Behind his calm, methodical approach to every hot chilli eating and super spicy food challenge, Dustin “Atomik Menace” Johnson is enduring a kind of physical pain and mental anguish beyond what most will ever experience in a lifetime.
In one of his most-watched YouTube livestreams, the 31-year-old Las Vegas resident downs 122 super-spicy Carolina Reapers, the Guinness World Record holder for hottest pepper, while fans watch and cheer him on. While there are clues that he’s struggling – his face turns a deep red color and shines with perspiration, and in the latter half in particular, he takes breaks – his low-key demeanor has made the growing chillihead community question whether he’s built like an average human, or if he’s human at all.
“I would say anywhere after 60, every few peppers I would say, ‘I don’t know if I can keep going,’” Johnson recounts via Zoom from the same black-lit, poster-adorned spot he shoots his videos in. “And people were like, ‘Nah, just keep going. You look like you’re fine.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not … but I’ll keep trying.’”
Two hours later, he finished the bowl.
Johnson concedes that he’s always had a higher-than-average tolerance to capsaicin, the organic compound in pepper seeds that interacts with receptors in the body to create the hot, burning sensation of spicy foods. He’s built that tolerance up with practice, especially when it comes to the mouth, the sensitive starting point of every competition. Some chilli eaters experience face spasms, thunderclap headaches, excessive sweating, tears and a gushing, runny nose, but just about everyone’s struggle peaks when the peppers proceed from the mouth to the digestive tract.
“You can effectively map your GI tract by feeling how it moves,” Johnson explains. It begins with a warm sensation at the base of the sternum, which quickly turns tight, like a sustained, never-ending ab crunch. As it continues down to the right side, Johnson says that’s where it stings the most. The pods have to wind through the intestines, and with every twist and turn comes a sharp, stabbing sensation.
Eventually, the stomach revolts, tightening even more into a stubborn cramp, seemingly begging for it all to stop.
“Luckily, what happens with me is I can stave that off long enough to get through a challenge or to get through a pepper contest,” says Johnson, who used to coolly solve a Rubik’s cube puzzle in competitions until fans complained it could give him an unfair advantage. “It’ll be later that night or even as late as the next morning – that’s when it hurts me the most.”
Some competitors are out of commission for days, unable to eat and tending to upset stomachs (and yes, that also sometimes means painful sessions on the toilet).
With first-place prizes in the most prestigious challenges hovering around the $1,000 mark, it’s a wonder why he or any of the thousands of YouTubers, TikTokers, Instagrammers and Facebookers regularly upload challenge videos to the internet for fellow pepperheads and friends.
While competitive chilli eating has existed for years in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia among predominantly white men between the ages of 20 and 45, it’s become more mainstream and organized through social media and events like New York’s massive Hot Sauce Expo, Albuquerque’s Fiery Foods Show and Smokin’ Ed’s Pepper Eating Challenge in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
The pandemic has driven everyone online, where people like Roger Trier, host of the Hot Dang Show, and Johnny Scoville (who is named after the Scoville heat unit, the way spice levels are measured in peppers and products) have built impressive followings for their hot sauce reviews and daring feats of strength.
There are innumerable types of challenges and products involved, sometimes with increasingly spicy raw pods, others with super-hot gourmet chocolate or gummy bears or tortilla chips, or a combination of all of the above. The most difficult has to be the extract challenges, where competitors eat tubes or chug bottles of extra-high concentrations of already overly hot peppers.
It’s largely driven by ego, showing off and a fondness for thrill-seeking, says Troy Primeaux, owner of Primo’s Peppers and the developer of the 7 Pot Primo, another one of the world’s hottest peppers at 1,473,480 Scoville heat units (SHU).
“I think there’s this innate morbid curiosity and fascination with peppers, just like there is with rock’n’roll,” he says on the phone from his home in Lafayette, Louisiana. “They want to be cool. It’s like getting on a roller coaster ride, you know. They might be getting a little bit more than they think they’re going to get, but they want to show off to their girlfriend or wife.”
Much to the delight of audiences (and said girlfriends and wives), the toughest-looking or loudest-talking guy in the room isn’t always the winner. Some of the strongest competitors don’t have neck tattoos or bulging muscles, and not every winner is a man. Take London’s Shahina Waseem, a petite, stylish and so far undefeated woman who notoriously beat Johnson in the final speed-eating round in a fierce competition in Sacramento in 2019.
