Dhar Mann Actors Allege ‘Culture of Fear’ Underpinning YouTube Empire

Photo credit: @mairmulroney/TikTok

You might not know the names of the actors who started a movement protesting the working conditions and pay in Dhar Mann Studios, but you’ll definitely know their faces.

On his official YouTube channel, which pumps out four moral fable-type videos a week for its 17 million subscribers, Dhar Mann, 38, says that he and the actors are “not just telling stories, but changing lives.” With their protests, it looks like actors Mair Mulroney, Charles Laughlin, Colin Borden, and Michael Vaccaro took that advice literally. 

The four actors have accused Dhar Mann Studios of underpaying them; inadequate food and water; expecting them to attend a publicity event for free; conducting a “smear campaign” against them in the wake of their protests; having 10-hour work days for child actors; and of perpetuating a “culture of fear” in the workplace that led to actors feeling silenced, unable to take on other roles and unable to give feedback out of fear that the studio would withhold acting jobs from them as “punishment.”

Since February 2023, the foursome led the charge in demanding Mann pay his actors what they deem a fair wage and treat them with “dignity.” They took to the streets to protest after alleging they were unable to organize a meeting with Mann, saying they wanted to expose the “culture of fear,” which, according to them, underlies the YouTube empire making millions. 

When contacted by Passionfruit for comment, Tony, a spokesperson for Dhar Mann Studios, vehemently denied each individual allegation brought forward by the protesters.

“We have thousands of actors that work with us, the dozen or so protestors constitute less than 1% of our actors,” he said in an email statement. “Some of the protestors have not worked with us for many years. The protestors led a campaign of misinformation for their personal monetary gain and a few of them have even now made public apologies retracting their statements.”

He added, “The ‘culture of fear’ is a myth created by a handful of individuals who have their own personal agendas. The thousands of actors that work with love working with us otherwise they would not keep returning production after production. Many actors constantly tell us we at their favorite Studio to work with and that this is their dream job. Just because less than 1% of people many not agree does not discredit what a great place we are to work.”

Tony also pointed Passionfruit to the video made by Dhar Mann actor Katherine Norland, who defended the company and praised its working environment. When approached by Passionfruit via Instagram direct message, she did not immediately respond. 

The actors behind the protest stand behind their stories. Borden, 37, was one of the actors who was with the studio since its early days. His TikTok account, which has surged in popularity since sharing information about the protests, has 2.1 million followers and 9.8 million cumulative likes. 

He told Passionfruit in an interview how, in its early days, Dhar Mann Studios “was a real kind of fly-by-night kind of organization.” He said, “You get a phone call, and you’d come shoot at night when the office wasn’t used. They were working out of this department was also the office for [another] company.”

These days, however, the media empire, which is estimated to make up to half a million a month by SocialBlade, sprawls three studio lots and international employees. 

“That rising tide of the studio has left the actors behind,” Borden said. “One of the narratives that has gone out there is that Dhar Mann does not pay his actors, and that’s not what we’ve said at all. It’s just not a sustainable route, and it has not risen in the same way that the studio has.” 

In an email to Passionfruit, Tony, the spokesperson for Dhar Mann Studios, claimed actors were paid between $33-$44 per hour, with a recent increase to $50 per hour. In Instagram stories on the Dhar Mann Studios account, the organization also claimed eligible actors would receive 1099-K tax forms through PayPal. Prior to the 2022 tax year, 1099-K forms required a threshold of $20,000 in annual income.

Mulroney, a regular actor with the studio who has 2.2 million TikTok followers, told Passionfruit most of the actors she knows didn’t receive 1099-Ks due to being below $20,000 annual income. “Let that sink in,” she said. “And we’re at the top, we get the most [pay] out of everyone.”

Actor Charles Laughlin, who joined Dhar Mann Studios back in 2020, told Passionfruit that it was Mulroney who personally encouraged him to speak up about his concerns. Laughlin alleged Dhar Mann Studios didn’t initially provide on-set water or lunch (which was later changed to food valued at $15); and that, for a while, he didn’t provide adequate heating for the younger, child actors, who he described as “freezing” one day on set. 

