Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Brooklyn Eagle, including reporting by The Bridge contributor Patrick Smith.
Lena Romanova, organizer of the botched Winterfest holiday market now facing scrutiny from the Brooklyn district attorney, used a fictitious spokesperson named “Jennifer Crosby” to harass vendors and the press as the event unraveled, according to business owners who took part in the event.
“There is no Jennifer,” said Jeff Golden, owner of Bear Hands & Buddies and a merchant at Winterfest, which was organized by Millennial Entertainment Group. “Jennifer was Lena; it was her alter ego.”
Winterfest participants said Crosby engaged in a campaign of intimidation, terminating agreements on a whim and threatening legal action against those who spoke to the press about the event’s shortcomings. But Crosby was no more than an email address that provided Romanova anonymity to bully vendors when the festival collapsed, merchants told the Brooklyn Eagle.
The Eagle contacted all 50 vendors and the Brooklyn Museum, which hosted the fair in its parking lot. Of the 21 merchants that responded, not a single person met or spoke with Crosby on the phone.
Vendors who spoke to the press as the event struggled told the Eagle they received emails from Crosby suddenly terminating their contracts. One Winterfest merchant shared an email with the Eagle in which Crosby said the agreement was terminated for “making noise and false allegations.” The merchant later arrived at her booth to find the shop’s electricity outlets boarded up.
“You have a very uneducated reading of the agreement,” Crosby wrote to the vendor. “I suggest you get advise [sic] from a lawyer. … You are terminated and you need to leave the market immediately. This is not up for discussion.”
Other vendors pleaded with the Brooklyn Museum for help: “We [and] the rest of the vendor[s] fear for our personal safety and the safety of our store,” Johanna Guevara-Smiley wrote. “We sincerely ask for extra security these following holidays,” she added.
Another vendor told the Eagle, “I did not feel safe there.”
Joann Montalto from Brooklyn Bar Body & Bath referred to Crosby as the “infamous, mysterious finger-pointing and threat-making voice behind the cowardly operators of Millennial Entertainment Group.”
Neither Crosby, Romanova nor co-organizer Johan Rizki responded to repeated requests for comment, and an email sent to the spokesperson listed on Millennial’s contact page, Zane Friedman, bounced. The company’s Newton, Mass., phone number was disconnected, and the number listed on the Winterfest Vendor Agreement is also not in service.
Crosby’s name appeared on press releases promoting the event prior to negative publicity, and her email address is included on the contact page of Millennial’s website.
Beyond that, Crosby lacks a meaningful digital footprint. There are no social media accounts or a LinkedIn profile belonging to her, and she is only mentioned in articles relating to Winterfest. Only a YouTube account under her name exists, with two videos from October and November promoting the festival.
Several message threads reviewed by the Eagle show Crosby responding to emails addressed exclusively to Romanova and vice versa. In one instance, vendor Marty Krutolow of Marty’s V Burger asked, “Who are you?” after Crosby answered an email addressed only to Romanova.
“As you may notice, I included the last email you sent to Lena and copied her,” Crosby responded. “It goes without saying that I work for the company that rented you the chalet.”
Other vendors reported similar behavior.
“The first-ever email I had from Millennial Entertainment Group, I got a response from Lena even though I sent it only to Jennifer,” said one vendor who asked to remain anonymous for fear of legal retribution. “We really don’t think she’s real. We think it’s a front.”
Taylor Maatman, senior public relations manager at the Brooklyn Museum, told the Eagle that the museum had contact with Crosby only “via email after the market opened” and that they were “primarily in touch” with Rizki and Romanova.
Vendors soon began noticing similar writing styles between emails from Crosby and Romanova, most notably sentences formed in broken English with a threatening tone.
“We got an email that was very much in Lena’s voice, and that was the moment it clicked for me that Jennifer was Lena,” said another vendor who also asked to remain unidentified.
Crosby may not be the only fictitious person associated with Winterfest.
The Eagle received an expletive-filled message written in the same syntax from a supposed “Jenna Raul,” who said she was a vendor. The Eagle, however, reached out to all of the merchants at Winterfest and found that none of them have an employee by that name. In addition, a Google search does not bring up any relevant results for Jenna Raul.
Another employee, Zane Friedman, is listed on Millennial’s website as director of sales and sponsorships—but Friedman also has no digital footprint beyond a LinkedIn profile. A search for similar images on the internet revealed Friedman’s profile photo is actually an image of Swedish model Frida Gustavsson.
Members of the press were not spared from Millennial’s attempts to intimidate.
Patrick Smith, a journalist for The Bridge who wrote about the event’s troubles, said he received a phone call from an unidentified man on a blocked number threatening legal action after the article was published.
Emails from Crosby to the Eagle similarly warned of legal action if a video interview with Romanova was not taken down and was adamant that any mention of Romanova in articles be removed.
The market, which was advertised as a 40,000-sq.-ft. “world of holiday joy and wonder,” collapsed after several promised attractions proved underwhelming and others were absent entirely. For example, the event did not feature an advertised snow globe or slide, and the immersive chocolate experience was merely a tent serving instant hot cocoa.
Vendors complained of a lack of electricity in their booths, as well as rat and roach problems, and organizers using bullying tactics. Some attendees began comparing the event to the now infamous Fyre Festival.
When the event was cut from six to four days per week, many merchants asked for refunds, but their requests received no response. Attendees also demanded reimbursement to no avail after attractions they initially paid for were later offered for free.
“[The Brooklyn Museum is] extremely disappointed with the organizers of Winterfest, who failed to meet their obligations to us, the vendors and all of the dissatisfied patrons,” Maatman, the museum’s spokesperson, said.
“We are in talks with many of the vendors and are offering them space and time to open pop-up shops at the Museum for free one weekend this spring. Logistics are still in the works, but we are planning for this to take place during a high-traffic period for the Museum—likely during the months our Frida Kahlo exhibition is on view.”
Helen Peterson of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office confirmed to the Eagle that the “complaints” against Winterfest are “being reviewed.”
Millennial, through Crosby, said in December that Winterfest will not return for the 2019 holiday season.