Bryan Johnson’s Antiaging Quest Has Made Headlines. But There’s More to His Story

The biohacker tech bro has spoken at length about his twin pursuits of eternal life and a younger penis. Now, he’s denying his ex-girlfriend’s allegations, amid news of a settlement.
Bryan Johnsons Antiaging Quest Has Made Headlines. But Theres More to His Story
Photo Illustration by Khoa Tran. Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

You’ve probably read about Bryan Johnson, the tech entrepreneur who’s trying to live forever. After making a killing (about $400 million) in the payments processing business in Chicago, Johnson has devoted himself to becoming a “rejuvenation athlete” in Los Angeles, spending his waking hours tending to his body and his sleeping hours tracking everything from his heart rate variability to the duration and hardness of his erections. He calls this endeavor Project Blueprint.

Johnson doesn’t have a publicist. Yet his quest for immortality, which is overseen by a rotating staff of health care professionals and costs him an estimated $2 million a year, has been extraordinarily well documented in the press—fueled by our fascination with the “quantified self” movement, atomized into millions of social media posts and swept up into the magic flywheel of clickbait journalism. In May, Bloomberg Businessweek broke the news about Johnson enlisting his 17-year-old son to be his “blood boy” and engaging in a three-way plasma swap with him and his 70-year-old father. A September Time profile entitled “The Man Who Thinks He Can Live Forever” explained how Johnson is “turning his whole body over to an anti-aging algorithm.” His lead doctor, Oliver Zolman, was profiled in Fortune; a dissection of his 1,977-calorie diet appeared in the Daily Mail; the New York Post delved into the therapy he’s using on his penis. According to Johnson, the “penis rejuvenation therapy” involves shocking his appendage three times a week, with the objective to increase his nighttime erections from 2 hours and 12 minutes to 3 hours and 30 minutes. The announcement included a diagram in which a block of Swiss cheese transitioned to a cucumber. “[M]ultiple randomized controlled trials showed that shockwave therapy improves erectile dysfunction. We are testing whether it improves total time nighttime erections, subjective sexual performance, sexual satisfaction, and medical imaging-based penile markers,” Johnson wrote on X. (The Onion’s take: “45-Year-Old Reverse-Aging Billionaire Announces His Dick Finally as Small as Baby’s.”) There’s a Reddit community where Johnson’s disciples debate whether they should use half of a Brazil nut or a quarter of a Brazil nut in a recipe for vegan pudding. On his 500,000-­follower Instagram account, he’s often shirtless or wearing tight-fitting tops with strategically placed cutouts, his hair cut short and dyed, with grandiose captions in which he likens his mission to that of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. One recent Instagram post depicted him completely naked, standing in a home gym with a kettlebell for a fig leaf; the caption read “Sticks and stones may break my bones but hate will only feed me.” Naturally, he has said he’s considering a 2024 run for president (though he’s also palled around supportively with RFK Jr.).

Since he started attempting to reverse his biological age using a combination of supplements, prescription drugs (some for off-label use), a reduced-calorie diet, and various cosmetic procedures, Johnson’s looks have morphed from normie tech bro to jacked cyborg. “A lot of people, they’ll comment on my appearance, saying I look like a vampire, or recently, an elf from The Lord of the Rings,” Johnson said on an episode of the Whoop podcast, giggling with delight.

On a late September day, speaking to me via Zoom, he looks more like an animated porcelain doll, a digitized Dorian Gray in earbuds. His T-shirt says “Don’t Die,” the title of his recently released self-published book, written under the name of his alter ego, Zero. He describes it as “an exploration into the practical and philosophical ideas about the future of being human.” (Reading the book, which begins with a summary of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, felt more like an exploration into the internal monologue of someone hallucinating.) As Johnson speaks, staring directly into the camera, his affect is robotic, his posture rigid, his eyes piercing. “I don’t think any human has ever done what I’m trying to do,” he says. “I think it captures the zeitgeist of this moment, where it speaks to this uncertainty about where we are as a species and what it means to have AI in our lives.”

Johnson often says that he has built an algorithm that takes better care of him than he can take care of himself. Although the day-to-day details vary, he generally wakes up around 4:30 a.m., and the measurements begin: body fat, muscle mass, temperature, and sometimes an MRI. He’s recently started taking follistatin, a gene therapy that has been shown to extend the life span of mice. He drinks a preworkout smoothie and takes approximately 60 pills, then does around 30 different exercises over the course of one hour, including using a high-frequency electromagnetic stimulation device that, he says, enables him to do 20,000 sit-ups in 30 minutes. By 9 a.m., Johnson has already eaten breakfast and lunch—steamed vegetables topped with undutched dark chocolate and hemp seeds, plus the aforementioned pudding with a quarter of a Brazil nut—and put himself through various treatments. Dinner, some type of salad, often with sweet potatoes or beets, usually takes place at 11 a.m., followed by approximately 40 more pills. Bedtime is at 8:30 p.m.—which means he is typically fasting from around noon to 4:30 a.m. On social media, he posts about his perfect sleep, his bone mineral density, his liver’s “perfect enzymes,” and his “urine flow rate,” and periodically releases data that purports to show that his organs are younger than his chronological age, which is 46.

The demanding Blueprint lifestyle leaves little room for romance. Yet Johnson has said he’s on the dating scene. A New York Post article entitled “I’m 45, a Billionaire, Obsessed With Staying Young—and Hard to Date” suggested that Johnson’s online dating profile should start with the line “Proceed with caution.” On Instagram Johnson posted a list of notes for potential dates, including “scheduled sex” and “ur not my #1 priority.” In an interview in May with the Live Well Be Well podcast, he told host Sarah Ann Macklin that he likes to give prospective partners a heads-up on all the reasons why “I am a bad idea,” adding that he thinks it’s “fair to inform them up front that, here’s how far I deviate from what a reasonable person in the year 2023 could expect someone else to behave.”

