This $1.5 million ‘women-led’ NFT project was actually run by Russian dudes

Cybersleuths discovered the Fame Lady Squad was built on a lie. But the story may have a happy ending after all.

Fame Lady Squad

When 8,888 non-fungible tokens designed by women, in support of women, were minted last month, the NFT community lapped it up.

The NFT market, like many tech-centric areas, has traditionally been dominated by men, and a women-led project was a much-welcomed change.

The three women behind it — Cindy and Andrea, the U.S.-based marketer and developer, respectively, and Kelda, the Norwegian artist and “ideologist” — were supposedly striking a note for female empowerment. Their head-and-shoulders illustrations of slender women in different guises — which users could pay Ethereum to mint and own — even merited a passing mention in The New Yorker.

The Fame Lady Squad "team"Fame Lady Squad

But the story behind the project was a lie. The three women purportedly running Fame Lady Squad weren’t women at all. They were Russian men, according to research by NFT enthusiast and fellow Russian Fedor Linnik. And they are allegedly behind other NFT collectible series that claim to be one thing, but are in actuality something else entirely.

The story began with whispered rumors last month, and came to a conclusion, of sorts, this week. After an uprising within the community of investors that bought into the project to the tune of nearly $1.5 million, the Russian men behind Fame Lady Squad have ceded control of the project to actual women, including a self-employed realtor in Canada, Ashley Smith.

Smith, who goes by the handle @iamboredbecky on Twitter, came across Fame Lady Squad before its official launch in July and was enthralled by the idea of a project that empowered the women involved in the NFT space. She supported Fame Lady Squad’s founding ideal to “create an image of a strong and independent woman of the NFT community.”

The strong gender branding, Smith tells Input, “was one of the pieces that created a lot of excitement around the project. The NFT and crypto space in general is very male-dominated, and I think many are looking to see more diversity. People were excited about that — and obviously, they were very excited about the art.”

She ended up minting several Fame Lady Squad NFTs of her own, and later bought a number of the Squad’s NFTs on the secondary market. “Even at the time, I didn’t know that much about the team behind it, which is quite common,” she says. “There was enough in the art in the token that I liked, and at the time the cost” — 0.05 ETH, currently around $150 — “was reasonably low, so I was prepared to buy them and have some fun with it.”

Danielle Davis, a Minnesotan who says she works nine jobs, including several advising other NFT projects, felt similarly. “The community was so vibrant, and it was all about women’s empowerment,” says Davis, who goes by @NFTignition on Twitter. “That’s really what sucked me into it.” In fact, many people connected with the idea of female empowerment in the NFT space, and Fame Lady Squad gained some high-profile support, including a misspelled tweet from Gary Vaynerchuk.

Then it all began crashing down. The development team behind Fame Lady Squad had always been reticent about answering questions through the Squad’s Discord, and it became obvious why they were so quiet. Linnik and other cybersleuths began to spot the holes in Fame Lady Squad’s origin story. Along with fellow Russian NFTers, Linnik cast his mind back to Russian-language Telegram chats with some of the same folks (then going under men’s names) he suspected were behind Fame Lady Squad.

“These guys are just cynically exploiting the Western, left-liberal agenda of protecting female rights.”

In mid-July, one of Linnik’s colleagues, Fil Makarov, said in a Russian-language Telegram chat that he believed the Squad was a ruse because of the same wording that had delighted Smith and convinced her to buy in: “a strong and independent woman.” Directly translated into Russian, it’s used as an ironic mockery of women, Linnik explains to Input. (He answered a Telegram voice call with his video on: “I just think it’s important to show my face, considering the whole situation.”)

“These guys are just cynically exploiting the Western, left-liberal agenda of protecting female rights and stuff like that,” says Linnik. He points to the fact that at least two of the original team alleged to be behind Fame Lady Squad have previously lived or studied in Canada as an indication that the decision to misrepresent their gender when launching the project was a cynical one. “I believe these guys understand Western society pretty well, and that’s why they can manipulate us easily.”

On Monday, Linnik posted a Twitter thread laying out what he knew. The men who had pretended to be women moved quickly to try and limit the reputational damage. On Tuesday, in a lengthy Twitter thread of their own, the originators apologized for misleading the world. “But it doesn’t mean it’s a scam or a fraud,” they wrote. (One of the founders, who goes by the name Max Rand, initially responded positively to an interview request via Twitter DM, then did not reply after Input’s first question.)

They also promised to donate $100,000 of their earnings from Fame Lady Squad to support NFT artists and projects. And through a third-party broker, @digitalartchick, they transferred ownership of the smart contract to Smith, giving her control over the entire series of NFTs.

The phoenix rises

Earlier this month, when it first became apparent that there were questions over the identities of those behind the Fame Lady Squad project, Smith tried to contact the founders to get answers. They stonewalled her, she says. So she, Davis, and others set up a Discord channel for the Fame Lady Squad–owning community to come together as a group and decide on next steps.

“I can’t tell you how many times people hopped in the chat and said, ‘This is the first time I ever bought an NFT,’ or ‘I just gifted my wife her first,’” Davis says. “I just kept thinking about all those people. There’s no way I could let this go on to be a sore spot.”

Alongside Davis, Smith became one of the faces of the grassroots uprising against the Fame Lady Squad scheme — and therefore was a natural choice to become the primary custodian of its future.

Fame Lady Squad

“I woke up this morning to the contract in my personal wallet,” Smith told me during an interview yesterday. “Those of us who have been leading the way of building a transition team are now discussing what our next steps are, how to engage the community, and to try to create something of value for everybody.” It is, she says, a heavy responsibility — one that involves multiple decision-makers. “I don’t see myself as an owner of the project,” she says. “We’re stewards of the project.”

Smith didn’t directly answer whether she’d trust Max Rand or his fellow founders of the Fame Lady Project with anything else they did in the future. “Over the last couple of days, I’ve really focused on moving forward and what we might be able to do for the community,” she says. “I haven’t really spent a lot of time looking at better understanding the people behind the project initially and their motives.”

Linnik has. “I think they notice the demand in the market and try to satisfy it,” he says. He alleges that at least some of the men involved in the troublesome early days of Fame Lady Squad are also behind at least nine other questionable NFT releases, including 2,000 Black Lives Matter NFT cards and 5,555 Cyber City Girls Club NFTs. The latter project was set up to campaign to stop hate against Asians. Its website says the team behind it “wanted to create an image of strong independent Asian Woman” (there’s that phrasing again).

Initially, Cyber City Girls Club was presented as a project developed by two women. As that deception unraveled, the project’s Twitter account clarified on Tuesday that the team was actually six people, only two of whom were women. At least two of the Cyber City Girls team overlap with the original founders of Fame Lady Squad. Linnik’s research suggests that the two women involved in the project are friends or partners of the men behind the Squad.

Smith says the way things have turned out “does speak to how important community is in the NFT space.”

This all muddies the waters of an already unusual new economic frontier. But it’s one that Fame Lady Squad’s new operators don’t want to let sully the wider reputation of NFTs. Smith says the way things have turned out “does speak to how important community is in the NFT space — and how the support of the community can lead to the success or failure of a project.”

She and the other women involved are trying to figure out how to give back to the community, how to empower women, and how to encourage more inclusion and diversity in the space. These are big, tricky questions, but taking ownership of an NFT built on a lie and steering it to respectability is big and tricky, too.

The transitional Discord set up by Smith and others to tackle all this is called Project Phoenix. “I hope it’s the story of a community rising from the flames,” she says.