Waseem, who goes by the name UK Chilli Queen, remembers it well.
“That was probably the scariest contest of my life,” she confesses. “I was just in my head thinking, ‘How do I prove myself? I cannot lose now.’ And it was just ridiculous, because this guy – he’s a good friend of mine and he is brilliant at what he does – but he doesn’t feel the pain like anyone else, you know? He has this great big tolerance. He could sit there for hours and just look like a machine with no reactions, no tears, no nothing. And I am the opposite.”
When Waseem competes, she appears to enter a trancelike state. Between regular nose-blowing and the occasional “I don’t think I can do this”, she rocks back and forth as she chews through each challenge, eyes tearing through firmly closed eyes.
Waseem’s partner, Paul Ouro, and fellow UK competitor Matt Tangent are the founders of the League of Fire, an elaborate global ranking system where points are allocated to competitors when they successfully complete challenges. Until the League of Fire was established, the community was disparate and disjointed, and there was no official ranking of competitors.
While it’s not always peaceful and there can be plenty of trash-talking and pettiness, Ouro says the League has created a camaraderie among pepperheads that he didn’t anticipate.
“This isn’t professional, no one’s getting paid, everyone’s just stepping up to get bragging rights,” he says. After that first challenge against Johnson, Waseem and the rest of the competitors drank beers at a local bar and became fast friends. They visit each other when possible and watch each other’s livestreams, cheering each other on and sending each other super-hot and hard-to-get products available in their respective hometowns.
Some chilliheads have large enough audiences on YouTube that they can produce content full-time. Others become “hot sauce influencers”, which can help with funding travel to festivals. There’s a huge and growing market for extra-hot sauce: retail sales are up, probably in part because restaurants have closed in the pandemic. Trend forecasters are predicting that spicy foods are going to reach a whole new level of popularity in coming years: “Ultra-spicy is the new umami,” says a recent Guardian article.
One contributing factor is probably Hot Ones, a wildly successful web series by First We Feast where celebrities eat progressively spicy wings while answering well-researched questions from host Sean Evans. Their YouTube channel has gained 1.3 million new subscribers since March of last year, and the show’s been able to continue production by conducting interviews remotely with stars such as Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner as they taste-test hot wings.
It’s also a compelling way to sell hot sauce. The show produces its own line that clock in at various Scoville levels – an innovative approach to funding pop culture journalism. A company’s inclusion in the 10-sauce lineup can be game-changing for entrepreneurs in the space, especially when it comes to the spicier selections like Kansas City’s Da Bomb Beyond Insanity, a highly concentrated extract-based sauce that consistently sends A-list celebrities into total meltdowns.
Despite the fact that it sent actor Idris Elba into a coughing fit, made the chef Gordon Ramsay cry tears of agony and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron said it tastes like “battery acid”, I too was drawn to trying Da Bomb, one of the worst-reviewed sauces on the planet. When I was notified that my local hot sauce e-store had finally received new inventory (it consistently sells out), I pulled the trigger.
Under Johnson’s advice, I had dinner before my tasting. He says it’s good to protect the digestive tract with alkaline foods like yogurt or a banana. I ate two moderately spicy cauliflower “wings” first to warm up. Then, after reassuring myself that if Paul Rudd and Halle Berry could do it, so could I, I popped it in.
First, the flavor: It’s terrible. I don’t know what battery acid tastes like, but if the makers of Da Bomb (who say it was invented to spice enormous quantities of soups and stews with just a few drops) said it was inspired by it, I’d believe them.
But it’s nothing compared to the shocking burn that followed. I ran to the bathroom for cold water, sticking my tongue out in the mirror, surprised it wasn’t bleeding. There was also an endorphin rush – not enough to block out the pain, but the high felt transformative, like I may never be the same.
I was careful to not touch my eyes, where capsicum residue on your fingers can wreak all kinds of havoc. Tears streamed down my sweaty face, and my stomach clenched up in anticipation. At a mere 135,600 SHU, I was experiencing a fraction of what Waseem and Johnson do when they eat peppers like Carolina Reaper, which come in around 2,200,000 SHU.
I turned to milk, often on the table in front of competitor at chilli-eating competitions, but it’s an immediate disqualification if they take even a tiny sip. I gulped it down, imagining myself in the ER explaining my state to frontline workers in a pandemic.