But there are other ways, beyond the Blueprint regimen, in which Johnson’s behavior deviates from reasonable expectations. According to a civil complaint filed in California Superior Court, Johnson broke up with his fiancée, Taryn Southern, in the fall of 2019, when she had just finished chemotherapy for stage III breast cancer; threatened to fire her from her job at one of his companies; and forced her to move out of their shared home. It all began when Southern refused to sign a separation agreement with an extensive NDA and declined to post on her social media accounts a joint statement that they remain “best friends who have decided to look forward to continuing their cherished friendship.” Weakened by cancer treatments and under what her lawyers argued was Johnson’s escalating pressure campaign to secure her silence, Southern wound up signing what she perceived to be a less restrictive agreement without retaining a lawyer. By October 2021, her cancer was in remission and, after an unsuccessful attempt to reach a confidential settlement, she was ready to fight back. Her attorneys sought a trial by jury and damages they believed were in excess of $1 million for eight causes of action, including infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, and loss of earnings.

But although Southern was suing Johnson as his former fiancée, the law treated her as if she were merely an employee. Owing to a contract she had signed in 2017 when she took a job at one of Johnson’s companies—a neuro-technology start-up called Kernel—a judge determined that half of her claims first had to be litigated through arbitration, which is notoriously favorable to employers. Southern was trampled by the very system she thought would protect her from Johnson, a man who, according to her complaint, psychologically and financially abused her, then retaliated when she refused to comply with his demands. Not only were her employment-related claims ultimately dismissed, the arbitrator ruled that Southern was responsible for paying Johnson’s legal bills, which came to $584,199.16 (plus 10 percent interest annually). Johnson has denied all of Southern’s claims and accused her of attempting to extort him. In July 2023, he filed a motion for sanctions against her lawyers for alleging that the arbitrator was corrupt; the judge agreed, and fined them $2,500 for making frivolous arguments.

Southern’s lawyer Caleb Liang wrote in an email that he declined to comment, and he declined to make his client available to speak. But in a declaration that was filed with a petition to vacate the attorneys fee award, Southern wrote, “I am now being ordered to pay a life-altering amount of money to a man I worked for for four years, full-time, at a steep discount because of his future promises. A man who discarded me when I got cancer, who reneged on his promises of support and then bullied and manipulated me into signing an agreement that benefits only him.” On September 29, her petition was denied.

“Taryn was someone who could always find a way to figure things out,” says a friend of Southern’s who requested anonymity because she fears retaliation from Johnson. “This lawsuit was a way for her to feel like she was taking back some of her power…and having it play out the way it did just feels like you’re watching the villain in the movie win.” In late November, on X, Johnson responded to a critic who brought up the allegations by writing “just wait for the plot’s going to be entertaining.” When I asked Johnson what the plot twist was, he said he would be releasing a public statement the following day “regarding all of the accusations Taryn Southern made about me.” Twenty-four hours later, the only public statements he had made were about his “A+” sperm health, and that his self-published science-fiction novel was available for purchase on Amazon. On December 5, the case was dismissed. The day after that, Johnson posted an image of three eggplants (emojispeak for “penis”), two stacks of fake $100 bills, a copy of his book, and the caption “what am I doing?”

Taryn Southern attends the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival screening of her documentary I Am Human.Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images/Tribeca Film Festival.

On December 11, Johnson finally released his public statement, a 16-minute video to YouTube entitled “My Ex-Fiancée Sued Me for $9,000,000” in which he cast himself as a victim of a #MeToo extortion scheme. (The $9 million referred to a letter that Southern’s earlier lawyers, working on contingency, sent to Johnson in April 2021, seeking a settlement to avoid a public legal battle.) “Their strategy was to inflict maximum pain and suffering on me so that I would pay up privately,” he said. “They miscalculated my tenaciousness and resolve, and their strategy backfired, inflicting collateral damage upon themselves.” He noted that he plans to put the money that Southern is paying for his legal fees into a trust that she can access exclusively for her future medical needs.

But people close to Southern view the case and its outcome differently. Anna-Marie Wascher, one of her closest friends, feels Johnson’s recent posts about the case’s resolution are “outlandish.” She told Vanity Fair, “This is not a he said/she said story. It’s one of control, power, and the idolization of false personas powered by money and/or social media—not by authenticity, compassion, or a positive contribution to society.”

Before the lawsuit, before the cancer, before crossing paths with Johnson, before anyone knew what a digital creator was, Taryn Southern was one. In the aughts, she became known for her YouTube music video parodies in the style of “Weird Al” Yankovic and two channels with half a million subscribers. Charismatic, pretty, and blessed with a strong singing voice—powerful enough to propel her to the American Idol semifinals when she was a teen—Southern moved to Los Angeles after attending the University of Miami on an academic scholarship, graduating magna cum laude with a double BA in anthropology and mixed media journalism. As her videos went viral, her reputation as a millennial marketing whiz at the nexus of entertainment and technology grew. She set up a one-woman consulting company, Happy Cat Media, and was hired by companies ranging from Ford to Marriott that wanted to reach a young and very online audience. She was invited to speak at prestigious tech conferences, hosted the red carpet at the Golden Globes, and even dabbled in acting, with guest roles on popular shows like New Girl. There were segments she produced for Today, a late-night talk show on the Discovery Channel where she worked as a correspondent, and a mention in a 2016 Vanity Fair article about rising YouTube and Vine stars.

