The wild rise of Zillow Gone Wild


On a sunny Monday afternoon, Samir Mezrahi is in a windowless room, toggling between his multiple inboxes, when he spots one particularly promising subject line: “Boob home in Florida.”

He clicks on the real estate listing, which came from a follower. The geodesic domes that make up the $500,000 Melbourne, Fla., house do indeed resemble a bosom. But is that enough for Mezrahi to post the home on Zillow Gone Wild?

Since he started the account in December 2020, it has exploded into a social media phenomenon, amassing more than 4 million followers across the major social media platforms and spinning off an HGTV show that debuts next month with Mezrahi as executive producer. Throughout it all, Mezrahi’s recipe has remained mostly unchanged: Find the zaniest homes on the market — castle-themed mansions with full drawbridges, for example — then blast them out to the internet with a bit of pithy commentary, and watch the clicks, likes and shares pile up. The simplicity of the premise is part of the brilliance; it’s the result of the decade-plus that Mezrahi spent charting the internet’s fascinations as social media director for BuzzFeed.

But like any recipe, Zillow Gone Wild’s doesn’t work without the right ingredients. And here in the glow of these two jumbo computer monitors, in this Long Island office in a building otherwise occupied by doctors and lawyers, Mezrahi isn’t quite convinced the boob house has what it takes.

“I didn’t know dome homes were popular until starting this account, so the first couple of ones were interesting, but this one is kind of gray inside,” he says. “A dome home isn’t so special anymore.”

Then again, it’s early March and actress Sydney Sweeney has just hosted “Saturday Night Live,” somehow triggering a discussion about the political influence of her decolletage. So, maybe, Mezrahi posits, just for this online moment, the double domes in Florida will actually gain traction as “part of the Sydney Sweeney discourse.”

He turns back to the screens, weighing his options.

Though the process is highly subjective, Mezrahi follows some general guidelines when picking the houses that ultimately get featured on Zillow Gone Wild. For a luxury listing to make it into a “Mansion Monday” post, for instance, “it can’t just be a mansion, it has to be a mansion-plus.” One of his most viral picks in recent memory fell into this category — a $20 million Arizona spread with a slew of amenities: a go-kart track, a 6,000-square foot “man cave,” a golf simulator, home theater, dance studio and video gaming area. It racked up more than 24 million views, mostly within the first 24 hours.

“It’s what you say you would do if you’re rich,” Mezrahi says. “When you’re a kid you would say you want all these things … they went through with it and did it all.”

Another genre that tends to hit is what Mezrahi dubs, “you never know what’s going on inside a home.” These posts are reserved for listings with ordinary-looking exteriors that conceal, say, an extreme enthusiasm for Barbiecore, a pirate ship-themed DJ booth or a 4,400-square-foot replica of an old western town.

At this point, Zillow Gone Wild has enough reach that Mezrahi doesn’t have to do much of his own digging for content. He gets 20 to 30 houses sent to him every day, mostly from followers but also from real estate agents angling to get publicity for their own listings.

He begins each morning in front of the computer screens in the drab office that he refers to as his “bunker,” studying a spreadsheet that tracks his follower counts, then sifting through his inbox for wild-enough houses.

Once he finds a winner and secures the requisite photo permissions from its listing agent, he gets to work building posts around it. He’s turned one section of his office into a studio of sorts, outfitting it with artificial turf and a camera tripod to record himself for TikTok and YouTube. For Instagram and X (formerly known as Twitter), he’ll assemble photos, often saving the most surprising element for later in the post. “I try not to give too much away,” he says. He describes the format as “normal house, normal room, normal room, oooh, here is why it’s wild.”

Aside from eye-popping mansions and bizarre interiors, the rural stuff — Dr. Seuss-esque homes on dozens of forested acres, former grain silos turned into residences — is usually a sure bet, too. Really, anything that makes viewers think “let’s start a commune,” Mezrahi says, which probably speaks to another, not insignificant factor in Zillow Gone Wild’s success: excellent timing.

When Mezrahi, now 41, published his inaugural home — an Instagram post of an idyllic Vermont cottage that contained seven rusty jail cells — much of the world was still quarantining. At the onset of that first, bleakest-of-bleak pandemic winter, Mezrahi saw an opportunity to build a new audience: “At that time, people were just following a lot of stuff. They were just looking for new things.”

Plus, the real estate market was going haywire, with people bidding six figures over list price and packing open houses. If you didn’t have the means to buy a real house, you could at least get your kicks scrolling for fantasy digs on Zillow or Redfin, both of which experienced major traffic boosts.

Zillow Gone Wild tapped directly into the moment. In a single weekend, Mezrahi gained more than 100,000 followers. “Oh, wow, everyone’s into this,” he remembers thinking as he watched the account explode. Less than a month after launch, Zillow Gone Wild was seemingly everywhere. The New York Post wrote about it, followed by the Los Angeles Times.

For the lucky real estate agents whose listings get chosen, Mezrahi provides instant access to millions of eyeballs. “It’s the kind of exposure someone dreams of,” says Justin McGiver, who sells luxury homes in the Adirondacks and has had two listings make it onto Zillow Gone Wild. As soon as the most recent one posted in February, “I started getting messages through social media, text messages, phone calls, people sharing it on social media and tagging me,” he says. “It was like somebody turned a switch on. … For a Realtor, that’s the kind of stuff we live for.”

