‘You can’t cancel me’: embattled TikTok star reinvents herself as a warrior for Jesus (2023)

Around 5pm in Fort Worth, Texas, as the April evening sun splashed angelic beams of light across the event space’s concrete walls, Brittany Dawn Davis began baptizing women in a horse trough.

Wearing a black sweatshirt stamped with the word “mercy” – a nod to a local megachurch, Mercy Culture – and her white-blond hair extensions tied in a loose ponytail, Davis dunked woman after woman into the cold water as cheers of “woo!” erupted from onlookers.

Most of the women looked younger than 30 years old. Some shivered; some wept and smiled as they received their blessing. A live band playing soft music served as a backdrop for the many videos and reels being filmed, all soon to be posted to Instagram and TikTok.

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Social media is, after all, where this crowd came to know their baptizer, the Christian social media influencer known as Brittany Dawn. The nearly 100 women in the room had traveled from across the country – Tennessee, Florida, Colorado and as far as upstate New York – for a daylong retreat to meet their role model.

For the past several years, Davis has served her combined 1.7 million followers (1 million on TikTok alone) daily doses of Christian content: Bible verses on her signature millennial beige backdrop, tips on dressing modestly and videos on the importance of saving sex for marriage.

As a Tammy Faye for the TikTok generation, Davis is selling her version of Christianity and a lot of merch: everything from Bible highlighters to self-tanner, protein cookies, teeth whitener and false eyelashes. The retreats are one of her bigger ticket items, ranging from $125 (£109) to $650 (£568).

Davis isn’t new to this game. In her former life as a fitness influencer – a past that has embroiled her in an upcoming $1m lawsuit and accusations of con artistry – Davis sold everything from coaching to athletic socks.

She has since entirely rebranded and chosen to become a spiritual guru to her many followers. Where she once posted quad exercises, Davis’s Instagram bio now reads “wildly in love with Jesus” and “writer of truth-filled captions”.

But truth, especially in the US, is often inextricable from belief. Brittany Dawn Davis succeeds not because she tells the truth – but because she tells a good story.

A Texas native, Davis began her career as a fitness influencer in the world of bodybuilding, posting pictures of her muscular frame in jean cutoffs and sports bras as she prepped for bikini competitions.

By 2014, she was selling personalized meal plans and coaching to her followers, using her own physical “transformation” as a calling card.

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A plan would cost as much as $300, though it turns out she was sending the same cookie-cutter template to hundreds of customers, according to the complaint filed against her by the Texas attorney general. Instead of the promised one-on-one coaching, many women received either no response or generic text messages such as “THAT’S MY GIRL! You’re killing it!” or “You’ve got this babe!”

Those who complained or posted negative comments were often blocked on social media, and some who asked for a refund reported being required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

‘You can’t cancel me’: embattled TikTok star reinvents herself as a warrior for Jesus (1)

Because Davis had spoken openly about her struggles with an eating disorder, many people assumed she had a professional background in training people in the process of recovering from anorexia or bulimia.

One woman cited in the upcoming lawsuit sought out Davis’s help and weighed just 80lb at her lowest weight. Another, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity (Davis’s followers have been known to harass critics), has found comfort in a Facebook group where those who say they were scammed by Davis support each other. She claims that Davis’s training plan for her – after she had disclosed she was suffering from anorexia – was a low-calorie diet paired with lots of cardio.

“My condition actually got much worse while following her and I’m still dealing with the effects eight years later,” she told me in an email. “Now that I’m in a community of women sharing identical stories, I understand how badly we were taken advantage of. No fitness coach should be recommending 1,245-calorie plans with intense Hiit [high-intensity interval training] workouts.”

The state of Texas announced in February of this year that it is suing Davis for $250,000 to $1m in damages for “deceptive trade practices”. And the fact that many of her alleged victims were struggling with eating disorders is a crucial element of the lawsuit: not only were these women especially vulnerable; they were deliberately misled for financial gain.

As the complaint reads in the State of Texas v Brittany Dawn Davis: by posting about her own experience with eating disorders and in the same breath encouraging women to buy her fitness plan, Davis was “representing, explicitly or implicitly, that [she] had knowledge or training to address eating disorders when she did not.” The jury trial is set for March of next year.