Southern’s YouTube content attracted the attention of Johnson, who, according to Southern’s friends, slid into her Facebook messages in June 2016 and asked her out. At the time, Johnson was a divorced dad who was embracing his new identity as a wealthy tech prophet after breaking away from Mormonism and emerging from a decade-long bout with depression. “I tried to remake myself as—I don’t want to say from scratch because that’s too far of an overstatement—but I wanted to remake myself as far as I could reach,” he tells Vanity Fair.

Money was scarce in the Johnson household as he was growing up in Springville, Utah. His father, a lawyer who was disbarred in 1992, was an addict and separated from Johnson’s mother, a substitute teacher, when Johnson was three. (In an August interview on the Diary of a CEO podcast, Johnson spoke about how close he and his father have become in adulthood, growing emotional while recounting how random people on the internet made comments about his father after the news of the three-way plasma swap broke.)

Johnson delayed college to be a Mormon missionary in Ecuador for two years. The experience of seeing extreme poverty up close inspired him to want to “make an enormous amount of money by the age of 30 and then figure out a way to uplevel humanity,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, in July.

When he returned from Ecuador, he enrolled in college at Brigham Young University and parlayed a cell phone sales job into his first successful entrepreneurial venture: hiring college students to sell cell phone service for him. Although the company helped cover his tuition, “it was not going to make me enough money to retire by 30, so I had to find something bigger,” he told Tim Ferriss on a 2015 episode of his eponymous podcast. (The episode was called “The Rags-to-Riches Philosopher.”) Johnson’s next move was starting a VoIP company that went out of business, after which he tried his hand in a real estate development venture that also failed. By 2006, he had moved to Chicago to get his executive MBA at the Booth School of Business, where one of his favorite thinkers, Nobel laureate Gary S. Becker, taught. Deeply indebted and with a family to support, he took a job selling credit card processing services to retailers door-to-door. “The requirement was like: If you could fog a mirror, you could work for these guys,” he told Ferriss.

Before long, Johnson was the company’s number one salesperson, and he had a new idea to disrupt the fragmented, opaque credit card processing business. He called it Braintree, after the hometown of one of his heroes, John Adams, and entered it in a business school competition, which he won. Braintree grew via bootstrapping as companies ranging from Github to Airbnb became clients until 2011, when the company, with about 40 employees and a few million dollars in annual revenue, took on a $34 million Series A investment from the prestigious venture firm Accel Partners. Johnson took a multimillion-dollar payout and kept a stake in the business. A few months later, Braintree formally announced that Johnson would be replaced as CEO by Bill Ready, who had been Accel’s executive in residence. (Ready is now the CEO of Pinterest.) In 2013, when the company was sold, Johnson along with his two brothers—one served as Braintree’s CFO and the other was on the sales team—and his sister, an accountant for the company, all exited.

In interviews, Johnson takes credit for the sale of Braintree. And certainly he deserves credit for noticing a gap in the market for transparent payments processing, growing a loyal team, and building up a book of business that made it attractive enough for Accel Partners to invest in. But it was Ready who orchestrated Braintree’s $26.2 million acquisition of Venmo in 2012. At some point, there was a significant business disagreement, according to multiple sources, and in the months before Braintree was acquired by PayPal, Johnson was barred from entering the company’s headquarters. Johnson says “that disagreement” led the CEO to “taking an action that I disagreed with,” but that Johnson “chose not to make a big deal about it because it was in the best interest of the company that we have the discussion with eBay,” which at the time owned PayPal. In 2013, Braintree was sold to PayPal for approximately $800 million in cash, of which Johnson says he netted close to $400 million. Bill Ready and PayPal president David Marcus were photographed at the Nasdaq on the day the deal was announced. Johnson wasn’t mentioned in the press release.

Part of Johnson’s self-mythology, which he speaks about often, is how the daily grind of entrepreneurship took its toll on his mental and physical health. “I had been [for] 14 years under the crushing pressure of building multiple companies. I was in a bad relationship. I was trying to leave my born-into religion. I wasn’t sleeping. I was 50 pounds overweight. I had been depressed for 10 years. And so I was not in tip-top shape,” he tells me. When a friend took him to a Brooklyn warehouse party to cheer him up after selling Braintree, he remembers feeling so liberated that he danced for seven hours straight. “When the music stopped in the morning, I was disappointed because I wanted to dance more,” he says, adding that he was not under the influence of any drugs at the time.

He finally was feeling that sense of release that comes with never having to worry about money again. His next step was the “upleveling humanity” phase of his life plan, which began with the allocation of $100 million of his own money in an investment fund, called the OS Fund, with the mission to back ideas that seem impossible: “I want to get a company from ‘crazy’ to ‘viable,’ ” Johnson told Fortune magazine in 2014. His most successful bet, he says, was an early investment in Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based biotech company that was valued at $15 billion when it went public in 2021. “His interest has been getting in at the ground level, seeing things that others don’t see, and being able to absorb risk to help these fundamental technologies evolve,” says Jason Kakoyiannis, a serial biotech founder, adviser to Ginkgo Bioworks, and friend of Johnson’s.

After launching OS, Johnson backed his own passion project, Kernel, which initially planned to develop computer-brain interfaces similar to Elon Musk’s Neuralink but has since pivoted to noninvasive technologies.

