The Dramatic Rise and Fall of Milo Yiannopoulos

Was the Breitbart editor just an Internet troll?

Milo Yiannopoulos Holds Press Conference To Discuss Controversy Over Statements
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Breitbart editor and alt-right star Milo Yiannopoulos was poised to become a household name in the United States. Viewed as a bigot, Internet troll, and homophobe by his detractors—he’d likened feminism to cancer, told gays to “get back in the closet” and led a campaign of harassment against black actress Leslie Jones—the British transplant to the U.S. made headlines in early 2017 after his college tour sparked violence.

When the University of California, Berkeley, canceled a Yiannopoulos speech because riots broke out on the campus in response, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to suggest that the university should lose federal funding for not supporting free speech.

That the president would take the time to allude to him on social media signaled that Yiannopoulos, best known in right-wing circles, had successfully entered the mainstream. But less than a month later, the provocateur would lose his Simon & Schuster book deal, his invitation to speak at CPAC, and his job at Breitbart.

How did this dramatic turn of events come about? A review of Yiannopoulos’ life, career, and controversies reveal some of the factors that led to his rapid rise and shocking fall.  

Early Years and Education

Born Milo Hanrahan on Oct. 18, 1984, to a Greek-Irish father and an English mother, Yiannopoulos grew up in Kent in Southern England.

Years later, he would change his surname to Yiannopoulos in honor of his Greek grandmother. Although he is now considered a darling of the alt-right movement, which has been linked to anti-Semitism, Yiannopoulos says that he has matrilineal Jewish ancestry. He grew up as a practicing Catholic, however, with his mother and stepfather.

The openly-gay Yiannopoulos has indicated that he consented to have a sexual relationship with a Catholic priest, despite being underage at the time. This claim would factor into his downfall at the height of his career.

By his teens, Yiannopoulos, who didn’t get along well with this mother’s husband, lived with his grandmother. Although he attended both the University of Manchester and Wolfson College, Cambridge, he never earned a degree, but his lack of education did not prevent him from having a journalism career in the United Kingdom.

Journalism Career

Yiannopoulos’ journalism career took off after he began working for the Daily Telegraph, where he developed an interest in tech journalism after reporting on women in computing in 2009. He also appeared in a number of broadcast news outlets and programs, including Sky News, “BBC Breakfast,” “Newsnight” and “10 O’Clock Live,” discussing topics such as feminism, men’s rights, the gay community and the Pope. Through this project the Telegraph Tech Start-Up 100, he ranked influential European tech startups in 2011. That same year, he launched the Kernel, a tech journalism site. The online magazine became embroiled in scandal two years later after contributors to the publication sued for thousands of pounds of back pay.

Yiannopoulos eventually paid six contributors the money owed to them. After changing ownership a couple of times, the Kernel was purchased by Daily Dot Media in 2014. Yiannopoulos served as an adviser but no longer ​as editor.

Political Leanings

Yiannopoulos has said he’s not interested in politics, but as his career progressed, he increasingly expressed views that aligned him with the alt-right, of which he’s described himself as a “fellow traveler.” He is said to have skewed coverage of 2014’s Gamergate controversy, which led to attacks, including death and rape threats, against prominent women gamers who’d criticized sexism in video game culture. Yiannopoulos described the women as “sociopathic,” despite the fact that they were the victims of relentless online attacks that forced them out of their homes when their addresses and other personal information were revealed on the Web through a practice known as “doxxing.” In 2015, he organized a meeting of Gamergate supporters which received a bomb threat, as did a Society of Professional Journalists event featuring Yiannopoulos discussing Gamergate.

Despite the outrage he sparked, Yiannopoulos’ notoriety earned him a position with Breitbart News Network, which named him tech editor in 2015. The far-right news organization has been accused of reporting misinformation and fueling racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny through its content. Former Breitbart News chair Stephen Bannon serves as an assistant and chief strategist for Donald Trump, whose election to the presidency has coincided with a rise of racial harassment and white supremacist activity, including the killing of an Indian engineer and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries.

Jewish magazine the Tablet has taken issue with Yiannopoulos for aligning himself with organizations that promote a racist, anti-Semitic or misogynistic agenda while maintaining that he doesn’t personally harbor such views. Tablet writer James Kirchick pointed out in 2016 that Yiannopoulos only mentions his matrilineal Jewish heritage when the anti-Semitism of his supporters comes to light. He said that Yiannopoulos’ Jewish heritage didn’t prevent him from wearing an Iron Cross medallion—a symbol of the Nazi regime — as a young man.

Yiannopoulos has also defended himself against racism charges by saying that he prefers black men as lovers.

“Like the insistence that he can’t be an anti-Semite because his mother has Jewish ancestors, Yiannopoulos’ assertion that his carnal desires inoculate him from the charge of bigotry is a deflection ploy,” Kirchick asserted. “Ironically, it’s also a form of the identity politics he claims to despise. While the ‘social justice warriors’ (SJWs) Yiannopoulos mocks say they cannot be racist or anti-Semitic on account of their identities, Yiannopoulos flimsily asserts the same about himself. The alt right should be absolved of similar imputations, Yiannopoulos says, because its spokesman is a gay half-Jew with jungle fever.”