A spokesperson for Dhar Mann studios denied these claims, stating: “Water and food are always available for actors and crew members, they are replenished frequently. If supplies ever run out all someone has to do is ask our Operations Team and they are quickly restocked. … We have room heaters, heating stations and hand warmers placed throughout the facilities.”

As well as alleged heating issues, three further former Dhar Mann Studios employees claimed that the child actors on-set would work over 10-hour days. Two of the former workers who corroborated this accusation requested to remain anonymous, while the third, actor Rachel Christianson, told Passionfruit via email that there were “long hours for the kids,” saying, “I can confirm through my paystubs of 10+ hour days where kids were also on set the whole day.” Laughlin also provided Passionfruit with what appeared to be a call sheet from 2021 verifying that young actors were working 10+ hour days.

Responding to allegations of 10-hour days for child actors, a Dhar Mann Studios spokesperson said the following: “In addition to the minor’s guardian we also have licensed studio teachers on set who are in charge of ensuring child actors do not go over their legally allotted times. … Call sheets don’t account for breaks, school time, or represent what actually happens on set. Call sheet times are rough estimates subject to change and would certainly not circumvent the hours a minor is legally allowed to work as enforced by 3rd party licensed studio teachers.”

In an emailed statement to Passionfruit, Stella, CEO of Stella Pacific Management, said her company had been sending studio teachers to Dhar Mann Productions for “the past couple of years” to “regulate and enforce all labor laws.” 

But Christianson claimed that it was “only within the last year were set teachers added to regulate the hours the kids worked and make sure schooling was done.” In his interview with Passionfruit, Laughlin also claimed that children on-set didn’t have teachers when he first started working there in 2020. 

However, Christensen said her worst experience on-set came after she tried to discuss allergy concerns with other staff members. 

“We were doing a stunt involving a fine colored powder,” she recalled in a statement to Passionfruit. “I have had allergic reactions in the past to chalk dusts and the like where my eyes would swell shut because of the powders getting into my eyes. Having only gotten the script late the night before, the next morning was the earliest I could ask about said powder stunt. I mentioned I have had issues in the past with fine powders and asked what the plan was to keep me safe and prevent any reaction. I was told to just keep my head down for the shot and my eyes closed (even though this fine dust floats and lingers in the air).” 

“No consideration was made, no troubleshooting even considered,” she added. “No eyewear, masks or cut away shots remotely discussed. I was just dismissed and told I would be fine. If I would have been able to see the script in a timely fashion or read it ahead of time I would have passed on this shoot. Luckily, l had little to no irritation, but this could have been a huge problem.”

In response to Christensen’s story, a spokesperson for Dhar Mann Studios said the following: “We are looking into the claim about an actor having an allergy to fine powder, but in general if any actor at any point is uncomfortable moving forward in any production then we would stop production or find a workaround.”

“We’ve mentioned before that there was a culture of fear [at Dhar Mann Studios].” Laughlin said in his interview. “So a lot of us were afraid to speak up individually.” 

Dhar Mann Studios’ Instagram stories and its spokesperson suggests it is receptive to feedback, with the account pointing to anonymous feedback boxes and a staff member distributing feedback forms. 

“We are a feedback driven culture. Actors have many ways to give us feedback and can choose to remain anonymous in their feedback if they choose. After each production we issue anonymous feedback questionnaires and our reviews are overwhelming positive with 95%+ people giving us a 5 star out of 5 star rating. When there are any issues we fix them quickly,” a spokesperson for Dhar Mann Studios claimed.

Laughlin, who has been calling out his former employer to his 1.2 million TikTok followers, told Passionfruit this was far from the reality. “Nobody fills them out,” he claimed. 

Laughlin claimed he didn’t get any work from the studio for three months after he suggested the studio get better lighting equipment for outdoor shooting. 

Actor Michael Vaccaro said he felt similarly sidelined. He alleged that after turning down work with Dhar Mann Studios because he was working on a movie, he then got no further work from them for “at least six to seven months.” Mulroney also alleged that, in her experience, Dhar Mann Studios would appear to withhold work as a form of “punishment.”