But true to Johnson’s word, the worst was yet to come.
I could feel the heat traveling through my digestive tract, but it didn’t get too far. Like severe menstrual cramps, waves of nausea sent me to lay on the bathroom floor.
Eventually, I couldn’t hold it down. Regretting the pre-tasting meal, Da Bomb departed my system along with everything else in a steady sea of vomit. Since throwing up is a post-challenge trick chilli-eating competitors recommend, I maybe evaded the worst.
I wondered how Da Bomb’s makers, Spicin Foods, were building on its popularity. I should have guessed: Jeff Hinds, president of Spicin, says the company cranked the heat, developing even hotter versions of the wretched stuff.
Da Bomb Ground Zero measures at 321,003 SHU, and Da Bomb the Final Answer comes in at 1.5m SHU. At Spicin’s tasting bar in Kansas (which is open through the pandemic), chilli-eaters have to be 18 or over and sign a waiver to try “the Source” – which is recommended to be used one drop at a time and not “around children or pets” – at an astonishing 7.1m SHU.
Johnson admits that even he is intimidated by the extracts. And yet YouTube is filled with videos by amateurs and experienced chilli eaters all willing to feed an audience’s sado-masochistic taste for pain.
But reducing the allure to ego, thrill-seeking and sado-masochism isn’t the whole story. For Waseem and Johnson, chilli eating has been confidence-building for the formerly shy introverts. For fans, it can definitely be funny. But it can also be deeply inspiring.
“I’m Johnny Scoville, and as you know I have issues,” says the triple-braid bearded host of Chase the Heat at the beginning of his Mad Dog 357 Plutonium extract challenge video, where he’s about to chug the 9m SHU concentrate. He’s nervous, he says – not because of the challenge, which he’s already completed twice, but because of a confession he’s about to make.
He continues, explaining that the party side of chilli-eating competitions had taken a toll. He’d been drinking too much, and it had become unhealthy. He was livestreaming the challenge not just to entertain the audience, but also to mark one year of sobriety.
“I’m a better version of me today. You guys don’t know how my life has changed for the better in the last year,” he says, explaining that his family life has improved, he’s fallen in love and has a thriving YouTube channel.
“So you guys can do this,” he says. “If you guys have something that you’re trying to conquer, you can do it. If I can, you can.” A few minutes later, he puts on a protective glove and unscrews the cap of the extract, wincing at the aroma before holding it up to the camera.
“First time I did it, it smelled like pain and regret,” he says. “The second time I did it, it smelled like misery and trauma.
“It smells like victory and accomplishment today,” he finishes. “Now get ready to watch my head change color.”
Nearly a year after he’d been laid off because of Covid, my dad – a jubilant, always-smiling, 58-year-old Michigander best known for befriending everyone he meets – told me he wanted to go back to work.
Specifically, he wanted to work at Costco.
“OK,” I said, thinking: that is weirdly particular. “You’ll need a résumé. And, God, a different email. Not that Yahoo one you’ve had since before I was born.”
“I want to work on my feet,” he told me. “I want to work somewhere that appreciates me until I can retire. Can you help me apply?”
We’d been in Florida for a week, caring for my grandparents, and I’d started waking up at ungodly hours to accompany him on his five-mile morning walk. It had been six years since I’d moved out, and I missed him. Helping him find a job felt like the least I could do.
After a year of unemployment, Dad had hunted, fished, landscaped and DIYed himself to death. He was bored. He had worked all his life – first as a newspaper delivery boy, then a grocery store clerk, an automotive plant supervisor, a janitor and, for the past decade, a materials coordinator for a local hospital, until last April, when the hospital initiated mass layoffs facing a budget deficit from Covid.
There were other places that seemed ideal to him: delivering packages for UPS or FedEx, he reasoned, meant he’d get to move around. But he’d grown up only 15 minutes from our local Costco, and had heard their reputation for treating their employees well. With no college degree and a lifetime of working thankless jobs, a big-box store offering healthcare, paid time off and a decent work culture sounded like the dream.
“OK,” I promised. “We’ll apply tonight.”
And then I opened Twitter. I fired off a few funny tweets explaining my dad had been laid off due to Covid and really, really wanted to work for Costco.
In retrospect, I probably should’ve asked my dad if it was all right to tweet his job-hunting status.
