Jessi Hersey was on a Zoom call, like so many of us were in May 2020, when she was assigned a new gender identity.
After consulting a deck of tarot cards, a high-ranking member of the online spirituality school Twin Flames Universe revealed to Hersey that she was the “divine masculine” half of a special God-selected relationship.
This news from God came as a shock to Hersey, who’d lived 30 years as a comfortably cis woman. “I never had gender dysphoria. I know the signs and symptoms,” she told VICE News from her home in Colorado. “I’ve literally lived with someone who transitioned.”
Since 2017 Hersey had been on a journey to attract her twin flame, which is like a soul mate with supernatural bonus features. It’s a concept that’s gained popularity on wellness and spirituality sites, and isn’t exclusive to Twin Flames Universe. Actress Megan Fox says her twin flame connection with emo-rapper Machine Gun Kelly makes them “two halves of the same soul.” Twin Flames Universe takes this a step further, teaching that couples share one soul and can achieve “harmonious union” under the guidance of Michigan YouTubers Jeff and Shaleia Ayan.
Hersey was part of a wave of Twin Flames Universe followers who were assigned life partners in 2020. For most of that year she’d been coached to let go of her old self, and with it, any notion of who her “twin flame” could be.
Twin Flames Universe and its spinoff websites sell a central idea: that anyone can manifest true love, enlightenment, career fulfilment, and real-life miracles if they spend thousands of dollars on virtual courses, constantly keep up with spiritual homework, and obey the group’s messianic leaders. Ex-members say students who demonstrate obedience are promoted to positions of power, while students who ask questions or try to establish boundaries are demoted, humiliated, or excommunicated.
When I first reported on Twin Flames Universe in February 2020, ex-members told me about unpaid labour, family separations, spurious medical claims, gender conversion therapies, and threats of blackmail for speaking out. Since then a Vanity Fair article, a Wondery podcast series, and now two TV documentaries (spoiler alert: I’m in the Netflix one) have explored allegations of coercion inside the group.
Yet Twin Flames Universe and “twin flame” discourse have seemingly spread further in that time. The Twin Flames Universe Facebook forum has added tens of thousands of members, the cost of many classes has doubled, and more members are pursuing hormone therapies and surgeries to fit gender roles “channelled” by the Ayans. In its wake the group leaves behind a graveyard of failed spirituality schemes that imitated the tactics of tech industry disruptors.
Over the years Jeff Ayan has repeatedly suggested he’s the second coming of Christ in videos, Facebook posts, and in-person classes. “The image of Christ was actually me, the second coming, not Jesus the first coming,” he told followers in one clip now featured in the trailer of a three-part Netflix series.
When I reached out to the Ayans in 2020 they dismissed former insiders who have called Twin Flames Universe a cult preying on vulnerable people. “A cult is (an) organization of abuse that systematically takes from and harms its members to enrich its founder,” Jeff Ayan wrote in a lengthy email. “We created an organization of love and harmony which heals and enriches everyone in it.”
When reached for comment for this story, Twin Flames Universe sent VICE News a statement. “We take seriously recent allegations implying we wield inappropriate control over our community members,” reads part of the release signed by the group’s chief of operations, Christine Emerick. “The allegations levied against Twin Flames Universe not only distort our true aims, methods, and curriculums but also misrepresent the autonomy of our community members, who are free to engage with our resources as they see fit.” The Ayans and their lawyer did not respond.
Despite the “love and harmony” message, former students say they found Twin Flames Universe at times of overwhelming heartbreak or trauma. Lenae Burchell, a Texas mom with a military background, had a PTSD diagnosis and a misplaced crush on her jiu jitsu coach when she first stumbled upon the group’s Facebook forum in 2019.
“Just dealing with past trauma in general made me very susceptible to this type of group,” Burchell said in a 2023 interview. “Because they take something that’s emotionally sensitive and tell you, Hey, we can fix all your problems.”
Burchell is disturbed, but not surprised, to see that Twin Flames Universe has profited during pandemic years. Undue influence is more effective when people are isolated, experts say, and the proliferation of QAnon and anti-vaccine conspiracy grifters suggest this dynamic has thrived online in the last three years. If anything, a little controversy has boosted similar algorithm-optimized influencers like “spiritual catalyst” Teal Swan.
With a decade of defunct spiritual websites behind them, and a fractured influence economy in front of them, Jeff and Shaleia Ayan might believe they’ve risen above criticism and created the “heaven on Earth” advertised to their followers. For anyone wondering how the hell this happened, it helps to know the couple’s backstory.
Jeffrey Ayan didn’t seem interested in spirituality or love as a kid growing up in Lapeer, Michigan, a small town about a half-hour drive east of Flint. His family was Catholic, but they weren’t super devout.
His childhood friend Eric Rogers, who first reached out to me in August 2020, said one of his many obsessions in high school was listening to speeches by billionaire Warren Buffett.
