Dan Bilzerian, the playboy gambler often hailed the “King of Instagram,” hasn’t posted in months. His most recent Instagram post at time of writing, dated November 11, 2021, is a regram of a photo he originally shared to the platform in October 2018, reposted three years later in promotion of his new book, The Setup.
Bilzerian rose to Instagram fame in the mid-2010s, when social media stardom was the most novel, increasingly coveted kind of fame there was — what reality TV was to aspiring stars in the early aughts. Documenting his enviable — if often controversial — lifestyle of sex, drugs and money to tens of millions of followers, Bilzerian successfully parlayed the niche notoriety and fame-adjacency of his poker career into full-fledged fame (or infamy, depending whom you ask) of his own.
To say Bilzerian’s time in the social media spotlight hasn’t been without controversy would be an understatement; one might argue shit-stirring is his raison d’être. In addition to proudly showing off his sprawling collection of guns and nearly nude women on Instagram — behaviors that would be enough to get much bigger celebrities barred from the limelight — a series of unsavory incidents have defined Bilzerian’s career from the beginning. There was, of course, the time he was accused of kicking a woman in the face at a nightclub in Miami back in 2014. Then there was that time he got sued for throwing a model off of a roof, just to name two of the most notable episodes that have become Bilzerian legend. (Bilzerian, for his part, has repeatedly claimed that both incidents were misconstrued and misrepresented, and says he hopes the version of those events he details in his book will finally set the record straight.)
More recently, Bilzerian has faced accusations of financial ruin after stock prices in his lifestyle brand Ignite weathered a sharp downturn following the company’s public debut in 2019, posting $50 million in losses that year, according to Forbes. But, then, of course, the origins of his wealth have been disputed from the get-go. While Bilzerian, the trust-funded son of an exiled corporate raider, has long maintained he made his money gambling, accusations of generational wealth and even illegal funds funneled from his father have long plagued his “independently wealthy” image.
Despite (or perhaps thanks to) all the controversy, the 41-year-old still boasts nearly 33 million followers who are presumably waiting for their king to return with another glimpse into his aspirational lifestyle. So where is he?
For one thing, he’s been busy writing that book, a process he compares to “a two-year therapy session.” A nearly 500-page tome, The Setup is Bilzerian’s self-published ode to himself and the philosophy to which he attributes his success. Part memoir, part guide to achieving the Dan Bilzerian lifestyle in the spirit of Neil Strauss’s pickup artist bible The Game, the book is essentially an unexpurgated version of Bilzerian’s Instagram in print, complete with full-color photographs of the author surrounded by celebrities and a revolving cast of scantily clad women. Finally released late last year after several delays, the book was an arduous project (one the author candidly admits he did not find overwhelmingly enjoyable) that kept him busy for the better part of the past two years.
Also, he needed a break. It turns out that even those whose only job is the pursuit of hedonism are not immune to burnout.
“I just lived in the circus for so long that I kind of just — I really needed a break,” Bilzerian tells InsideHook. If there’s one thing he’s learned over the course of his high-octane lifestyle, it’s that every high — be it money, drugs or social media stardom — eventually burns out.
For Bilzerian, social media was only ever a game. He likens his initial pursuit of Instagram fame to a “social experiment,” and it’s a game he’s already won. “I’ve said this before, but I feel like it’s like a video game that I beat five years ago and I’m tired of playing it,” he says.
Instagram, the platform largely responsible for his rise to mainstream fame, gets a barely two-page chapter in The Setup, in which the social media star recalls making his now-famous account in May of 2012, originally for the purpose of attracting more sex with less effort. (One thing readers of Bilzerian’s memoir will learn, if they somehow weren’t already aware, is that his primary motivation in any endeavor is almost always either sex, money or power — typically one in pursuit of the other, occasionally one at the expense of another.)
A few years later, growing increasingly weary of the gambler’s lifestyle, Bilzerian decided to launch his growing Instagram presence into full-blown fame. But fame, too, was just another game for him.
“I just wanted to see if I could become famous,” he says. “It was like a mountain I wanted to climb. I was getting out of poker and I felt like this would be a good transition to open doors, to do other things.”
Flash forward a few years and several million followers, and Bilzerian’s reached that summit. “I feel like I’ve done everything. I feel like I did all the things that I wanted to do that people would find impressive,” he says. “So I’ve been more focused recently on just kind of living in the moment and having fun versus trying to show everybody that I’m having fun.”
