iffany Fong stood
among a gaggle of reporters in the gray tiled plaza of Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse in downtown Manhattan. It was just past dawn, but members of the media were already queued up for the start of FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried’s criminal trial. Fong, 29, took periodic hits from her vape while chatting up reporters, doling out her number and self-deprecating one-liners for stories. She looked like a grown-up version of a former college “it” girl, wearing a black sweater vest, Nike Air Force One sneakers and a leather blazer tied around her petite waist. She whipped out her phone and started vlogging, documenting the experience for her legion of over 90,000 followers on X (formerly known as Twitter) and 30,000 subscribers on YouTube

Fong, according to her LinkedIn profile, is a “reluctant crypto content creator.” (She cringes at the term “influencer.”) She’d flown to New York City to attend Bankman-Fried’s trial in person at the Southern District courthouse. Bankman-Fried, who faces over a century in prison, has been charged with seven counts related to fraud. (He has pleaded not guilty.) But unlike other spectators, Fong has visited Bankman-Fried more than 10 times at his childhood home in Palo Alto during his months of house arrest. The pair spent dozens of hours alone in his parents’ study. He introduced her to his childhood stuffed bunny, Manfred. 

During that period, she temporarily moved to San Francisco to be within commuting distance of Bankman-Fried. Fong’s access is perhaps only rivaled by the author Michael Lewis, who spent hundreds of hours with Bankman-Fried for the book “Going Infinite,” an account of the crypto wunderkind’s rise and fall. (Since Bankman-Fried has been jailed and unreachable during his trial, this story of their months-long back-and-forth is told through Fong’s experience. A spokesperson for Bankman-Fried declined to comment.) 

“This is the weirdest little detour my life has taken, getting a front row seat to a massive financial fraud scandal,” Fong tells me in her Airbnb studio rental in downtown Manhattan, where I interview her on the eve of the trial. She sits cross-legged on the bed, showing me the new plastic vapes she hoped wouldn’t set off the metal detectors at the courthouse entrance. I first met Fong at a crypto conference in March, during a nightclub afterparty where the ratio of men to women approached that of a men’s locker room. I’d listened to Fong’s November interviews with Bankman-Fried from before his arrest, when he was telling anyone who’d listen that the collapse was due to a colossal failure of risk management, not fraud. “I’m so out of place in this story,” admits Fong. “It’s just like this random fucking chick wandered into this very serious situation.” 

Tiffany Fong, Oct 9th 2023, New York

Ye Fan for Rolling Stone

FONG GREW UP IN LAS VEGAS, to divorced parents, as one of the only Asian students in her school. In elementary school, she was painfully shy to the point where a teacher called her mom expressing concern that Fong wasn’t speaking enough. After a concerted effort to become more outgoing, Fong was eventually voted “life of the party” her senior year of high school. She graduated from the University of Southern California, where she was a self-professed party girl. 

Fong briefly considered working in entertainment law or public relations, but found the prospect of a corporate job stifling. “I just had an existential crisis,” Fong says. “If I take one of these jobs, then I get what, like two weeks off a year? I’m basically someone’s bitch for the rest of my life.” Instead, Fong backpacked all over the world for almost three years. To make money, she started small online businesses — like selling digital files and on-demand printing. “I haven’t actually worked a real serious, nine-to-five job,” she says. “I don’t like the idea of answering to anybody.” The Covid-19 pandemic ended her travels. Then the crypto bull market began. 

Fong made her name in the crypto community last year because of what she refers to as her “Celsius leaks.” In 2011, when a single bitcoin was worth under $100 a coin, Fong was gifted a bitcoin by a relative who dabbled in bitcoin mining. Over the years, she received two more. She never sold them. In spring 2021, with bitcoin trading as high as $60,000, she put more than $200,000 worth of bitcoin and other crypto in a startup called Celsius, a kind of shadow bank that promised interest rates of up to 18% for its crypto depositors. In June 2022, amid a rough patch in crypto markets, Celsius shuttered withdrawals. The company declared bankruptcy the next month. “I was going through my first real breakup, so I was already incredibly depressed,” Fong recounts of that summer. “Then I lost the majority of my life savings. I just wanted somewhere to vent about my losses.” She started posting about her Celsius misadventures on Youtube and Twitter.