“He was always about learning and self-betterment,” Rogers said, “seeking out role models and coaches and all that.” Ayan wanted to soak up everything he could from Buffett, the guy he called “the smartest investment mind in the world.”
Ayan was a swimmer, theatre club player, and talent show performer, according to high school yearbooks reviewed by VICE News. He wasn’t the best in any particular pursuit, Rogers said, but he was always driven.
After high school Ayan attended business school at Western Michigan University in 2006. Rogers was accepted to a different school in Michigan, but they caught up on the phone every month or so. When they finished college in 2010, Ayan suddenly sold all of his belongings and moved to a subsistence farm in California. Rogers said Ayan told him he didn’t have a plan; he was going to figure everything out when he got there. Rogers followed more of Ayan’s “weird hijinks” on social media as their phone calls grew less frequent.
In 2012 Ayan moved to Hawai’i, where he rebranded as a lifestyle blogger. On social media he changed his name to Ender Ayanethos, and began posting about fringe diets and polyphasic sleep experiments on his newest site EndersAdventures.com. “Ender’s Game” was Jeff’s favourite book in high school, Rogers said. The 1985 sci-fi novel follows the life of a young boy who is recruited into an elite military school where his tactical genius and ability to lead an army from behind a computer screen is slowly revealed.
Rogers noticed spiritual keywords threaded throughout his friend’s posts. Everything was “heart-centred” and “conscious” and “in alignment with Universal principles.” He sold a six-part video series called “the lifestyle supercharger” that claimed to help anyone create the life of their dreams.
“I was starting to question it at this point,” Rogers recalled. “I didn’t know to what extent he was trying to build a persona… or whether he truly felt he was Ender.”
According to Rogers, Ayan built a “shack” on “some guy’s land” in Hilo, Hawai’i, and started renting it out as an Airbnb. He was making money, but shared insecurities about relationships on his blog. “If I’m honest with myself, I’m feeling totally disconnected from a sense of love and connection with the people around me,” Ayan wrote in 2012.
Soon Ayan would encounter a life-altering connection on Facebook. Megan Plante, who later adopted the name Shaleia, was a student of photography and a dabbler in reiki and other “intuitive arts” based in Sedona, Arizona.
According to their self-published origin story, Jeff commented on one of her photos that she was “weirdly sexy.”
Plante wasn’t discouraged by Jeff’s unfiltered comment. One of her first private messages to Jeff, they later claimed, was “You horny?”
Plante offered to do a “psychic card reading” for Ayan. “I was a sucker for psychic card readings, and it was the most accurate reading I had ever received,” he wrote. “She was the clearest psychic I ever talked to.” The two carried on a long-distance relationship for months.
At the time Plante was working at a Thai restaurant and practicing under a spiritual teacher named Altonah Lampe. “Altonah taught Shaleia how to retrieve a spiritual name through the practice of conscious journeying,” one former member told me. Plante has gone by Shaleia ever since.
Lampe also taught Shaleia the mirror exercise, which became a central Twin Flames Universe practice. The exercise involves identifying an “upset,” writing it down, and then changing all the names and pronouns to point to one’s self. “My twin is ignoring me” becomes “I am ignoring me.” Once you see your own role in a situation, the exercise calls for self-love to heal it.
Meanwhile, Jeff Ayan launched a series of coaching websites with slightly varied themes—some making bolder claims about his relationship with God.
“Ask God anything you desire; get God’s message for you!” declares an archived version of the website DivineGuidanceReadings.net. “Jeff is a channel of Divine Guidance and can bring you the Divine answers you need, when you need it most.”
Rogers said he logged onto Facebook one day to find Ayan posting about charging five figures to use his spiritual gifts to cure cancer. By that time, Rogers says, their friendship had run its course.
Ayan was enacting the tech industry gospel of the day: move fast and break things. The rise of social media platforms in the early 2010s afforded him endless Facebook walls to throw his ideas at. If one marketing strategy didn’t stick, he could abandon it just as quickly. This was an iterative, agile spirituality. “Every week it was some new thing,” Rogers said.
In a resume he prepared for a job at Google, Jeff listed his key talents: “Natural leader… highly creative, entrepreneurial, self-motivated, passionate, detail oriented, and comfortable amidst change and great challenge.” He listed experience using a range of Google products—Adwords, Adsense, YouTube, Google Analytics.
Posts and videos about true love performed well. They were “sticky” in the parlance of the industry. Shaleia represented an opportunity for Jeff to market himself to a new audience.
In June 2014 Jeff flew to Sedona to meet Shaleia for the first time, and they recorded their first YouTube video together. They’ve since published hundreds of videos riffing on trending topics from age gaps to celebrity couples.