By 2019, customer complaints calling her a scammer had already become national news. Davis posted a tearful YouTube apology (which she later deleted) and moved on – although not before taking out a $20,800 Covid-19 relief loan in 2020 for her shuttered business.

Her transformation had just begun. Her first marriage, to her high school sweetheart, disintegrated under murky circumstances (though the loan was filed under her married name). Within months, her fitness website was deactivated and her fitness videos replaced with clips of her lip-syncing to sermons.

Davis was now a warrior for Jesus.

At first glance, much of what Davis now posts can seem ecumenical, but she quickly veers toward the extreme of the evangelical spectrum. She has warned her followers of the “demonic” danger of secular music (she claims Lady Gaga is an actual witch), yoga, crystals and zodiac signs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was also briefly banned from Facebook for promoting QAnon conspiracy theories and Covid-19 misinformation.

For her detractors, many of whom can be found in a 23,000-strong internet sleuth community on Reddit, the Brittany Dawn narrative is straightforward: she’s a con woman, they say. Her rise and fall carry all the elements of a good story: the unlikely ascent to fame, the magnificent amounts of deception required to keep a long con afloat and – they hope – a fiery train wreck of an ending, complete with a public fall from grace and perhaps even jail time.

Her supporters prefer the alternative narrative: yes, she has made huge mistakes, but that renders her story of redemption all the more persuasive. They don’t deny that she mishandled her earlier business, that she dressed “immodestly”, that she was divorced.

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Rather, they embrace her past as evidence that there is no limit to what Jesus can redeem.

As Davis herself wrote in a recent TikTok: “No one is too far gone for Christ.”

When I arrived at the venue around 9am, the atmosphere was a far cry from an austere convent. The Brooklyn-industrial-chic event space was designed to be posted to Instagram – the beige, blush and burnt orange color palette a perfect mirror for Davis’s online presence.

Women were already milling around the vendor tables, scooping up Bibles hand-painted with flowers for $60 to $97, tie-dyed jean jackets proclaiming “Yahweh, not my way” and “You can’t cancel me” stickers. The day’s retreat schedule listed coffee and introductions as the first activity, so I was surprised when my $125 ticket only bought me a glass of water (I had to fork over $5.41 for a latte).

Nearly a dozen of Davis’s ministry members mingled with new arrivals, and the mood was overwhelmingly welcoming: out of nowhere, women with bottle blond hair, thick faces of makeup and impossibly long eyelashes greeted me. “Oh my goodness, you have such pretty eyes!” gushed one. “You were born to sit on this throne!” squawked another, pointing toward a wicker chair decorated with sprigs of pampas grass.

Davis, for her part, uncharacteristically formal in a white suit, glided around the room as she made a point of introducing herself to nearly every participant throughout the day, though she was often distant from the day’s events, only speaking in a brief panel in the afternoon.

Several thick-necked, heavily tattooed men wearing earpieces stood at the door (it was unclear why a daylong women’s retreat required bouncers). I recognized one of them as Jordan Nelson, Davis’s second husband.

His face was familiar from their YouTube Q&As about sexual purity and from a video published by the American Civil Liberties Union in which Nelson, then a Kansas City police officer, swept the legs out from under an unarmed Black man and slammed him face-first into a sidewalk. The man, Joshua Bills, sustained injuries to his face; the case against Nelson was settled out of court.

By 9.30am, a sea of attractive, mostly thin and mostly blond women took their seats, dressed in a Texas version of Sunday best: cowboy boots, flowing sundresses and wide-brim felt hats.

The band started up, more Christian rock than liturgical dirge. This is what many evangelicals call “worship”, the hour of singing and dancing that serves as a hype band to warm the audience up for the pastor.

Looking around at the women beaming with smiles as they swayed back and forth, it was hard not to be moved. For a brief moment, the atmosphere reminded me of going to a slumber party as a kid, a communal, bonded – almost secret – feeling.

Soon, women in distressed denim fell to their knees on pink cushions placed in the aisles for that purpose. Others sobbed. At least one woman I saw appeared to be speaking in tongues.

