From the Liver King's mouth to your plate: Inside the controversial influencer's world
On any given day, nestled in a lakeside enclave just north of Houston, you can find the Liver King surveying his court.
His kingdom spans two multi-million dollar properties: where animal bones, motivational posters and hunting trophies adorn the walls, rusted barbells dress the garage floor, and the closet is filled mostly with athletic shorts. The cuisine is as regal as it is curious: raw animal organs mix with plastic bottles labeled "Ancestral Supplements", the key driver of the Liver King's brand.
From the moment he exploded onto the social media sphere in 2021, people have been asking who exactly is the Liver King? His bulging muscles, bushy beard, and unkempt aesthetic drew in millions of followers, and plenty of haters, to the lifestyle his family lives: which he calls "ancestral living."
Grocery stores and globo-gyms are rarities in the Liver King's lexicon. He raises and slaughters his own livestock to harvest and consume their raw organs, suffers through extreme workouts, like marching a mile carrying double his bodyweight, and emphasizes a deeper connection with the outdoors and a connection with nature.
"Who needs vegetables when you can have testicles," is one of the Liver King's mantras.
And while this modern gladiator likens his lifestyle to a more Paleolithic era, the Liver King is one of today's top fitness influencers, with millions of followers on Instagram and TikTok enthralled by his lifestyle and diet.
"I always tell people…what we sell is a vision to ancestral Lifestyle," the Liver King told ABC News' Matt Gutman in an interview for "Impact x Nightline" now streaming on Hulu. "We just so happen to sell nourishment that's nose-to-tail nourishment in a convenient gelatin capsule."
MORE: 'A bully in your brain': What it's like to live with body dysmorphic disorder
But the Liver King's social media throne does comes with its warnings from Health experts, who warn against consuming raw or undercooked meat due to risk of disease or infection.
From businessman to barbarian celebrity
Before the Liver King adopted his royal nom de guerre, he largely went by his real name: Brian Johnson.
Although the Brian Johnson of today says he's a completely different person after changing his Lifestyle: he and his family live according to what they call the nine ancestral tenants: eat, sleep, move, shield, connect, cold, sun, fight and bond. Each refers to a different practice which Johnson – or the Liver King – suggests will lead to a better life.
Their story, however, is far from traditional: Johnson, 45, and his wife Barbara, who he now refers to as the "Liver Queen", once owned a dental practice.
Barbara was the dentist and Brian owned a stake in the business and property. But the couple says business struggles prevented them from spending time with their children, the "Liver Boys". Barabra eventually decided to retire.
Leaving their corporate life behind, Johnson said the family devoted themselves to their "ancestral lifestyle", and claimed that commitment spurred dramatic changes in the health of their children.
In 2015, Brian and his wife, decided to open their own companies that sell supplements based on their lifestyle.
Johnson said he came up with the Liver King persona based on his mantra that "liver is king", which worked in lockstep with the company selling products like Grass Fed Beef Liver capsules.
"I used to say that I ate Brian Johnson, I used to say that I killed Brian Johnson. That guy's gone," he said. "I would say Brian Johnson was the corporate guy that didn't live the ancestral life."
Just under two years ago, Johnson brought the Liver King's over-the-top physique, persona and lifestyle to a new kingdom when he started using social media to promote himself and his brands, and became an instant hit.
Within six months, he said he had over a million followers on Instagram and TikTok.
"I started doin' it. I hated it," Johnson told Impact. "I was horrific in front of the camera… I would study every video I did. I'm like, "I don't wanna do that. Let me make it better. Oh, here's where I can make it better. Hey, I could have more fun."
"I started to have fun, and it would wake me up," Johnson said.
Heavy is the crown
Almost immediately after the Liver King burst onto the social media scene, he was met with speculation by other fitness social media personalities that his hulking physique might actually be the product of anabolic steroids.
He denied the allegations vehemently, insisting his bulging biceps and rippling abs were simply the product of hard work and an ancestral lifestyle. But in late 2022, a YouTuber with the screen name "More Plates More Dates" released a video titled, "The Liver King Lie."
The YouTuber revealed leaked e-mails and blood test results that he claimed showed the Liver King was spending $11,000 a month on performance-enhancing drugs, including testosterone and growth hormone, among other substances.
Three days later, Johnson posted his own video, coming clean on the entire saga, apologizing to his fans and admitting he was on steroids.
He told "Impact" that he struggled with the stress of compulsively working out multiple times a day and not having energy for his business or his family.
"We would come home and I would sit on the couch…and then my wife would come up to me, and she would say, 'You wanna go to the park with the kids?' And I knew I couldn't," Johnson said. "I knew I didn't have any energy to get off the couch, and any energy that I can get together, I got to do a CrossFit workout, and another CrossFit workout."
When too big is too dangerous
Johnson's feelings of self-doubt aren't uncommon in the age of social media, where men of all ages are bombarded by online images of ultra muscular bodies.
Dr. Harrison Pope, a professor of psychiatry at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, coined the phrase muscle dysmorphia in the '90s following research to describe the condition in which a person is preoccupied with the look and size of their muscles.
MORE: 4 Ways to Spot Body Dysmorphic Disorder
"As a result, [a person] spends a lot of time lifting weights, is paying careful attention to his diet, checking out what he looks like in the mirror [and] avoiding public situations where he might be seen with his shirt off," Pope told "Impact."
Pope added he is worried about the long term effects of steroids on a person's cardiovascular system.
"People who use steroids over the long term are more likely to develop heart attacks or strokes at a younger age," he said.
Johnson, who says since January he has stopped taking performance-enhancing substances, admitted he misled his fans and followers about his secret steroid use. However, he disagreed with the notion that social media overly promotes a certain look that might be unhealthy to attain.
"I would encourage people to be inspired," he said. "If they see some guy with a Roman chest plate and an eight-pack [I say] 'Go try and get that same thing.'"
How a former steroid user is working to save lives
Although they may not have Johnson's more than six million followers, some fitness experts are still sounding the alarm about the dangers of body dysmorphia and PED abuse as loudly as they can.
And for Diego Mercado, a physical rehabilitation specialist, his message is personal. Mercado encourages healthy fitness and diet practices, through his freelance writing for "Men's Health."
Mercado said he's come a long way from his teenage years, when he was so obsessed with looking lean that he turned to steroids.
"When you're on, man…you just feel like you can conquer the entire world," Mercado said of his steroid abuse. "There's not a single person that can get in your way or stop you."
Mercado said his low point came after a night he spent in intense pain. After going to the hospital, he was told his hemoglobin skyrocketed.
MORE: Video What is muscle dysmorphia? The untold crisis of male body obsession
"I was in a pool of sweat," he recalled "I was messed up. I could barely move, had a tense migraine. I was trying to blast the AC, nothing was helping."
Mercado said his mental health has improved since he stopped taking steroids, and he stopped being too concerned about his body image. He said is using his experience to keep others from making similar mistakes.
"So to be able to take my sorrows and tragedies and transform that into a positive message to anybody that might be listening, reading, or watching holds significant weight in my life," he said.
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