By now, most people have heard about the Con Queen of Hollywood, the infamous imposter who stole the identities of dozens of well-known, mostly female producers in order to lure unwitting victims to Indonesia. The genesis of that moniker dates back to the spring of 2018 when I received a tip about a peculiar scam targeting the entertainment industry. I began reporting and soon found myself puzzled and fascinated by the uniquely twisted mind of the imposter. That initial burst of reporting led to a story that graced the cover of this magazine. As other outlets picked it up, it grew to become a global phenomenon. The person behind the mask, Hargobind Tahilramani, or Harvey, turned out to be an Indonesian man with a criminal record and a complicated past, a figure as perplexing as he was disturbing, whose talent for impersonation was matched only by a relentless desire to lure people into complicated psychological traps. The Con Queen’s exploits in Hollywood were a small part of a decades-long pattern of deception and manipulation that stretched all the way back to his childhood in Jakarta. I would spend years chasing Tahilramani in a bid to understand his motives and personality, and wound up confronting him in person during COVID lockdown restrictions in the United Kingdom in the fall of 2020.
The hunt I undertook resulted in a new book, The Con Queen of Hollywood, from which this excerpt is taken.
For more than two years, Purebytes, a foodie Instagram account, had been a roving, restless enterprise and Harvey, the site’s host, hopscotched all over the United Kingdom. He spent time in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then Leeds; in Manchester, and of course, London. He went for weeks and months without visiting the same city, much less the same restaurant, and often pretended to be places he wasn’t. Whether that was a deliberate attempt to foil would-be snoops, or whether he just enjoyed the deceit, was hard to say; more than likely, it was both. For a long time, I tried to establish contact with him via telephone, WhatsApp, and emails, but he never responded.
Then one day in the fall of 2020, Harvey resurfaced in a very public way. As was the case with so much about his life, a clue emerged from social media. In early September, an Instagram account belonging to an Indonesian influencer named Haseena Bharata published a fresh video on her Instagram Live video feed. Wearing a blue and pink floral-patterned dress and holding what looked like a cocktail in one hand, she told viewers that a “very special, special guest” would soon be joining her. She described him as a “survivor” who had overcome great difficulties. Her cohost then read aloud from the guest’s prepared statement. Viewers learned that it had taken a lifetime to summon the courage to plumb the painful memories of his childhood, but he was now prepared to share his darkest secrets with the world.
Describing Harvey as a “family friend,” Haseena was midsentence when suddenly his video feed connected and he appeared on the bottom half of her split screen. Dressed in a black baseball cap and a loose black T-shirt, Harvey looked trim and fit. His wide grin bisected a beard flecked with gray. He was seated in front of a window with a view onto a cityscape of high-rises, parks, and apartments, but his face took up most of the screen. She asked him how he was doing. “Fabulous!” he crowed, in an American accent.
The interview lasted thirty minutes. Haseena asked about his struggles as a young man. Harvey told her he’d been bullied, smeared, ridiculed—for being fat, or uninterested in sports, for being effeminate—but he had escaped Indonesia and, thanks to an immigration attorney, was thriving as a newly minted citizen of the United Kingdom. When she asked if he had ever sought out therapy, he returned to his youth in Indonesia, and said he’d been subjected to forced gay conversion therapy, even though he himself wasn’t gay. “I’m not banci,” he said, repeating the antigay slur he said his classmates had called him. “I’m not gay, there you go.” Toward the end of the interview, Haseena asked how he liked London and he gazed at the skyline behind him. He loved it, he said.
Harvey had participated in the interview using a cell phone that he held up, selfie-style, and the washed-out sky behind him cast him into shadow. He was seated in front of a window in a relatively tall building. Just behind him, if one looked carefully, was a balcony with several black wicker chairs and potted plants. In the far distance there was a tall white building with what looked like a large black stripe running down one side, while the closest buildings were shorter, in an older style, with red brick and gabled windows. I took screenshots of the most clearly visible background features. I also grabbed several screenshots from Instagram Stories he had posted from what looked like the same location. In the background of one of those pictures there was a silver skyscraper with the words “City Tower” emblazoned across the top. He had told Haseena that he was in London. I spent a long time looking at maps to see if any of the views in my screenshots matched the London cityscape. But the City Tower London looked nothing like the one in the picture I had. Then again, Harvey was an inveterate liar. So I looked for City Towers in other places Harvey had visited and the only building that matched was the thirty-story skyscraper that rose up from the heart of the Piccadilly Gardens district, in a city that lay more than two hundred miles to the northwest of London, Manchester.