With Twin Flames Universe Jeff achieved a reliable passive income source. Behind a paywall students access old video packages like Dreams Coming True E-Course ($777), Twin Flames Ascension School ($3,333), and The Everything Package ($8,888). Jeff promised “six figure” salaries to those committed to selling these products.
Each member is encouraged to start their own twin flame inspired brand pointing back to Twin Flames Universe, with names like As One Guidance, Sacred Heart Coaching, Twin Flames Mastery, and Union Astrology. Students mine their own identities and contacts for new recruits. Burchell was told to bring in more victims of trauma, for example, while Hersey was instructed to seek new LGBTQ and special needs students.
When Hersey first joined the Twin Flames Universe Facebook forum, she wasn’t looking for romance at all. At the time she wanted to reestablish a friendship with a former coworker. From their first meeting, Hersey said it was as if she’d known this person for ages. “I’d never had a connection like that. I didn’t have anything to explain that,” she told VICE News.
An online tarot reader suggested the spark was a likely sign of a “twin flame” connection. In her search for answers, Hersey bought Jeff and Shaleia’s book and then spent upwards of 10 hours a day consuming Twin Flames Universe content. The videos drew on popular ideas from many religions and self-help techniques: the law of attraction mixed with reiki, vibrations, karma, Buddhism and Christianity. In one of the videos Hersey watched, Jeff explained that all religions are really just one big religion.
Over the course of many months Hersey was coached to move across the country to be closer to her so-called twin. After attending a Twin Flames Universe gathering in New York City in late 2018, Hersey made the leap and moved to Florida.
On YouTube Jeff posted about driving high-end sports cars, wearing designer clothes, and paying for other expensive luxuries. These rewards flowed easily from his relationship with God and the universe, he claimed. If followers like Hersey couldn’t reap these rewards, they weren’t doing the spiritual work. They were “choosing separation” from God and the group.
Hersey tried to make money as a coach, but that quickly depleted her bank account. She had to buy the newest courses and products to stay in good standing. Plus there was a monthly coach license fee. In a Facebook Live video she posted in April 2019, Hersey said all her funds were on hold.
After that, Hersey was banned from telling other members about her financial hardship. Jeff and Shaleia said she was “choosing poverty consciousness” and that they would not let her contaminate group meetings and forums with her struggles.
“I was lying my butt off,” she recalled, “saying I have a great job where I make great money even though I didn’t.”
Hersey said she had to initiate bankruptcy proceedings to get out of the hole left by Twin Flames Universe.
Hersey is still processing some complicated feelings after finally leaving Twin Flames Universe in 2020. She’s grateful that she didn’t go through with an unwanted gender transition, and instead decided to block Jeff, Shaleia, and everyone who follows them.
But shame still creeps in when Hersey thinks of some of her thoughts and actions inside the group. And she’s not alone.
One woman told me that her so-called twin flame was physically abusive, and yet she had to post smiling videos on YouTube describing their romantic adventures. She claimed that other women are stuck in risky situations living with partners they did not choose.
“It’s really hard to think about those things, knowing they’re still going,” she said.
These outcomes aren’t random or self-directed. Experts say they come about because escalating threats and group pressure take away members’ ability to freely choose for themselves.
“What happens in a high control group like this is it’s not just the leader who abuses the members, but in the end, everyone ends up being a perpetrator in a way, because you’re groomed and trained to go after each other,” cult expert Janja Lalich told filmmaker Cecilia Peck in the Netflix series Escaping Twin Flames.
On the surface, Twin Flames Universe might look like a community of seekers who like posting about their romantic successes online. But insiders say the group chipped away at their freedom to choose life partners, places of residence, friends and associates, and even their own gender identity.
In the wake of my first story, Twin Flames Universe sent strongly-worded letters to anyone suspected of cooperating with my reporting. They accused them of lying and bullying. “You will write a complete and effective collective retraction and apologize for the lies you told about us,” reads part of one letter.
The letters went on to describe life-ruining consequences if the former students chose not to retract their stories. I wrote a follow-up story about the letters, which threatened imminent lawsuits, police investigations, bankruptcy, jail time, and the publication of “VERY revealing and VERY uncomfortable” information.
In June 2020, the Ayans filed a pair of lawsuits against seven ex-members and one parent.
The litigation dragged on for nearly a year, until a judge ruled in March 2021 that Michigan courts were not the proper jurisdiction. The judge noted the “apparent bad faith” behind the legal action and declined to transfer to a different court. One parent attempted to get the courts to sanction the Ayans, so they couldn’t file another action, but the judge declined to do so.
Burchell told VICE News she won’t be silenced by legal threats, and she’s gained a lot of perspective since the suit was thrown out.
“I will say it does make for a fun fact about myself,” she told me with a smile that let me know a punch line was coming.
“I got sued for a million dollars by the second coming of Christ, can anybody else say that? I don’t think so.”
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