Johnson was living in Los Angeles and serving as chief executive of Kernel when he first messaged Southern on Facebook to ask her out. What was supposed to be a quick drink at an LA restaurant turned into hours of deep conversation, during which Johnson told her that he “loved the way her brain worked” and that he felt “an intense desire to take care of her,” according to her lawsuit. “I remember [Taryn] saying she felt like she connected with him in an intellectual way. For someone as sharp as her, that was difficult to come by,” recalls a friend who spoke to Southern right after the date. (Like many people interviewed for this story, she didn’t want to be named because she fears retribution from Johnson.) Within weeks, Johnson introduced Southern to his three children, who were visiting Los Angeles. For Southern’s 30th birthday, less than a month after they met, Johnson took her and three of her friends on his jet to Lake Tahoe, where they rented a house and went waterskiing. “He love-bombed the absolute shit out of her,” recalls Southern’s friend Bella Acton, who was at the birthday event. “I don’t think ‘love-bombing’ even does justice to just how full-on he was: You’d be sitting there talking to Taryn and he’d be like, kissing her face, and you’re thinking, Could you maybe stop doing that?”

Still, Acton was happy that her friend found a strong connection and was predisposed to like Johnson. “I generally don’t go in expecting to hate my friends’ partners,” she says.

A few months into their whirlwind romance, Southern and Johnson found a house in Venice Beach—a three-bedroom modernist structure on Abbot Kinney Boulevard that rented for about $10,000 a month—moved in together, and further commingled their lives. Southern, who had already started consulting for Johnson—helping him with personal branding, creating presentations, and writing speeches—was presented with a full-time employment agreement from Kernel at a starting salary of $20,800 a year (you’re reading the zeroes correctly), a steep decline from the $388,857 she earned from her consulting business in 2015, according to a letter from her former lawyer, which cited her tax returns. (She had separate consulting agreements with Johnson’s business entities, such as a $15,000 a month contract to provide “media and communications strategy” for Kernel and other projects.) Even though the agreement with Kernel did not specify a title or what Southern’s responsibilities would be, she was in love with Johnson and passionate about neuro-technology, so she signed without reviewing the contract with a lawyer. The contract contained a clause stating that any dispute arising from her employment had to be resolved in arbitration—and that the arbitrator had the power to “ensure that the non-prevailing party reimburses the prevailing party for the prevailing party’s attorneys’ fees.”

Arbitration clauses in employment agreements have become standard, with more than half of American employees subject to them, compared to 2 percent 30 years ago, according to research from the Economic Policy Institute. Unlike in court, plaintiffs aren’t allowed to call witnesses or present evidence. Decisions are binding. Julia Duncan, senior director of government relations at the American Association for Justice, says that the combination of forced arbitration and nondisclosure agreements “isolate and silence” victims of abuse. (A law passed in the wake of the #MeToo movement made NDAs in cases related to sexual harassment or assault unenforceable.)

Early on in the relationship, Southern’s friends started to have misgivings about Johnson’s behavior. Southern’s friends say he was frequently on psychedelics. Johnson has spoken in interviews about his embrace of mystical experiences and has a tattoo on his forearm of 5-MeO-DMT—also known as the God molecule, derived from dried venom secreted from the Sonoran desert toad. When I ask him about whether psychedelic drugs are important in his transformation, Johnson says, “If we basically are saying that explorers of previous generations were after the physical world, circumnavigating the globe, climbing to the top of Everest, going into the bottom of the sea, the exploration of the future is in conscious existence.”

According to the friends of Southern’s I spoke with, Johnson became controlling once she moved in with him. He pressed her to take down her most popular YouTube videos, even though they were still a source of income for her and had millions of views, arguing that they “were not aligned with his public image,” according to the lawsuit. “Ms. Southern and I had conversations about her videos. She was self-reflective often in contemplating whether the content she had produced was appropriate for the person she was trying to become,” Johnson said in his deposition.

Acton recalls witnessing a heated argument about the videos, during which Johnson was persuading Southern to take them down. “By the end, she had come around to assume his point of view, which is ‘That was the old me, and now I need to be more serious,’ ” Acton recalls. “It didn’t sound like her.” Johnson also convinced Southern to sell a rental property she owned in Los Angeles because it “detracted too much of her attention and was not really a worthy or necessary pursuit,” according to the lawsuit. He pushed her to have all of her mail sent to an out-of-state mailbox, according to the lawsuit, and would communicate only via the encrypted Signal app and burner phones. When asked about the burner phones by Southern’s attorneys, Johnson confirmed he used them “to control spam and marketing calls.”

By the end of 2017, according to the lawsuit and Southern’s friends, Southern was financially dependent on Johnson, who then began pushing her boundaries even further. He demanded a list of her past boyfriends and made her “describe the sexual acts that took place,” citing his own reputational risk, according to the complaint. He also told her he wanted to have sex with other women and attributed his need for “sexual variety,” as one friend put it, to his conservative religious upbringing. He soon “became obsessed with his sexual conquests and relaying the details of his triumphs to Ms. Southern under the guise of ‘radical transparency and honesty,’ ” according to the lawsuit. A declaration Southern provided to her lawyers described an incident that took place while she was staying with Johnson at the Bowery Hotel in New York in February 2017 in which he allegedly called a prostitute to their shared room and had sex with her while Southern pretended to be asleep. (When Johnson was asked about the incident in his deposition, his lawyer advised him not to answer.)

“Ms. Southern and I had an open relationship,” Johnson maintained in his deposition, though Southern’s friends say that’s not true, insofar as Johnson was the only one allowed to be non-monogamous—and even then the arrangement was short-lived. About 10 months into the relationship, after seeing a couples therapist, Johnson agreed to a two-month “trial period” for monogamy, and once that was over, Southern was unwilling to go back to the way things were, friends say. She gave Johnson an ultimatum: Unless he was able to be exclusive, she would have to break things off. At that point, Johnson told her he was committed to monogamy, Southern’s friends say. The relationship improved, and soon he proposed marriage with a cat-shaped engagement ring.