Over the years I had gathered dozens of pictures of Harvey—some from Purebytes, others from people who knew him. I sent a few of these to a friend, Jon, who had grown up in Manchester. I had chosen recent ones in which the background was visible. After university, Jon had spent several years working in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, a once-gritty neighborhood that had begun to gentrify in recent years. Jon thought one of the buildings in the photos looked familiar, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. We agreed to talk again later. When Jon got back to me the next day, he sounded excited. It had hit him: in the lower right-hand corner of one picture was a small but distinct patch of grass bordered by wrought iron fencing. For six years, Jon had worked in a building directly across the street from that very patch, on Dray Street. He hadn’t recognized it at first because the perspective was backward. Harvey had taken the video as a selfie, which had reversed the orientation; what appeared on the right in the picture was actually on the left.
There was only one building in the vicinity tall enough to offer the perspective seen in the photos, one that included the tall white tower, the park, and the red building. That was the Light Boutique ApartHotel, at 20 Church Street. Accommodations like these were to be found all over the United Kingdom. Part hotel, part apartment, they were equally suitable for the needs of a short-term visitor or the corporate client.
I felt like I was at a crossroads. I had stumbled across as solid a location for Harvey as I was likely to find. I booked a room in the Light ApartHotel and in the final days of October 2020, with Covid cases raging, I boarded a British Airways flight bound for London. I took a train to Manchester and arrived in the late afternoon and checked into the hotel around 5 p.m. To my surprise,The Light ApartHotel offered me a suite, with Wi-Fi,
a spacious kitchen, a bedroom and lounge area, each with a TV, and a small balcony. I recognized the interior from the photos Harvey had posted.
That first night, I went for a walk. I recalled the conversations I had had with Lia, an old acquaintance of Harvey’s in Jakarta who believed he was spiritually precocious. Whatever gifts of human perception he possessed were eclipsed by a more elemental force. “He has a story in his head and he cannot define what is true and what is wrong,” she told me one night in a wandering conversation that lasted more than an hour. “He is lost in his own story.” In response to my questions, she had tried again and again over many months to describe his effect on people. He was, she believed, a dark malignancy in semi-humanoid form, glomming on to souls and retching in their dreams.
“You know Gollum,” she said at last.
She sighed, and it was as if she had finally found the words, the word, she had been looking for. I imagined the slinking torturer of Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings, whose garbled exhortations and huge, wild eyes mapped fittingly onto the man I was now chasing. I pictured the iconic scene from the Lord of the Rings trilogy in which Gollum talks to his former self, the Hobbit known as Smeagol, as they conspire to seize control of the all-powerful ring. It was a depiction of utter insanity, a cleaving of the psyche.
I awoke to a gray and cold morning. I spent some time trying to figure out where I was situated in relation to the perspectives I had seen online. My suite, 1701, was located on the west side of the building, with a partial view of the City Tower. If the calculations Jon and I had made were correct, Harvey’s room was on the opposite side of the building. Looking out a hallway window, I saw that just two floors below there was a balcony with similar décor to those in the screenshots and in Haseena’s video interview with Harvey. Still, I had to find the east-facing rooms, which I had learned were reserved for long-term guests. After studying the pictures and comparing them to the view from my own suite, I figured that Harvey wasn’t on the seventeenth floor, or on the two floors above me, either. He was likely to be lower down. The fifteenth floor was too far down, it turned out. It had to be the sixteenth floor. There, on the other end of the hallway, was a door: room 1603.
The elevator doors pinged and a member of the cleaning staff emerged. Dragging her cart of supplies, she headed for room 1603. I waited in the elevator bay with my ear to the wall. From around the corner, I heard her knock and a voice, indistinct, but to my ears male and nasal, ushered her in. I crept closer. Though I couldn’t make out the words, the two appeared to be holding an animated conversation, like old friends. As I inched my way along the wall, heart pounding, I marveled at the preposterousness of my situation. I saw the whole scene as if from above, a skulking, masked figure lurking outside a hotel room. If he had suddenly opened the door at that moment, I wasn’t sure what I would even say.