I was hoping people would get a kick out of it. At best, maybe someone might have connections to a local store. I added a few more tweets to the thread, fondly joking about needing to fix his resumé, and included a picture of him in all of his Costco-hopefulness.
And then I forgot about it.
Until I logged into Facebook, and had a message request from an unfamiliar name.
A manager of a local Costco had contacted me. The company’s chief executive, Craig Jelinek, had somehow found my dad’s tweets, emailed several Michigan stores, and suggested they bring him in for an interview.
He ran a store 40 minutes away, but, he said, if my dad wanted to work at a different location, he’d be happy to give their store manager a call.
I freaked out.
I called my dad, who didn’t answer, texted him a screenshot, and called him again. As someone who only FaceTimes by accident, he didn’t really understand why I was freaking out. The sheer ridiculousness of a random tweet making it to the desk of the Costco chief executive mostly escaped him.
“Dad,” I said. “This is nuts. They’re going to hire you.”
“Maybe,” he said. “I’m not sure. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”
The next day, while jumping between meetings and client work, I refreshed my phone obsessively. When I got a text from my dad, I leapt on it, hoping to hear interview news. He had an interview.
“And do me a favor,” he said. “Don’t put that in a tweet.”
I laughed and promised I wouldn’t.
He called me after, bubbling over with excitement. It’d gone well, he thought. He was impressed by the fact that many of the staff had stayed on for years. He told me – somewhat maddeningly – that he’d avoided the subject of the tweets because he “didn’t want to get into all that” which was Dad-speak for “I am still very confused by that part, so I figured I’d best leave it alone”.
I congratulated him, and in his trademark style, he said: “Well, I might not get the job. But at least I tried.”
They called him in for a second interview, and then we heard nothing. But last Tuesday, a text from my dad popped up from my phone. It was just a picture, and the words: thank you. A picture of his new Costco badge.
He’d been hired part-time, starting in two days. I asked his permission to share on Twitter.
“Sure,” he said. “Not sure why people would care, though. It’s just a job.”
The social media explosion that followed was surprisingly pleasant. Some expressed that their parents had also, after a lifetime of working, found joy in working for big-box stores where they had the freedom to move around and talk to customers. A few hundred informed me the story made them cry. Some asked for his walleye fishing spot. (They’re out of luck, because he won’t even tell me.)
Mostly, after a nightmare year of record unemployment rates and unprecedented grief, it seemed people were just happy to share in a moment of weird, collective joy on a website often aptly described as a cesspool.
During his break on his first day, he called to tell me it had gone well. He liked his co-workers, and was looking forward to having a job working on his feet. The past year has not been a kind one to my family; like many, we didn’t emerge from the pandemic without the loss of loved ones. It’s a gift to have this odd, wonderful, weird spark of joy amid a time of grief and chaos.
It’s extra lovely that it happened to my dad.
Before he went back to work, Dad had one more detail for me. He laughed as he said it. He said towards the end of his first shift, during a tour of the store, a bakery employee had off-handedly mentioned: “I wonder when they’ll hire the Twitter guy.”
To my dad’s utter delight, he got to say: I am the Twitter guy.
An IT contractor has lost an appeal [PDF] which found he was an employee in the eyes of HMRC, with the judges agreeing he fell under the new IR35 off-payroll tax rules.
Robert Lee, working as a contractor under the company name Northern Light Solutions, had challenged an earlier First-tier Tribunal ruling which found his work for the Nationwide Building Society to be “employment” for tax purposes.
But his appeal in the Upper Tribunal on 6 and 7 May failed, partly because his legal team did not convince the judges that the clauses in his contract suggesting he and the agencies had the “right” to offer a substitute IT professional did in fact mean such a substitution could happen.
The ruling meant Lee would have to pay an additional £74,523 in income tax and National Insurance Contributions.
The tribunal found Lee, under the terms of the “hypothetical contract”, was paid a “day rate in the region of £450 and required to work a professional week, which for the Clarity Contracts is specified to be 7.5 hours a day.”
A contractor or agency’s right to substitute their work to another person of equivalent skill has been held as a key signal that the contractor is self-employed, rather than a “disguised employee”, and thus can be considered as falling outside of the IR35 rules.