The proposal itself was a grand gesture, captured on film at sunset at Bombay Beach, California, in March 2018 as Southern was directing a documentary about advances in neuro-technology, a project that Johnson was financing—and appearing in—to burnish his image in the field. “I got engaged to my best friend. She and I are two peas in a pod. I never imagined that a relationship could produce this much happiness and value,” Johnson wrote in an email to friends and business associates in May 2018. (The email, which contained a link to a nearly 5,000-word essay Johnson wrote entitled “A Plan for Humanity,” was forwarded to Vanity Fair by an entrepreneur who had received it.)

For their engagement party six months later, Southern sang a couple of songs from her AI-produced and -composed second album, I AM AI. Johnson got onstage and recited a poem he wrote to Southern as she stood next to him: “Exuberant, we transform ourselves into photons and collapse ourselves into a star,” he said to the assembled crowd, according to a video taken by someone who was there. The party mixed business with pleasure, with Johnson inviting founders of companies he had invested in via his OS Fund as well as journalists, such as Bloomberg’s Ashlee Vance, who has written several profiles of Johnson.

The documentary that Southern had been directing at the time of the proposal wound up premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in May 2019. Entitled I Am Human, it tells the stories of three people struggling with severe disabilities whose lives are improved by computer brain implants. The documentary doubled as a not-so-subtle sales pitch for Kernel, complete with Johnson’s signature brand of transhumanist evangelism. In one scene, Johnson is shown donning a Kernel brain-imaging helmet and looking at a screen of squiggly lines while musing in voiceover: “Imagine you had a brain interface that you could just put on your head, no surgery required, and you could see all of your brain activity…all out in front of you.”

For Southern, the premiere should have been a triumphant moment: a documentary that zeroed in on an extremely complicated subject—the latest advances in brain surgery and computing—debuting at one of the top film festivals in the world, to positive reviews. The Verge called it a “modest but informative, compelling look at the real people who take risks on big medical breakthroughs,” while Wired praised it for revealing “heaps of information about the human brain and recent excitements in neurology.” But while at the festival, she felt a lump under her arm. A few weeks later she found out she had stage III breast cancer.

After the diagnosis, Southern’s friends rallied around her, creating a shared calendar to track her appointments and taking turns accompanying her to treatments. Johnson, friends say, grew increasingly distant. “Bryan was not present at all,” recalls Anna-Marie Wascher, who flew out to Los Angeles from New York a few times to take her to chemotherapy appointments.

In October 2019, right as Southern was finishing her last round of chemotherapy and preparing for surgery and radiation, Johnson broke up with her. Friends say she was shocked, although Johnson described their breakup as “mutual” in his deposition. “Client reports [Johnson] broke up with her unexpectedly,” read a note from Southern’s therapist dated November 2, 2019, which was submitted as part of her petition to vacate the award of Johnson’s legal fees. Calling her a “bad deal” and a “net negative,” Johnson told Southern she had to move out of the house as soon as possible, because, according to the lawsuit, it would be too inconvenient for him to move. In a text message to her friends around the time of the breakup, Southern said that Johnson had told her that she used “cancer as a weapon to make everything about [her].” To help Southern get on her feet after moving out, Johnson verbally offered to pay her rent and living costs for a year.

A few weeks later, as Southern was recovering from surgery, she told Johnson that she had found a place to live. In response, she received correspondence quantifying the offer of one year’s support at $149,000—$5,000 a month for rent, $7,000 a month for living expenses plus up to $5,000 for a mover—but made receiving the money contingent upon signing a separation agreement containing a broad NDA with a $500,000 fine for each potential violation. Her lawyer at the time advised her not to sign it and wrote back to Johnson’s lawyer proposing more favorable terms: $1 million. The counteroffer enraged Johnson. “To say Bryan is disappointed in Taryn’s proposed settlement would be an understatement,” Johnson’s lawyer wrote in a letter, adding that Johnson was rescinding his offer of financial support. In the same letter, he threatened to legally pursue Southern for half of the rent of their shared home and said that her “notice of termination” from Kernel would be forthcoming. To make matters worse, Johnson revoked a “conflict waiver” he had signed earlier, which had permitted Southern to use a lawyer from the same firm that had been working on the documentary. As a result, Southern was left without legal representation.

On Thanksgiving—right before the December 1 deadline Johnson set for Southern to vacate the house—Wascher helped Southern move into a cottage she had rented in Los Angeles. A photo on Instagram to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the move shows Southern, eyes puffy from crying, with Wascher by her side. “While my body still ached from chemo and surgery, my heart ached even more from the shock of losing someone I had loved to the greatest depths,” she wrote in the caption. (Johnson didn’t have the “basic human kindness” to pay for the movers, Wascher recalls.)

As she prepared for the next phase of her cancer treatment, negotiations surrounding the unsigned separation agreement continued to weigh on Southern. A therapy note that was included as an exhibit by Southern’s attorneys stated, “Client notes intense feelings of anxiety and fear based on ex’s financial threats.” By February, Southern hadn’t received any support from Johnson, including $70,000 she was owed for directing the documentary. She hadn’t yet been officially fired from her job but, according to friends, knew it could happen any day. Outside of a consulting project with one of Johnson’s companies—related to continued marketing on the film—she would soon have no steady source of income, rendering her even more dependent on her ex. She had also started taking the cancer drug tamoxifen, which she wrote in an email to her doctor “leaves me unable to function normally.”