During that period, a tipster sent Fong a recording of a Celsius all-hands meeting that revealed sensitive details about the firm’s restructuring. Fong shared a transcript and portions of the recording with a crypto reporter at the New York Times, who ended up writing about the “audacious plan” described in the call. She later posted the leaked audio recording and transcript on her Substack. More tips started coming in. She doxxed the crypto wallet addresses of executives and leaked the confidential bids placed by vulture investors in the company’s bankruptcy auction. “I’m not very political about it, but I did feel that customers who had money trapped in the company absolutely had a right to transparency about what was happening with our money,” says Fong, herself a Celsius creditor.

Her first Celsius leak caught the attention of Bankman-Fried, then one of crypto’s most influential figures. When he followed her on Twitter, she recognized his name, and that he was a “big shot,” but had no idea what Bankman-Fried did. “We probably exchanged like less than 10 messages that day,” Fong says. “Then I just kind of moved on with my life.” 

Fong and Bankman-Fried reconnected in November 2022, when his FTX empire swiftly and dramatically imploded. On November 11, the day FTX filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Fong reached out to Bankman-Fried. “I just said something like, ‘Hey, obviously, there’s been a lot of news about FTX. Would you be willing to chat with me and tell me your side of the story?’” recalls Fong. “I really did not think that Sam would ever get back to me.”

A few days later, Fong was on a late-night date at a Brooklyn dive bar when Bankman-Fried responded. He sent her a heart emoji and said he’d be free to chat with her for the next hour or so. “I was like, ‘What? No, there’s no fucking way’,” says Fong. She said to her date that evening, “I don’t even know what to ask him. I’m kind of drunk right now.” Her date, who she’d met through crypto and had substantial funds stuck on FTX, offered, “Ask him where my fucking money is.”

Fong stumbled back to her apartment and recorded the interview. Fong asked Bankman-Fried if he’d added a “secret backdoor” that allowed him to move funds from FTX to his hedge fund, Alameda Research. Bankman-Fried cheekily denied it, responding, “I don’t even know how to code.” In the same interview, he admitted to Fong that he gave secret “dark” donations to Republicans. (“All my Republican donations were dark. The reason was not the regulatory reason. It’s because reporters freak the fuck out if you donate to a Republican because they’re all super liberal.”) That admission was later cited in a complaint against Bankman-Fried filed with the Federal Election Commission. 

“I asked him if he regretted that first phone call with me [and] what he told me about the dark donation since that kind of blew up in his face,” Fong says. “But no, he’s never expressed regret for anything he said to me.” Later that year, Bankman-Fried embarked on a wide-ranging media tour, speaking with the New York Times’ Dealbook, Good Morning America, The Wall Street Journal, and New York magazine. Fong didn’t expect to ever speak with Bankman-Fried again.

ON DECEMBER 12, BANKMAN-FRIED WAS arrested in his $40 million Bahamas penthouse. The Department of Justice announced charges against him the next day. After spending a few days in a Bahamian jail, he was extradited to the United States. Released on bail into house arrest at his parents’ Palo Alto home, Bankman-Fried immediately contacted Fong.  

“The [morning] that he touched back down at his parents house, he texted me at like, 3am,” Fong says. “So I woke up to that [text]. And I was just like, What the fuck?” Bankman-Fried wrote, “Hey! Finally back online…” The pair began messaging again. According to Fong, Bankman-Fried wanted to clear up a rumor that he paid $250 million cash for his bail bond. That rumor drove speculation that Bankman-Fried had millions in customer funds lying around in secret accounts. “He just clarified that it was a personal recognizance bond,” Fong says. She subsequently tweeted about the bond, saying “For clarity, @SBF_FTX did not pay $250 million cash for bail.” She tells me, “I read the actual filings that showed that so I knew that it wasn’t like some lie that he was trying to spin up.”

Now that Fong was in contact with Bankman-Fried again, she asked if she could visit. To Fong’s surprise, she says he responded with, “Yes, I’m allowed visitors. I’d love to see you.” 

Fong’s first visit to Bankman-Fried during his house arrest was on December 27. He was wearing an ankle monitor and the family had hired a German shepherd guard dog, Sandor, that was trained to attack upon hearing a secret word. “I think that was one of the most anxious moments I’d seen Sam in, because he had pretty recently been released from prison,” Fong says of her visit. “He just seemed very shaken by that experience.” 

Fong sublet an apartment in San Francisco for the next few months to meet with Bankman-Fried several more times. She sometimes recorded her in-person meetings and phone calls with Bankman-Fried, and she’s shared snippets on social media. Some provide insight into Bankman-Fried’s puzzling behavior. In one recording, he describes the motivation behind one particularly bizarre Twitter thread from last November. “What I needed to do was shake it up,” Bankman-Fried explained to Fong. “I needed to jostle things from the current configuration into some other random configuration, that, in expectation, couldn’t possibly be worse than what it already was.”