I was acutely aware of the potential danger and transgression of prying into the deep recesses of someone else’s life. But I also realized that I wasn’t yet ready to knock. For one thing, I didn’t know what he was truly capable of. He had pushed at least one woman down a set of stairs while he was a student in the United States. He had threatened worse to others: death and maiming and bombing. He had been convicted and sent to prison on a terrorism-related charge. His own family was terrified of him. What would prevent him from attacking me? Or—and this prospect felt even more devastating—slamming the door in my face? Better to confront him in public, where either of those options would be much harder. Harvey would have to leave his room eventually. I quietly retreated to my own room.
Manchester was an ode to the damp. If it was not raining, it had either just done so or would again very soon. I sought shelter among the twenty-five thousand volumes inside the Portico Library, on Mosley Street, whose archives chronicled Manchester’s rise at the height of the Industrial Revolution and England’s colonial expansion over more than four and a half centuries. Harvey had visited once and posted about it on Purebytes.
The throngs on Market Street surged, blowing by in the streets like embers from a great bonfire. Humans in streams, sometimes holding their breath, dodged each other in both directions, rushing toward life and away from each other, and then back again the other way just as fast. Lia Ananta, a successful fashion designer, was one of Harvey’s oldest acquaintances in Jakarta. She had been on the receiving end of his vitriol, but had maintained a cordial distance and had even encouraged him when others seemed not to, somehow unruffled by his verbal onslaughts. He seemed to hold her in high regard while she had concluded that the man she had always known as Gobind was possessed of a dark prowess. She described him as an “indigo.”
The term indigo children, coined by a self-described synesthete and psychologist, Nancy Ann Tappe, was first popularized in 1970s-era New Age circles. It referred to children who were purported to possess unusual and sometimes paranormal powers, such as telepathy or mind-reading. Adherents believed that an entire generation of children with these unusual skills was being born as a sort of cosmic antidote to a sick human society. The idea enjoyed a resurgence with a series of books and films in the late 1990s even as it was dismissed as junk science.
Like so many others, Lia had heard the lies about Harvey’s famous film producer father, his own house in London. Harvey had bragged to her about his bomb threats to the U.S. embassy, which she told him were “crazy” and about which he had laughed, because the whole thing had been a “joke.” When his mood darkened, she described it as a “black cloud and then there’s thunder everywhere, and when it becomes rolling, he can’t stop.” Somewhere from within that vortex there emerged what Lia described as a sixth sense, some ability he possessed to “see the future” and to “create vibrations.”
What this translated to, she tried to explain to me, was an ability to read people’s emotions, to see when they were angry, or calm, or scared. “He can feel it,” she said. “It’s scary, of course, because he can terrorize anyone anytime.”
Her characterization felt vague and ill-defined, at least at first. To “terrorize” was to act within a very specific set of parameters; only the bomb threats to the U.S. embassy in Jakarta seemed to clearly fit the bill. It took me time to understand the complexity of what Lia was describing. But her words were prescient. Dozens of people removed in space and time by decades and thousands of miles, and with no knowledge of one another, repeatedly reached for the same words to describe the damage Harvey had wreaked on their lives.
Now the terrorist was essentially on the lam. Though he had raised his head briefly, he remained in hiding—hiding from his victims and hiding from his trackers, from the law and from his own past. His passport was no longer good. Certain countries and certain cities were now unavailable to him. And while he may not have realized it yet, he was not only hunted but trapped.
I returned to the hotel around noon and sank into a lounge chair in the lobby. Several times the elevator dinged or the entrance to the street swung open and I glanced up; a young couple exited and strolled past, arm in arm. Eventually rain began to fall again. I had been sitting near reception for over an hour when the elevator sounded again. Before I had a chance to look up, I heard a voice. It was upbeat, slightly nasal, more middle American than not, and punctuated by a high-pitched and forceful laugh. “Yeah, let me know,” he said. “Yeah?” Like a scent, the voice hung in the air. I still hadn’t looked up but there was no doubt who was speaking. I glanced over and saw a man wearing a black baseball cap, black leggings, black athletic shoes, and a dark green overcoat.
