Free hugs interview

Saturday July 2nd is International Free Hugs Day, created by an Australian man known only as “Juan Mann”.

  • Story Roy
  • Illustration Roy
  • Soundtrack of the report
  • All The Same
  • Sick Puppies

In 2004, he started giving out Free Hugs in Sydney. In 2006, a friend of his uploaded a video of Mann giving out hugs to YouTube, which soon lead to being one of the most watched videos of all time, a guest appearance on the Oprah show and the start of a global social movement.

I had the immense pleasure to get hold of Juan and ask him a few questions in honor of International Free Hugs Day.

1. When I saw your Youtube clip for the first time, it really spoke to me. Were you surprised with how the world reacted to the Free Hugs Campaign?

Shocked, relieved and for the first time in my life, adrift and at peace. This thing I had created took on a life of it's own and most surprising of all, it worked for people everywhere, regardless of language, race or religion. It was never meant to be more than something I could do to make myself smile -that it made others happy even for a moment, at a time when they seemingly needed it most, is what always keeps me coming back.

No amount of money can ever buy that feeling of knowing you've done something that brings joy to the world.

Official Free Hugs Campaign video

2. When you go out and give Free Hugs, how do you deal with negative responses?

How do I deal with hecklers? I laugh with them. I tell them they are right. The simple fact is when encountering a heckler, they have a very set belief of they way things are. Have you ever tried arguing with someone's beliefs? It's impossible. So I agree with them and their beliefs. I tell them what they want to hear

"You're absolutely right!"

"Yes, this is strange to see"

"Yes, I'm probably a little crazy"

"Yes, I'm a loser"

"I wouldn't hug me either - who does this shit?!"

and I smile and laugh the entire time

On most occasions, said heckler will stick around and watch people hugging. Sometimes they'll end up taking a free hug. On rare occasions they take a sign for themselves and start hugging people.

In summary, I deal with negativity by accepting that everybody has a different view of the world, shaped by a combination of their life experiences, their interpersonal relationships and their beliefs. I can't change those things. All I can do is let them know that while they might judge me, I don't, can't and won't judge them. And ultimately, if they ever need me, I'm there.

3. Despite the success of the Free Hugs Campaign, I was very disappointed to hear from a Business Insider article that the Free Hugs Campaign website is basically a "marketing tool" for the Sick Puppies band. Is it true that they keep all profit from t-shirt sales? How about advertising from the Youtube clip?

All profits from merchandise sold through and advertising on the Youtube clip goes directly to the band's coffers. I haven't seen a single cent of that revenue. So yeah, absolutely true. The sick factor is that I had a management agreement with their manager. He registered Free Hugs as a trademark on behalf of the band and to my detriment. So much for friends, huh?

4. Why wouldn’t the profits be given to charity? It just seems a bit contrary to the philosophy of Free Hugs.

Personally, I agree with you in that. If I'd been fiscally motivated, I think I would have offered Cheap Hugs with a frequent hugger card that gave discounts, but that wouldn't have gelled with my intentions.

Some people just want money, money, money and will relentlessly pursue the acquisition of it, much to the detriment of others.

On another note, having worked as a fundraiser for charity, I'm highly wary of the "overheads" that most charities keep out of their donations. In many instances, there are organisations that utilise their charity status as a tax avoidance scheme and that too leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

5. Knowing what you know now, would you change anything about the Free Hugs Campaign and your relationship with the Sick Puppies?

Shimon of the Sick Puppies and I were friends for quite some time before he made the video. To the point where, when chased out of my family home by my knife wielding brother, he gave me a place to stay in the home he owned. That said, I paid rent! When the video went viral, after appearing on Oprah and returning to Australia for Christmas that year, he evicted me and left me broke, homeless and a little distraught that a man I called friend could simultaneously create such an amazing video for the world to see and also take from me the one thing that I had given to the world. If I could change anything, I'd not give that man the benefit of the doubt again. But in a huge way, I owed him for being my friend in a time of need.

juan1Juan and his world famous sign

6. Did you ever feel compelled to "cash in" on your fame and reveal who you are? As in, write a book or make a movie. For someone who started their own movement, you have remained quite anonymous, haven't you?

Money is common. It's everywhere if you just want to reach out and take it. Anyone can have it. I have just enough to fill my belly and have a place to call home, beyond that, what good will it do me? I fear I would become entitled, arrogant and complacent like so many others have before me. My grandparents immigrated to Australia and started over with nothing and died wealthy, living with the fear that someone would take it away. My Dad was much the same. I don't want to be a third generation self made man with a full bank account and an empty heart.

If a book or movie would make a greater difference to other people's lives, I would do it. But nobody has asked for it. It's out of my hands so to speak.