The downside of fame is you have to keep feeding the beast, and doing anything that’s not explicitly for the sake of his own pleasure has always been the antithesis of the Dan Bilzerian brand. If Bilzerian wanted money — which he freely admits he did, does and to some extent always will — it was mostly because he wanted freedom. (And women, yes, but also, by extension, the freedom to fuck the women of his choosing.) “One of my life aspirations was to have that freedom, and I felt like money was a pathway to get that,” he says. “I felt like the more money I had, the less I put up with, the more personal freedom I had and the less impact anybody else could have on me.”
The Setup is, of course, the unabashed tale of sex, drugs and wealth Bilzerian fans and detractors alike would expect — you don’t have to look too far on the internet to find someone claiming the mere thought of a Dan Bilzerian book is enough to make them want to “unlearn the English language” — but it is also a philosophy. “The setup,” as Bilzerian defines it, is strategy, the act of stacking the odds in your favor. “Life is a game,” he writes in the epilogue. “Like any game, you must have a good strategy to win. The implementation of that strategy is called the setup, and it paves the road to success.”
That strategy, as Bilzerian demonstrates throughout his memoir, can be applied to everything from the pursuit of pussy to the pursuit of wealth. It’s fundamentally self-centered and self-serving, and it works, because Bilzerian understands how the world does. Like so many of its most successful inhabitants — including many of the fellow unfiltered antagonists with whom Bilzerian has crossed paths — he’s not trying to fight the system; he’s just trying to play it to his advantage. His methods may not be particularly well-received in today’s social climate — entire listicles have been penned advising women to avoid dating men who even follow Bilzerian — but it does work. Bilzerian and his lifestyle are certainly proof of that, which is precisely what makes him so annoying.
But if Bilzerian is an antagonist, that too seems to have been by design. That’s part of “the setup” he employed in building his particular brand of celebrity. Because Bilzerian’s platform has always been based on unfiltered, devil-may-care displays of “authenticity,” he was fundamentally uncancellable before being canceled was a thing.
Why? “Because I don’t need anything,” he says without a hint of arrogance, because it’s true. Bilzerian doesn’t have to put up a front of security or confidence; he has everything, and somehow nothing to lose.
Compared to a celebrity like The Rock, whom Bilzerian himself offers up for comparison, he has nothing at stake thanks to the aberrant nature of his fame, wealth and personal brand. “I don’t work for anybody. I’m not going to work for anybody. I don’t care if I don’t get a movie role,” says Bilzerian. “I made my money in such an unorthodox manner. When you’re making your money gambling, it’s kind of like, nobody’s your boss. Nobody can tell you what to do.”
Combine that kind of no-strings cashflow with the antagonistic, “tells it like it is” persona Bilzerian rode to fame, and he remains virtually untouchable: “If you’re independently wealthy and you’ve got all your money, then what the fuck does it really matter? If you accept the fact that people are going to hate you or whatever and you just want to live your life, then people can’t really affect you.”
Of course, whether or not Dan Bilzerian is actually “independently wealthy” remains a topic of perennial debate. In The Setup, he attributes the cash he used to start his poker career to disability checks and GI Bill money he had on hand after being honorably discharged from a four-year stint in the Navy between high school and college. According to the author, he used the spare cash to get into online gambling as a college student, briefly went broke, then got back on his feet during a make-or-break trip to St. Petersburg. After winning $10,000, he bought a one-way ticket to Vegas, and the rest is history.
It remains a somewhat vague, ultimately unprovable account of his wealth, one that will undoubtedly still leave its origins subject to skepticism. But wherever his money came from, be it his father or his gambling, it’s certainly not a form of wealth that depends on public approval.
Even in an era of “cancel culture” (to whatever extent one is inclined to entertain or acknowledge that term) that sees far bigger stars condemned for far fewer and less egregious indiscretions than the ones that made Bilzerian famous, no one is going to bother asking him for an apology.
“I don’t think you gain that much in this society by apologizing. I see a lot of these people, they apologize and then the mob eats them up anyways,” he says. “They haven’t really asked me for an apology, but if they did, I’d tell them to go fuck themselves. Unless it was something that I legitimately felt sorry for, and then I would happily apologize.”
But even while the kind of uniquely untouchable fame Bilzerian has cultivated can be a conduit to certain forms of freedom, it is still, as Lady Gaga once said, a prison. While the “independently wealthy” Bilzerian may not have any wolves at the door to stave off, he does still have obligations to a devoted fandom and the brand they support.