Bankman-Fried told Fong that other one-off journalists would visit him, but Fong never crossed paths with them. “Michael Lewis, he said, would visit every few weeks,” Fong says. “[Lewis] would even join the family for dinner. His parents never invited me.” Occasionally, his parents, the Stanford law professors Joe Bankman and Barbara Fried, would accidentally walk in on the pair while they were together in the study. “I tried to introduce myself to the dad once, like, ‘Hey, I’m Tiffany,’ and he kind of just shut the door,” Fong says. Bankman-Fried told her his parents probably just assumed they were dating. 

When I ask if she had indeed been romantic with Bankman-Fried, Fong is coy: “I’m just gonna let people’s imagination run wild.” 

I SPOKE WITH SEVERAL OTHER REPORTERS WHO visited Bankman-Fried at his parents’ home to see if they’d corroborate Fong’s experience. They painted a portrait of a lonely, former magnate who yearned to get out his side of the story. “I do think he wanted sympathy, and wanted friendship, and wanted attention,” says Teddy Schleifer, a journalist for Puck who cultivated a relationship with Bankman-Fried as early as 2020. Schleifer says he, too, visited Bankman-Fried multiple times during that period. “I did not get the sense that he was talking to lots of people there,” Schleifer says. “He did seem like he was fairly lonely.”

I asked another reporter who visited why Bankman-Fried wanted to spend so much time with Fong when he had so many other journalists at his fingertips. “[Tiffany’s] talked about how ‘Sam likes talking to me because I don’t have an agenda’,” says Zack Guzmán, the host of crypto media company Coinage. “But that can also be an agenda.” 

“I think that’s what Sam was most excited about with Tiffany. She technically has no editor,” Guzman says. (In summer 2022, Bankman-Fried’s Alameda Ventures invested in Trustless Media, the parent company of Coinage.)

IN JANUARY, WHILE UNDER HOUSE ARREST, Bankman-Fried handed Fong more than two hundred pages of his private Google documents. The documents included unpublished drafts of Bankman-Fried’s tweet threads, his personal ramblings, as well as his reflections on Caroline Ellison, his former-girlfriend-turned-star-witness. The documents, or portions of them, were also shared with several reporters on an off-the-record basis. 

In July, the New York Times published a splashy story about Ellison, citing “private writings” between her and Bankman-Fried. Eight days later, prosecutors petitioned the judge in Bankman-Fried’s case to revoke his bail. Bankman-Fried, they revealed, was the Times’s source for Ellison’s documents; this, prosecutors said, amounted to witness tampering. The judge agreed and sent Bankman-Fried to Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center. In September, with Bankman-Fried still in jail, the Times published a follow-on story, again citing Bankman-Fried’s private Google documents. The second article named Fong as the source of the documents. Fong denies Bankman-Fried directed her to leak the documents to the New York Times. She says she found the situation “ironic or amusing.” “Sam had just leaked Caroline Ellison’s diary to the same exact journalist at the New York Times,” explains Fong. “I thought it would be somewhat full circle.”

“I respect her hustle,” says Nikhilesh De, a reporter and editor for the cryptocurrency news site CoinDesk who has reported on both Celsius and FTX. “She’s found a unique niche where she can share information that most traditional media outlets could not.”

Both during and in the weeks leading up to Bankman-Fried’s criminal trial, Fong has published excerpts of Bankman-Fried’s Google documents, his private childhood photos, and recordings of his conversations with her on her social media accounts. They range from bizarre (a list of Bankman-Fried’s 2021 Amazon purchases) to revealing (a voice recording of Bankman-Fried explaining Singh’s hundreds of millions worth of insider loans). A recent post is titled ‘Alameda’s Failure to Hedge,’ in which Bankman-Fried blamed the bad financial state of Alameda on Ellison. “Running Alameda was an incredibly difficult job, and Caroline, the remaining CEO, wasn’t generally on top of hedging,” said the document. Fong posted the tweet on a day Caroline took the stand to discuss Alameda’s hedging at Bankman-Fried’s trial. 