“God is really speaking to me and being able to worship in this type of setting has been really good,” Kaylee Schurer, a 31-year-old physician’s assistant with a warm smile, told me after the first round of services. “I just feel his presence,” she added.

Schurer had been following Davis on Instagram for several years; she and her younger sister Kelsey had traveled together from Florida for this event. Like many of the attendees, the Schurer sisters are highly educated professionals with advanced degrees. It can be easy for outsiders to assume that anyone who would pay $125 for a retreat put on by an unaccredited faith leader being sued for deceptive trade practices would be a rube. But most women I spoke to were aware of Davis’s checkered past; it just didn’t matter much to them. They were simply communing with God in an atmosphere that was celebratory, not punishing.

Most women I met had made a girls’ weekend of the event. Many had come from Bible belt states where they could easily find religious retreats back home at a far lower price (many weekend-long retreats led by churches cost $75 or less for a weekend). But this wasn’t church. It was an empire built on good vibes. As Brianna Marines, one of the members of Davis’s ministry, said to the crowd: “Religion is boring. Jesus is fun!”

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Evangelical influencing has existed for about as long as social media has, but the rise of the professional influencer class has turned this niche into a growing phenomenon. Davis joins a cast of beautiful, young women with cross emojis in their Instagram bios who minister to their millions of followers – usually without any seminary training. Their message may be light on scripture and heavy on motivational soundbites, but they reach a public most local pastors only dream of.

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Borrowing from the language of women’s empowerment, evangelical influencers tell their followers to be confident and to embrace their God-given talents.

“I have torn myself apart for the majority of my adult life … holding myself up daily to an unrealistic standard of what I should look like as a woman. Most of you can probably relate,” Davis wrote in a recent post to Instagram under a rare bare-faced selfie.

Amanda Pittman, another Dallas-based Christian influencer, holds a religious conference called Confident Woman which promises to help women access their “eternal, heavenly security in Christ”. And the two Texas-based sisters behind Girl Defined say they’re building an online sisterhood where girls and women can find encouragement while “taking a stand against feminism”.

Jen Sutphin, a critic of the movement and the creator of the popular YouTube channel Fundie Fridays, eviscerates famous evangelicals each week. She put it this way to me: “They hate feminism, but they all want to be girl bosses.”

One of the core paradoxes of the evangelical influencing space is ironically the same one as the secular feminist influencers they rail against: both preach positivity and self-love, but the most successful among them are young, conventionally beautiful and usually white. The evangelical influencing space is a hybrid of consumer capitalism with a glittery patina of inspirational quotes. Any complex philosophy is shoved through a meat grinder, with the prettiest bits plucked out to slap on to an Instagram caption.

What makes evangelical influencers succeed is not their knowledge of biblical law but their ability to present an aspirational lifestyle in an appealingly curated way – to project a story about married love, God’s power or childbearing in an appealing package. Prophets, politicians, con artists and Instagram influencers have that in common: an ability to weave a good yarn. And stories are hard to debunk because they play on emotion – aspiration, longing, fear, shame – not facts.

It’s a strategy that has been able to draw in women from a wide range of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Over $12 acai bowls, I spoke to one woman during our lunch break who told me how difficult it was to find time to focus on her faith while juggling three kids under four years old. “It’s hard to get away for a weekend. That’s what was appealing to me: I could go and fill my cup, spend time with other women who love the Lord,” said Brooke Jimenez.

Jimenez is a recent arrival to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. After growing up in the agricultural haven of the San Joaquin valley in California, she increasingly found the state to be “godless”. She and her husband moved their family to Texas last year because they wanted to live in a place with more conservative values. “We moved here to escape. We didn’t want to raise our kids there,” she said.

For people like Jimenez, Christian influencers fill this void, creating an online community for women who believe a dominant liberal culture does not align with their values. Participants described feeling isolated in large cities where women their age spend their free time partying and dating around (both activities warned against by Brittany and her guest speakers throughout the day).