Johnson, meanwhile, was on various dating apps, requiring that potential dates sign NDAs prior to meeting. An acquaintance of Johnson’s who set him up with a friend confirmed that the friend signed an NDA with steep penalties, then went to meet Johnson at his house. During the date, Johnson told her how lucky she was that he was devoting his time to her, after which she started to feel uncomfortable and left, the friend recalled. (The friend spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern that going on the record would lead to the identification of the woman, who is terrified of being sued by Johnson.) In his deposition, Johnson confirmed that he asks women he dates to sign NDAs because “it is known that it is appropriate to have a shared understanding of a relationship with someone else and to consummate in writing the shared expectations of both parties,” he said, according to a transcript. By Christmas, Johnson was in Mexico with his children. Southern had sent them gifts and was hurt that Johnson didn’t call her to check in. “Your actions and behavior are consistently physically revolting,” she wrote to him on Christmas Eve, according to a screenshot of a Signal message submitted as evidence. “You are not the man you want others to see.”

Two days later, she texted her friends: “FUCK THE CONTRACT.” Following her decision, she called Johnson and told him that she wasn’t going to sign the separation agreement, describing it in her declaration as “exploitative.”

But Johnson would soon resurface with a charm offensive, taking his ex out to dinner, going for walks, offering to attend couples therapy, and telling her he wanted to get back together. He even volunteered to accompany Southern to a bell-ringing ceremony to mark the end of her radiation treatments. Southern’s friends say they weren’t told about the ceremony at the time; by that point, in January 2020, they would have been furious to hear that Johnson was there. He framed it differently: “I was the only person in her life that she invited to the most sacred ceremony of beating cancer as evidence of how I had rearranged my life to help her beat cancer,” Johnson said in his deposition. (“This is a man who lives in a world of his own delusion,” says a friend of Southern’s, calling his description of rearranging his life “insincere.”)

Johnson at the 2017 Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal.Horacio Villalobos/Corbis/Getty Images.

Shortly after the bell-ringing ceremony, Johnson called Southern while she was working at a coworking space and asked her to go to a place where nobody could hear their conversation, according to a description of the events recounted in her deposition. She walked to a parking lot outside, where he told her that he loved her but needed to terminate her Kernel employment. “I remember asking him about the stock [options] and Bryan saying something along the lines of ‘You don’t get your stock,’ ” she said, according to the transcript. She reportedly got upset, telling Johnson, “I’ve been working with you and the company since 2016. It’s just not fair that I wouldn’t get any piece of what I worked for.” In the end, he told her that he might be able to get Southern her options, but only if she would agree to sign a separation agreement containing a release of all claims.

But the breakup was far from clear-cut. In early February, Johnson asked Southern out on a date, where they took drugs—her MDMA, him mushrooms, according to her declaration—and wound up sleeping together. When asked by Southern’s lawyers about the date, he denied taking mushrooms. The following day, Southern received an agreement that offered her stock options plus severance from her job; the $149,000 to cover rent and living expenses for a year was not included. If she didn’t agree to sign within one day, Johnson told her, the stock options were off the table. Eager to put everything behind her, traumatized—and, according to Southern’s lawsuit, foggy from the tamoxifen—Southern signed the separation agreement without retaining a new lawyer. In her deposition, Southern said that, in retrospect, she thinks Johnson “knowingly manipulated my state of mind and took advantage of that…at a very interesting time when he was actually receptive to going to therapy and getting back together.” In the new version of the agreement, there was a non-disparagement clause that was much shorter, though both featured a “general release” which meant that, by signing, Southern would forfeit her right to sue not just Johnson’s businesses, but Johnson himself, for any reason.

It was the release in that separation agreement—which Southern’s lawyers argued was signed amid “undue influence” by Johnson—that the arbitrator cited when she threw out Southern’s claims. (Johnson’s lawyers argued that the release should also apply to the four claims that the Superior Court judge ruled were not subject to arbitration.) After the arbitrator’s decision, Johnson filed a counterclaim to be reimbursed for his legal fees and won that too.

When Southern signed the separation agreement in February 2020, she walked away with just $1,000 in severance from Kernel, plus 50,000 options in the company where she had been working for more than three years. Johnson, according to court documents, had told her that the stock would one day be worth millions. At the time the options were offered, they were valued at $80,000, according to court documents. But Southern never wound up exercising them because she didn’t realize they expired six months after her termination from Kernel. “Thanks to lies, coercion, evasiveness, and misrepresentations from Bryan, I had unknowingly signed a worthless contract,” Southern said in a declaration that was filed to the court.

Even if she had exercised the options, they may ultimately prove to be worthless, as is so often the case with privately held start-ups with ambitious plans to revolutionize science. Kernel’s website now says its mission is “to accelerate treatment discovery, improve patient outcomes, and transform neuromedicine.”

Daniel Sobek, who served as Kernel’s chief commercial officer from April 2017 to October 2019, recalls that when he first met Johnson at a Stanford event, he found him to be cold and intimidating, yet with an “aura of great success,” he says. Sobek, who has a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, could have gotten a job anywhere in Silicon Valley, but he says he was inspired to join Kernel because of Johnson’s “audacious vision” and his proven skills as an entrepreneur. Once he was working for Johnson, Sobek says he was much more approachable than he initially appeared to be. Another benefit to choosing Kernel was Johnson’s deep pockets: The fact that Johnson told Sobek that he had committed up to $100 million of his own money meant “financial certainty over an extended period of time,” and also that Johnson would be able to focus more on running the company and less on fundraising, says Sobek, who now runs a renewable energy company.

After spending the first couple of years of Kernel’s existence developing implantable technology, Johnson came to the conclusion that “it will be too long to take it to market,” Sobek recalls. So several months into his tenure at the company, he was helping Johnson execute a challenging pivot to noninvasive brain-imaging helmets intended for consumer adoption. “I didn’t know [Bryan] was willing to go that far,” he says.

By the time Johnson was pitching investors on Kernel in late 2017, he was boasting that the helmets would be able to detect if a person liked a show they were watching on Netflix. “The story kept changing,” recalls Southern’s friend Wascher, who runs a global-impact investment fund and was asked to invest. “I remember telling Taryn, ‘This feels a little bit smoke and mirrors to me.’ ” She passed.