Even before Zillow Gone Wild featured his listings, McGiver followed the account. “I think it’s just an opportunity to get a glimpse into a world that most of us don’t live in,” he says. “It’s really fun to take a look in there and dream a little bit about what it’d be like to live in one of those houses.”

Mezrahi’s recounting of how he inked the HGTV show, premiering May 3, is significantly less cinematic. The premise entails actor Jack McBrayer (Kenneth from “30 Rock”) taking viewers inside “non-traditional homes,” per HGTV’s write-up. Each will be ranked before the season finale declares the “wildest” home of all. Reaching this point, Mezrahi says, was a three-year slog that moved in fits and starts. He almost shrugs it off: “I got lucky, because I guess most things never become shows.”

Rather than dwelling on the HGTV thing, Mezrahi is much more interested in finding the next viral sensation. His closet serves as a kind of graveyard for some of his less successful attempts. The Jeff Bezos mask on one shelf is leftover from the time Mezrahi thought it could be funny to record himself doing video reviews of Amazon products as the company’s billionaire founder. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) He has an Elon Musk mask, too, though he can’t quite remember why.

Mezrahi also has several other real estate accounts: Celebrity Home Shopping, where he reviews the homes of famous people and two Zillow Gone Wild spinoffs — Celebrity Homes, which features stars’ houses that are for sale, and Open House, which focuses more on tours. “I’m always thinking about new accounts, trying new accounts,” he says. “And I’ve failed a lot of accounts.”

Originally from Tulsa, he went to the University of Oklahoma for a very different type of accounting — the CPA kind. After graduation, he moved to New York City to work for a small firm and then a health-care start-up. “I was not a very good accountant,” he says. In his free time, he derived significantly more satisfaction from learning about the ebb and flow of the 2010s internet and writing posts for BuzzFeed as an unpaid “community contributor.”

Summer Anne Burton, the former head of creative at BuzzFeed, says that among those volunteer writers, Mezrahi was a star. Often, he would find whatever was trending at the top of Reddit and whip it into a post. “He was really good at it, sort of seemingly naturally,” she says.

In 2012, when Mezrahi was 29, BuzzFeed hired him as an intern. “I definitely felt older [than a lot of colleagues], but I knew what they were doing was good and it was a good place to be,” he says.

Within three years, he worked his way up to director of social media. Among the hundreds of people she hired at the company, Burton says none were as analytical as Mezrahi about what causes something to go viral.

Former BuzzFeed writer Rachel Zarrell worked closely with him back then, trying to find “the thing that’s going to be the only thing everybody’s talking about.” She says she isn’t surprised that Mezrahi scored with Zillow Gone Wild. “He’s always 10 steps ahead,” she says. “While we’re all still focused on whatever the story of the moment is, or whatever the trend of the moment is, he’s already off in the future.”

Zillow Gone Wild wasn’t his first big hit, either. In 2015, he started another account, Kale Salad, which shares wholesome memes and gives credit to the people who originally made them (a practice that wasn’t previously commonplace). Though it’s received less mainstream recognition, Kale Salad actually has more Instagram followers than Zillow Gone Wild.

None of this, however, was enough to save Mezrahi at BuzzFeed. The now-struggling company laid him off last spring. He had survived previous cuts, “but eventually you don’t last, especially as a strategist kind of person,” Mezrahi says. Already, he’d been mulling the prospect of leaving the full-time gig to focus entirely on his personal projects. BuzzFeed simply made the choice for him.

Mezrahi declined to talk on the record about family, his own home or life in general outside work. Which is ironic, given that Zillow Gone Wild is built primarily on satisfying a voyeuristic curiosity about what’s going on behind other people’s closed doors.

It’s not that he’s media shy. He does interviews about real estate and appears in Zillow Gone Wild videos, narrating with his gravelly voice. But unlike other social media influencers, he insists that the content isn’t about him.

Still, there is one thing that Mezrahi shares in common with the rest of them: He’s trying to figure out how to make more money off the internet. Aside from the HGTV executive producer credit, most of Zillow Gone Wild’s revenue comes from ads. He did one for “The Bachelor,” posting what looked like a typical listing but for the show’s famed house. PopTarts and Royal Caribbean have also paid him to promote fake listings for a house made of PopTarts, and for the new Icon of the Seas cruise ship.

But the account still brings in “very little” money, he says. He imagines a future where his newsletter has a paid classified section or where he dedicates more time to growing a YouTube audience because that platform can be the most lucrative.

Eventually, Mezrahi might need to hire some kind of administrative assistant. But he has mixed feelings about handing over even partial control of the Zillow Gone Wild inbox. Going through the contenders, he explains, “is very fun for me.”

Which brings us back to the boob house.

Ultimately, the discourse around Sweeney wins out against the blah interior. Mezrahi posts the home on March 12, with the caption, “Can youuuuu guess what the subject line of the email was when someone submitted this home?” It gets more than 800 reactions on Facebook, 1,500 likes on X and 12,600 likes on Instagram.

Not one of his viral sensations by any stretch but not a flop, either. Onto the next.

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