As wives, as mothers, even just as women, they are searching for belonging, dignity and purpose. That sense of community often rests on the outward-facing elements of evangelical life, such as purity culture and adherence to strict gender roles. “Feminine power in conservative evangelical spaces – and more broadly in American culture – is linked to beauty,” said Kristin Kobes du Mez, a historian and the author of Jesus and John Wayne.

In other words, male evangelicals may be able to get away with looking like Jerry Falwell, but women cannot.

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The onus, then, is not on studying scripture but on making yourself beautiful for your husband and on creating a certain kind of home – bright light, cream-colored furniture and fresh baked goods – for your many children.

“More followers tend to be drawn to this very acceptable presentation of Christianity that demands little in some respects but demands a lot in other respects. It demands that you present yourself in a certain way, that you look a certain way, that your home looks a certain way. Those are high demands,” Du Mez said. “But it demands little in terms of scriptural study or theological engagement, or even the other sides of Christianity that often get glossed over: things like giving up your possessions to follow Christ.”

No one I encountered at the retreat seemed interested in giving up their possessions. On the contrary, many were in the business of selling, either working as small-scale influencers (about 15,000 to 30,000 followers) or shilling for multi-level marketing schemes.

Several retreat attendees with small followings had their own Amazon storefronts, selling everything from workout clothes to laminated Bible tabs. Those involved in multi-level marketing companies used their online presences to hawk powdered vitamins, face serums and other beauty products.

The chasm between the Christian ideal of charity and the turbo-charged capitalism reached a climax during the day’s final sermon, delivered by Jamie Lyn Wallnau, daughter-in-law of the evangelist Lance Wallnau. She took to the balloon arch altar to give a fiery speech about sin, which she said includes everything from romance novels to murder mystery shows.

Wearing a white cape over an all-black outfit, the petite Wallnau thundered: “We are in a modern-day battle right now.” Quoting from the Book of Timothy, she read: “People will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit.”

The lexicon of evangelical Christians is unambiguous: black and white, good and evil, angels and demons. Coming out of the Donald Trump era, they seem to have added another dichotomy: winning and losing. “[God] never loses! Plot twist. I mean have you read the Bible? He literally never loses,” Wallnau said. “So what team you gonna be on, sis? I like to win.”

Psychologists have described this type of language as a “thought-terminating cliche”. It’s a phrase that shuts down dissent, and it’s routinely employed by politicians and cult leaders alike to quiet cognitive dissonance. It helps transform life’s ambiguities into rigid categories, creating ready-made meaning from the shrapnel of modern life.

Thought-terminating cliches also serve as a shield to deflect criticism. The fallout from Davis’s fitness scandal eventually led to the creation of a Reddit group called “Brittany Dawn Snark”. Some of its members are excitedly following the lead-up to the upcoming lawsuit, as they, too, allege that Davis stole money from them during her fitness days. Others are former evangelicals deconstructing the kind of prosperity gospel that she preaches.

Some of the thousands of members have spent hours tracking down court documents, sniffing out another of her defunct businesses (a swimwear line and a clothing brand) and putting together estimates for her current profits (her ministry is a registered 501c3 non-profit).

Davis and her ministry have dubbed this behavior “cancel culture”, a term she uses frequently. The way she sees it, she is a victim of online bullying and “media manipulation”, as she says frequently in her TikToks. (Davis ignored multiple requests for comment.)

It’s a strange duality: Davis simultaneously claims to have been transformed by her past misbehavior but accepts neither criticism nor responsibility in the present because, as she said during the retreat, “that’s not who I am any more”.

The Bible teaches that God can forgive anything, but only if sinners repent. I can’t know what goes on between Davis and her God, but so far, she has not made amends in this world in any meaningful way.

In a document filed by her lawyer responding to the initial allegations of the attorney general’s case against her (obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request), Davis categorically denied “every allegation” against her.

Case in point: she sells a $32 cotton T-shirt on her ministry’s website with the word “unapologetic” swirled across it.

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As Brittany said to a rapt audience during the brief moment she took the microphone: “You can’t cancel what God has called. You can try all you want, but the power of the blood has already overcome it. And that’s the truth. That is the truth that I walk in every day, and a heavenly confidence comes with that. You can’t cancel me.”


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