Fong isn’t a merely a mouthpiece for Bankman-Fried — she says she picks and chooses what to post. “I don’t blindly believe everything he tells me,” Fong says. “Anytime he’s trying to relay his innocence or his lack of knowledge about something, I’m particularly skeptical.” Regarding leaking the documents, she says, “I felt fine about those, especially because it read as though they were statements he was hoping to make.” Fong says she feels conflicted about her role — not because of the ethics surrounding the leaking of documents — but because she’s developed a bond with Bankman-Fried. “I feel like we became friends. So it does feel a little bit internally conflicting for me, but I’m trying to just be as unbiased as possible. But some of his responses also just sound overly candid to where I’m like, ‘Why are you even telling me this?’”

BANKMAN-FRIED’S RELATIONSHIP WITH FONG IS A revealing case study about the way he deals with the media. Up until last week, it wasn’t clear to me whether Bankman-Fried had ever given Fong permission or instructions to leak certain documents. Fong says Bankman-Fried never explicitly told her what to do with them. But what outcome did he expect, handing over a pile of documents to a known leaker? As a journalist covering the FTX story, I had, for months, puzzled over their dynamic. 

Then, one day after court last week, Fong calls me in a panic, venting about an exchange she had outside the courthouse with Bankman-Fried’s mother, Barbara Fried. Fong says Fried blamed her for an “unfortunate article [Fong] wrote about [her] conversations with Sam” and abruptly stormed off, leaving Fong feeling awkward and frazzled. Fong posted about the encounter on X, writing, “Barbara Fried (SBF’s mom) yelled at me outside of court today what the fuck.” The billionaire Elon Musk came to Fong’s defense. 

On the call, Fong tells me she was confused why Fried was mad at her for speaking out about her and Bankman-Fried’s private conversations. Fong insists to me Fried’s son had been in on it. “Sam told me he wants things to be leaked before the trial so that they have some effect,” admits Fong. “So he’s sort of given me permission, like, ‘Oh, I think it would be good for you to leak some things’.” 

However, Bankman-Fried had been unclear about exactly what he wanted leaked, leaving Fong confused. “I was like, ‘Well, what things do I have permission to leak?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, I need to think about that. I’ll get back to you.’ Obviously that didn’t end up happening,” says Fong, referring to Bankman-Fried getting thrown in jail. 

When it came to press, Fong also tells me Bankman-Fried cared deeply about optics, and that he didn’t want any messaging to appear to come from him. According to Fong, “[Sam] mentioned, ‘People are skeptical when I post something and I say I think it’s true, but it kind of comes off a little bit better if it’s leaked from somewhere, so it doesn’t come off like something I’m trying to put out there in the public’.” 

Bankman-Fried’s proclivity towards obfuscation has also been a recurring theme at his trial. Ellison testified that certain Alameda entities were renamed because Bankman-Fried wanted to make venture investments using Alameda’s funds but didn’t want the perception that he was still involved with Alameda. Bankman-Fried’s former lieutenant Nishad Singh testified he’d participated in a straw-donor scheme, a campaign finance violation designed to obscure the source of political donations. “I think he just obviously underestimates the risk and underestimates the consequences,” Fong says. “He’s just doing the same shit he was doing at fucking FTX and Alameda.”

FONG AND BANKMAN-FRIED’S LAST CONVERSATION was in July, shortly before he was given a gag order that prohibited him from talking about his case with the press. Two weeks before Bankman-Fried’s trial was scheduled to start, Fong was contacted by an Assistant U.S. Attorney on the case seeking information from her. She politely declined the request, but the inquiry made her wonder if federal prosecutors were monitoring her posts. “I think about the fact that [the Department of Justice] is probably scrolling through, looking for some intense SBF-related tweets,” Fong says. “And I’m just, like, talking about poop.” 

In September, Fong says she mailed Bankman-Fried a letter addressed to his Metropolitan Detention Center jail cell. She wrote, “It must be really hard for you in there without internet” and said she wished they could talk again one day. She kept it short and simple, assuming the letter would be read by guards. Bankman-Fried has not written back.

For the past few weeks, she’s been in the courthouse documenting the trial for a new series on her YouTube channel. At one point, during an intermission, Bankman-Fried stood up from his seat, stretching, and flashed Fong a smirk and a wave. She squealed with glee. Fong still hopes she can get on the parents’ good side and visit Bankman-Fried in prison after the trial, if he is found guilty. 

Fong has a trove of information about Bankman-Fried that she doesn’t yet know what to do with. They include audio recordings, Bankman-Fried’s private writings, as well as photographs. She’s been pursued by book agents, as well as documentary and podcast producers. “My entire history … I would go places and have no plan,” Fong says. “I’m open to anything.” Fong says she wants to create some longer-form content that’s different from her tweets after the trial is over. But she’ll let the jury talk first.