In a September 2022 deposition, Johnson said that Kernel had sold fewer than 10 helmets, which he estimated retail for around $30,000 apiece. The company says that the headsets sell for $99,200 but declined to say how many it has sold. Johnson says that the company is achieving its objectives and that the product works. “You put the helmet on your head, and it reads out your brain activity like magic,” Johnson tells me. The company closed part of a $25 million Series D round in December 2023, raising $5.2 million, and says it is continuing to raise money. “Nearly all of our existing investors participated in this round,” Ryan Field, Kernel’s CEO and CTO, wrote in an email.

Like Braintree, Kernel is a family affair. Johnson’s brother, Jason, was the CFO and COO as of the end of 2023. He’s based in China. (The company says he resigned and will be leaving at the end of the year.) His sister, Candace Mouritsen, remains an accountant at the company. “Kernel’s board governance is consistent with industry standards and includes third-party auditing,” Field wrote in an email.

Kernel has raised a total of $158 million—including $64 million from Johnson—from a variety of top VC firms, including Khosla Ventures and General Catalyst. In a Bloomberg Businessweek profile in 2021 by Ashlee Vance with the headline “Can a $110 Million Helmet Unlock the Secrets of the Mind?” Johnson revealed that the company was two weeks from missing payroll in early 2020 when the pandemic hit. Not mentioned was how Kernel secured a $1.24 million Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government in April 2020. (The loan was forgiven.) Three months later, Johnson raised $53 million in a Series C round. “If we can quantify thoughts and emotions, conscious and subconscious, a new era of understanding, wellness, and human improvement will emerge,” Johnson said in a press release announcing the funding round in 2020.

In the Bloomberg profile, Johnson said that his goal was to bring the price of the helmets down to that of a smartphone and put a helmet in every household by 2030. Instead of focusing on the consumer market, the company is now looking at clinical applications, such as a study Johnson participated in: “It was the first time in history anyone’s ever been able to say what happens to someone’s brain when they take ketamine,” he says. “We’ve kind of been in the dark because normally you would just say, ‘Hey, friend, what was ketamine like?’ ” The company’s feasibility study, “Measuring Acute Effects of Subanesthetic Ketamine on Cerebrovascular Hemodynamics in Humans Using TD-fNIRS,” was published in the open-access journal Scientific Reports. In May 2023, Johnson stepped down from his CEO role to focus on Project Blueprint, though he remains on the board.

Sobek, Kernel’s former chief commercial officer, says that instead of ketamine, he personally “would have picked a different indication” to study, such as looking at depression or cognitive impairment. “But that’s Bryan. He picks what interests him personally.” Sobek added that he stays in touch with Field, whom he had initially hired, and still believes that the product has great potential in helping to diagnose neurological issues like cognitive decline. Field says that Kernel currently has two clinical studies underway, looking at depression and dementia. “Khosla Ventures is supportive of Kernel’s vision under new management to focus on the brain and decoding brain signals,” says Shernaz Daver, a spokesperson for the venture capital firm. (General Catalyst declined to comment.)

Johnson, meanwhile, is dedicating most of his time to his “Don’t Die” cri de coeur. In October, he was getting ready to join his friend, the DJ Steve Aoki, onstage at a club in Las Vegas at 1:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning to celebrate six months of perfect sleep. “I am trying to expand the understanding people have about Blueprint, of how one can prioritize their health and wellness and still do the things in life they care about,” he says, adding that he will sleep from 7:45 p.m. to 1 a.m., then go back to sleep after the event, where he planned to jump up and down on the stage and throw “Don’t Die” T-shirts to the crowd. Video posted to Aoki’s Instagram Stories confirms that he and Johnson did, in fact, jump up and down behind the DJ booth and toss “Don’t Die” T-shirts into the crowd. A subsequent LinkedIn post reported that Johnson slept from 7 p.m. to midnight and again from 3:15 a.m. to 7:20 a.m., with a sleep score of 93 percent. “The most significant opportunity we have is to aspire to an existence which exceeds our imagination,” he wrote.

Since the dawn of human civilization, rich and powerful people—most of them men—have attempted to evade mortality. China’s first emperor, searching for an elixir that would grant him eternal life, wound up poisoning himself with mercury and dying at 49. Ponce de León set sail for Florida in search of the mythical Fountain of Youth. Sir Isaac Newton was obsessed with creating an immortality-bestowing philosopher’s stone that could turn metals into gold.

Fast-forward 400 years, and some of the wealthiest individuals and companies are bankrolling antiaging research as the glacial, careful pace of science doesn’t necessarily fit Silicon Valley’s move-fast-and-break-things ethos. Calico, an Alphabet subsidiary, says on its website that it is combining the best parts of biotechnology and academic research “without the constraints of either.” Amazon’s Jeff Bezos reportedly invested in Altos Labs, a start-up focused on “cellular rejuvenation programming.”

Living forever has become the ultimate techno-utopian dream as billionaire founders grow increasingly optimistic (or increasingly delusional) that there’s no problem, not even death, that can’t be solved via technological disruption. PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, who reportedly was an early adopter of plasma transfusions from young people—the inspiration for a plotline on the “Blood Boy” episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley—has donated millions to the Methuselah Foundation, which became known for an award given to the scientist who can produce the oldest mouse. He’s signed on with a service that will freeze his corpse when he dies and whisk him to Scottsdale, Arizona, where his body will be preserved with the help of machinery and chemicals in the hopes that he can be revived one day. The frenzy of investment activity has led to a widespread belief among billionaires that death is optional, or at least a solvable problem: Jared Kushner proudly proclaimed in 2022 that his will be “the first generation to live forever or the last generation that’s going to die.”