As for remaining anonymous - who I am is irrelevant, it's what I do that means something. That's much more important than my ego or my bank balance.

7. You have your own website Have you ever considered developing it into a charitable Free Hugs Campaign site? It seems wrong that a band should be in charge of a movement you started.

While they own the main portal for Free Hugs, they don't do anything with it. They have neither the interest or initiative to do so it seems, beyond preventing me from having an easy access portal to the community that I helped create. As for turning into a charitable site - what charity? How can I pick one charity when the hundreds of thousands of people I've met and hugged around the world have different problems, different needs, different dreams? Inspired by that question, I founded - a place where individuals could offer and ask for help - but that too was taken by the band and is now inactive.

As for "in charge of the movement" - I don't think anyone is. I'm more of an invisible inspirational figure head than anything else. The only person in charge of Free Hugs is the person who makes their own sign and takes it to their city streets. It's the way it should always be and I wouldn't want to do anything to change that. Individuals taking the initiative is the single most important thing in human existence and I think we forget that sometimes.

8. On the Internet, it's very popular to talk about creating movements, rejecting the status quo and building online communities. From your experience, what lessons can you share?

As hard as one pushes, the world will push back harder. Nobody likes to be told they are wrong. Just let go and let it grow. Focus less on the result you seek and more on the process you have control over - yourself and your actions. If it's meant to be, it will be.

9. I see plenty of Free Hugs events on social media sites but not organized by you. Did you ever use social media to promote your Free Hugs events?

Never! From the day I started, I set myself the challenge of just letting it grow as naturally as possible. I planted a seed and it grew into a tree. If the tree lives, it won't be because I'm watering it every day, but because others have taken it upon themselves to tend to it in their time, in their way. I'm a firm believer in just showing up and giving my best - everything will fall in to place from there.

10. Free Hugs is very popular among CouchSurfers. You can find events organized all over the world in the CouchSurfing meet-up page. I noticed you also have CouchSurfing profile. What do you think of CouchSurfing and are you active within the CouchSurfing community?

For various reasons, I'm sadly not as active within the CouchSurfing community as I would like to be. I think it's a fantastic resource and definitely one of the most active Free Hugs communities online, that I've found anyway. I love it and hopefully in the future will be in a better position to be able to both host couchsurfers and take advantage of the amazing hospitality that couchsurfers have to offer and of course join in with their Free Hugs endeavours.

juan2Juan in action

11. Is it true that you have now retired from doing Free Hugs events? If so, do you think you'll do them again.

Retired is a strong word. More like "on slight hiatus" I travel around the world pretty regularly and offer Free Hugs when on the road, but I've had to learn to take time out for myself when home. Sadly, nobody has taken my place in Sydney now that I live in Newcastle, but I've noticed that Sydneysiders who do offer Free Hugs have to deal with a lot of people telling them "You aren't HIM, we want Juan back", which is quite saddening on the one hand and flattering on another.

Will I be back on a regular basis, every Thursday in Sydney's Pitt Street Mall? That strip of street feels more like home than any four walls ever have. But there are other things I have to do, for myself and for those that I love. But I will be back. Just not yet.

13. Where on your travels have you had the best hugs and best responses?

Impossible to say! Everywhere and anywhere? The language may be different but the impact is always the same. People are warm, pleasant and excited to be a part of something that may not be common in their part of the world.

14. Have you encountered any funny, scary or strange episodes while free hugging during your travels?

Funny stories, I have too many to count - from watching people put together their own variations on Free Hugs sign like "Free Kisses", "Free Punches", "Free Sign" "$2 Hugs" and actually getting results, right through to people running and leaping into my arms! It's hard to find things too funny, however, when there is always an emotional response waiting around the corner.

The language barrier is often the most peculiar thing. I always manage to make a Free Hugs sign in the local language, however it often seems to imply to the general public that I have some idea of what they're saying. However, smiling and nodding seems to get me through the worst of it. The most peculiar experiences always revolve around the people who profess to having been on the verge of suicide. I find it inspiring, but very strange, that so many individuals can feel so lost and alone in the world but find comfort, solace and reason to persist in the arms of a stranger. There have been a few instances where people have told me they quit their jobs and chase their dreams all because they've simply watched me offer Free Hugs time and time again which also perplexes me. I guess the most peculiar are the little old ladies who clearly must be so lonely that they find a little solace somewhere beneath my belt buckle. There's nothing stranger than being groped by a stranger in broad daylight, in public!

Roy is a perpetual traveler. He's lived in 7 countries, traveled to 40+ more and right now usually works on a cruise ship. He also likes to contradict and talk about himself in the third-person. You can follow his travels on