published, but didn’t include anything about Smith’s childhood.
Childhood friend Bannister describes Smith as prone to “exaggeration.”
“He is the type of guy, you will do something together and he will be telling someone a story about what you guys did. It will always sound far more exciting than what actually happened,” said Bannister in an interview with TheDC.
“It’s not that he’s making things up. He’s a great storyteller,” Bannister said. “The mystique is built into his character.”
VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes, who declined to be interviewed for this article, once referred to his ex-partner as “Bullshitter Shane.” The two split over “creative differences” in 2004 and some perceived racially-insensitive comments from McInnes which appeared in the New York Times.
Smith often exaggerates about the size and success of VICE, according to former employees.
When the first of the company’s profile pieces came out saying how much money VICE was making, Smith was worried that the employees — many of whom work below market rate — would be upset, said a former employee. “He told us that there’s always a difference between perception and reality and that that was important to help VICE grow,” the employee said.
Smith has routinely inflated the number of people who work for him internationally. He boasted to the Financial Times in December that the network has over “800 employees in 34 countries” and, according to one former VICE employee, “this figure is ridiculously false.” VICE told the Globe and Mail in May that it has “more than 1,100 employees across the globe.”
“We sabotaged every interview with bullshit,” wrote McInnes in his 2012 memoir, “How to Piss in Public: From Teenage Rebellion to the Hangover of Adulthood.” “When asked about Vice’s future, Shane told the reporter we had just been bought by local dot-com billionaire Richard Szalwinski.” The New York Times fell for it, reporting that business deal faithfully in 2007.
“We didn’t think anything of this stupid lie,” McInnes recalls, since “it was just one of many, but a few hours after the article was published, we met the man himself.”
Szalwinski, impressed by their bravado — the story goes — bought a 25 percent stake of VICE for a supposed million dollars and things started going well. But Wired Magazine reported in 2007 that “Szalwinski doesn’t remember reading the article before giving them money. Oh, and the actual amount? More like a few hundred thousand, he says.”
Smith repeatedly called up friends in those days and screamed into the receiver “We’re going to be rich,” over and over again, say friends from the period.
But now, VICE insiders paint a picture of amateurishness.
“It is amateur hour over there. They are amateur people trying to portray themselves to others as news people,” said a former employee. “They always hype everything. It’s always ‘Holy shit. Everything is so crazy. You have to punch everything up.’”
Last December, VICE posted a photograph of editor-in-chief Rocco Castoro with fugitive John McAfee with the Exif metadata — longitudinal coordinates — that revealed McAfee’s location and led to his arrest in Guatemala.
Rather than fess up to having gotten their source arrested, VICE photographer Robert King claimed on his Facebook page and Twitter that he had altered the metadata when he hadn’t, essentially covering for a man wanted on murder charges.
A few journalists ran stories mocking VICE — “Dear Journalists at Vice and Elsewhere, Here Are Some Simple Ways Not To Get Your Source Arrested” read one headline from Forbes.
But Smith’s most recent run-in with the truth may be among the most glaring of his career.
During his May 24, 2013 interview with Charlie Rose, Smith revealed that VICE had conducted an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to be shown during the HBO series.
“Well, we have the interview,” Smith told Rose. “You have the interview?” Rose responded, surprised. “Yes,” Smith repeated, “we show him in the documentary.”
“[I] didn’t realize you guys had an interview of some substance,” Rose said.
“Yes we — we — we talked to him and we — there are a bunch of people who talked to him,” Smith insisted.
The season finale aired weeks ago. The Kim Jong Un interview — or even a characterization of that interview — never aired.
The show’s been renewed for a second season.