‘Lots of times I went to jail for violent crimes’: using a tough perception to make millions online

They call him TKO – as in the boxing term for technical knockout. He was born into the criminal world, but now he’s online as the face of a social media empire your children just might be following.

He’s not the only former criminal cashing in on their notoriety. They’re called Instagram gangsters – using social media to turn infamy into income. They’re the entrepreneurs or tattooed ex-cons making cash from chaos, selling everything from clothing to energy drinks online.

You might not know him, but TKO is one of the biggest names in the world of underground rap music – as well as being a brand ambassador for clothing label AK King Empire. His look is aggressive – and he makes no attempt to hide his violent criminal past.

TKO lists some of his past felonies to Sunday Night’s Melissa Doyle. “Aggravated bodily harm. Lots times I went to jail for violent crimes.”

It was a lifestyle that almost killed him when he was stabbed in a fight with a local thug. “I think I was DOA when I got there [to hospital], and I remember waking up three days later out of a coma,” TKO recalls.

It’s not just bad boys cashing in – bad girls are doing it too. Stripper Siara Dianda models edgy girls’ clothing to her half a million followers.

“I think because I live an interesting lifestyle and it’s not just like an everyday thing, people are interested in something different. I dance every night, I do a different type of job, and I travel a lot, so I think that’s what intrigues people.”

TKO doesn’t believe this is capitalising on his questionable past. “I’m just being me. I don’t try to put on a front for anybody, I am not trying to play the tough guy act, I don’t think we are milking it at all.”

And it doesn’t get any more real than TKO’s life. “My dad was just a drunk, a bank robber, heroin addict. Just an old-school knockabout crim. My mum left me when I was about twelve. I was on the streets, stealing to eat, I couldn’t go to school because I was always looking for somewhere to live.”

“I thought it was the norm, with my older mates [were also] going to jail and stuff like that. Even when I was five years old, I knew I was eventually going to go to jail.”

TKO served time and faced court for everything from kidnapping to grievous bodily harm. He was on track for a life spent in and out of jail – that is, until he met his wife Zoe.

TKO’s personality surprised Zoe when they first met. “I wasn’t intimidated at all, not at all. He wasn’t very intimidating to me. He was funny, very funny.”

TKO and Zoe soon had their first child, Annabella, who’s now 2 years old.

“He’s a very different man from the from the guy he was before I met him,” Zoe reveals. “He’s a family man now. He doesn’t drink any more. He doesn’t go out all the time. He’s always at home with me and Anabella.”

Now with a new baby son on the way, TKO is fighting to give his family everything he missed out on.

“I want to be wealthy,” TKO explains. “I want my daughter to have everything and my son to have everything I never had. I really want to have a good life, and there’s no way my daughter will ever starve. If she wants a pony, she’s going to get a pony.”

Clothing brand RIG FIT is all about big muscles and tattoos. The bad boy image is helping to sell an edgy – and some would say dangerous – lifestyle.

Company founder Clint Chadwick also has a criminal record. He was caught dealing ecstasy at 17, and spent 18 months in juvenile detention.

“I just made a few mistakes and I paid for it with a year and a half of my life,” Clint says. “[It] changed everything for me, and even though it was a terrible experience it was a lifechanging experience. It pushed me in the right direction.”

“I was bad, but I think you’re a product of your environment.”

Clint advertises on Instagram using a stable of carefully-chosen brand ambassadors. They include a 6’5” giant of a man by the name of Yaki.

“I like to be like tough, [but] I don’t want gangster. Everyone tries to be gangster. Maybe [I] look like a bad boy, but maybe the people judge with their eyes. For me, [it] is very important [what’s] inside.”

Yaki doesn’t just look the part, he comes with his own tough history. He grew up in Iran and made money as an illegal street fighter. He was forced to flee to Australia, arriving on a refugee boat.

“Six days on the boat with no food, just drink water,” he recalls. “Very hard. Scary hard.”

In Australia, Yaki started hitting the gym, but even here his image attracts attention from the wrong people. This time, it was underworld crime figure Pasquale Barbaro.

Linked to mafia and bikies, and a known drug trafficker, Barbaro needed a bodyguard.

“I was training by myself at the gym and he was training there too,” Yaki recalls. “We see each other a couple of times, ‘You look good, training good, let’s train together.’”

Yaki claims he had no idea who Barbaro was. Then two years ago, the 35-year-old was gunned down in the street. Yaki wasn’t there.

“I actually don’t care that he [got] killed,” Yaki says. ‘He has done a lot of bad things to everyone, not just me, everyone.”

While Yaki brings the attention, Clint counts the money. He knows he gets something special from him with his online advertising. “The thing is with Yaki is he has such a unique look and he’s such a good person that I wanted him to be a part of my brand. [You] look at him like he has a physical presence when you see him. You can’t buy that.”

Surprisingly, more than 50 percent of their followers are female. And those female admirers have even bankrolled Yaki’s tattoos and jewellery.

But Yaki is often misjudged. “Everybody [is] thinking, ‘Criminal, bikie, gang, dangerous, he’s going to bash me.’ I am not that person.”

Yaki is a man of contradictions – tough, intimidating, but also a fantastic father. “Beautiful. I love it. I want more kids. I love her. When I see my daughter, I think I am in a dream.”

“She is here inside my heart. That’s the best thing.”

 

Reporter: Melissa Doyle

Producers: Simon Heath