A Professional Troll

The year 2016 saw Yiannopoulos’ star rise exponentially. That’s in large part because he kicked off his “Dangerous F----t” college tour in late 2015, which led to protests nationwide at universities such as Rutgers, DePaul, the University of Minnesota, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California, Los Angeles. During this timeframe, Yiannopoulos began to earn a reputation for being a professional troll. Twitter, for example, suspended his account in December 2015 after he indicated on his profile that he was BuzzFeed’s social justice editor (which he was not). Twitter suspended his account once again after he made anti-Muslim remarks following the June 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from the social media site in July for inciting a campaign of racial harassment against black actress Leslie Jones, a star of the all-female “Ghostbusters” remake. He compared Jones to a man, and his fans likened her to apes, a comparison white supremacists have long used to dehumanize blacks. Yiannopoulos denied culpability for the racist abuse Jones received but was still banned from Twitter, as he'd also crafted fake tweets photoshopped to look as if they'd been sent from her account. He later said that he was thankful for the ban for giving him more notoriety.

The idea that Yiannopoulos is simply a troll using politics to become famous spread when BuzzFeed quoted a Breitbart intern saying “Milo Yiannopoulos is not one person.” Reportedly, 44 interns are responsible for crafting his articles and social media posts.

Yiannopoulos seemed to admit as much at first, saying that was the norm for someone with a career like his. But he later backtracked, implying that he didn’t rely on ghostwriters.

Whatever the case, critics such as Kirchick contend that Yiannopoulos is a “rank opportunist.”  He shouts “outrageous things solely designed to upset liberals. He has nothing original or interesting to share,” Kirchick asserts. Because he makes his points in a “crude” fashion, however, Yiannopoulos manages to court controversy and stay in the news.

In December 2016, Yiannopoulos made headlines after news spread that publishing giant Simon & Schuster had just given him a book deal with a $250,000 advance. The announcement not only prompted the Chicago Review of Books to stop reviewing Simon & Schuster books but also black feminist writer Roxane Gay to walk away from her book deal with the publisher.

Pride Before the Fall

At the onset of 2017, arguably more Americans than ever had become familiar with Milo Yiannopoulos. On Jan. 20, the same day as Trump’s inauguration, Yiannopoulos spoke at the University of Washington. Violent demonstrations took place outside, with a Yiannopoulos supporter shooting a protester at the event. The gunshot resulted in life-threatening injuries, but the victim survived.  

On Feb. 1, Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley. An estimated 1,500 protesters gathered outside. Some started fires, engaged in vandalism and pepper sprayed passersby, leading the campus police to cancel his appearance. This provoked Donald Trump to tweet about defunding the University of California for not upholding free speech.

The outcry over Yiannopoulos’ college tour didn’t deter comedian Bill Maher from inviting the journalist on his “Real Time” show on Feb. 17, however. And the very next day, Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, announced that Yiannopoulos had been invited to speak to the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC). The invitation sparked some conservatives to speak out in opposition, but CPAC stood firm. Then, a conservative blog called the Reagan Battalion tweeted a video from 2015 of Yiannopoulos saying he consented to have a sexual relationship with a priest when he was a teen. It went on to tweet out other videos of Yiannopoulos defending underage males having sex with adults. In the clip that sparked the most controversy, Yiannopoulos said:

“Some of those relationships between younger boys and older men, the sort of coming-of-age relationships, the relationships in which those older men help those young boys to discover who they are, and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable and sort of a rock where they can’t speak to their parents.”

Yiannopoulos also made a snarky remark about the priest who allegedly abused him. “I’m grateful for Father Michael,” he said. “I wouldn’t give nearly such good [oral sex] if it wasn’t for him.”

He also made a point to say that sex with young teens did not constitute pedophilia, as sex with children did. Due to these remarks, Yiannopoulos was widely accused of advocating for adults to have sex with underage teens. The backlash was swift. CPAC disinvited him from its conference. Simon & Schuster canceled his book deal, and Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart after staffers said they would quit if he wasn’t fired.

Yiannopoulos expressed regret for his choice of words, but it wasn’t enough to convince his former allies to stand behind him.

“I’ve repeatedly expressed disgust at pedophilia in my feature and opinion writing,” he said in a Facebook statement on Feb. 20. “My professional record is very clear. But I do understand that these videos, even though some of them are edited deceptively, paint a different picture. I’m partly to blame. My own experiences as a victim led me to believe I could say anything I wanted to on this subject, no matter how outrageous. But I understand that my usual blend of British sarcasm, provocation and gallows humor might have come across as flippancy, a lack of care for other victims or, worse, ‘advocacy.’ I deeply regret that. People deal with things from their past in different ways.”

Now that Yiannopoulos’ career at Breitbart is in the past, members of the groups he offended—women, Jews, blacks, gays—question why only his remarks about the age of consent led his supporters to disavow him. Why didn’t it concern CPAC, Simon & Schuster et al. that Yiannopoulos had made odious remarks about women’s rights, gay rights or civil rights generally? They argue the idea that only his tacit endorsement of pedophilia made Yiannopoulos unfit for the large platform he was given sets a low bar for civil discourse and overlooks the impact of bigotry on the marginalized.