“If you turn down a job because you’re working on something else, it’s almost like you’re punished for that, because then they [Dhar Mann Studios] won’t bring you back in for a much longer period of time,” she said. 

Mulroney said microaggressions in how jobs are dished out sometimes also translate into the roles themselves. In several Dhar Mann Studios videos, Mulroney, who is often referred to in videos by her real name, portrays unsavory characters like a golddigger, neglectful babysitter, or disloyal girlfriend.

“It feels intentional. Just a little bit,” she said. “In case you are outspoken or in case you do or say something you don’t like.”

Dylan Harris, another former Dhar Mann Studios actor, provided purported screenshots to Passionfruit which appeared to suggest that he was sent a cease and desist after discussing Dhar Mann Studios on social media. 

Contrary to claims posted on the Dhar Mann Studios’ Instagram story, Laughlin and Borden alleged they often weren’t credited for their roles in Dhar Mann videos. They said they’d often have to add credits on IMDb themselves, or their names were sometimes spelled incorrectly. 

In a statement to Passionfruit, Dhar Mann Studios’ spokesperson said: “We always add IMDB credits after productions, and if there is an occasional error our dedicated actor relations team is very quick to help resolve any issue. Credits are also listed in all YouTube Video descriptions.”

But what Laughlin and Vaccaro described as the “final straw” came following a disastrous “screening” event in December 2022. “We were asked to show up for free, but they used our faces in the marketing,” Laughlin said. “He [Dhar Mann] sold $100 tickets, and the whole point of the tickets was to meet actors like ourselves and some of the others.” 

“When I got there, I realized that I was expected to work,” Vaccaro said. “I didn’t know this until I walked into the space that I was expected to talk to fans, sign autographs, and take pictures. I was expected to do all of this for free.”

Dhar Mann Studios claimed in its Instagram stories and in a statement to Passionfruit that this event was not for profit, optional for actors, and fan photos were also optional. Laughlin told Passionfruit the event was optional only “on paper.”

“That’s what it says on paper,” he said. “But we all know that if you don’t play by the rules. … You run the risk of being blacklisted at least for a couple of months as a punishment.”

As discontent between Dhar Mann Studios and the actors peaked, Borden, Mulroney, Vaccaro, and Laughlin said they penned a letter to Mann himself requesting a meeting to discuss pay, working conditions, and treatment.

After the first draft of the letter, Laughlin said he and the trio communicated with “20-30” other employees and refined it, requesting to meet with Mann. After arranging a meeting with human resources, all four actors told Passionfruit they were frustrated Mann wasn’t present and that they attempted to reschedule the meeting.

However, all four actors said Mann continued to be a no-show due to “scheduling conflicts,” so the group took to the streets in what Borden described as a “peaceful protest” outside of the studios. 

“Immediately, once the protests started, he was alerted,” Mulroney said. “Security came out and took pictures of us to send to Dhar at that point in time.”’ After participating in the protest, Vaccaro and Laughlin said Dhar Mann Studios formally cut ties with them.  “We have all seen this over the last three and four years. If you say something, you disappear. You’re gone,” Vaccaro said. 

Although many actors and crew members from Dhar Mann Studios went public with their own stories since the protests on TikTok, there are also a number of actors who have since pledged their public support for Mann, showing a public display of unity with him in a video accompanied by the lyrics of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.”

“The reality is that for an actor, jobs are so few and far in between that people are willing to put up with poor conditions and little pay,” Borden explained. “A lot of [other actors] we spoke to have the same issues as us. They wanted to see change, they want to help out, and they were helping out in other ways as much as they possibly could, but they could not actually step out and say, ‘We’re protesting.’”

As for the future, all four of the actors Passionfruit spoke to will not be moving forward with Dhar Mann Studios—but none of them regret their actions. 

“It’s been a stressful week, to say the least,” Mulroney said. “But having fans and other YouTubers support us like this really means a lot, because we really did think that we were going to be completely on our own.”

Mulroney said, “I think that when you have a platform, it’s kind of your duty if you know that something is wrong to speak up and be a voice for somebody who may not want to speak up for themselves.”

Clarification: This article was updated with clarifying information regarding 1099-K tax forms.

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