Reforms to the IR35 off-payroll working rules, which critics argue classes contractors as paid employees without the employment benefits, were introduced in the private sector in April this year, after a year’s delay due to COVID-19. The new rules put certain liabilities on employers and make it more difficult for contractors to place themselves outside the revamped tax laws. Some employers – including BAE systems – have introduced blanket bans on contractors working outside IR35.
Lee worked for Nationwide through his Northern Light agency, which contracted with another agency, AxPO, which in turn contracted with the building society itself between 2012 and 2014.
What is IR35?
IR35 is a tax reform that was unveiled in 1999 by the UK tax authorities. The latest regulation change will force medium and large private sector businesses in the UK to set the tax status of their contractors and freelancers. Previously this was set by the contractors themselves.
Those workers found to be within the scope of the legislation – i.e. inside IR35 – will have to pay more tax than they might expect, despite not receiving benefits enjoyed by full-time employees, such as holiday or sick pay, pension, or parental leave.
The reforms are part of the government’s crackdown on so-called “disguised employment,” where workers behave as employees but avoid paying regular income tax and national income contributions by billing for their services through personal service companies (PSCs), which are taxed at lower corporate rates.
Critics say that being inside IR35 is essentially “no-rights employment,” meaning techies are paid and taxed similarly to regular employees but do not receive any of the security or protections that go along with permanent employment.
Contractors within IR35 can be hired and fired at will and without reason. The measure came into effect in the public sector in 2017. The British government hoped the reforms would recoup £440m by bringing 20,000 contractors in line.
The implementation in that area has been described as an “utter shambles.” HMRC reckons that only one in 10 contractors in the private sector who should be paying tax under the current rules are doing so correctly. It estimates the reforms will recoup £1.2bn a year by 2023.
Barrister Michael Collins, acting for Lee, had earlier argued that the “right of substitution meant that the hypothetical contracts could not be a contract of employment.”
Although the First-tier Tribunal had found that there was a right to provide a substitute in these contracts, this right was qualified. The tribunal found that Nationwide would have had to agree to a substitution, and that it was under “no obligation to accept such a replacement if in [its] reasonable opinion such replacement was not wholly suitable.”
The ruling said that “in practice it would be impractical for [Nationwide] to accept substitutes due to the necessary restrictions on access to [Nationwide’s] systems and restricted site access. Any substitute would need to go through vetting checks and an interview and get up to speed on the project.”
The Justices found a hypothetical contract – one that would have described the agreement between Lee and Nationwide – showed that his relationship with the building society was one of employment and the tribunal dismissed the appeal.
Lessons from the case include the need to effectively describe and communicate working practices at an early stage in the relationship, according to Dave Chaplin, CEO of ContractorCalculator, a firm advising contractors on their IR35 status.
Chaplin also claimed HMRC’s evidence from the notes of meetings, which underpinned several aspects of the ruling, appears to frame the facts relating to substitution in a manner that does not align with what really happens on the ground in IT projects. It was therefore important to keep a good, evidenced audit trail on projects to establish off-payroll working, he said.
“Lee’s contract did include a legitimate unfettered right of substitution, but it was never exercised, and the client never gave witness evidence to back it up as a genuine right. The judges chose to disregard those substitution clauses. Substitution is no silver bullet to definitively proving a worker is not employed unless it has taken place,” Chaplin said. ®
It received bids up to $4bn from investors but around $1bn was sold in the end. The company has not commented on the investments.
Shopify, Sequoia Capital, Silver Lake and Capital Group purchased stakes in the company as part of this latest transaction, according to the report. In some cases, these investors increased their existing holdings in the fintech giant.
Meanwhile long-standing employees may have sold their shares in the company before their share options expire, which is typically a 10-year window.
Rumours and speculation continue to swirl around Stripe going public with 2022 touted as the year that the company makes the leap, 12 years after it was founded. For shareholders, a Stripe flotation could make for a hefty payday. For now, investors are looking to shore up bigger stakes in the company.
The company’s recent moves give some indication of the broad plans that the company has.
Seemingly every week the company is rolling our new or expanded products that go beyond its core payments processing functions. On Monday (14 June), it released Stripe Identity, an AI-powered tool for verifying a person’s identity in a payment transaction and last week it released Stripe Tax to automate businesses’ calculation and collecting of VAT and sales taxes.
Stripe has a mission to be an all-encompassing payments and banking infrastructure company. It has become a frequent investor in fintech start-ups in recent years as well, keeping tabs on what might be the next big thing in finance, payments and banking tech.