On his way out he looked in my direction. I watched him go, then swept out the door after him. By the time I spotted him again, he had already reached the corner of High Street. I stayed back, not wanting to get too close. He was close to six feet tall, with broad, sloping shoulders; a green and white Marks & Spencer shopping bag dangled from his left hand. His feet splayed slightly outward and his gait was even and measured, the pace of a man of purpose. He seemed to be moving just a fraction slower than the crowd, as if waiting to gauge its intentions before entering its fray. He moved west along Church Street past the outstretched hand of a homeless man and the Northern Soul’s Grilled Cheese shop playing Beak and Donald Byrd, on toward the T-junction where the train passed by, and there he stopped for a moment.
It was one thirty in the afternoon, past lunchtime, and the day was as bright as it would get. Sunlight refracted in pale sprays off the city’s glass, and water sluiced down drains and pipes, onto windowsills. After looking both ways he crossed the street and headed west. I stayed on the east side to parallel him, the way it’s done in spy thrillers. But then to my dismay I saw that he was heading into the entrance of the Arndale mall, an enormous building with hundreds of shops. I tried quickly to cross but as I stepped out into the street a bus crowded into the lane, forcing me back onto the sidewalk. By the time I ran around he had disappeared inside. The giant red building had swallowed the Con Queen whole.
I spent two hours scouring the mall, circling it three times—twice on the upper floors and once on the lower—but he had vanished. The window of opportunity was shrinking. That night, carousers on the eighteenth floor kept me awake and littered the roof’s astroturfed terraces with McDonald’s wrappers, chicken nuggets, and soda cans. I lost myself in the BBC and successive episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
The next morning, I took up my position on a wooden bench under the awning of a sandwich shop to watch the entrance. Harvey appeared just after 1 p.m., as he had the day before. This time I managed to stay on his tail and followed him through the mall and out the other side to a Marks & Spencer on Main Street. As I waited, trying to remain inconspicuous, his sister Amisha’s words of caution rang in my ears. “Please,” she had written, “it is very important to stay away from this individual. Don’t fall into his trap of superficiality and pity. He’s like a riptide that comes at you and just when you think you can swim, you drown.”
Ten minutes later, having purchased some groceries, he retraced his steps to 20 Church Street and disappeared.
It was Halloween, his birthday. I spent the evening back in my room wondering how he was bringing in his forty-first year. Alone in his room just one floor below me. Possibly on the phone, talking to a victim somewhere, someone I wasn’t yet aware of. Or browsing through the Drafts folder of his Gmail account, where he kept detailed notes of all his targets. Or, like me, gazing through the glass to the glittering lights below, the slashing rain, the milky sky that faded so quickly into blackness.
On the television the next morning, a reporter announced that Covid infections were spiking across the United Kingdom. The country was going into full lockdown soon. With three days remaining, I had nearly despaired of catching him. I headed into the rain at 7 a.m., alternating lookout perches between the sandwich shop and a lunch counter inside the mall with a view to the door. The hour of his usual appearance came and went. It was raining harder than it had on previous days and I had begun to wonder if I had missed him. What if he had left and gone to London? Or disappeared underground? Or somehow spotted me and fled? The lunch counter was spattered and smeared, a Covid petri dish.
And then suddenly there he was. The night before, I had asked my father, a former CIA case officer, “What advice can you give me for a situation like this?” Here is what the spy said: Compliment him on his success and accomplishments. Play to his vanity. “Many people, particularly those with overly healthy egos, can’t stand for somebody to think they don’t know everything there is to know about whatever,” he said. But of course, it went deeper. I wanted to understand him, didn’t I? Tell him that. His side of the story was important. These thoughts played in my mind as I stood outside, staring at the entrance of Marks & Spencer. About ten minutes later Harvey reemerged. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest as I approached him from behind.
“Excuse me . . .”
He stopped, and though the rest of his body remained immobile, he swiveled his head toward me. Above a blue surgical mask, two dark eyes pinned me with a look of utter fury.
From the book: THE CON QUEEN OF HOLLYWOOD by Scott C. Johnson. Copyright © 2023 by Scott C. Johnson. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.