After reaching a certain level of social media fame, Bilzerian branched out into business as the founder/CEO of Ignite, a lifestyle brand originally specializing in cannabis before pivoting to focus on CBD, nicotine and alcohol. And with a lifestyle brand based on your own life comes pressure to maintain that lifestyle. At this point, Bilzerian knows there are certain things fans and consumers expect from him, whether or not they’re things he’s still interested in himself.
“I do think that a part of what people respect about me is the fact that I’ve been able to really succeed with women and have this lifestyle that most people can’t attain,” says Bilzerian. “That’s kind of what I built my following on. So it’s tough because I’m in this spot where it’s like, do I want to give people what they want and further the brand, or do I kind of want to be more true to myself?”
For someone like Bilzerian, it’s a harder question than it would be for most. On the one hand, his brand has always been about unapologetically advancing his own personal gain. On the other, it’s also always been about authenticity. If Dan Bilzerian is no longer personally interested in promoting that lifestyle on Instagram, then his brand falls apart.
“My Instagram’s always been based on being authentic and doing what I want to do. And so I don’t really want to sway too far from that,” he says. “So I just haven’t been posting, honestly.”
In The Setup, Bilzerian devotes the first half or so of the book to his childhood and pre-gambling years, including his pre-collegiate stint in the military. It’s a bit of a riches-to-more-riches story, though Bilzerian does seem to attempt, at times, to downplay the wealth into which he was born. (His parents may have had money, but unlike their neighbors and fellow country clubbers, they didn’t necessarily waste funds on looking or acting the part. His mother drove a Jeep even though she could have afforded a luxury vehicle, so Bilzerian was bullied by his more obviously rich peers. And, sure, he had a trust fund, but he didn’t even have access to it before his 30s, and by then it had depleted by several millions thanks to his father’s multiple brushes with white-collar crime.) But if there’s one thing Bilzerian seems to have learned throughout a privileged yet certainly challenging childhood that saw him frequently shuffled between different schools, it’s the power of anonymity and reinvention. Constantly starting over at a new school gave Bilzerian the opportunity to repeatedly reinvent himself, a superpower he carried into the many iterations of his adult life.
Readers of The Setup watch Bilzerian evolve from rich kid to military piss-on to man about campus to millionaire gambler to social media star. But once he set his sights on that final goal, fame, it’s possible Bilzerian may have forfeited the power of reinvention that anonymity fosters.
“We’ll see where we go from here,” he says. “I think I have to do certain things to promote Ignite, to kind of give people some of the aspirational lifestyle stuff that they want. But at the same time, I have a little burnout on the circus aspect of it.”
The Setup ends with Bilzerian’s final party (“for now”) in October 2019. By that point, after years as Instagram’s reigning king of hedonism, “My plan to go bigger was over,” he writes. “I’d finally hit the ceiling.”
It turns out even Dan Bilzerian — or, perhaps, especially Dan Bilzerian — can’t escape the bottomless pit that is human desire. The less you have, the easier it is to believe in some threshold of enough-ness, some magic number or amount of whatever it is (money, love, fame, success) that will transform the agony of want into perpetual satisfaction. But want is a void; the more you feed it, the bigger it gets.
“Having objectives like money, pussy and power will never lead to happiness,” Bilzerian writes toward the end of The Setup. “No matter how much you have, you always want more. It’s like trying to fill a black hole. You can’t fill a black hole. These things are infinite and endless traps.”
It may not be a terribly groundbreaking moral for a story to end on, but it’s one Bilzerian feels he’s in a unique position to convey. “I got to a point where I eventually realized that, like, okay, I’ve got all the girls and all the money. But it was just pleasure spikes, it wasn’t happiness,” he says. “When you’re chasing something that’s never going to make you happy, the sooner you can stop, the sooner you’ll probably find happiness.”
Since taking a step back from the pleasure void, Bilzerian has maintained a relatively lower profile, despite still navigating some bad press. He posts less. He spends more time with friends. He wrote the book. And the infamous womanizer says he even dabbled in monogamy for a couple of years.
Still, he’s got an image to uphold and a brand that depends on it. Fame may have only been another game for Bilzerian, but it’s proving a difficult one to walk away from, even if he’s already won it.
“Once the genie’s out of the bottle, you can’t really put him back in,” he says. “But at the same time, look, I made my bed. I got to sleep in the motherfucker.”
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