When I ask Johnson whether he thinks he will live forever, he says, “Anyone [who] dares to suggest that there’s some kind of limit on how long we can live doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” His lead doctor, Oliver Zolman—the founder of an online longevity school for clinicians—estimates that in an ideal world, following the Blueprint protocol, Johnson would live to 115, but with a significantly longer health span. Although early results are promising, he says that Johnson is relatively young and with less age-related damage, so some of the reductions in his quantified age reversal have been less dramatic than those he’s observed in older clients.

As Indiana Jones said in Last Crusade, living forever is still “an old man’s dream.” Yet scientists are finally making significant progress in determining why we age, transforming what was once a backwater of biology into one of the hottest new areas of scientific research. “When I became a geriatrician, people were like ‘What?’ ” says Luigi Ferrucci, who is overseeing a longitudinal study on aging for the National Institutes of Health. “Today, there is incredible interest because we are discovering that we can alter the pace of aging.” For example, scientists are now able to determine how old a person is, with an error margin of a few years, just by looking at markers on DNA contained in a drop of blood. This is what’s known as epigenetic age. Johnson has boasted that he has reduced his own epigenetic age by five years since he started Blueprint.

Ferrucci cautions that testing multiple interventions on oneself, beyond being potentially dangerous, is not scientifically valuable because it’s impossible to isolate what, if anything, is working to reverse the aging process. “An experiment with an n of one tells you nothing,” says Ferrucci. If an extremely wealthy person really wants to advance knowledge, he says, they should “give their money to researchers.” Zolman says it’s “absolute bullshit” to assume that an individual experimenting on himself can’t be scientifically useful, citing Barry Marshall’s self-experimentation with Helicobacter pylori, which led to a Nobel Prize in physiology in 2005. Plus, Zolman says he’s aggregating data from his 60 clients with the ultimate objective to get people like Johnson to fund larger studies about the biology of aging.

That’s what Andrew Steele, a scientist and author of a book called Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old, tried to convince Johnson to do with his money. After suggesting on Twitter that Johnson use his wealth to eliminate the funding gap in a promising study of metformin, a diabetes drug that Johnson has been taking, Steele found himself blocked. Steele also made a YouTube video in which he looked at Johnson’s various claims one by one and determined that, at best, the results of his various interventions were inconclusive.

“What has become increasingly clear is that his plan is to monetize Blueprint,” says Steele.

On the Blueprint website, Johnson is currently selling branded olive oil—two 25-fluid ounce bottles for the low, low price of $60. There are also affiliate links to various products he uses in his protocols, like face wash. In October, he announced on X that a subscription food program called Blueprint Autopilot was launching in December. But when I ask Johnson about his timeline to turn Blueprint into his next big business venture, he says that monetization “is really not that interesting to me.” What is interesting to him, he says, is how, “as a species, we’re facing multiple existential threats. And when you have the power of the gods at your fingertips, you have one foe: death. And so the only priority I have right now is ‘Don’t die. Don’t kill each other. Don’t destroy the planet, and align with AI.’ That’s it.”

Zolman, Johnson’s doctor, says that he and Johnson are also business partners in Blueprint and confirms that they are very much trying to monetize it. “I created all the products,” he says. The entire Blueprint system, he adds, is a “white labeled” version of his own protocol, which he developed as the “Level 1, 2, 3 protocol,” he says. “It’s all me.”

Their latest rollout is Blueprint XX, which involves creating a longevity protocol for a woman. Johnson says that the costs of the program have gone up “because our credibility is based upon the way in which we do things. It’s the evidence. It’s the protocol. It’s the result. And it requires a level of detail orientation that is extraordinarily time consuming,” he says, estimating that his team is working anywhere from 4 to 10 times harder now that Blueprint is being adapted to a woman’s body. His test case is his former assistant, 28-year-old Kate Tolo, who told Time that she used to work in fashion and took a pay cut to work for Johnson. (Time noted that Tolo “plated and served” all the meals the reporter ate while visiting Blueprint HQ, a.k.a. Johnson’s house, and “seemed to do most of the dishes.”) Despite an Adam and Eve–themed photo shoot that was reportedly planned for Johnson and Tolo, he insists that the two are not a couple and that their relationship is strictly professional.

Steven Hassan, an author and expert on cults who met Southern a decade ago, says that Johnson’s rhetoric, with the “all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking, religious Adam and Eve references, and extremes of behavioral restrictions” has all the hallmarks of unprocessed cult trauma.

“Thousands of people have made observations about me over the past year,” says Johnson of Hassan’s interpretation, “and I would put his observation in the same category as everyone else offering things that are up to their viewpoint. It’s free speech and everyone can express their viewpoint.”

Southern, for her part, is now working as chief storytelling officer at Blackrock Neurotech, one of the companies that developed implantables for a paralyzed subject she followed for her documentary. At Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference last summer in Park City, Utah, Southern was invited to talk about “the world’s first superhumans.” Her speech was scheduled at 10:15 a.m. Less than an hour later, on the same stage, was Bryan Johnson, who wound up being interviewed remotely by editor in chief Alyson Shontell.

Johnson had been working on his Blueprint system for almost two years by the time Bloomberg Businessweek’s Ashlee Vance wrote about it in a lengthy story in January 2023. Less than a week later, the Daily Mail picked up the lawsuit. People magazine and a handful of other outlets followed with brief stories about the dispute. At the time this story went to press, Fortune’s website featured dozens of pieces about Bryan Johnson. None of them mention Taryn Southern. One recent piece describes how Johnson’s decision to stop eating brownies at night—“not injecting 17-year-old blood—is what really transformed his life.”